Sunday, December 21, 2008

Diary of a mad dash to Nottingham: Stilton and Herb Spread

I find myself apologizing once again for the lapse in time since my last entry. I assure all three of my loyal followers that this has not been due to laziness but to the fact that I have been truly busy. Now, I’m not saying that I have been working on a cure for cancer but, between entertaining at Thanksgiving, my annual culinary discovery trip to England, and packing my daughter up for her holiday break from university, little time has been left for my precious little blog. Well, I have set today aside as the day to update my neglected project.

On December 4th I landed in Birmingham after layovers in both New York and Paris. It has been a long time since I visited JFK airport and I am here to report that I haven’t missed a thing. The airport was confusing and the personnel unfriendly. When I finally arrived at my gate, after hiking through outdoor construction carrying an overstuffed carry-on bag and a second trip through security, I was more than ready to say my good-byes to New York.

I boarded my Air France flight to Paris and wasn’t a bit shocked to discover that the seat next to me had been filled with a young woman who was less that happy to see me sit next to her either; while on the aisle across from us, four seats sat empty. Why do the airline Gods insist on doing this? If I can see the empty seats on the seating chart on the internet, why can’t they? I certainly can’t blame this phenomenon on the fact that this was an Air France flight because the American and British airlines are guilty of it too. I am happy to tell you all, that despite the intercom orders of the flight attendants to return to our assigned seats, I was able to stake my claim on those four unoccupied seats and comfortably slept most of the way to Paris.

The four hours I spent at De Gaulle airport weren't really much better than the two I spent at JFK. I was disappointed in the duty free shopping and a little bit worried about the lack of airport security. I reluctantly retired to my assigned gate and spent my remaining time in Paris freezing from an opened door, being climbed on and felt up by an ill behaved, unsupervised toddler, and watching the men’s room peep show from a non-existent door in front of the urinals. Good Lord! Where was this child's mother?! During this time, I decided that we need to stop searching the caves of Afghanistan for Osama Bin Laden. He probably flew into Paris, crossed the border unnoticed through an unsecured airport door and is making all those threatening audio tapes from somewhere on the Riviera. Cased closed.

My dear friend and host, Karen, picked me up from the Birmingham airport and drove me to her home in Nottinghamshire. I love her village. The residents all seem to be truly happy and live together in harmony (with the exception of a little bit of tension over the new neighbors faulty chimney). Karen lives in the four hundred year old Manor House with her husband Chris, two teenage boys, Alex and Conor, and her elderly cat Sammy, who may just be as old as the house itself. All joking aside, Sammy is twenty-two and still hanging on. For the past five years or so, I have said farewell to him every time I leave knowing he will be gone when I return the next year. He is starting to really show his age, and he smells a bit, but he’s still there to greet me year after year.

When I arrived, Karen was taking care of Chris and Alex who were both recovering from a case of the flu. She had made a pot of Stilton soup and fortunately I was able to get in on the last cup. Wow, how delicious! She had told me about this recipe many times before but, I had dismissed it as something I would get around to some day. I should have taken her more seriously. I am here to attest to the fact that this is the perfect dish to serve to any jet lagged guests that arrive on your doorstep.

After a few days at Karen’s I met up with my friend Susan and her daughter Talia to join the two of them and Susan’s husband Adrian for a couple of days. I love visiting Susan. Her home is just gorgeous. It is a very large stone structure surrounded by beautiful gardens that seem to always be in bloom. Besides her gardening talent, Susan is a great cook herself. I am fascinated by the delicious meals that come from her kosher kitchen. Since this is a style of cooking that is very different from my own, I love watching her in action. She is a true master of the home version of ready, steady, cook. She also has a great collection of cookbooks that keep me occupied while I am there.

After eleven days of cooking, eating, drinking and laughing, it was time for me to fly back home. My biggest challenge after my stay was to pack everything so no one bag exceeded the 50 pound weight limit. After much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands, this mission was accomplished, barely. I checked my bags, flew back on two flights that were incredibly delayed and one slightly overcrowded. I arrived back home to two hungry and grateful men. It is always nice for them to have a refresher course on what life might be like without me. For the first couple of days, they love becoming reacquainted with the pizza man. For the last few, they can’t wait to taste anything that is not pizza or tinned soup. I have to say, it is great to be home.

My recipe for this entry is inspired by my love for the UK. It is my well loved version of a spread that I discovered at the Stapleford Park Hotel. It is a combination of butter, cream cheese and Stilton or bleu cheese. I hope you’ll consider making this for any holiday gathering where you need a quick and delicious little party nibble. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Stilton and Herb Spread

3 ounces (84g) Stilton or bleu cheese
3 tablespoons (45g) butter, softened to room temperature
3 ounces (84g) cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 pinch (.5ml) cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon (1ml) freshly milled black pepper
¼ teaspoon (1ml) dried thyme
¼ teaspoon (1ml) garlic powder
¼ teaspoon (1ml) dried parsley
2 teaspoons (10ml) fresh chives, chopped

Place the Stilton, butter, cream cheese, cayenne, black pepper, thyme and garlic powder in a medium size bowl. Blend with a fork until mixture is light, creamy and thoroughly combined. Gently fold in the parsley and fresh chives. Press into a small bowl that has been lined with cling film or a decorative serving bowl with the back of a spoon. Cover and place in the refrigerator to chill for at least 1 hour.

After chilling time, remove from the refrigerator. Serve in the bowl or mound on a serving plate. Serve with oat biscuits, crackers or apple slices. Alternatively, spread on crackers and top with plum or apricot preserves and, a sprinkling of chopped walnuts. This recipe is easily doubled for a larger party.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Very Special Day: Churros and Chess Pie

It is hard to believe that fourteen years ago today, my baby boy was born. My little warm, round bundle of joy, now looks me straight in the eye. His gigantic shoes are a constant potential hazard lurking behind a chair or, worse yet, at the top of the stairs. I now mistakenly hang his shirts in my husband’s closet. He is still my baby, but there’s just so much more of him to love these days.

Birthdays at our house are high holy days. Teenage social activities, errands and meetings are all put on the back burner for this one special night. I begin the order taking a few days in advance. No meal is too much trouble. I will even get out the oil and do a little deep frying if necessary. Kevin's wish list for his special day consisted of churros for breakfast and chicken fried steak (a true Texas favorite) for dinner. In Kevin's case, frying is always necessary.

In my opinion, one thing that is an absolute must, is some sort of birthday sweet. I prefer a cake but, in true teenage form, Kevin has decided to breakaway from that archaic tradition and opt for a birthday pie. His chosen flavor, Chess. I can’t say that I blame him. The crisp crust and buttery custard flavor is just perfect. I hope you enjoy the following recipes. They were the framework for a very special day.

Chess Pie

This recipe is for either plain or lemon flavour. I love both of them but I prefer the lemon flavour with whipped cream and the plain with caramel sauce. My husband thinks the caramel sauce makes it a bit too sweet. To each his own.

½ cup butter (113g), softened to room temperature
1 ½ cups (292g) sugar
1 pinch salt
1 tablespoon (15ml) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon (15ml) polenta or corn meal
4 eggs, beaten
1 cup (250ml) milk
1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract
2 tablespoons (30ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice (for making lemon chess pie)
Shredded zest of one lemon (for making lemon chess pie)
1 Uncooked deep dish pastry shell (I usually buy the frozen pastry shells. They are delicious and easy)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, 180 C, Gas Mark 4.

In a large mixing bowl, cream butter, sugar and salt with an electric mixer set to medium low. Add flour and polenta, mix well. Next add the eggs, milk, and vanilla, (if you would like to add lemon juice and zest, add now). Pour into pastry shell.

Bake in preheated oven for 60 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. Allow cooling for 30 minutes. Serve warm or cold with whipped cream or caramel sauce drizzled over, recipe follows.


2 ounces (56g) butter
4 tablespoons (60ml) brown sugar
1 cup (250ml) whipping cream

In a small sauce pan over a medium heat, melt butter. Add brown sugar and cook until it is completely dissolved and simmering. Gradually pour in single cream and cook, stirring constantly until it is heated through.


Vegetable or Light Olive Oil
1 cup (250ml) water
½ cup (113g) butter
1 teaspoon (5ml) salt
1 cup all purpose flour
2 eggs
1 tea cup granulated sugar
1 dessertspoon ground cinnamon

Prepare to fry the churros by heating oil in a pan to a medium high heat. The oil should be 1 to 1 ½ inches in depth.

In a medium saucepan, heat water, butter and salt to a rolling boil. Remove from heat and stir in flour all at one, stirring vigorously with a large wire whisk until it is glossy and forms a ball at the bottom of the pan. Set aside.

In a small bowl, beat the eggs. Slowly add them to the warm dough and stir well until the eggs are completely incorporated into the dough.

Now this is the tricky part but there is really no getting around it. Transfer the dough into a pastry bag fitted with the largest star piping tip that you can find. Squeeze out 3” strips in the hot oil and fry them for 1-2 minutes until they are a golden brown. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on paper toweling.

While the churros are still warm, combine the sugar and cinnamon and roll each churro in the mixture. Shake off excess and serve while still warm.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Better Late Than Never: Popcorn Party Mix

When I started this blog earlier this month, the goal that I set for myself was to make a new entry every week. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans. Last week, illness swept its way through my household and took us all prisoner. After a few pretty rough days, even though I am still nursing a 13 year old who is convalescing on my sofa, I am on the mend and ready to get back to work.

My friend Karen (also know as the unofficial Halloween Queen of the East Midlands) rang me today and we spent the best part of an hour solving the problems of the world. Somewhere between Barack Obama and shocking Facebook discoveries, Karen mentioned that this Halloween, not only is she helping out with her village’s children’s party, it is her turn at hosting the “Impromptu Friday Night” dinner at her house. I am truly honored to report that she will be serving my Creamy Chicken Chili. I can’t wait to hear the reviews on my recipe.

During the course of our conversation, the following recipes came to mind and I really wished that I had included them in my first entry. Oh well, they are so quick and simple, that I’m going to add them today. Hence my entry title.

Popcorn Party Mix

This throw together mix is an inexact recipe. Add more of what you like and less of what you don’t. The combination of sweet and savoury, makes this mix extremely addictive.

1 – 3.5 ounce bag butter flavour microwave popcorn, popped and cooled
2 heaping hands full cheese flavour puffs (such as Wotsits)
1 heaping handful bite size savoury crackers (any favourite)
1 heaping handful mini pretzel twists
1 heaping handful bite size cereal (any favourite will do)
1 handful peanuts or cashews
1 cup Smarties

Place the first 5 ingredients into a large bowl and gently toss. Sprinkle the peanuts and the Smarties over all before serving as they will have a tendency to sink to the bottom.

This is a recipe that lends itself to change. Feel free to substitute any of these ingredients with your favorite crisp or cereal to make it your own special recipe. To serve, use a large scoop and serve in plastic or paper drink cups.

This recipe makes one big party bowl full. Save any unused portions (if there are any) in a zipper seal plastic bag. Leftovers make a fun addition to a dull lunchbox.

Beefy Baked Beans

Try filling your jacket potato with this delicious mixture. I know you’re probably wondering why go to the trouble of homemade when you can just buy a tin at the supermarket. Well, make this recipe once and you’ll understand why. This dish makes an ordinary jacket potato or piece of toast something special. If you prefer, feel free to substitute the beef mince for turkey or chicken or, leave the meat out altogether. This dish will easily serve 8 people so, if you are cooking for a smaller group, freeze any unused portions. Oh by the way, a good sprinkling of grated medium cheddar pushes this across the line to sheer decadence.

1 – 15 ounce tin (425g) cannellini beans or any other small white bean, rinsed drained
1 – 15 ounce tin (425g) pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1 – 15 ounce tin (425g) red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
500g beef mince
1 tablespoon (15ml) vegetable oil
4 rashers streaky bacon, sliced into 1” slices
1 medium size onion, (approximately 260g) diced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 cup (250ml) tomato ketchup
1/3 cup (75ml) maple syrup
1 teaspoons (10ml) apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon (15ml) Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon (15ml) lemon juice
2 tablespoons (30ml) packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup (80ml) water
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 F, 180 C, Gas Mark 4.

In a large, 9 x 13” which has been greased, pour the three tins of drained and rinsed beans and set aside.

In a large frying pan over medium high heat, cook mince until cooked through, breaking meat with a spatula, approximately 10 minutes. When meat is done, drain off any liquid and pour on top of the beans in the baking dish.

In the same pan, which has been wiped clean, place the vegetable oil and bacon slices and cook over medium high for approximately 5 minutes. Next add the onion and cook, stirring frequently until onions are soft. Finally add the minced garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Pour contents of the pan over the mince in the baking pan.

In a small bowl, combine the ketchup, syrup, vinegar, Worcestershire, lemon juice, brown sugar and water. Mix well to combine completely. Pour over the contents of the baking dish and stir well, making sure that all of the ingredients are covered in the sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste. Smooth the contents with the back of a spoon until it is in an even layer. Cover and place in the oven and cook for 30 - 40 minutes or until it is hot and bubbly.

Easy Peasy Brownies

This is a great recipe for beginning cooks. My children have both had a go at this recipe with predictably delicious results. These brownies turn out chewy and moist with a deep chocolate flavor. This is a perfect homemade treat for packing in lunches or picnic hampers. Be sure and don’t get too anxious and cut these while they are still warm as they will crumble to bits.

2 eggs
1 cup (225g) sugar
1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract
½ teaspoon (2.5ml) salt
1/2 cup (113g) butter, melted
1/3 cup (33g) cocoa
1/2 cup (80g) flour
¼ teaspoon (1ml) ground cinnamon (optional)
½ cup (68g) pecans or walnuts (optional)
Icing sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 325 F, 170 C.

Beat eggs well in a medium sized mixing bowl. Add the sugar vanilla and salt; mix well and set aside. Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Whisk the melted butter and cocoa together; add to the egg mixture along with the flour, cinnamon and nuts; mix well and pour into a greased 8 x 8” baking pan.

Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 35 - 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool completely and dust with sifted icing sugar before slicing.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Brilliant Bonfire Recipes: Vegetarian Chili and Sticky Toffee Krispie Treats

I love the fall, I always have. As a girl growing up in Texas, the cold weather brought a new school year, which I truly loved, and the promise of a brand new holiday season. Halloween marked the beginning of the party fun. If you are a child in America, only the excitement of Christmas morning can surpass the thrill of Halloween night.

On Halloween, my mother would always mix up some sort of token beef mince dish, knowing that she would have to force us to eat every bite. After choking down our tea, and being granted parole from our kitchen table prison, my sister and I would run to our room and don our well planned fancy dress for the night. We would run down the street, ringing every doorbell in our path, filling our pillowcases (yes, pillowcases) with sweets. Upon our return home, we would pour our treasure out on the floor and spend the next hour sorting and cataloging. We were content, our dentist grew richer, and my mother secretly threw a handful away everyday until it was gone. Everyone was happy. Little did I know then, Halloween wouldn't be the only fall ritual that I would be fortunate enough to celebrate in the years to come.

My first bonfire celebration came a couple of years after our arrival in Nottingham. Our children’s young ages and their sensitivity to the cold (whining incessantly), kept us home. The first party we attended was at the local football grounds and, between the dampness and the cold, all 200 of the attendees resembled life size ice lollies. The bonfire, even though enormous, was only able to accommodate about 75 guests, thawing only one side of their bodies at a time. So, after about an hour of this fun, we took our singed eyebrows and frozen bums home and got into a hot bath. We made it a rule to send our regrets to any future outdoor parties that took place after August. Our loss.

Fast forward 12 years, I now have great ideas for bonfire parties I wish I’d had. How come you don’t know what you've got until it’s gone? Oh well, I’ll just have to share those ideas here and live vicariously through those that choose to use them. The following soup recipe is a creation of mine and the fabulous sweet recipe is on loan from a generous friend. Some of my favorite recipes have been borrowed from friends, discovered at parties, picnics, and even funeral luncheons. I have no shame.

Hearty Four Pepper Vegetarian Chili

The most difficult part of preparing this dish is roasting and peeling the peppers and onion, which, while adding depth to the flavor, isn’t absolutely necessary. If you want a very mild flavor, just add one jalapeno, or leave it out altogether.

1 large red bell pepper
1 large orange bell pepper
1 large green bell pepper
3 large jalapeno peppers (for a spicy hot flavor)
1 large onion, sliced into thick slices (approximately 2.5cm)
3 tablespoons vegetable or light olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, finely minced
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 large stalk celery, diced
3 cups (750ml) water
1 – 14.5 ounce (429g) tin chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon (15ml) condensed vegetable stock (or 3 stock cubes)
2 teaspoons (10ml) ground cumin
2 tablespoons (30ml) mild chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1 large bay leaf
1 dessertspoon finely chopped fresh coriander
3 small courgettes, sliced in half lengthwise then across in bite size pieces
1 – 15.5 ounce (439g) tin cannellini beans, (or any other small to medium sized white bean), rinsed and drained
2 heaping dessertspoons fresh or frozen sweet corn
1 tablespoon (15ml) freshly squeezed lime juice
Salt and pepper to taste
To Serve:
Lime Wedges
Soured Cream
Chopped fresh coriander
Grated cheddar cheese

Grill the peppers and onion either over and open flame or under and indoor grill until the skin turns black and bubbles. Place peppers into a zippered plastic or paper bag and allow to steam until the skins are easily removed. Dice the grilled onion and peeled peppers; set aside.

Place the oil in the bottom of a large stock pot that has been set over a medium high heat. Add the minced garlic and saute for approximately 1 minute. Add the chopped peppers, onion, carrot and celery, saute for a minute or two longer. Add the water, tomatoes, vegetable stock, cumin, chili powder, paprika, and bay leaf. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes then add the coriander, courgettes, beans and sweetcorn. Replace the cover and simmer for an additional 30 - 40 minutes or until the broth is dark red in color, and the flavors have blended completely. Add the lime juice and salt and pepper to taste. Serve piping hot.

To serve, offer lime wedges, soured cream, fresh coriander and grated cheddar cheese on the side. If you prefer, transfer contents to a tureen and swirl soured cream and sprinkle the coriander on top of the entire dish.

Serves 6.

This recipe can be easily made a day or two in advance and refrigerated until ready to use, in fact, it is best when it sets overnight. Unused portions also freeze well.

Rosemary’s Sticky Toffee Krispie Treats
At last year’s bonfire party, I was advised to get one of these before they were gone and, I wasn’t sorry. These buttery sweets are the perfect ending to a spicy chili meal. Thanks Rosemary, for sharing your recipe.

7 ounces butter
7 ounces toffee
7 ounces marshmallows
7 ounces Rice Krispie cereal (Rosemary says that she uses 8 ounces and finds it just right)

Melt the butter and toffee together in a large stockpot set over medium heat. Add the marshmallows and melt, stirring constantly. Add the cereal and fold in until the ingredients are completely combined. Pour into a large/deep greased pan. Press down firmly with greased hands; cool. Cut into squares.