I have kept a Gratitude Journal since the start of 2016. Over that year it made a MASSIVE difference to my mental attitude; I now more naturally see the positive in things. My blog is a place to share thoughts and opinions. But more than that, it’s a place I record life so I can look back in the future and remember how things were. Whilst I will always have my private journals, I also decided to take a leaf out the books of other bloggers and create a monthly gratitude feature.
This month has been another challenging one with yet more illness and various breakages costing us money (including the microwave, the handheld hoover and, worst of all, the 16 month old BOILER, argh!). So focusing on the little things really has been necessary. Here’s what I am grateful for this month:
I’ll confess now that I thought this Blogging Challenge would be quick way of getting some more blog content. But I was wrong. It’s really making me use my brain to answer some of these and looking forward they only get more challenging. Plans, goals and dreams is quite tough. I’ve always had aims but never strict plans. Also, there are a few things which I will always keep private, even from the blogging community. Sorry! However, there are things I am willing to share. So here goes…
My work day morning routine is quite time-strict. I am up at 6am and out of the door by 6:45am; In that time I get washed, dressed and word-ready as well as taking my valuable 5 – 10 minutes with H when I get her up. So anything I can defer to the train I do; This includes my breakfast. After a year of eating a healthy porridge and banana breakfast during Mat Leave (that dish literally saved me during those early breastfeeding weeks when I also had stomach flu and tonsillitis) I wanted something equally filling and healthy. I eventually came across this great muffin recipe on BBC Good Food which has no butter or sugar in it. Every fortnight I get baking a batch of twelve which covers me for two working weeks. So last night, after H went to sleep, I went to the kitchen to get to work…
My in-laws were coming round last weekend and I needed to make something for lunch. I had also, in error, opened a tin of chopped tomatoes so the the aforementioned lunch needed to make use of those! So, I decided to make a variation of my normal veggie lasagne. It worked really well and was well received. So, in keeping with my recent bout of food-based-blog-posts, here’s how to recreate it yourselves!
Tomato Sauce: 1 diced red onion, 3 cloves garlic, 400g tin chopped tomatoes, 15 cherry tomatoes (quartered), 2tsp dried basil
Vegetables: 1 medium sized butternut squash, 1 aubergine, 2 courgettes, medium sized bag of spinach
White Sauce: 25g plain flour, 25g butter, 300ml milk
Other things: Mozarella (1 – 2 balls depending on pref), lasagne sheets (enough for 3 layers – approx 6 – 9 sheets usually), baking dish
Tomato Sauce: Gently fry the diced onion for about 5 mins on a medium heat – do not let it burn. Add the garlic and cook for a further 2 mins. Add the remaining ingredients and add a small amount of water. Leave for about 15 – 20 mins to break down. Stir occasionally so it doesn’t burn. Add a little more water if it starts to get too thick.
Vegetables: Heat the oven to about 160c (fan). Peel the squash and cut in to pieces about 2 – 3cm long/wide (removing all the seeds from the middle). Brush pieces lightly with olive oil, place on a baking sheet and bake until starting to soften (approx 20 mins). Slice the aubergine in to 2cm cubes and slice the courgettes in to rings. Lightly brush with oil and place on a second baking sheet in the oven until they also start to soften (approx 15 mins). Check the vegetables a couple of times and give them a mix round so they bake evenly. Whilst they are cooking, wilt the spinach for a few minutes in a pan.
White Sauce: Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat. Add the flour and mix to a smooth paste. Slowly add the milk ensuring each bit is fully combined to the flour/butter mixture before adding more. The mixture to should initially start to form a ‘dough’ before it then starts to smooth out in a thick sauce. Heat through for a few minutes and then remove from the heat.
Assembly: The lasagne is formed of 3 layers so split the vegetables in to 3 portions. Pop a 1/3 tomato sauce on the bottom of the pan, add in 1/3 vegetables, tops with lasagne sheets and then cover with 1/3 if the white sauce. Sprinkle on some mozzarella and then repeat for another layer. For the final layer, repeat previous step except before adding the lasagne sheets, layer in the wilted spinach.
Cooking: Cook immediately or later as required at 170c (fan) for approx 30 mins. Watch the top to make sure it doesn’t over brown – cover with a bit of foil if it does!
Last Sunday, Sam and I were having lunch with Lou and Graham when he mentioned he was going to make bread that afternoon. It got me wanting to bake some bread again because it really has been a long time. I still have the 2lb loaf tin on the side from making the Tea Loaf a couple of weeks ago so I decided to do a white farm house loaf, the flour choice made for me by what I happened to have in the cupboard.
I always struggle when making bread at home to get it to bake ‘light’. Home made bread is never as airy as shop bread (usually because it’s better than bread from any shop other than a proper bakers). But in recent attempts I have really tried to knead it plenty to get in smooth. On this occasion the result was very good but I still think I need to knead it a bit silkier and probably prove it a little longer. Any excuse to try again soon…
Ingredients: 625g strong white bread flour, 2 tsp sugar, 1 tsp of salt, 3 tbsp butter, 1.5 tsp fast action yeast, 300 – 400 ml warm water
Yesterday was incredibly long working day for me, despite being at home. (I am somewhat annoyed at myself, especially after my recent work-themed blog post.) When I clocked-off for the day, I felt like a cakey-treat but the weather was atrocious so I decided to whip something up rather than take the lazy route and go to the shop. I made 12 chocolate-chip cupcakes using a really simple cake recipe I learnt from my Mum when I was a kid. Sam and I both enjoyed them with our tea to round off a tiring week!
Chocolate Chip Cupcakes:
Note: The mixture used for these cupcakes can be proportionally scaled-up to also make a really nice sandwich cake. Using 3 eggs and 4oz of sugar / butter / flour plus just over 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract makes enough for filling two 6″ sandwich tins. Lining the tins and putting in the same temperature oven for 20 – 25 minutes should do the trick and then the two cakes can be filled with raspberry jam to make an awesome victoria sponge!
I finally found some time to do a proper February bake on Sunday, my hand being not forced but nudged by the fact I had over half-a-dozen eggs languishing in the fridge. I do hate waste. By good fortune, I spotted the latest recipes by Great British Bake Off finalist Ruby Tandoh on twitter. Her recipes this week were based around tea and, well, I do love anything tea related. I decided to give the Tea Loaf a try.
It was a really simple recipe to follow. I brewed my tea using a couple of Earl Grey tea bags to give it a strong flavour. I didn’t have any pre-mixed fruit but used raisins, sultanas, currants and a small amount of mixed peel. I was also lacking in an orange so to give it a bit of a zest I substituted a ‘fancy’ satsuma which worked just as well.
50 minutes in my fan oven at approx. 150c did the trick and the result looked quite impressive…
Fortunately, it tasted great too and both Sam and I enjoyed a piece with our Sunday evening cuppa!
I’m now off to try a piece toasted!
So I decided to try a few new things for my January baking, including some tasty treats that I have cooked before but not for a long time. Rather than blog / tweet every single thing as I went, I decided to consolidate in to a single post. Where I can, I have included the recipe, a link or a book reference!
Chocolate Chip Muffins
This is a recipe from Mary Berry’s Baking Bible. I didn’t have enough eggs to do the full recipe so I just did half. I think I also I also couldn’t find my deep muffin tin so had to use a cake tin and bun cases – that’s why they look a little deformed! Aside from the fact that the bun cases were a challenge to get off (I think proper muffin cases are made of sterner stuff!) they tasted pretty good.
I knocked these up on the same day as the muffins so we also had some savoury nibbles. This bake was adapted from a recipe in another book I have, Baking (100 recipes), which I have used in the past to make the Tomato Tart and Toffee Apple Tart mentioned in a blog post from last January. I can’t remember what cheese it recommended but I used the quantity recommended but 50% cheddar and 50% parmesan. I also used mustard powder rather than curry powder and sprinkled parmesan on top rather than poppy seeds. Really easy recipe and tasty result. We kept them in an air tight box and they provided snacks for about a week.
Based on the Blueberry Bakewell recipe in The Great British Bake-off – How to Bake, I followed the recipe for the frangipan but used pre-bought shortcrust pastry (it is a lot easier) and pre-bought raspberry jam. Really easy to make and always delicious.
Vegetable Stew with Herby Dumplings
I more-or-less used this recipe from the BBC Good Food website (I changed the vegetables a little bit and added in some potato). It was really tasty and filling. Normally big bread eaters, this stew was enjoyed on it’s own and filled us up.
I love Melanzane alla Parmagiana – the traditional Italian aubergine dish. I have made my own version of it several times at home and have a slight variation which also includes peppers and courgettes. All I do is slice 2 – 3 peppers in to quarters (removing innards etc), slice the aubergine about 0.5cm thick and a courgette the same. I lightly brush all pieces with oil and spread over several baking sheets. I then slow roast them in the oven until about cooked (about 150c in a fan oven works fine). For the sauce I fry a chopped onion with some garlic, add a tin of chopped tomatoes (and some oregano or basil depending on my mood), add about 30 – 50 ml of water a simmer until it reaches a smoother texture. To make in to a dish I put a bit of tomato sauce in the bottom of an oven proof dish then layer half the vegetables on top; Then I add another layer of tomato sauce followed by the remaining vegetables and then the rest of the tomato sauce. Finally, I top with a generous amount of parmesan (you could put some in the middle layer if you wanted). I bake at about 170c (fan oven) for about 30 mins or until top is golden and the sauce bubbling. Goes well as a side or a main, with bread, potatoes or rice!
I forgot to get a photo of this once it had cooled, but this is another Mary Berry’s Baking Bible recipe. I was less happy with this one. The resulting flapjacks were stickier than I would like and far too sweet. This recipe uses a lot of sugar and a lot of golden syrup. I want to try again but when I do I will use: more oats and raisins, less sugar, no golden syrup, honey if I need a bit of ‘sticky’ to bind the mixture.
A friend at work made this cake for a work picnic a few years ago and it was amazing! When I made it shortly after, I just couldn’t make it as good as his but I tried again recently for my Mother-in-Law’s birthday cake. It came out quite well and everyone said it was really tasty. The recipe is below – I suspect it is based on an internet recipe out there but I only have what my friend sent me. My only tip beyond what he said is to wrap some baking parchment around the outside of the tin to stop the fruit from burning – I didn’t on this occasion and the rhubarb over caramelised a little bit.
(Ingredients: cake mixture – 3oz butter, 3oz caster sugar, 2 eggs, 3oz self raising flour, 1lb rhubarb, pinch of salt; topping – 1tbsp demerara sugar, 2 1/2 oz butter, 3oz plain flour, 1oz caster sugar
Method: – Preheat oven to 170 c (fan), grease & line a 8in round cake tin, – to make cake mixture, cream the butter and sugar, – beat in the eggs, – fold in the flour and a pinch of salt, – slice the rhubarb into 1in pieces and toss in the demerara sugar, – to make the topping, rub the butter into the flour and stir in the sugar (you can add some ground nutmeg and ground cinnamon if you want), – pour the cake mix into the tin and arrange the rhubarb on top, – sprinkle the topping over and bake for 40-45 mins or slightly longer until golden brown on top (will vary depending on oven and exact quantity of rhubarb because it’s quite a damp cake) )
Technically this is a February bake because my friend Carol and I made them yesterday, but since they were part of a January trip to Paris to visit her, I’m going to sneak it in! However, this was not made from scratch, we bought a ‘Make Macarons‘ set from Monoprix! They weren’t that easy though – we had to heat milk, split eggs to make beaten egg whites and then make the uniform shapes. The picture shows the only one which actually looked macaron shaped! They tasted delicious though.
I was reading a back issue of Stylist the other day and came across an interview with Gemma Arterton. It told of how she had moved to Paris 4 months ago to learn French, in advance of shooting a French movie. In the interview, they referenced a direct quote in which she said
“Every year I like to have something that I learn and this is the challenge this year – learning French.”
It got me thinking, is it really possible for someone in a ‘normal’ job to do that? So perhaps her job makes it easier for her both financially and time-wise to up-sticks and live abroad for a while. But, ignoring that, how easy is it to do something as ambitious as learning a language fluently whilst also dealing with the demands of daily life: work, commuting, house work, family, etc.
Every year I tell myself to be more diligent at practicing my Spanish. I keep starting books and making pledges to watch more Spanish TV but by the time I get home, my brain is just too tired. Given that I can’t even stick to practicing my Spanish, other past ambitions to learn new languages (getting back in to French or German, and learning Polish have both been past ‘good intentions’) never stood a chance. Similarly, I keep thinking how I should further hone my coding knowledge to ‘enhance’ my work skill set, but I don’t. I can’t bring myself to sit in front of the computer for that long after a day at work.
So, after all of my grumbling about not managing to successfully learn anything new, Sam made the wise observation that compared to many others (to a degree, Gemma Arterton included), we have quite ‘brain heavy’ jobs. I’m not implying other careers, such as acting, don’t use brain power but there is a stronger physical element to non-office jobs. I, on the other hand, spend most of the day sitting or moving between seats. So, Sam further pointed out, there is the gap for me to learn something new if it has a more physical / practical dimension.
For someone who has always been an academic at heart, it still saddens me I can’t find the energy and focus to learn languages etc more easily. But I have realised that my interest in cooking and baking is something I should start to see as much more of a hobby than I have in the past. It is also an area where I can develop my skills a lot more. So that’s the plan. On that note, I leave you with todays creation:
I go through phases with baking; For weeks I will have no interest in doing it at all, then I will suddenly want to make several things in one session. Today was one of those days and I wanted to try a new recipe too. I made a batch of my usual cheese scones and followed it up with a courgette cake!
My Mum made a chocolate courgette cake years ago and I have always been meaning to try it. The courgettes are supposed to act a healthy substitute for butter / margarine. I finally got round to buying some additional ingredients for a recipe in a book I was given by Lou for my birthday a few years ago, ‘It’s Raining Plums‘*. I am very pleased with the result (so far at least – it’s still cooling so I have only tried it slightly warm).
I would certainly recommend the book for the recipe alone! There are lots of other delicious looking things in there so I intend to try and use this book more regularly. Not least because I have made a decision to try and get us eating more seasonally, where possible of course – being a vegetarian means I do eat a lot of vegetables so it would be easy to get bored especially in the winter months.
*If you decide to buy it and try this cake for yourself, I took the ‘lower fat’ option and only put in 1/2 the oil mentioned. I also soaked the raisins for 10 minutes in cold water before hand so they weren’t too dry in the cake. When it came to baking I used a 8.5″ wide x 3.5″ deep round cake tin which took about 65 mins.