Don’t go Christmas crackers!!

It is so easy to go overboard at Christmas (I have been guilty of it myself many times) and buy far too much food and even excess presents – just in case a surprise guest turns up! I do try and rein myself in these days and especially so at the moment when the world seems so horribly divided between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. In the event that you do find you’ve overdone it, why not have some recycling ideas ready to hand to make good use of excess and ensure nothing goes to waste… and no, I don’t just mean making a turkey curry!!

Leftover veg – Bubble & squeak

Any uneaten veg can, of course, be turned into the fabulous bubble and squeak that we all know and love. It is traditionally leftover mashed potato and sprouts squashed together and fried in a pan, but you can of course add other veg as well. To ring the changes, why not make individual patties and add some additional flavours – make some spicy ones with a dash of curry power, or chilli?

Oven-roasting your bubble and squeak uses less oil and also means you don’t have to stand over a hot pan flipping individual patties. Add any leftover roasted squash or beetroot too for some extra sweetness and serve with a fried or poached egg on top.

Left over chocolate, sweets & fruit

Yes, OK, I know this is unlikely – BUT… let’s just imagine we have behaved and not hoovered up every sweetie in the house. This tiffin recipe is great for using up any leftovers from Christmas such as plain chocolates, Christmas tree chocolates, biscuits such as biscotti, amaretti, or lebkuchen. It is a really easy recipe (perhaps one to try with children or grandchildren?) it’s quick and easy and no cooking!

Ingredients

  • 100g butter
  • 25g soft brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp cocoa
  • 4 tbsp golden syrup
  • 225g digestive biscuits, amaretti, biscotti or whatever you have, crushed
  • 150g raisins or add in chopped dried fruits such as apricots, glacé cherries, cranberries, coconut, nut etc. Experiment!
  • 225g milk chocolate – left over tree chocolates etc.

Method

  1. Add the butter, sugar, cocoa and golden syrup to a bowl and either microwave or heat on hot for a couple of minutes until melted
  2. Add the crushed biscuits, raisins and any other dried fruit and mix well (crunch some of your biscuits finely and leave some in bigger chunks, this gives a really good texture)
  3. Next press into a 20cm square greased tin
  4. Melt 225g milk/plain chocolate, pour on top and smooth over the mixture
  5. Mark into squares and chill in fridge for an hour or so before cutting

Used wrapping paper & tissue paper

I am sure all you avid crafters are already tuned into snaffling any nice wrapping paper that gets cast off and these days, with posh present wrapping, there’s plenty of tissue paper around too.

Here are a few quick suggestions that you, or younger members of the family, might like to have a go at to save all the lovely paper going to waste:

  • Create your own pretty wrapping paper DIY bunting
  • Shred wrapping paper into paper confetti
  • Make pretty drawer liners
  • Wrap your favourite hardback books or diary – again another one youngsters will enjoy
  • Create pretty envelopes
  • Make tissue paper pom-poms – great fun, especially if huge!
  • But if you want to reuse your tissue paper for another gift wrap… give it a gentle iron and it will be as good as new!

However you are spending Christmas day, I wish you all a happy and peaceful time, smiles Joanna.

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Seeds like a good idea…

Apart from seeds on breads and biscuits, or a few mixed in with muesli, I can’t say I was ever that interested in eating seeds. Somehow, they always sounded a bit too healthy and virtuous! As times change, ingredients go in and out of fashion and, today, seeds are very definitely ‘in’!

Seeds are full of protein, fats and other nutrients and, as people try to limit their intake of meat and eat more healthily, seeds are definitely worth a look. Modern research has revealed that most seeds are packed with B vitamins, essential for metabolic function and energy production.

If seeds strike you as rather bland, try toasting them – ­they can take on a whole different personality! For example, I have always found pumpkin seeds rather ‘green’ in taste and dull in texture. I was cooking a recipe that called for toasted pumpkin seeds, so I dutifully toasted some and discovered one of the tastiest healthy snacks ever! I now quite often toast a mix of seeds including pumpkin and sunflower and use it as a delicious crunchy, nutty addition to salads or veggie bakes.

Toasting seeds

Bake or roast seeds to enhance their flavour and give them a crunch. Dry bake seeds on baking parchment in a cooling oven or dry fry them over a medium heat in a heavy bottomed frying pan. You need to be careful not to burn them! I will often bake a whole batch, let them cool and then store them in Kilner jars (or anything airtight) for use later – they stay nice and crunchy and look lovely too!

You can create your own ‘sprinkles’ and add them to cereals, yogurt, porridge, cakes, breads, fish or veggie dishes or pretty much anything! The best seeds for toasting, in my view, are:

  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Linseed
  • Sesame seeds

Once baked, you can add seasoning, such as salt and black pepper to create a delicious savoury sprinkle.

The maximum nutritional value of seeds can be released by soaking and sprouting them, triggering enzymes and making them easier to digest. You’ll need to buy edible seeds suitable for sprouting – not the type of seeds you sow in your veg beds! You should be able to find these in health food shops, or online. The sprouting process is probably something you did at school, it’s pretty easy and, after 4 or 5 days, you’ll have some lovely edible shoots to liven up your salads and your metabolism!

Sprouting seeds

Try these, they are nice and easy to grow, and delicious!

  • Mustard
  • Pumpkin
  • Alfalfa
  • Sunflower

 

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Absolutely freezing fabulous!

Oh alright, I admit it, I am a bit of a freezing fan! It’s such a great way to preserve and store food, plus it’s easy to do. It cuts down on waste as you can freeze gluts and leftovers so it can be a real money-saver. I have a range of foods that I always freeze, but I’ve recently come across some other ideas that were new to me. See what you think of this selection:

1. Nuts
Freezing nuts makes them last longer as it keeps the oils in them from going rancid. Simply remove some when you need them and leave them to defrost on your kitchen worktop.

2. Ripe bananas
Freezing ripe bananas is brilliant for all your last minute banana baked goods needs. They’re also terrific for adding to smoothies since it makes them creamier and you can use less ice and mixing frozen bananas with fresh or frozen strawberries makes amazing ice cream – yum!

3. Cooked rice
Cooked too much rice? Store it in a freezer-proof container and store it in the freezer until you need it. When you’re ready to eat it, add the amount you want to a microwave-safe bowl or saucepan with a few tablespoons of water to warm it back up – just make sure it’s properly hot before serving.

4. Grated cheese
Grated cheese freezes really well and is a great time saver. If you’re cooking lasagna, enchiladas, or anything cheesy, just thaw and use. Great sprinkled over the potato topping of shepherd’s pie too! No more abandoned lumps of cheese wasted or going mouldy in the fridge!

5. Wine
Now I realise this is unlikely… but if you ever have some wine left in a bottle after dinner, pour it into an ice cube tray! Just add a cube into the casserole the next time your recipe calls for some wine.

6. Champagne

Like wine, you can freeze bubbly in an ice cube tray and put one (or two or three) cubes into a glass of orange juice for an instant Buck’s Fizz! I regret I can’t ever see that happening in this house… left over Champagne? I don’t think so!

7. Uncooked bacon
Wrap three to four slices of bacon side by side in parchment paper before putting in a freezer-proof bag. Bacon thaws really quickly at room temperature – and you can grill, fry or just place on kitchen paper in the microwave.

8. Butter
Frozen butter is a baker’s secret weapon. Grate frozen butter into dough for really light piecrusts and biscuits. Freeze the butter in its original wrapping inside an airtight bag or tightly wrapped in foil.

9. Egg yolks and whites
Like wine and herbs, egg yolks and whites work well in ice cube trays too. You will have to thaw the cubes completely if you are using them to bake, but the whites can be apparently be defrosted right in the pan for omelettes – I haven’t tried that yet!

10. Fresh herbs
And finally… this isn’t actually a new one for me (It’s something I do regularly) but in case you didn’t know this excellent tip – chop herbs finely and place them in an ice cube tray covered with water. Then you can add a herb cube directly into your pan to liven up sauces or stews.

If you’ve got any freezer tips you can recommend – please share!

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The Great British Bake Off effect

Paul and Mary – as comfortable as a Victoria sponge! Photo BBC.Almost everyone you speak to loves the Great British Bake Off! But what is it that makes watching a group of unknown people struggle to create cakes and pies and breads in a very large tent such compelling TV? How did the idea ever get off the ground?

I absolutely love watching it, but I was already a huge Mary Berry fan, but even friends who don’t really like cakes seem addicted to it as well. Sales of cake tins, icing bags and food processors have gone through the roof and supermarkets and shops instantly sell out of unusual ingredients when they are featured in an episode. The programme seems to bring people together, is inspiring and has put the ‘home’ back into home baking. Children all over the country are now happy to be in the kitchen and being creative with their parents – and that surely all has to be a good thing. 

This year’s bakers. Photo BBC.I read recently that the people who created the programme took four years to be able to sell the idea to a TV company. And fortunately for all of us, it was a lady at BBC2 who finally understood the concept. I hadn’t realised, but the whole thing was inspired by the fact that there’s a baking competition at every summer fete in Britain – so obvious when you think about it! And, of course, summer fetes are held in marquees… so that’s why The Great British Bake Off is filmed in an enormous tent!

When I was writing my first novel, ‘A Sticky End’, with my pen pal Julia, the local cake baking competition was a key theme in the book – little had I realised how closely aligned it was to the Great British Bake Off! Perhaps we missed a trick there and could have got Mary Berry or Paul Hollywood along to be a guest judge? No? Oh well… just a thought.

Inside the famous Bake Off tent! Photo BBC.The current series seems to be shaping up really well and I have already been wowed by some of the bakes, and giggled over some of the others that haven’t gone quite as planned! I love the whole ‘feel’ of the show, it is so comforting and British, rather like a jolly good Victoria sponge – sweet, delicious and light and fluffy!

So what are your thoughts on the current series? Who do you think looks a likely winner?

PS. Talking of my novels… book three in the Swaddlecombe series is n-e-a-r-l-y there! I will keep you posted on when it will be published.

 

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A little of what you fancy …

I know sugar isn’t good for us – and particularly if you are diabetic which sadly I am. But I thought these might just be a good idea – especially if I can eat just one (hmmm). I claim no ownership of the recipe, it’s from ‘Mary Berry’s Absolute favourites’ – a brilliant book if you are on the hunt for a new recipe book.

She says she makes it with her grandchildren and I think they are genius as the little size is good for small people and fun for them to make too!

Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients

  • For the biscuit dough
  • 175g/6oz butter, softened
  • 75g/2½oz caster sugar
  • 175g/6oz plain flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 75g/2½oz semolina
  • For the chocolate chip biscuits
  • 50g/1¾oz milk or plain chocolate chips

For the lemon biscuits

  • Lemon, finely grated zest only and 1–2 tbsp demerara sugar

For the almond biscuits

  • 1 tsp almond extract  and 40g/1½oz flaked almonds

Preparation method

Preheat the oven to 180C/160C Fan/Gas 4. Line three baking trays with baking paper.

To make the biscuit dough, measure the butter, sugar, flour and semolina into the bowl of an electric food mixer and mix until a soft dough is formed, taking care not to over-beat. Alternatively, add the butter and sugar to a mixing bowl and beat with a wooden spoon until soft and creamy, then stir in the flour and semolina. Divide the dough evenly into three and dust your work surface with flour before kneading each batch.

For the chocolate chip biscuits, knead the chocolate chips into one portion of dough, shape into 20 balls and arrange, spaced well apart, on one of the baking trays. Press down with the back of a fork into discs about 5cm/2in in diameter and bake in the oven for 10–12 minutes, or until golden-brown.

For the lemon biscuits, knead the lemon zest into the second portion of dough. Roll into a long sausage shape (about 20cm/8in long) and roll in the demerara sugar. Wrap in cling film and leave in the freezer for about 30 minutes, or until firm and nearly frozen. Slice into 20 even rounds, each about 1cm/½in thick. Arrange on a baking tray, spaced well apart, and bake for about 10 minutes, or until pale golden-brown.

For the almond biscuits, knead the almond extract into the remaining portion of dough, along with most of the flaked almonds. Shape into 20 small balls and arrange on the third baking tray, spaced apart. Place a few almonds on top of each ball of dough and press flat with the back of a fork into discs about 5cm/2in in diameter. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until golden-brown.

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