H is for Happy Birthday (Cake)

Hmmm, I think I’m starting to stretch it slightly with my tenuous alphabetical links to the A-Z Challenge but it’s my blog so I can pretty much do what I like 🙂

This is an amazing Rainbow Cake that my eldest daughter made for my youngest daughter’s birthday.  Not only did it look INCREDIBLE but it tasted fantastic – moist and flavoursome.  The thin layer of butter icing between each sponge added up to the perfect ratio of cream and cake.

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We used this recipe from bbcgoodfood.com .  It’s quite time consuming (especially as I only had one cake tin so we had to bake each layer individually.  Obviously, you’ll be more sensible and stick a few layers in together!) but it was totally worth it.

 

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F is for Foodies

Today’s post subject is taken from my A-Z Challenge Suggestion Box:

Why don’t you write more about Italy and its heavenly cuisine through the rest of the month? At least, that is what I want to know more about. A closeup of a gelato stall, tossing pasta, cooking seafood…. drooool! You get the picture right?’

Good idea but I’m not much of a foodie and don’t tend to rave on about food.  I may have mentioned it before, but I don’t really love Italian food.  Yes, I can see the positives in fresh pasta, creamy tiramisu or an aromatic cappuccino.  I enjoy a good ragu or minestrone soup as much as the next woman. And I’ve had some extremely tasty meals in both restaurants and friends’ homes.

But I’ve also had a lot of plates of bland spaghetti, bowls of cold spinach and many, many dishes featuring sliced hotdogs.  Trips to restaurants where the menu is identical to the last restaurant I visited and the one before that. Fine when you’re in Italy on holiday for a week, but when you’re there for three years?? Sometimes you do just yearn for something different.

Anyway, putting all that aside, last week in Rome I really did have a couple of wonderful meals and this month I will develop my foodieness and share some of the highlights with you.

AristoCampo is a restaurant in Trastevere that I’ve walked past hundreds of times and it always caught my eye.  Mainly because of the sign, ‘We are against War and Tourist Menu’.     So when we were debating where to eat on our big (smokey) night out, this was my first suggestion.

I don’t eat tons of meat so after a starter of Bruschetta with tomato, I opted for one of the specials: Pasta with Aubergine, Tomato and Ricotta.  It was the tastiest dish I had in my whole time in Italy.  Rich, flavoursome and with plenty of sauce.

I’m sure the enjoyment of the meal was enhanced by the thrill of being back in Rome and really making the most of our short time there, and, after a couple of beers and half a bottle of wine, anything would have been tasty, but it was seriously good!

We finished the evening off with a shared tiramisu (it disappeared too fast for photos) and a moonlit stroll to Piazza Del Popolo.  A perfect Italian Foodie Evening.

My favourite recipe: Banana and Chocolate Loaf

photo 5

I’m back into baking in a big way at the moment.  We had a Birthday Party for my daughter last week which needed a chocolate muffin birthday cake, an ice-cream cake, cheesy nibbles, lots of cupcakes for decorating and this loaf.  I love this recipe because it’s incredibly tasty and moist, quick and easy (not even any creaming of butter and sugar required), and because I can kid myself it’s healthy enough to have a slice for breakfast.  It also works well even if you don’t have all the ingredients;  I’ve made with without eggs (just added another banana), without butter (added oil instead) and with plain flour (chuck in an extra tsp of baking powder).  Sometimes I add a tsp of vanilla, this time I added a tbsp of Starbuck’s caramel syrup just because it was on the worktop.  Either way, this cake always tastes delicious!

Banana and Chocolate Loaf

Ingredients – makes about 10 slices

400g ripe bananas (weighed with skin on – about 3 large bananas)

1 tbsp lemon juice

300g self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

125g caster sugar

125g melted butter

2 eggs, beaten

130g chocolate, chopped into large chunks.  Use any type of chocolate you like, I like milk best.  Chopped up Easter eggs always work particularly well.

Method:

Mash the bananas with the lemon juice.

Put the flour, baking powder and sugar in a large mixing bowl.

Add the mashed bananas, melted butter and eggs.  Mix well.

Add the chocolate chunks.

Spoon into a lined 1 kg loaf tin.  Give a bit of a shake to level the top.

Bake in the centre of a preheated oven, 160C / Gas Mark 3, for about an hour.  I start checking after 45 minutes.  The loaf should be well risen, the top golden and cracked.  When a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, then the loaf is done.

Leave to cool for 10 minutes, then turn out on a wire rack and peel the paper off.  Leave to cool completely.

Slice and serve with a nice cup of tea.  Eat.  Have another slice.  Go on, you know you want to.

photo 1-3

6 x (- bottle of beer) = 12 x (slice of cake)

As if January wasn’t depressing enough, HWW and I are doing a Dryathlon this month.   Apparently, by giving up alcohol for a month, we’ll ‘clear our heads, feel fitter and save money’.  

Hmmm.  I can honestly say that my head feels exactly the same, I don’t feel any fitter (replacing alcohol with chocolate didn’t really help) and, as the alcohol is ridiculously cheap here (a six pack of beer is cheaper than a litre of fresh apple juice), I don’t feel we’ve saved much money either.  All we’ve done is make ourselves miserable.  Sparkling Water Friday is definitely not as much fun as Prosecco Friday.

Today I made a pseudo-healthy cake to give us a treat, without piling on too many pounds.  This Glazed Lemon Loaf contains lemon juice and is butter free, so you can almost convince yourself that it’s better for you than eating fresh fruit and vegetables.  As long as you don’t eat the whole thing yourself in one go – obviously, not something I would ever do…

Glazed Lemon Loaf

Glazed Lemon Loaf

Ingredients:

  • 190g cups plain flour
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. bicarb of soda
  • Finely shredded zest of 3 lemons
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 60ml milk
  • Juice of 3 lemons (about 60ml)
  • 60ml cup oil
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

For the Glaze:

  • 70g sugar
  • Juice of 1 large lemon (about 20ml.)

Method:

Preheat oven to 175 C/350 F/Gas Mark 4.  Line a loaf tin with baking paper

Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, lemon zest and salt together in a large bowl.  In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, oil and vanilla until blended.  Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.  Using a rubber spatula, mix until they are just combined, forming a thick, slightly lumpy batter.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake the cake until golden brown and it feels springy to the touch when pressed lightly in the middle, about 35 minutes.  Transfer the pan to a wire rack and, using a skewer, make 8 uniformly spaced holes in the cake.

To make the glaze, combine the sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over a medium heat.  Continue to boil until the mixture is bubbling and frothy on the surface, about 3 minutes.  Remove from the heat and immediately pour evenly over the surface of the hot cake.

Let the glazed cake cool completely in the pan on the rack.  Turn upright onto a serving plate.  I topped it with lemon icing at this point (lemon juice and icing sugar mixed together).

Eat compulsively until you can have a glass of wine again.

Fat Bottomed Girls…Should Step Away From The Cookies

After a summer of visiting friends and family in England, where every social gathering involved cakes, wine, barbeques or three-course meals, my jeans are now refusing to zip up.

Maybe you shouldn't have had that last pie??
Who ate all the pies?

Of course, I could have refused the gateaux, drunk Perrier instead of cider and eaten salad instead of chips.  But I didn’t.  The final straw was being called a Weeble.  Now I like Weebles as much as the next woman, but I don’t really want to look like one.

Consequently I’m back on the diet.  No cakes, cookies or desserts.  And, (just like when Bagpuss goes to sleep, all his friends go to sleep) when I’m on a diet, my family is also deprived of delicious home-baked treats.

But, after much nagging, yesterday I rustled up a batch of Vanilla Sundae Cookies and some Marbled Cheesecake Brownies.  Which I’m not even looking at.  In fact I refuse to be in the same room as them.  But I’ve been told they taste pretty scrumptious so if you’re a skinny Minnie or you fancy a treat, dig in.

Vanilla Sundae Cookies

Ingredients (makes 20 cookies): 2013-09-24 12.49.46

200g butter, cubed     325g plain flour

100g caster sugar       3 tsp vanilla extract

2 egg yolks                  100g chocolate chunks

50g meringues, broken into chunks

Method:

Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas 5. 

Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

Rub the butter into the flour to make crumbs, then stir in the sugar, vanilla, yolks, chocolate and merginue chunks.  Bring together to form a dough.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured work surface to a thickness of 1cm.

Using biscuit cutters, cut biscuits out of the dough and carefully place onto the baking tray.  Chill for 30 mins.

Bake the biscuits for 8-10 minutes, or until pale golden-brown.  Set aside to harden for 5 minutes, then cool on a wire rack.

Just for fun, I iced mine with a ice-cream design (I’m easily amused).  Yummy…

Cheesecake Marbled Brownies

2013-09-26 14.48.48Ingredients (makes 20 brownies):

Brownie Mix:

200g plain chocolate             200g unsalted butter

250g caster sugar                  3 eggs

125g plain flour

Cream Cheese Mix:

400g cream cheese                 1 tsp vanilla extract

125g caster sugar                   2 eggs

Method:

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4.  Line a 20cm x 30cm deep baking tin with greaseproof paper.

To make the brownie mix, melt the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water.  Stir until smooth then cool slightly.

To make the cream cheese mix, beat together the cream cheese, vanilla extract, caster sugar and eggs until smooth and creamy.

In another bowl whisk together the caster sugar and eggs.  Add the melted chocolate and butter mix and stir until combined.  Sieve the flour and fold into the mixture.

Pour 3/4 of the chocolate mix into the prepared tin and level with a palette knife.  Spoon over the cream cheese mix.  Add the remaining chocolate mixture in dollops and tap the tin sharply on the work surface to level the mixtures.  Using a skewer, marble the mixtures together.

Bake for 35-45 minutes, until just set in the middle.  Cool in the tin before cutting into squares.

I gave a tin of these to an Italian friend, who returned the tin later that day as she had eaten the lot – see, they’re irresistible!

Inside Italy: Mamma Mia

There must be some Italian mammas out there rustling up homemade tortellini and tiramisu but I haven’t met any of them.   Most of my Italian friends are working mums who stop off on their way home to pick up a pasta pronto (ready meal) of lasagna or stuffed peppers.  We were guests at a recent dinner party where the starters consisted of cubes of ham.  The prima course was pasta with a tomato sauce, followed by a main course of grilled chicken with a green salad.  Hardly a herb, spice or flavour to be seen.   However, a jar of dried chilli flakes was available to provide some zing/interest/joy to the meal, which everyone added liberally.

Pudding began with a fruit bowl.  Not a fruit salad or prepared fruit but literally the fruit bowl placed onto the table. Fortunately this was followed by tiramisu…from a shop.  Even at a dinner party, this is perfectly acceptable.  No need to hide the M&S boxes here!

There’s also a myth that Italians don’t drink much, just a glass of red wine with dinner.  Really??  I could barely keep up with the speed and quantity of prosecco, red wine and limoncello being thrown down necks.   Am I mixing with the only drinkers in Italy or is this more indicative of modern Italians??

Whaddya mean you want some flavour with it??
Whaddya mean you want some flavour with it??

I really have yet to see why Italian food is so revered; yes you can get great tasting ham, fantastic cheeses or yummy pizza – but you can get those in England too.  All the Italians I know do their shopping at the supermarket, topping up with a few choice items (maybe bread or cheese) at a specialist shop – just like I would do in England.  It costs too much to do a full shop at the local alimentary (grocery), macellai (butchers) or pasticceria (bakery).  I’ve also been surprised to find that people here eat a lot (and I mean a lot) of packaged goods – Nutella, Kelloggs cornflakes, Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream, the same staples we have in England.  Italians especially like shop bought sweet items – biscuits, cakes and pastries.  Children are met after school with a merenda (afternoon snack), maybe a Ciambella (a ring donut kind of cake the size of your head) or a huge slab of pizza Bianca (pizza base).  Not once have I seen a piece of fruit or a home-made treat being handed out. So I’m totally skeptical when English chefs (yes, you Jamie Oliver) bang on and on about how amazing (and healthy) Italian food is.  Now, if you want to start talking about fish & chips, afternoon tea or a full roast lunch then I’m with you all the way! What do you think?  Does Italian food live up to the hype?  Am I missing something??  Or do you agree with me that it’s overrated and overpriced?

Chocolate Brownies speak louder than words

Last Italian lesson of the year.  A quick recap of the basics:

Teacher: “Come ti chiami?”  What is your name?

Easy.  “Mi chiamo Barb.”

Quanti anni hai?”  How many years do you have?

Ho ventuno anni.”  I have 21 years (if only).

Di dove sei?”

Ok, I know dove means where.  So where are we?  Aha: “A Roma.”

No, DI dove sei?”

“In Italia?”

No, no, no.  DI. DOVE. SEI???”

HWW and I clutch each other in panic.  “Agghh!  Spaghetti? Cappuccino?? Mamma Mia???”

“WHERE ARE YOU FROM?”

Oh.  “A Londra.”

As the teacher leaves and the door shuts behind her, I hear what can only be the sounds of a head banging repeatedly against a wall combined with loud sobbing.

So, to make up for being the worst students she’s ever had the misfortune to teach, I made her a batch of these Best Ever Chocolate Brownies.  They are a bit of a faff to make but totally worth it.  I added chopped up Mars Bars and white chocolate for a touch of extra decadence.  My Italian friends can’t get enough of these and truly think I’m the next Fanny Craddock.  If they knew who she was.  And found her name in any way amusing…

Best Ever Chocolate BrowniesChocolate Brownies

Ingredients – makes 16 brownies:

185g butter, cut into small cubes

185g milk chocolate, broken into chunks (the original recipe uses dark but I prefer milk)

85g plain flour

40g cocoa powder

50g white chocolate

50g Mars bars

3 large eggs

275g golden caster sugar

Method:

Put the butter and milk chocolate into a medium sized bowl.  Place over a small saucepan, about a quarter full with hot water.  The bowl shouldn’t touch the water.  Put over a low heat until the butter and chocolate have melted, stirring to mix them.  Remove the bowl from the pan and leave to cool to room temperature.

Turn the oven on to 180C/Gas 4.  Butter and line a shallow 20cm square baking tin with greaseproof paper.

Break the eggs into a large bowl and add the golden caster sugar.  With an electric mixer on maximum speed, whisk the eggs and sugar for about 5 minutes until thick and creamy.

Pour the cooled chocolate mixture over the whisked eggs and sugar.  Sieve in the flour and cocoa powder.  Very gently fold together with a spatula in a figure of eight movement.  Add the chopped Mars Bars and white chocolate.  Continue to gently fold together until you have a smooth, dark chocolately mixture. 

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin.  Gently shake the tin to get the top even.  Put in the oven and cook for 25 minutes.  If the brownie wobbles in the middle when you give it a gentle shake, it’s not quite done, so bake for another 5 minutes until the top has a shiny, papery crust and the sides are just beginning to come away from the tin.  Remove from oven.

Leave the whole thing in the tin until completely cold, then lift out the brownie with the baking paper.  Cut into squares.  Share with friends…or long suffering Italian teachers.