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Oh, autumn. You tricksy devil, you.
I was so excited about finding myself in late September last week. My friends, autumn means nothing less than PUDDING SEASON. Crumbles, treacle sponges, apple pie and anything else that can be partnered with custard: this is what I dream of at night. But just when I’d got out my crumble dish, all a-quiver with anticipation, the weather suddenly turned tropical for four or five days. We sweltered in 28°C, and it was not a crumble-appropriate temperature at all. O, but I am fortune’s fool.
Today, however, we returned to grim raininess, and the babe and I ventured out to the post office under grey and sullen skies. Crumble was gloriously back on the menu. I decided on a pear and toffee variety from a book of one-pot dishes I have on my shelf. Because, well. Wouldn’t you?
Onwards, then. Step one is the crumble topping. A fairly standard combination of diced butter rubbed into flour, then combined with demerara sugar and chopped hazelnuts. I ended up having to add more flour than instructed (the first attempt was far too sticky), but otherwise, this went well.
I’d forgotten to buy hazelnuts, but happily found an ancient bag of them in the back of my cupboard. The best before date was July 2011, but on balance, I decided I was unlikely to contract E.coli from a hazelnut, and forged ahead anyway.
Step two is the toffee. Making toffee sauce is the most happy-making thing on the planet, I sometimes think. The ingredients are joyous: golden syrup, cream, butter, vanilla essence, sugar. You throw them all in and then gently simmer for a few minutes. It smells like ambrosia itself. Toffee sauce completed.
Step three is the filling. Peel and chop four large pears, fry in more butter for a short while and then add the toffee sauce. Once I’d done this, the pears had juiced up so much that the mixture was quite watery, but I assumed it would reduce in the oven (and so it did).
The pear mixture goes in the bottom of the dish, and the crumble on top. After twenty minutes or so in the oven, it’s done.
(Is it me, or does it look a bit like sick? It’s hard to make crumble look good in a photograph. It was much more appealing in real life, honest.)
Deliciousness: It was lovely. LOVELY. But it didn’t taste much of toffee. The pears overpowered it. More toffee sauce is required, I think. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to include more hazelnuts than the specified two tablespoons. You couldn’t taste those either, though maybe that’s because mine had gone off.
Complexity: Very easy. Pears are a bit gross when you peel and chop them, but at least they don’t need coring.
Washing-up pile: A very reasonable five.
Casualties: Major hand-cramp from rubbing butter into flour. Is there a machine that would do this for you? I’d buy one.
Look, I know we’ve had torrential rain today. Don’t let that dampen your holiday spirit. With a UV lamp, a summery dessert and a sandpit to rest your feet in – or a handy cat litter tray – you can work all kinds of magic.
Here’s the summery dessert you’re looking for, courtesy of the frankly amazing Cheeky Kitchen: Plump and Perfect Berry Tart. It is fruity, yummy and looks all kinds of impressive. Best of all, it’s so easy that even kitchen dunces like myself can put it together in half an hour. I had to take twice as many step-by-step photos this week, just to get this post beyond two paragraphs.
So, here we go. Start with ready-rolled puff pastry (you can buy the stuff you roll out yourself, of course, but since you need to end up with two identical rectangles, you might’s well let a machine do the rolling for you). My box unexpectedly contained only one sheet of pastry, so I cut it in half. Then flour or grease a baking tray and lay the rectangles one on top of the other on the tray. That goes in the oven by itself for about 15 minutes. I brushed mine with milk first, because I never pass up an opportunity to use a pastry brush.
Once the pastry was out of the oven, I couldn’t help noticing that it was approximately twice the height of the tart in the photograph. I’d have a job balancing fruit on top of that, so I did a bit of cautious prodding to let the air out, until the pastry had reduced in size enough to go at it with a rolling pin.
You roll down the centre to create a little pastry well. Don’t be alarmed if you’re surrounded by little flying pieces of puff pastry dust at this point; just don’t roll too enthusiastically.
On goes the yoghurt. The recipe calls for vanilla flavoured Greek yoghurt, mixed with a vanilla bean. I used just plain Greek yoghurt, mostly because – I confess – the natural stuff is cheaper, plus I hadn’t the first clue where to find a vanilla bean in Tesco (do they come in ones? How large are they? How would you scan one at the till? A mystery).
Then comes the fruit. I stuck to the suggested kiwi fruit, raspberries and blackberries, because the latter two are in season at the moment and are on sale. You could use whatever fruit you prefer, of course. At the moment, I’d stick to the berries: it’s been a good year for berry-growing, and they’re HUGE. I did have a small crisis when I got out my two kiwi fruit and suddenly realised I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with them. We’ve never eaten them at home before. The last time I had this kind of existential dilemma, I was faced with chopping up a leek and couldn’t remember which bits you actually eat (don’t judge me).
Google to the rescue.
Turns out you chop off the ends, peel and then dice. It’s ok for the middle bits to stay in. Isn’t it amazing what helpful people have put on the internet?
Finally, microwave some clear honey for a few seconds, and drizzle over as you wish. Because I’d used unsweetened yoghurt, I ended up using quite a lot of honey. But if you’d gone for vanilla yoghurt, you probably wouldn’t need very much.
And there it is.
Doesn’t that look fabulous? You chop it up with a pizza slicer too, which makes any dessert worth having, in my book.
Deliciousness: The combination of fruit, pastry, yoghurt and honey is wonderful. Depending on the types of fruit and yoghurt you’ve used, you may need to sweeten to a greater or lesser extent. But you could always have honey on the table, so people could help themselves. Or eat it with icecream.
Complexity: A great deal easier than pie. It’s done in thirty minutes or less, even if you’re the kind of idiot who doesn’t know how to chop up a kiwi fruit.
Washing-up pile: A baking tray, a rolling pin, and a few spoons. A cinch.
Casualties: None. I didn’t even add to my burn collection. A winner!
Merry Christmas, readers! Thought I’d try my hand at something seasonal, given the – you know – season. As luck would have it, a friend recently introduced me to my new favourite Christmas food: mincemeat treats.
This is a much more appetising name than the one I used when I couldn’t remember what they were supposed to be called, which was mince sticks. Or the alternative we tried for a while, mincey twizzlers. Basically they’re mincemeat – which isn’t meat at all of course, for the non-English audience, but a sugary mixture of raisins and candied peel, usually found in pies – wrapped instead in little rolls of filo pastry.
I am not brave enough to make my own filo pastry, nor am I even sure it’s possible, given its paper-thinness. However, it wasn’t as easy as I anticipated to find some at the supermarket. Are there lots of things that need to be made at Christmas with filo pastry? Because everywhere we looked was sold out. In the end, we managed to locate a few boxes stacked right at the back of the freezer section. Unable to squash a panic-buyer’s impulse, I bought two. I’m sure it’ll come in useful one of these days.
The recipe gives instructions to make your own mincemeat, and I probably would have done, if I hadn’t already crammed today full of last-minute Christmas errands. I bought a jar, and as they’d run out of Tesco’s own, had to buy some exceedingly fancy stuff that looked so prettily old-fashioned I kept coming over all Victorian.
With jar and pastry in hand, we were ready. The assembly was probably more stressful than it needed to be, as I became terribly paranoid about the pastry drying out (you cover it with damp kitchen roll to prevent this). It was completely fine, of course, so no need to hurry. You cut the pastry into little squares, brush with melted butter, add a line of mincemeat down one edge, then roll into little tubes. Brush the tops with the remaining butter, and put in the oven.
Unfortunately the filo pastry box we bought had much more pastry than we actually needed. We got twenty little sticks out of half the packet. I’ve put the other half in the fridge, and have a vague idea that you’re supposed to make canapés with it, but without an immediately pressing need for canapés, I’m a little puzzled as to what to do with it.
Anyway, the twizzlers – sorry, treats – are yummy. I’ve a feeling I went overboard with the butter, as they’re just a touch greasier than I would’ve wanted, but once they’ve dried out a bit, they’ll be fine. The only major error I made was not putting them on greaseproof paper in the oven: the mincemeat dribbled out in places, and welded the little sticks to the tray with all the solidity of molten rock. I managed to ease them out eventually by rolling them with my fingers, but left quite a lot of unsalvageable rubble at the bottom.
Deliciousness: Crispy, fruity, buttery loveliness. Much better than pies.
Complexity: With only three ingredients, the assembly is quick and easy. Don’t worry about the pastry drying out, because it won’t.
Washing-up pile: Four items. Though some will need a soaking (see below).
Casualities: My baking tin, as I suspect the sugary lava may never shift. Is it too late to put a new baking sheet on my Christmas list?
Oh, my giddy aunt.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation that promised ease and simplicity only to spiral, inexorably, into silliness, frustration and the tearing-out of hair? If not, never go near the innocuous-sounding pumpkin muffin, for that way madness lies.
The muffin is a kind of basic bakery item, isn’t it? Even people who don’t bake at all will usually knock together a muffin batch every now and again. Personally, they’ve never grabbed me. I wouldn’t turn one down – don’t be silly: they’re in the same gene pool as cakes – but I find them a bit average. If they’re bigger than mini-muffins, there’s the danger of getting spongy blobs stuck between your teeth in a public place, and if they’ve got frosting on top, there’s always a chance that your teeth will fall out completely.
(I’ve no idea what the technical difference is between a muffin and a cupcake, by the way – the latter, of course, are enjoying a bit of a vogue at the minute – but I tend to avoid cupcakes entirely, as the sickly sweetness is so pronounced as to actually dissolve your tongue.)
Anyway. I decided on muffins this week because I haven’t made them yet, and because I knew my sister-in-law specialised in pumpkin muffins that taste divine, and because they sounded very easy to whizz through on a busy weekend. Ingredients became the first hurdle. We’re not quite the pumpkin devotees found across the pond (a mistake, I think, as pumpkin-flavoured stuff is lovely), so the tin of pureed pumpkin in the recipe took two Waitrose trips to find; only the efforts of a stalwart friend finally secured one. Then, on the evening I’d planned to bake, came the allspice saga. I’d never heard of allspice, and didn’t have any, so popped out to Tesco to track some down. They didn’t have any either, so we drove across town (in rush hour, mind you) to another Tesco. Thankfully, we found it. Taking into account the petrol cost, that spice jar must be the most expensive item in our food cupboard. Still, we felt all triumphant as we headed home, and the muffins were, indeed, quick and easy to make.
I’d decided to use this opportunity to venture into cream cheese frosting, and, in a fit of excitement , bought one of those icing bags with different shaped nozzles attached. I’ve seen these being used by genteel ladies on fancy wedding cakes, and was terribly excited to try them. Well. Are they supposed to be porous? Because mine was: I hadn’t been squeezing for very long before I had sugary stickiness all over my hand. And as for my piping skills: in the end I tried out all the nozzles, just to make myself laugh. I managed to drop one of the larger muffins on its head after frosting it, but this didn’t make a noticeable difference to its appearance.
Not my finest hour, in short. And a fair bit of effort, considering the end result is…muffins.
Deliciousness: The pumpkin works brilliantly with the spices. They’re yummy, although very sweet. I prefer them in their mini-muffin form.
Complexity: Assuming you already have pumpkin, allspice and some degree of familiarity with frosting (or are just happy to slap it on with a spatula, which is what I should’ve done), they’re not hard at all.
Washing-up pile: A hefty sixteen items, though a lot of these were icing nozzles.
Casualties: Every conceivable surface in my kitchen, which is now covered in frosting gloop.