Archives for October 2011

Retro recipes: Casseroles

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Fiona Beckett Fiona Beckett | 15:21 UK time, Monday, 31 October 2011

When did you last cook a casserole? Or - put it another way - when did you last use that word to describe a slow-cooked dish? When I first started cooking (longer ago than I care to remember) casseroles were all the rage, their well-trumpeted virtues being that they were economical and ideal to cook ahead for dinner parties.

There were whole books devoted to the subject. I remember having a Marguerite Patten book with some 500 recipes. Even now you can buy books entitled 500 casseroles or Ultimate Casseroles so somebody must be still cooking them even though the rest of us studiously avoid the C word

According to Delia - and what higher authority is there? - casseroles are cooked in the oven, stews on the hob. So maybe we don’t have the actual casserole dishes our parents and grandparents had or we just don’t use our ovens as much. Most TV programmes today feature dishes that can be run up in ten minutes not ‘here’s one I made earlier’ recipes that have been burbling away for the last three hours. 

Chicken, cider and apple casserole (photograph by Jason Lowe)

Maybe it’s just that casseroles sound too French and French food isn’t desperately fashionable these days. I remember one of my favourite recipes was called (quite improbably given that it contained a good slug of Worcestershire sauce) liver and bacon provençale. Hard to imagine that catching on now. Or was it the famous ‘cheat’s’ short cuts that did it for casseroles - remember those grisly student specials made with tins of condensed chicken or mushroom soup?

Anyway, I think it’s time for a casserole revival. Casseroles are comforting, warming and thrifty. They include their own veg. Once you’ve made them you can leave them all day, especially if you’ve got an Aga or a slow cooker and if you throw in a few special ingredients, they can be dinner party worthy too.

Here’s a classic which I still make and my family still enjoy. Ironically it’s probably as cheap to make with chicken breasts nowadays as it is with thighs or legs.

Chicken, cider and apple casserole

Serves 4

2 tbsp seasoned flour
4 boneless (but not skinless, ideally) chicken breasts 
3 tbsp light olive oil
25g/1oz butter
1 large onion, sliced
1 large carrot, sliced
2 celery stalks, trimmed and sliced
½  tsp finely chopped fresh thyme
175ml/6fl oz chicken or vegetable stock
175ml/6fl oz dry cider
1 large or 2 smaller Blenheim or Cox apples, peeled, sliced
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/Gas 3. Pat the chicken breasts dry with kitchen paper then dip in the flour, shaking off any excess.

Heat a large, deep, lidded frying pan or casserole for a couple of minutes over a moderately high heat.  Add one tablespoon of oil then, when that is hot, add half the butter.

Place the chicken breasts in the pan, skin-side down and fry for 2-3 minutes, or until the skin is nicely browned. Turn the breasts over, turn the heat down and fry the other side for 1-2 minutes. Remove the chicken breasts to a plate, discard the fat in the pan and wipe it clean.

Return the pan to a moderate heat and add the remaining oil and butter. Add the onion, carrot and celery, stir well, cover the pan and cook for five minutes, or until the vegetables are beginning to soften.

Stir in the thyme and any leftover flour. Add the chicken stock and cider, bring to the boil and add the sliced apples.  Turn the heat down and return the chicken pieces to the pan, spooning the vegetables and apple over them. Replace the lid and put into the oven for about 35-40 minutes, turning the chicken breasts over half way through. Add a little extra cider or chicken stock if needed. Check the seasoning, adding extra salt or pepper to taste.

From Meat and Two Veg by Fiona Beckett. Photograph by Jason Lowe

More great casseroles:

Do you still make - or admit to making - casseroles? Have they never gone away?

My quest to save the British pear

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Michel Roux Michel Roux | 14:13 UK time, Thursday, 27 October 2011

Pears are one of my all-time favourite fruits to cook with or snack on. I grew up in Kent, the home of the British pear, so I’ve been a big fan since childhood. I remember picking them with my mother, then going back home to make tarte aux poires – delicious!

Pears need our help though. We used to grow hundreds of varieties, but now we only have a few left, which is such a shame. In fact, as you will have learned in the Great British Food Revival, 80 per cent of the pears we eat are imported. This is shocking when we have such wonderful varieties grown on our doorstep.

Michel Roux Jr

Michel Roux Jr.

We used to harvest 40,000 tonnes of pears 15 years ago, but now it's down to 28,000. If we start to insist on British pears we will be able to invest more in the industry and build new orchards, so our growers can keep going.  

But we have got to buy British, otherwise we’ll lose our pears for good; it’s as simple as that. Why not pay the extra few pennies it takes to go British if it means investing in our economy and helping our growers?

Furthermore, British pears definitely taste better than imported pears. They take longer to ripen, which in my opinion gives them a much better flavour.     

British pears will always have a British flag on them, so it’s easy to pick out our heritage varieties when you’re shopping. Otherwise just head to your local farmers' market and you’re bound to find some wonderful British varieties.  

They are one of the most versatile fruits and are fantastic for cooking with, which many people forget. Remember, they don’t have to be ripe, hard pears are just as good to cook. They are the crowning glory in my recipes from the show, comprising a tart with Stilton and pistachios, braised beef and the ultimate soufflé.

We tend to always go for the Conference pear, but we should remember to branch out and try different varieties such as the William Bartlett, Commis and Concorde pears. They all have different qualities to offer. So why not start experimenting? 

I want everyone to find a new appreciation for the pear; it really is such a great fruit. 

So, what do you think? Do you buy British pears? What are your favourite variety for cooking with?

Michel Roux Jr is a presenter for the Great British Food Revival.

Have a thoroughly modern Diwali

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Manju Malhi Manju Malhi | 16:05 UK time, Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Picture this: homes decorated with oil lamps flickering as the sun sets, gifts of silk saris and shirts and platters of Indian sweets made with pure ghee and clarified butter. Family members wear brand new traditional Indian outfits, prayers are said and offerings of fruits are made to bless the auspicious occasion of Diwali - the festival of lights. This may be the more conventional way of celebrating the largest festival on the Hindu calendar, but times are changing and so are the festivities.

Many of us may frown that Diwali, just like Christmas has become too commercial. But, Diwali is 'meant' to be commercial. One part of Diwali includes prayers for the goddess of wealth and prosperity known as Lakshmi. So businesses in India start their accounting year during this time.

No Diwali celebration is complete without some seriously sugary sweets – syrup-laden gulab jambu or rich squares of badaam paak. But chocolates (my favourite) have become incredibly popular - especially the ‘fusion’ chocolates filled with crushed pistachio or flavoured with rose water or saffron.

gulab jambu

Sticky-sweet balls of galub jambu

Traditional sweetmeat sellers are attracting a new market with low fat versions of their wares, as the demand for healthier options grows in line with rates of heart disease and diabetes. I’m particularly glad of this new trend for healthier versions of traditional Diwali treats and this is what I like to make for my family and friends. My reduced-sugar nan khatai biscuits, laced with vanilla and cardamom are a particular hit and my naughty but nice homemade coconut balls are devoured as fast as it takes for me to prepare them. Our boxer dog even gets a treat of a reduced sugar, homemade vegetarian Indian cookie.

Homemade coconut balls and Diwali chocolates

Homemade coconut balls and Diwali chocolates

Diwali celebrations often begin a month in advance. Households open their doors to friends and family members for nights of wining, dining and card games such as flush. For all these little parties we like to make Indian canapes such as spiced nuts and tandoori chicken, as it's becoming more acceptable to eat non-vegetarian fare.

Regardless of whether we eat chocolates or sweetmeats orwhether we toast the Hindu New Year with an alcoholic tipple instead of tea, Diwali for me personally will always be a time to look to the future and to think of others always before feeding myself first. Diwali Mubarak!

How do you celebrate Diwali? Do you like traditional sweets or modern variations?

Manju Malhi is a food journalist and presenter.

The glamorous life of an artisan baker

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Emily Angle Emily Angle | 10:17 UK time, Thursday, 20 October 2011

 Anyone who passionately loves baking – magically transforming a bowlful of water, flour and yeast into dark, crusty loaves of heaven – has quietly dreamed about doing it for a living. Imagine turning out fifty or one hundred loaves at a time, each more beautiful and delicious than the last.

So why not ditch the office job and live the glamorous life of an artisan baker?

The first hurdle to overcome is the hours. Richard Bertinet of the Bertinet Kitchen in Bath told us, “Our main shift starts at about the time that everyone else is winding down for the day at about 9pm.  We then have several hours of prep work before baking starts after midnight ready for the morning. It is a very physical job and the hours can be pretty anti-social but I have always found it enormously rewarding.”

Rewarding... yet sleep-deprived. Like raising children.

Richard continues, "Perhaps contrary to what people might think, the quiet times in the middle of the night at the bakery are some of my favourite bits of the week.  There is little more satisfying than the warmth of the ovens, the smell of the bread coming out and the sound of the crust 'singing'."

But what about the money? Starting jobs in small bakeries are currently advertised at £7.00-£8.50 per hour. The salary for an experienced craft baker is between £20,000-£35,000 a year. That can increase if the bakers run their own (successful) business.

The set-up costs for a new bakery can be high. Chris Young from the Real Bread Campaign told us, "Setting up a Real Bread enterprise can cost anything from tens of pounds to turn a domestic kitchen into a home bakery, to perhaps £100,000 to refurbish and equip a professional bakery with a couple of wood-fired ovens. (Of course, with a few friends you can build your own wood-fired oven.)

Laura Hart of Hart's Bakery

Laura Hart of Hart's Bakery

Laura Hart of Hart's Bakery in Bristol started her business by kitchen sharing. "I was really lucky to find a shared premise. I rent a spare kitchen from a restaurant so although we have our own space I didn't have the big cost and commitment of a whole building.

"The most frustrating aspect is the inconsistency of sales - at the beginning of the week we often have a lot of waste and towards the end of the week we sometimes just can't make enough!  I guess that comes with making such a short shelf life product.”

And as the business grows, so do the costs. Chris Young says, "Rent on premises, equipment purchase and maintenance, staff wages (including sick pay, maternity leave, etc.) insurance, energy, water, local authority charges and more all quickly take the cost [of a loaf] way above the price of some flour, yeast and salt."

While urban areas can deliver enough customers willing to pay double or treble the price of a factory-produced loaf, for many towns and villages a local bakery is a thing of the past.

But there is another way - the microbakery. “A growing number of small Real Bread enterprises are now operating as Community Supported Bakeries, with some or all of their loaves sold to members of a bread club or co-operative."

Community members essentially ‘subscribe’ to a weekly loaf service, guaranteeing a market for the product. Members of larger CSBs can also get involved in delivery or production of the loaves. It’s as much a social enterprise as a food business.
 Loaf of bread
So does this grass roots movement mean artisan bread is here to stay? Laura Hart thinks so: “I feel very hopeful about the future of artisan bread as people are really starting to move away from highly processed foods. In particular, there is a great interest in sourdoughs and slow fermented breads. We have a long waiting list for our baking workshops which is very encouraging."

Want to have a go yourself? Find a bread-making course, then practice. "Get as much experience as possible - baking is such a life-long learning process and working with other people can really teach you a lot."

Effortless cheesecake

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Dan Lepard Dan Lepard | 13:47 UK time, Monday, 17 October 2011

Some people, like me, are born with a dislike of bitter tasting vegetables and I suspect that’s also the secret of my cheesecake habit. While kale and cabbage I can live without, a good cheesecake is the cure for everything from the taste of bitter greens to bad days. So if it’s made really well, what kitchen hero Nigel Slater rightly calls “perfect” with “a really fudgy, creamy filling and a crisp base” then it has that a soothing effect that few desserts can equal.

Though very easy to make, it has a reputation for being a right pain. Overbaking is the common stumble, and going low-cal and lean with the cheese filling doesn’t help either. But if you keep it rich, bake it at a low temperature till it gently wobbles in the centre, you’ll soon hit your cheesecake groove and make it like a pro.

 

Lemon and poppyseed cheesecake

 

Good cheese for all

Full-fat cream cheese creates that rich comforting sensation when you eat it but can sometimes be overly “creamy” and lack that rougher, drier texture you get from a lower-fat cottage cheese or ricotta. Three-quarters full-fat cream cheese to one quarter cottage or ricotta, beaten together well with the sugar until smooth, is a good balance if you like the texture a little coarser. Be careful using extra low-fat cream cheese, as they’re made with edible gums that will turn the cheesecake texture too soft and smooth. Using more expensive artisan full-fat curd cheese adds a cost, that to my mind, outweighs the slight flavour benefit.

A little starch helps

Cooking a cheesecake is a little like cooking scrambled eggs, as the line between creamy and curdled is fine. A spoonful of cornflour (or flour) beaten in with the sugar helps as it will absorb excess moisture and thicken well before the filling is boiling. Don’t use too much, a scant tablespoon for every 450g/1lb cheese is enough, or leave it out for a more delicate texture if you’re careful when you bake it.

Stick to simple flavours

Vanilla, lemon and orange zest, a little brandy or rum: simple for the filling is usually best with more intense flavours either floating on the top or as I do with my cherry crumble cheesecake and lay it next to the crust. For a chocolate flavour replace one quarter of the cheese with melted dark chocolate and fold this through at the end, and replace the cornflour with cocoa.

To bake or not to bake, that is the question

Real baked cheesecake is unlike anything you find at the supermarket, no matter how promising it appears on the packet. Baking cheesecake brings out the “cake” texture of the filling: imagine a slightly overcooked “white brownie” made entirely from milk and curd cheese and you’re getting close. It flakes very finely when cut, yet each spoonful dissolves to softness in the mouth, and this texture is achieved through very gentle baking. Too much and it turns coarse and slightly tough, too little and it fails to set.

Unbaked cheesecake requires something slightly acidic, either just the natural acidity of the cream cheese or a little lemon juice, to achieve a set texture. The effect is much smoother than when baked, but they can be made very quickly and easily. Best made using full-fat soft cream cheese.

 

Unbaked lemon cheesecake

 

Gentle heat for an even bake

I bake my cheesecakes straight in the oven at 150C/300F/Gas 2. If your oven can reliably go that low then you should get an even bake without the edges overcooking or the top cracking. The other preferred way, so long as the seal on your baking tin is nice and tight, is to bake it in a water-bath. Line the inside of your baking tin with a single sheet of unbroken foil that goes up the sides neatly, add the base and fill it as usual, then place it inside a roasting tin and pour boiling water around it to halfway. This ensures the filling will heat very slowly and hardly rise above boiling.

Plan ahead for the best result

Leaving a cheesecake to cool and chill thoroughly, preferably overnight, improves the flavour and texture enormously. As the fat from the cheese firms on chilling it holds the aeration steady in the cake, so that on slicing it appears lighter and more delicate. And you, as the cook, gain as you regain your appetite and forget any stress making it.

What are your tips for a perfect cheesecake: bake and traditional, or unbaked and relaxed?

Dan Lepard is a food writer for the Guardian and a baking expert.

Making Homemade Preserves

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Michelle Roper-Shaw Michelle Roper-Shaw | 11:11 UK time, Thursday, 13 October 2011

This week’s The Food Programme looks at how we have preserved food through the ages. Autumn is the perfect time to start preserving, whether you grow your own or forage amongst the hedgerows. With just a little time and effort, a large heavy-based pan, wooden spoon and a handful of jars you can make fantastic preserves at home.

Dan Lepard has some great advice on making marmalade and jam and this is a good basic apple chutney recipe, but that’s just the beginning. At this time of year, you could also try apple jellies, quince paste, elderberry cordial, piccalilli and sloe gin. You can tick a few people off your Christmas list too as these make fantastic presents.

Spiced apple chutney

Key ingredients

Sugar

 Whether making sweet or savoury preserves, granulated sugar is the most versatile sugar to use. Soft brown sugar and molasses add depth to savoury chutneys, particularly onion-based recipes. The caramel flavour of demerara sugar is delicious in Seville orange marmalades, fruit syrups and fruits in alcohol.

 

Green tomato chutney

Vinegar

As far as vinegars are concerned I love using cider vinegar to boost the colour and flavour in fruity chutneys. I also feel it helps reduce the time chutneys need to mature. Wine vinegars give a more subtle flavour and are good for pickling spiced fruits such as plums or peaches. Making your own fruit, herb or spice vinegars can add another dimension to your pickles, chutneys and dressings. To make raspberry or blackberry vinegar put 450g/1lb of fresh raspberries or blackberries into 600ml/20fl oz white wine vinegar and leave for a week before straining through muslin and pouring into sterilised bottles. Or make herb vinegar, substituting the fruit for 25g/1oz of fresh tarragon or mint.

Any preserve made with vinegar needs a little time to mature. Chutneys need to be left for a few days, possibly a little longer if malt vinegar has been used to allow the flavours to develop. Vegetable and fruit pickles contain larger amounts of vinegar and less sugar and so need 2- 4 weeks before they are ready.

Salt

Salt is used to draw out the moisture from vegetables when making pickles. Unlike chutneys where ingredients are cooked slowly until the excess water has evaporated, pickled vegetables need to remain crisp and crunchy. Water laden vegetables like cucumbers must be salted overnight to remove excess water, then rinsed and drained before being quickly cooked in a vinegar, sugar and spice mixture.

Oil

Flavoured oils are surprisingly easy to make. Chilli oil is probably the most popular and versatile. But you could try adding fresh herbs, orange peel and crushed coriander seeds, lemon peel or chillies to olive oil (not extra-virgin) or sunflower oil. Leave in a cool dark place for a couple of weeks, remembering to shake it everyday, then strain into bottles and use within 6 months. Don’t use raw garlic as it can cause botulism, not a welcome gift in any hamper. Roast it beforehand or cook for several minutes in the oil before straining.

Alcohol

Steeping fruit in alcohol is one of the easiest preserving methods. Sloe gin is probably the best known, but you don’t have to stop there. The only thing is, you will have to be patient – it takes at least a few weeks and up to a few months for the fruit and alcohol to really mingle.

Sloe gin

Sloe gin - worth the wait

Preparation

After putting in all that time and effort, the last thing you want is your preserves spoiling. You can avoid problems by taking a little care in the following areas. (Just make sure you have enough jars and lids so there’s no last minute panic!)

  • Sterilising jars – Sterilisation kills off any micro organisms that could spoil your preserves. Wash your jars and lids in hot, soapy water and then rinse thoroughly, or put them through the hot cycle in the dishwasher. Invert the jars onto a baking tray and put in the oven to dry for 15 minutes at 140C/275F.
  • Filling jars – Remove the hot jars with tongs from the oven. Be careful not to get your fingers in the jars, you don’t want any bacteria getting into them. Immediately ladle your hot preserve into the jars (as the temperature starts to drop the likelihood of bacteria forming increases).
  • Covering and sealing jars – Cover the jars once you have filled them. Once the jars have cooled down, recheck the seals and tighten the lids to prevent any air entering and causing mould formation. Alternatively, you can cover the jars with a waxed disc of paper and cellophane.
  • Storage – Keep your finished unopened preserves in a cool, dark, dry place. Sunlight can have an effect on the colour and humid places may cause fermentation. Chutneys and pickles have at least a year’s shelf life, fruit liqueurs and fruits in alcohol up to two years. Once opened store in the fridge and use within four weeks.

Once you’ve tried a few, feel free to tweak recipes, adding your own favourite ingredients and spices. So, you don’t like raisins, add chopped dates instead. Not enough apples? Add pears, plums or quinces. Always make a note of your alterations, because if you’re like me you’ll be kicking yourself when you’ve forgotten what spice you put in that fantastic pickle all your friends were raving about last Christmas.

What seasonal delights will you be preserving for the winter months ahead?

Michelle Roper-Shaw is the Pickles and Preserves course tutor at the School of Artisan Food.

Listen to this week’s The Food Programme on Sunday 16th October at 12.30pm

What's in a name?

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Stefan Gates Stefan Gates | 13:31 UK time, Tuesday, 11 October 2011

 Why has French food conquered the world? Don’t get me wrong, I love the French, but I think Italian food tastes better, Japanese is more refined, Spanish is bolder, British has more character and Scandinavian is more… herring-based.

The first theory is the reliable boring one: that the French systematised, codified and formalised cooking. Starting with Varenne (1615-1678), through Careme (1784-1833) and then the big daddy of finger-wagging food rules, Escoffier (1846-1935). They wrote down the way that food should be cooked in a comprehensive and formal manner so that standards were set and French food culture could be disseminated across the world. Sure, there were great cookbooks written everywhere, but the French set up systems that could be copied and replicated.

However, I reckon that the French originally had the same kind of food as us - they just gave it better names. They came up with poetic, delicious-sounding dishes and this gave their culinary reputation a head-start that they built on. Just open up Larousse or Saulnier’s Le Répertoire de la Cuisine and it all becomes clear:

Oreilles Sainte-Menehoud (grilled pigs’ ears)
Abatis Bourguignonne (fried offal)
Sole Bonaparte (poached sole)
Paté chaud d’Anguilles à l’Anglaise (eels with boiled eggs)
Oeufs Lully (eggs ‘n’ ham)
Caillettes (faggots)
Paupiettes (stuffed tripe)
Cotes de porc Grand’Mère (pork burgers)

The English language just can't compete, can it? And so we'll never really be able to prove our food supremacy to the world with Toad-in-the-hole, no matter how utterly delicious it is.

Rooster

Look out, Arnie's been at the Stella again...

Quiz time! Which of the following is a real British dish and which has been completely made up for comedic purposes? (The noble among you will not use Google!)

Whim-Wham
Leach-lumbar
Babbsiebubs
Clapshot
Carp-in-a-meadow
Brain cakes
Calder cup
Goose stubble
Cock-ale
Glasgow magistrates
Furmentie
Swan chips
Assembly biscuits
Wislicenus
Mussel spheres
Bath quincies
Sheeps pluck

 

Answers below....

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The glamorous life of a food stylist

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Rachel Manley Rachel Manley | 10:53 UK time, Friday, 7 October 2011

You know the beautiful food pictures that you drool over in books and magazines? That’s the work of a food stylist (also known as a home economist, but I think we can all agree that food stylist sounds more glamorous). Sure, your favourite chef may have written the recipes, but more often than not, it’s a food stylist in a photographer’s studio that cooks and arranges the food for the camera.

Quite often people think that food styling is about using fake food or dirty tricks to get the right shot - making whipped cream from shaving foam or the like. But the fashion for pictures of food with visible steam or an unnatural level of shine are long gone.  Now food is shot pretty much as it’s cooked – with careful styling and maybe a little spray of water to keep the food from looking dry when awaiting its close-up.

So what do they do? Firstly, they buy all the ingredients (which involves much schlepping around town) and as most magazines and TV shows are filmed a few months ahead, this can mean trying to find a turkey in July for a Christmas shoot. In fact, most food stylists will spend the summer cooking Christmas dinners and making mince pies.

Then there’s the cooking – organising five or six cooked dishes, with accompaniments, into a day’s shoot. Tough at the best of times, but harder when the recipes aren’t working (more common than you might think).

Once the food is cooked, the styling begins. How do you make a brown lump of lentils look appetising? (This is a fantastic post with some great insight on styling difficult foods.)

Lentils: before styling and after

Before and after (image credit: runningwithtweezers.com)

Many food stylists love the creativity of work on food magazines and cookbooks, but they can often earn more money for packaging or advertising jobs.  However, clients trying to get the right shot for an advert or packaging can be notoriously difficult.

Mari Williams, who styles many of the shots for BBC Food, talked us through some of her more trying jobs. ‘I did a job for a client that sells rice - this involved hand-picking grains of rice of a certain length, shape and colour and arranging them with tweezers. It was painfully slow and used all my reserves of patience. Then there was the time I had to arrange a display of 52 varieties of whole fresh fish - it was hard logistically, it was hard on the nose, and my hands smelled for days!’

A cup of rice

Rice can be styled, but you'll need a good pair of tweezers

The work is physically demanding. Mari says, “A typical day can start as early 6.30am when I leave the house so I can do my shopping on the way to a shoot.  I have a bizarre knowledge of London by supermarkets - you get to know which supermarket is best for which obscure ingredients and where the best butchers, greengrocers and fishmongers are.

Days are as long as it takes - if all goes well you finish at normal time. If not, you stay until all the shots are done.”  And of course, at the end of a long day, there’s all the washing up. There is often a whole army of stylists working on a TV show.  Ingredients for every stage of the recipe will need to be prepped, and there’ll be several ‘here’s one I made earlier’ versions.

So if you fancy going into food styling, how do you do it? While you’ll certainly need a solid knowledge of all things cookery, which means attending a professional course. But then, it’s often about getting experience and contacts - one food stylist told us that she’d go to the launch of a mixer just to network. Expect to assist other, more established, food stylists for a while too – probably for little or no money. But the experience is invaluable.

Tricks of the trade

We asked the food stylists for their top tips on making food look great at home:

  • Think of shapes when you are cutting your ingredients, cutting spring onions on an angle looks so much better than straight across, same with bread.  Shave cucumber into ribbons rather than slices.
  • Think about what you’re plating your food on. You'll be amazed at how a lovely plate or bowl can transform the way your food looks- even if it's just a jacket potato! Choosing neutral, simple plates allows food to be the star.
  • Always wipe the plate before serving to get rid of any dribbles or splashes (a wet cotton bud is good for soup bowls or glasses).
  • Many supermarkets now sell micro herbs – they look so pretty either in a clump on top of a dish or scattered over a plate.
  • Taking a few extra moments to garnish plates - a sprinkle of chopped herbs, a drizzle of olive oil or a grinding of black pepper.

Which food pictures get you drooling? Did you have any idea of the work that goes into beautiful food photography?

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The Great British Bake Off Final

Michael Kibblewhite Michael Kibblewhite | 12:01 UK time, Tuesday, 4 October 2011

UPDATE: Congratulations to the winner of The Great British Bake Off - a well deserved champion. What did you think of the final?


Tonight’s the night. The decider of the Great British Bake Off – this series has been a towering croquembouche of competitiveness, calamity, and great big “Land of the Giants” cakes.

Edd Kimber

Edd Kimber winning last year's series

Now three ladies will try to woo Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry with their sweet treats to become a champion. Let's look back at the series with last year’s victor, Edd Kimber.

“I wondered how I would feel watching it again, but it’s actually been very enjoyable. I may have been lucky last year because not as many people knew about the show, but I think this year they’ve had a lot more people to choose from,” said Edd.  Increased competition has made it even more compelling, bringing a greater level of skill in the technical bakes. “I think the croquembouche challenge was the hardest challenge they’ve done so far - Holly’s gingerbread house underneath was impressive.”

Holly's hidden gingerbread house.

Holly's hidden gingerbread house

“There have been some very good highs, but I also think there have been many more lows this year.” Right from the first episode, the drama began. Remember Rob’s tiered showstopper? “It was looking really good, but then … Splat! It went everywhere. I made an audible gasp because I knew exactly what he was feeling – I could see it in his eyes. How do you recover your composure from that, with a camera and five producers around you, asking: how is it going?”


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Competitiveness, composure and of course, the series has not been short on controversy. “I was quite surprised that Jason went when he did. I understand what Mary was saying - that he didn’t have the knowledge and the skill to get through, but up until that episode he had been doing very well. So I’d like to have seen what he could have done further along the line. When he got it right he did really well.” So, should the final three have been different? “I think the final three is fair. I made a prediction on the final three very early on.”

Jason's pina colada macaroons.

Jason's pina colada macaroons

So what will the finalists be facing tonight? Whose approach to the bench will be revered, and whose will be dreaded? “Paul is very hard to read. He would come over and make these comments with a straight face and you weren’t quite sure if he was joking. He would put you on edge a bit – especially when the cameras weren’t rolling. Mary is a little easier to read because she doesn’t really hide what she is thinking. She’s also more traditional in her style so you know when she’s not really going to like something.”

And what of Sue “neck support” Perkins and Mel “Hello, sailor” Giedroyc? “Mel and Sue made me feel much more relaxed and helped to lighten the mood . The only thing is that sometimes Mel would come round to chat to you and she would eat your ingredients.”

Ok, but it’s crunch time. Who’s Edd’s favourite baker? “Mary-Anne is amazing for her inventiveness – she doesn’t seem to care what the judges think. She impressed me in the first week when she made her meringue pie with two different types of meringue. What she made looked delicious and although she doesn’t always have the tidiest or prettiest looking things, it always sounds great and for me that’s more important. But Jo’s been there the whole time as well with a high skill level.”

Maryanne's brown sugar meringue.

Mary-Anne's deliciously different meringue

So what do the finalists have to look forward to after the cameras are off? “You have to be careful not to think that you are going to be very famous.” But it has given Edd the chance to make baking his life: “Everything I do in some form revolves around baking.” His advice to the finalists is, ‘Do what you enjoy and be realistic. Keep baking – it’s brilliant.”

Who was your favourite baker in this year’s series? What do you think makes a good baker? And what was your favourite bake?

Michael Kibblewhite works for the BBC Food website.

The battle for healthy lunches

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Emily Angle Emily Angle | 15:00 UK time, Monday, 3 October 2011

  • The Schools Food Trust have published survey findings stating that about 40% of children don't have any fruit or veg at all in their lunchboxes. Not even a bruised banana or an unripe apple.

A quick look at the comments from the BBC News coverage of this story won’t reveal any surprises as to why – “any fruit/veg in the lunchbox remains untouched”, “I never had fruit/veg when I was a child”, “fruit/veg is too expensive”. Many people seem to have given up the good fight.

The hard truth is that it’s not something solved in one lunchbox formula. Some children have tastes and attitudes that require constant novelty and interest. Some kids want the same thing in their lunchbox for all fourteen years of schooling. So what can we do?

Some parents go to cosmetic extremes - taking on the processed food industry by doing a little processing of their own. From cutting fruit into shapes with cookie cutters to creating full-on Bento boxes of bunny faces rendered in rice and carrot, desperate times call for desperate measures. I can't imagine going this far, even for my own offspring.

Let's take stock of what we know works:

  • Sweet and crunchy veggies are always a winner: raw carrots, cucumber, red pepper are quick to prepare, and quick to consume. A pot of hummous sneaks in another vegetable without notice. Other, less common, raw veg include young broad beans, kohlrabi sticks, sugar snap peas, baby sweetcorn or mangetout.
  • Frozen peas and sweetcorn can also be defrosted and eaten raw. (My son eats them straight from the freezer.) A washed-out yoghurt pot covered in clingfilm with a rubber band will keep them tidy.
  • Sending hot foods into school requires a bit more effort, but is a handy way to sneak in an extra portion of your 5-a-day . Hot baked beans, tomato sauce to pour over cold pasta, or blended soup are all options for older children who can manage a thermos flask.

Sweet potato wedges

  • Foods that don’t look healthy can overcome some reservations. Sweet potato wedges leftover from dinner, baked samosas full of peas and carrots, or filo cheese rolls taste lovely at room temperature and could tempt kids’ taste buds.
  • Fruit is an easier sell to kids, but can sometimes get left in favour of a sweeter treat. Slicing up an orange or cutting chunks of melon make for easier and speedier eating. Or, if really up against resistance, include fresh or dried fruit in a healthy pudding instead. These banana muffins, plum bread, or fruity flapjacks might not reappear with the lunch box.

 Flapjacks

It’s tough in the face of pre-packed snacks, desserts and crisps. These foods have an appeal to the human appetite that is almost irresistible – tickling as they do our evolutionary desire for energy-dense foods. Sometimes they will win out over healthy food. But we don't have to stop trying.

What strategies do you employ in getting kids to eat healthy lunches? What's your go-to fruit and veg solution for picky eaters?

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