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Tina’s Travels – a piece of cake!

Warning – this article could seriously damage your waistline!

I am always fascinated by the crafts, cultures and cooking of other countries and now that Tina Dorr has moved to France we have a perfect ‘on the spot’ reporter to share some local specialities with us. Today Tina has written a piece about cakes… cakes yum, who can resist? Well, I do try to but these look amazing!

Galette Des Rois

“When you think of France, many things come to mind, Paris, French wines, cheeses, and of course patisseries. The patisseries are wonderful places to visit and to just stare at all the stunning creations on show –  they truly are amazing.

I would like to share just a few of the magnificent cakes with you and will start with Galette Des Rois – or King Cake. This is a huge thing in January when you will find them everywhere, from boulangeries to supermarkets. Here in the North of France, they are made with puff pastry and filled with almond paste or apple. Each cake has a paper crown and inside is a ‘charm’ that someone will find in his or her slice.

Opera Cake

One of my favourites is Opera Cake. You can buy this as a large cake to share, or by the slice in most patisseries. This is made from layers of coffee-soaked almond sponge, coffee buttercream, ganache and a chocolate glaze. It all sounds very rich, and it is, but it’s great to share.

If you have a really sweet tooth then you would love a Religieuse, which means nun and it is made to look like one. There are two choux pastries, one larger than the other, filled with crème patissiere, usually coffee or chocolate flavour. The smaller one is put on top of the larger, covered in ganache and joined with buttercream. It really is very sweet.

Religieuse – two little nuns!

The Paris–Brest Cake is named after a cycle race. This is a layered French cake in the shape of a wheel, made from a ring of choux dough and filled with hazelnut and praline cream, then topped with sliced almonds – delicious.

Other popular little cakes you will find everywhere in France are the Madeleines, a small light cake in a shell shape, and the Macarons, very sweet meringue-based cakes made with egg white, icing sugar, granulated sugar, almond powder and lovely pastel shades of food colouring. If you are in the Bordeaux region (or most places nowadays) you will find Canelés, a hard caramel-covered cake with custard inside and flavoured with rum and vanilla. Produced in numerous sizes, they can be eaten for breakfast, for snacks, and as a dessert. Canelés can be paired with red wine and all sorts of other many other drinks.

There are so many beautiful cakes and desserts in France, I could go on forever! If you visit France, try and make time to call into any little café or patisserie and try some of these for yourself.

Left to right: Canelés, Macarons, baking Madeleines and the wheel-shaped Paris-Brest Cake.

 

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Time for tea – part two!

There’s nothing most of us like more than a hot drink and, in the midst of this wet and gloomy January, I am sure everyone’s kettle is in very regular use! A hot drink revives, comforts and warms you all in one go – can’t be bad! I wrote a blog about tea a couple of years ago and lots of you responded and said you’d enjoyed it… so here are a few more thoughts on what is, surely, Britain’s national drink.

I can remember when tea bags first became popular (yes, I am that old!) and loose-leaf tea was suddenly regarded as old hat and rather a lot of faff. In my family, we still used a teapot, but with the new-fangled bags. Nowadays, most people tend to just plop a tea bag into a mug, dunk it a bit – and there you have it. But tea times are a-changing… just as coffee has become a huge industry, with bean grinders, expensive coffee makers and exotic types of beans, so tea is reinventing itself as a healthy ‘on trend’ beverage. Actually, trendiness aside, the amazing range of teas that are now available to make tea drinking a lot more interesting and, in health terms, it’s pretty good for you.

 

Freshly picked tea leaves.

Returning to loose leaf tea isn’t just a trendy thing, you actually get better quality tea. Loose-leaf tea is made from whole leaves or large pieces of leaf that still contain aromatic oils. As you wait for it to infuse, or brew as we used to say, the flavour is slowly released into the water. Commercial tea bags are filled with small pieces of the lowest grade tea, making them quick to infuse. Like so many things in life – what you gain in time, you lose in quality. There are better quality tea bags around now, some with the pyramid shape that gives the tea more room to brew, but loose-leaf tea is still the best for taste.

Going back to brewing your tea properly will also help give you a better cuppa. Just as with coffee, there are now books and websites on how to do this, plus oodles of fancy equipment. But let’s be sensible here – we don’t all have time for an elaborate tea ceremony – so here are a few simple tips for how to get the best from your tea.

  1. Treat yourself to some loose-leaf tea
  2. Use fresh water in your kettle. If you live in a hard water area, filtering your water would be good but it’s an added faff.
  3. Get your water temperature right – black tea (the sort most people drink, like English breakfast, Assam etc.) wants boiling water, as do herbal teas. If you are making green tea, oolong or white tea, use cooling water. Boiling water burns the leaves of these delicate teas, making a bitter taste. Now I know where I have been going wrong with green tea!
  4. Make sure you get the right ratio of tea to water, read what it says on the packet, or do what my mother always did – a teaspoon per person, plus one for the pot! Then leave your tea to brew. Black teas need about three minutes.

But let’s not forget something very important… if we went back to loose-leaf teas we’d be able to see our fortunes! Tasseography is the art of reading tea leaves or fortune-telling. As a child, I remember my grandmother doing this and I was always enthralled! Make a pot of loose leaf tea, pour yourself a cup (ideally a white cup) sip your tea, leaving the tea leaves and a little liquid in the bottom. Then, swirl the contents three times and upend your cup carefully over a saucer, getting rid of the last bits of liquid. You then need to squint closely into your cup at the tea leaves still clinging there and look for the symbols. The common ones include stars for good luck, spirals for creativity and parallel lines for travel or change. Just think what we have been missing all these years!

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Natural winter tonics

What a winter it has been for coughs and colds! I think almost everyone I know has suffered from some sort of nasty lurgy. I’ve seen people on Facebook sharing all sorts of remedies, both traditional and slightly more eccentric – I think my favourite was rubbing Vic’s Vapour Rub into the soles of your feet before bedtime! Um, can’t say I tried that one myself! My partner in crime writing, Julia, cannot take any cold remedies as she has an allergic reaction to something in their ingredients so, apart from taking paracetamol, she just has to grin and bear it! This year, she had a stinker of a cold and ended up trying a couple of natural winter tonics to see if they helped. Here, she shares them with you. I hope you manage to escape cold-free, but if not, you might want try some of these.

“Whenever I had a cold as a child, I always remember my mother making me sit hunched over a bowl of very hot water with a towel draped over my head forming a lovely warm tent of steam. I think she used to put Friar’s Balsam into the water and it was a great way of clearing a blocked nose. I tried this again a few weeks ago, minus the balsam, and the effect of the steam and the generally lovely warm cocoon did make me feel a bit better. I also got a free facial, which was quite soothing!

My foraging friend from Wales who knows a huge amount about natural remedies, sent me a recipe for Ginger & Garlic Soup. This certainly woke up my senses, big time! This recipe is referred to as ‘medicine in a cup’. The mix of ginger and garlic should help protect you from cold, flu, sinus infections and many other diseases that can be easily caught during the cold winter months. I will be a little more cautious with the chilli next time!

Garlic & Ginger Soup

Ingredients:

  • Two cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced
  • Four spring onions, also finely sliced
  • Seven cups of chicken stock or vegetable stock
  • 50g of grated root ginger, finely sliced too
  • And last but not least… one finely diced hot or medium-hot chilli
  • Chopped or whole mushrooms (optional)

Method:

  1. Put the Garlic, onions, mushrooms (if you are using them) and the ginger in a big pan and put it on low heat for a few minutes, and sauté them.
  2. Add the stock and bring to a boil.
  3. Turn to a simmer and stir gently, until all of the ingredients become soft.
  4. Last add the chopped chilli, and stir for another 5 minutes. Then you can serve the soup while it is warm. Combine it with lemon water and crusty bread. This will provide more anti-bacterial effects and improve your digestion too.

Winter Tea

The final remedy I tried was a Winter Tea. Herbal teas are good for all sorts of things and boost our physical and mental health. Fresh herbs are full of antioxidants, which help reduce inflammation. Keeping yourself hydrated when you have a cold is important, I loved this and found it very soothing.

Ingredients:

  • 300ml water
  • ½ a lime
  • ½ a lemon
  • 3cm piece of ginger root, sliced
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • I sprig each of fresh mint, thyme and rosemary
  • ½ a cinnamon stick
  • Honey to taste

Method:

  1. Boil the water in a saucepan.
  2. Squeeze the lemon and lime into the pan, then lob the whole pieces of fruit in as well.
  3. Add everything else – except the honey. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
  4. Add honey to taste before straining to serve.

 

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It’s always time for tea!

This beautiful box of teatime goodies was made by Suzanne Saltwell – it is really intended to be an advent calendar, but it occurred to me that it’s always time for tea and it would make the greatest birthday present any time of year!

Many people now are drinking fruit or speciality teas instead of the usual builder’s best cuppa, myself included. I had never been a fan of ordinary tea but nowadays I am often seen with a mug of peppermint tea in hand as I wander round the garden checking on what’s doing what.

There’s a lot to be said for growing a few herbs in the garden so you can make your own fresh teas – some flowers also, I have yet to try chrysanthemum tea or any of the other more exotic ideas, but mint sprigs grabbed from the garden and dunked unceremoniously in boiling water – yummy! I also have dried mint that I harvested last year and stored. The one thing you can be sure of is that mint will flourish and spread – hence advice always to keep it in a pot even when it’s in a flower bed.

So back to the tea box, here you can see the mug, tea bags and coasters that came inside the box, it’s such a lovely idea, perhaps there are some other themes we could create? Does coffee come in little packets? Has anyone got other ideas we could fill boxes with, for advent or any time of year? Do let me know!

Here’s the link to a downloadable PDF file that Suzanne has prepared so you can work out how it is made. Have fun!

 

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Elderflower and strawberry jam

Making your own preserves is a very satisfying thing to do. Those pretty rows of little jars full of homemade goodness make me feel very pleased with myself! It’s always good to try and ring the changes and, although strawberry jam is a huge family favourite, I thought the addition of elderflower sounded fun.

Ingredients:

  • 2kg (4lbs) strawberries
  • 2kg (4lbs) preserving sugar
  • Juice from three lemons
  • 8 large elderflower heads

Method:

Prepare some sterilised jam jars, either in the oven, or in a dishwasher, or you can microwave a jar (leave slightly damp) for about 45 seconds. I always buy new lids and greaseproof covers as that way I am sure they are bacteria free. Also, put an ordinary saucer in the freezer so that it’s ready to use for jam testing later in the cooking process.

Prepare some sterilised jam jars, either in the oven, or in a dishwasher, or you can microwave a jar (leave slightly damp) for about 45 seconds. I always buy new lids and greaseproof covers as that way I am sure they are bacteria free. Also, put an ordinary saucer in the freezer so that it’s ready to use for jam testing later in the cooking process.

To intensify the strawberry flavour, prepare the berries and put them in your preserving pan (or large saucepan) add the sugar and lemon juice and leave (covered) overnight.

Now start to heat them slowly and add the elderflowers. This should be done by first shaking the flowers (adding creepy crawlies to jam really isn’t a good thing) and then picking off the flowers and add to the strawberry mix.

Stir well and bring to the boil for about 5 minutes. Skim off the scum that may form on the surface.

If you have a sugar thermometer then boil until it reaches 105ºC and then test a small spoonful on the cold saucer. Place the test spoonful and saucer in the fridge and within 5 minutes it should have formed a skin that wrinkles when you push it. If this doesn’t happen then boil again for another couple of minutes and try again.

Once you are happy that it has reaching the setting point, allow it to cool for about 10 minutes and fill the sterilised jars.

This is particularly nice with scones and Devon clotted cream – me biased, not a chance!

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