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ginger beer

Homemade Alcoholic Ginger Beer

ginger beerI have been mildly obsessed by ginger beer ever since I grew up gorging myself on Enid Blyton novels with their constant mention of it. (I did always wonder how English people had so much ginger knocking around when it was as rare as hen’s teeth in 1980s Ireland in comparison.) My only taste of ginger beer as a nipper was the occasional can of Idris Fiery Ginger Beer and this also confused me as to how the Famous Five could make fizzy drinks at home. But then again, I never found any shipwrecks round my way either so I think I knew not to compare myself to them too closely.

Living in Brixton these days, I drink a lot of ginger beer made from fresh ginger and often given a hearty slug of dark rum at my friend Brian’s restaurant Fish Wings and Tings in Brixton Village. Fiery and refreshing, it was perfect in the hot weather earlier this summer.

However my tastes in drinks run to the sparkling. Anyone who has ever been to my flat knows that I order fizzy water in quantities so immense I should really have stop using bottles and just park a tanker outside instead. Could I make a fizzy ginger beer to tick all my beverage boxes at once?

Mister North recently got a copy of The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz and has been making kefir and other fermented drinks at home while both he and our mum have the successful touch with their sourdough starters. Still slightly resentful of the time someone chose to break up with me so they could spend more time with their new sourdough starter, I have resisted the fermenting trend thus far. But I discovered you can make a ginger beer ‘plant’ with ginger and yeast and it will fermented to make both bubbles and booze you can drink. My time had come.

Recipes told me that I could use both dried ginger and fresh ginger for this plant, but believing the dried powder to be too good to be true, I decided I would experiment and try a batch of both. I also didn’t want to have to splash out on champagne yeast so having finally obtained some fresh yeast tried it instead. I did get bubbles this way but the flavour was so intensely damp and yeasty, it was undrinkable.

I tried again with some champagne yeast I bought off Ebay and the overpowering yeasty flavour was replaced with something more subtle and crisp due to the tight little bubbles it created. Unfortunately there was no flavour or fire from either the fresh or dried ginger and the whole thing was unpleasantly bland.

I went for third time lucky and decided to adapt Brian’s recipe in Recipes from Brixton Village to combine it with my fresh ginger plant and create a fizzy ginger beer with a kick. Instead of just relying on the plant for flavour, I steeped fresh ginger and sugar in water overnight as well and it was perfect.

Full of flavour and fizz and just alcoholic enough to warm the cockles further, it was well worth the experimenting. It’s not a quick recipe but it’s fun to do and works out much cheaper than bottled ginger beers from the supermarket if this is a favoured tipple. Read more

pineapple sorbet

Pineapple Sorbet

pineapple sorbet Aside from friends and family, I think the thing I miss the most about Northern Ireland is its selection of ice lollies. Considering its such a chilly corner of the world, we love our frozen treats. Ice cream has its merits, but there’s something about ice lollies that we especially enjoy.

These lollies held a massive lure when I was a kid popping to the local shop with my pocket money. Sometimes you went for quantity over quality and got handfuls of those Mr Freeze freezepops in the long plastic containers, making sure there was at least one Blue Raspberry flavour per batch. A freezepop fest didn’t count unless you dyed your tongue an unnatural shade.

But more often, it was all about branded lollies on wooden sticks. I’m old enough to remember when they embossed jokes onto the sticks and this was worth the potential to set your teeth on edge with the wood. Walls offered us Mini Milks and Funny Feet, but I didn’t like either much. Lyons had the iconic Fab and the Mivvi, but they were cinema lollies not hot day ones. I adored Irish company HB‘s Fat Frogs which were apple flavoured and had a soft spot for a shark shaped one that was sharp and citrus flavoured and a blackcurrant Dracula lolly too, but my love lay (and still does) with Norn Irish classics from Dale Farm.

Leaning over the freezer trying to choose between a Rocky Rasper (raspberry, but not blue), the sugar free but lovely lemon-lime Supa Cool, a smooth vanilla Mr Frostie (in lieu of the toy lolly maker of the same name) or the crocodile branded Choc Pop was tricky. I never wanted a Joker with its orange outer and ice cream middle and I hated orangey Quenchers too.

My first choice was always the Pear Picking Porky, the undisputed classic ice lolly of all time. Not, as my Slovakian surrogate sister once asked, pig flavoured, but made of that artificial pear flavouring that is nothing like the fruit, these lollies the spot every time. I’ve even eaten them walking up Botanic Avenue on Boxing Day. The only problem with them is that they are so popular they sell out easily, meaning one needs a back up plan.

For me this comes in the shape of a Polly Pineapple. So when I found myself far from Belfast in the middle of a heatwave and craving frozen salvation, I knew I could muster a pineapple lolly in London rather than a pear one. Surely it would be pretty simple?

And it was, coming in with a whopping three ingredients. The tricky bit came when I could not for the life of me get the lollies out of the cheapo moulds I bought in the pound shop in one piece. The sticks slid out, there was swearing and then in a fit of frustration, I scooped the slightly slushy sorbet out with a spoon and refroze it in a Tupperware. Success…

Pineapple Sorbet (makes about 500ml)

  • 1 whole fresh pineapple or 425g tin of pineapple chunks
  • 100g sugar
  • 75ml water

I like tinned pineapple (blame my Mallory Towers habit as a kid) so that’s what I used but if you can get a super sweet and ripe fresh pineapple, it’d be perfect. Sniff the base of it, discreetly if in store, and if it smells strongly of pineapple, it is perfect. Peel it, remove the core and chop it up making sure you keep any juice.

If using the tinned, tip it, juice and all into a large bowl. Using a hand blender, blitz the pineapple of either kind and its juice together until smooth and lump free. It should like those nectar style juices you get that contain pulp. Set aside and chill.

Make a simple sugar syrup by combining the sugar and water in a pan and heating together until it forms a thick syrupy texture without changing colour. Remove from the heat and allow to cool down. You will have slightly more here than you probably need for the recipe but it keeps well in the fridge and is perfect for sweetening iced tea in hot weather.

Add about 50ml of the cooled sugar syrup to the pineapple pulp and stir. Pour into a Tupperware container and put the lid on. Put in the freezer and chill for 4 hours. Either give it a stir once an hour with a fork to break up the ice crystals and keep it smooth or leave it alone for 3 hours and then blitz it again with the handblender and freeze for another hour.

Take it out of the freezer about 10 minutes before you want to eat it. It will be smooth in texture and almost like a really really good Slush Puppie. In fact, you could add a tiny bit of dark rum and drink it as a frozen cocktail through a wide straw if you liked. It tasted enough of a Polly Pineapple to quench my craving, but better enough to be worth the effort. Plus it gave me a chance to get the fake parrot and pineapple ice bucket out…

 

fig rolls

Fig, Raspberry and Tarragon Rolls

fig rollsLike many Irish people, I more associate biscuits with Jacob’s than McVities. This is a brand so Irish, it was even one of the places taken over in the 1916 Easter Rising as Ireland tried to break away from Britain and declare independence. Biscuits matter back home.

Jacob’s made all kinds of sweet treats when I was wee (it is now no longer an Irish company and cases are fought in court over the name.) Mister North and I could recite the Kimberley, Mikado and Coconut Cream jingle in our sleep, but most of all Jacob’s was associated with Fig Rolls.

They came in an orange packet in those days and our mum was rather fond of them so we always had some in the biscuit tin. I loved them because no one ever commits the disgusting depraved act of dunking a biscuit when they eat a Fig Roll. I have always wondered like the advert asked ‘how they get the figs in the fig rolls?’ and decided the time had come to find out.

Partly inspired by a Greek Fig Pie our dad sent me recently with its spiced fig filling and sesame seed outer and partly by this recipe on the fabulous Food 52, I decided to try baking my own and see if I could have a fig renaissance in my life. The one drawback of a Fig Roll is that they are teeth-itchingly sweet so I added some frozen raspberries to the fig mix to add a little tang.

And to prove I’m a grown up instead of a biscuit tin raiding child, I added a little tarragon to the raspberries as they are perfect bedfellows. In fact the most memorable cocktail I’ve ever drunk involved fresh raspberries and tarragon and gin and I’ve been borderline obsessed with this combo ever since. Told you I was a grown up now…

Fig, Raspberry and Tarragon Rolls: adapted from Food 52 (makes about 40)

For the dough:

  • 75g room temperature butter
  • 100g brown sugar
  • 225g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the filling:

  • 250g dried figs
  • 300ml boiling water
  • 200g fresh or frozen raspberries
  • 5g fresh tarragon

The dough is best used after chilling overnight so prepare it in advance. It will keep for about 10 days in the fridge if you get sidetracked mid recipe like I did.

Beat the butter and the sugar together with an electric whisk until they are very light and fluffy. This will take about 5 minutes. Add the egg and the vanilla extract and beat until loose and smooth.

Stir the flour and baking powder into this mixture until just combined. It’s a soft almost loose biscuit dough so handle it carefully. Roll into a ball, flatten into a disc and wrap in clingfilm. Chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.

About an hour before you want to make the fig rolls, chop your dried figs into small pieces. I cut each one into six. Put them in a pan with the boiling water and bring to the boil. Simmer until they are soft and plumped up. They should have absorbed all the water. Keep an eye on them as they are thirsty wee things and you might need to top the pan up again.

When they look like they have absorbed as much water as they can without falling apart, take them off the heat and blend well with a stick blender. You will end up with a very smooth pale purple paste. Set aside to cool.

If you are using frozen raspberries, allow them to drain well into a bowl at this stage. If you are using fresh ones, squash them lightly with the stick blender. Chop the tarragon roughly, add to the berries and set aside until the figs are cool.

Combine the figs and the raspberries and then spoon the fruit into a icing bag. They are ferociously sticky so don’t overfill it.

Take the dough out of the fridge and cut the disc into four. Keep one out and return the rest to the fridge. Flour your surface and roll the dough out into a long rectangle about 4 inches by 10. Knock the sides into an even shape with the rolling pin. The dough is fragile and might crack. I sacrificed the very ends rather than push my luck.

Using the icing bag, squeeze four stripes of fig and raspberry paste onto your dough and then fold the sides over. Wet it slightly to allow the top the layer to stick. Cut this fig filled sausage into 1.5 inch pieces and set on a lined baking tray. Repeat with the other three pieces.

Bake the fig rolls in a 175℃ oven for 14-16 minutes. The dough should be golden on the edges but not the top. Take them out of the oven and immediately put the piping hot biscuits in a large Ziploc bag and seal it up. This steams them and keeps them soft like a proper fig roll. I often do this with soda bread too and it works a treat to keep the crust smooth and soft.

When the fig rolls are steamed and cooled, serve with a cup of tea. The remaining biscuits will keep up to 10 days in a tin. The filling in them is lovely. Much more generous than Jacob’s ever was and not as sweet. The dough tastes exactly like the bought ones and they are even easier inhale alongside your cuppa with their soft texture. Much more fun than just opening a packet!

 

 

 

 

 

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Homemade Vanilla Extract

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I’ve been meaning to post this recipe for a while as it’s completely changed my cooking and baking habits and after such a busy week, it’s nice to to feature something simple and slow to develop. More like musing than cooking, it’s perfect after a fortnight that’s seen me submit the manuscript on the slow cooker book to Ebury, feature in the Metro and finish the three days of photography on the book, seeing my creations come to life in a way I hadn’t envisioned when I was eating them.

It was a real pleasure to collaborate with Mister North this week as he is the photographer for the book. My writing and his photography was enhanced by the wonderful food styling of Olia Hercules who was a real joy to work with. It was also great fun spending time with my lovely editor Laura Higginson. And of course having the excuse to eat all the food from the shoot. Very different to my previous life working in fashion…

I felt a pang when my borrowed slow cookers went back to the publisher this week and I comforted myself by pot roasting a chicken in my own one and baking myself a cake which is where the vanilla extract came in. A splash of vanilla in any cake, custard or dessert tends to lift it from good to glorious, but there’s no way round it, vanilla extract is expensive and I usually find myself rationing it like fine perfume.

However just before Christmas 2012 whilst perusing Ebay, I discovered that you can buy vanilla pods for a fantastic prices on there. Scoring 32 of them for £8, I assumed they’d at least have a hint of vanilla and look nice tied to Christmas presents or nestled into sugar. When they arrived however I could smell the rich sweet scent of vanilla through the package before I’d opened it. Unwrapped, each pod was sticky soft and left a sprinkle of vanilla seeds behind on your fingers like fairy dust. And that was just the A Grade pods. They go up to AAAAA in quality.

As with any excess of anything, I thought I’d stick them in some booze and see what happened. Three pods and a smidge of sugar went into some vodka for the perfect festive tipple. I also had a cheap bottle of dark rum left over from a mojito night and wondered what would happen if I put 10 in there and left it in the dark for three months? Vanilla extract that will knock your socks off and make those bottles of Nielsen Massey seem like The Body Shop oil you dabbed behind your ears at the age of twelve.

Rich chestnut brown, spicy sweet and utterly heady, this extract was amazing. The seeds melt into it to make it thick and glossy and the flavour is so intense you need half the amount you normally do. Considering those posh bottles retail at £4.70 per 100ml or around £47 per litre, making your own makes financial sense too. I made around 750ml of extract in December 2012 and gave small bottles of it as gifts, keeping some for myself. I’ve tested two cookbooks since then, baked myself silly and still have 150ml left. My vanilla beans are also currently brewing a second batch too which is just as intensely flavoured meaning I will probably never need buy commercial stuff again.

Homemade Vanilla Extract (makes 700ml)

  • 700ml dark rum
  • 10 vanilla pods

So simple to make. Simply split your pods so that they are opened out and flattened slightly. Pop them into a clean Kilner jar and cover with dark rum. I used Basics for this. Put somewhere dark and cool for at least 3 months. Shake the jar every few days to help infuse it all.

After 3 months, decant around 50ml into a small bottle and use. Leave the rest to keep infusing for up 9 months or decant it to give as gifts. I put half a pod into each small bottle to keep the infusion going and look pretty. I don’t bother to strain the extract as the seeds look beautiful to me.

Friends I gave this to asked for more for Christmas 2013 and I do actually have some waiting to be delivered! If you are a baker, this is a brilliant way to make the most of vanilla in your kitchen. You will never think of vanilla as bland or flavourless again once you’ve tasted this.

 

Malt Loaf Steamed Pudding

malt puddingI think regular readers know my feelings on malt. I go doollally for its dark and sticky charms whether it’s moist cakes or anything involving Veda bread. I like my beers black and I can even be swayed by the lighter malty treats like Horlicks. But one thing I’ve found over years of sampling, is that malt tastes even better when you warm it up slightly.

I got hold of some of that dark malt extract you see in health foods shops where it is sold as a virtuous alternative to granulated sugar. It made me wonder if I could take the warmth of toasted Veda or Soreen and basically serve it with custard instead of the usual slathering of salted butter? I thought I’d try and create dark dense malted steamed sponge pudding dotted with plump juicy dried fruit. I figured you couldn’t go wrong with such a combo.

And I was right. You couldn’t. In fact I went so right I created a sponge of such lightness it is even easier to eat than a whole loaf of Soreen to yourself. But I did discover that it is better to make this pudding and allow it to mellow in a tin for up to 5 days and then steam it again for just long enough to warm it through to get it to the right syrupy texture to go with custard. Apologies for making you wait. I promise it is well worth it. Read more