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Lavender and Vanilla Popcorn

popcornI’m on the home straight of recipe testing for Recipes from Brixton Village as I finish up the last 20 or so recipes while completing the manuscript. I’m loving learning about new ingredients and challenging myself so that you will all have a few surprises in store when you all see the book. But it does mean that when I’m cooking for myself I want simple flavours and simple dishes.

I also want things I can eat with the minimum of fuss and thought, preferably as I write and edit so I can believe in the myth of multi tasking. Popcorn has been fitting the bill perfectly but my usual scattering of sweet and salty needed a shake up. I wanted something sweet, but sophisticated and definitely not sickly. Read more

Christmas Chestnut Caramel Shortbread

shortbread

When I was growing up, I associated certain tastes with times of the year. Chestnuts were the taste of celebrations at Christmas when my mum made a gorgeous frozen pudding similar to a Nesselrode pudding with sweetened chestnut puree and we occasionally had marron glacee at my granny’s house round the open fire. But caramel shortbread was the taste throughout the year. None of this ‘millionaire’s shortbread’ malarkey, caramel shortbread was the traybake of choice in our house.

Weirdly though, I’ve never made it myself. I tend to dip into my less well known Northern Irish repetoire of wee buns and bakes when I’m making anything like this back in London, but everyone has heard of this treat so I’ve neglected it for a while, but a recent conversation gave me a Christmassy craving for caramel and when Zoe and Tim from Brixton Blog gave me a tin of chestnut spread last week, I knew I had to combine the two tastes and this classic a new lease of life.

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Salted Vanilla Toffee Apples

Halloween is a big deal in Ireland. We don’t celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night (for obvious reasons in Northern Ireland) but the Irish have been holding a celebration around this time since Celtic times when Samhain was the equivalent of New Year. The date merged with the Christian All Souls Day and All Hallows’ Eve to become Halloween. Traditionally the time when the link between the world of the living and the dead was closest, it is a time of supernatural feeling and rememberance of those passed on. Irish and Scottish emigrants to America took the traditional Halloween customs with them and those have been exported back across the Atlantic to the less spooky-minded folk of England in recent times.

As kids growing up in Belfast, Halloween was a big deal. Half term always fell around this time and we were off school to celebrate with a variety of traditions from a turnip lantern and full on costumes, trick or treating, apple bobbing, indoor fireworks (anything more explosive was banned) and a rich array of seasonal foods. Our mum made her legendary apple dumpling most years, steamed in a cloth, complete with silver coins for luck and it was also the time of year for barmbrack. But we also got in another one of our five a day with a toffee apple or two.

Wrapped in cellophane, these twinkled and crinkled in the run up to the big night and produced a fantastic crunch when we were finally allowed them. Sharp shattering toffee, softened but crunchy apple and a burst of tangy juice, these got eaten faster than any other apple in the year. These are the taste of childhood to me and I haven’t eaten one for years. Could I make them a touch more adult while keeping the memories?

One of my favourite things I’ve made all year was the Salted Caramel Butter Ice-Cream and thinking back on it inspired me to add a salted twist to toffee apples. It was the perfect time to use the Halen Môn Vanilla Sea Salt I’ve been hoarding for a while and make them salt sweet perfection. I got some lolly sticks off Ebay and stocked up on English apples at Brixton Farmers’ Market. I was ready to heat sugar to scary temperatures…

First up, scald your apples with just boiled water to take off any waxy coating they might have. Dry them completely and push the sticks into them firmly. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and heat in a small pan:

225g golden granulated sugar
about a heaped tablespoon golden syrup
1 tsp vinegar (I used cider)
1 tsp sea salt
50ml water

Melt everything, bring to the boil and then get it all to the hard crack stage or approximately 150C. A sugar thermometer is a godsend here to make sure you don’t go over. Take the pan off the heat directly at this point and add in some red food colouring to get that proper candy apple red. I used a teaspoon of powdered colouring and I’d hazard a guess at the same of liquid. Natural isn’t the look we’re going for.

Keep the toffee molten and very liquid, putting back on a low or residual heat if needs be. Tilt the pan to one side to get the toffee as deep as possible and roll your apple in it, coating as high up as you can. Allow the excess the drip off into the pan and then set on the lined tray. Repeat until you run out of toffee. I got 6 small apples out of this, but probably could have done 8. Dollop any leftovers onto a tray to set like toffee and cover with chocolate or make spun sugar baskets or add a dash of bicarb for a cinder toffee-esque treat.

The toffee will set almost instantly on the apples and on the pan. Fill it with water and bring to the boil to save hours of soaking and scrubbing. Admire your handiwork and feel smug that you have not burnt yourself or the sugar. Then get stuck into a toffee apple as soon as possible.

They tasted exactly as I wanted. The flavour and feel of childhood but with a tiny tinge of adulthood from the salt. There was just a hint of vanilla, almost like a waft, rather than a flavour. You could add essence if you wanted a more defined taste. I scarfed mine in the same record speed as I used to, revelling in the soft apple and the shimmering crunchy toffee. I wrapped the remaining ones in cellophane and hoped fervently that no one called to trick or treat so I could eat the lot…

Veda Bread Ice-Cream

July is a hot month back home in Belfast. Not especially due to the weather, but because of the slightly heightened feeling on the streets due to the Orange Order marches held in what is known as the Twelfth Fortnight. This was the traditional summer holiday for the shipyard workers in the city and a chance to hark back and remember Catholics and Protestants knocking the pan out of each other at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. For those of us who don’t enjoy some light civil disobedience, it’s a good time to potter around at home doing all those things you’d sort of meant to do all year since you can’t really go out. Or ignore them completely and spend time watching box-sets and eating ice cream instead…

Feeling oddly left out here in London, I thought I would try and join in with a ice cream recipe with a taste of home. I’ve been wanting to make a traditional brown bread ice cream since I got my ice cream maker earlier this year, but the arrival of my mother on the week of the Twelfth with every Northern Irish exile’s request in the shape of a loaf of Veda bread, meant I decided to give it an Ulster twist and use Veda instead.

A dark delicious slightly sticky (non-fruited) malt bread, Veda makes the best toast in the world, marrying together with butter like nobody’s business. Adding sugar to bring out the natural sweetness and crisping it up with butter is what my life has been missing up until now. Using this recipe by David Lebovitz, I crumbled the Veda into smallish pieces, fried off in butter and a good unrefined caster sugar and then toasted in the oven for about 30 minutes or until I had clusters of crispy, sticky, malty heaven that were so good, I could have skipped the ice cream and just eaten them alone.

But since I had promised ice cream, I made ice cream. The recipe uses a basic custard, but with the addition of cream cheese to stop it all being just too sweet. This is much more faffy, needing a third bowl, more counter space, a sieve, a whisk and more potential for the custard to curdle as it needs to be hotter to melt the cream cheese, so in future, I don’t think I’ll bother with this addition. Otherwise, it was all pretty straightforward.

I gave this ice cream a bit of a Brixton twist and added a slug of dark rum, some vanilla and then stirred the caramalised crisped up Veda into the churned mixture about five minutes before the end. Because the Veda is stickier and maltier than regular brown bread, the crumbs clumped up more and made huge nuggets of crispiness. Fearing that I would either break my teeth or the machine, I blitzed them in the blender to make them more crumb like. Everything then went in the freezer for a couple of hours to firm up and create hands down the finest ice cream ever created.

Creamy beyond belief but crunchy and chewy due to the crisped up bread crumbs and with a slightly grown up flavour from the rum, this was just magnificient. Rich with butter and with a gorgeous toffee feel, I defy you not to fall in love with this amazing ice cream and want to sneak a spoonful everytime you pass the freezer. It was declared even better than the Northern Irish ice cream institution that is Maud’s Pooh Bear Delight*.

You need to make this ice cream immediately. If you don’t have access to Norn Iron’s best kept secret, try it with some Soreen or a really good brown bread instead. This is what breadcrumbs aspire to being…

*Youse know it’d be belter in a poke.

Semlor, or Mardi Gras with marzipan…

After a very long wait since Easter is so late this year, Fat Tuesday finally rolled round this week with its myriad delicious ways to use up rich or fatty ingredients and shrive in time for the start of Lent. Most people went for the always excellent pancake as their Shrove Tuesday treat, but after my recent trips to Scandivanian Kitchen, I decided to celebrate with the Swedish favourite of the cardamom infused, marzipan stuffed and cream filled buns known as semlor. Made with fresh yeast and similar in texture to a doughnut, these chewy soft buns are perfect with a strong coffee and could be sampled in the afternoon, leaving plenty of room for a pancake fest in the evening…

Scandinavian Kitchen are a one stop shop for these little beauties, supplying both the recipe and all the ingredients for them in one place. I stocked up on fresh yeast there for the amazingly bargain price of 45p a pack, but used my own flour and some marzipan I had in the house for emergencies. With the sun shining for the first time in months, I rolled my sleeves up and got baking. Read more