Archives for November 2011

Quick and easy homemade Christmas gifts

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Rachel Manley Rachel Manley | 11:07 UK time, Wednesday, 30 November 2011

This year more people than ever will be making their own Christmas presents and just like last year, I’ll be one of them. The last few days before Christmas, barring Christmas Eve are always quiet ones in our house. I’m going to put on the Christmas carols CD, sip on the sloe gin and get my bake on. Sweet treats are always going to be a winner at Christmas, when in my family at least, we barely stop eating.

The plan is to make presents that don’t require too much time, look great and will be gratefully received. I think packaging is where homemade presents can end up getting quite expensive so I save any leftovers jars and pretty gift bags or boxes throughout the year. If you’re not so well prepared, cellophane bags can be used to package almost anything - tie them with pretty ribbon and print some of our free gift tags to make them look extra special.

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Download our gift tags and labels for your edible gifts.

Gift labels

Christmas labels


If your friends and family haven’t made their own, a mini Christmas cake would make a sweet present. Bake a Christmas cake in a large square tin, cut into smaller squares to make mini cakes and just cover the top in marzipan and icing (I’ll be making Dan Lepard’s pecan marzipan this year). Dariole moulds also make neat mini-parkins or Christmas puddings.

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How sustainable food improves school performance

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Emily Angle Emily Angle | 12:15 UK time, Thursday, 24 November 2011

Radio 4’s Food and Farming awards were held last night at the NEC in Birmingham. As a parent of a child just starting school, I was delighted that the Food for Life Partnership  won the Derek Cooper award - for the individual or organisation doing most to bring about real change in our relationship with food.  Kevin Morgan, professor of governance and development at Cardiff University, who nominated the programme described it: "The most ambitious programme in the UK to date ...which champions a whole-school approach and is working with over 4,200 schools in England to enable children to eat good food, learn where it comes from, how it is produced and how to grow it and cook it themselves."

So how has teaching children about sustainable, local and organic food in this way helped address growing health and social issues and the rising cost of food?  And is it promising a food culture we can’t afford?

Emma Noble accepts the Derek Cooper award from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.


Emma Noble accepts the Derek Cooper award from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

The campaign’s goals are clear: “Getting schools involved in cooking and growing activities, visiting farms and serving healthy school meals.” There is a clear set of criteria for school meals to meet if they are to be awarded accredited status – they must be freshly prepared and locally sourced. Surprisingly, there are no additional nutrition-based criteria for schools to meet when they enrol in the programme. However, the quality of the food and the eating experience (insisting on plates, rather than plastic trays) seems to raise expectations and standards that translate into healthier eating.

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How to perfect your Christmas pudding

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Dan Lepard Dan Lepard | 12:03 UK time, Monday, 21 November 2011

Christmas in our house this year will be utterly pared back, simple and British. Perhaps it’s this dragged-out recession and the stories, from friends and the news, of job losses and uncertainty that makes me pull inward and look forward to a December that’s intimate, familiar and reassuring. There will be plum pudding (also known as Christmas pudding), doused with warmed brandy and set alight, with cream to melt into the prune black centre among the nuts and currants. And this is the perfect time of the year to make it.

Christmas pudding

The history of the plum pudding appears to stem back to a much earlier Christmas meal. In his book “The Country Housewife and Lady's Director” (1732) Richard Bradley describes the Cumberland Hackin, a haggis-like sausage served on Christmas day filled with suet, fruit, spices, and mixed with eggs and oats soaked overnight in milk. But Thomas Kibble Hervey in “The book of Christmas” (1836) says that for many the old plum pottage - a spiced gruel sweetened with dried fruit - was thought to be the forerunner of the pudding.

However, to the French it appears that plum pudding had all the allure of Marmite. The writer William Hone quotes an early (1823) newspaper, “A Frenchman will dress like an Englishman, swear like an Englishman, and get drunk like an Englishman; but…you would offend him for ever [if you] compel him to eat plum-pudding.” The report is lavish in its praise for one English businesswoman, Harriet Dunn, “The queen of cooks” in Paris, who would supply many of the English peers and rich English in France with their puddings, shipping them in wooden crates around the country during December. When I travelled through Eastern Europe for my book, The Handmade Loaf, one of the few phrases in English many cooks understood was “plum pudding”, even in a farmhouse in the Carpathian Mountains.

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Jam roly-poly: The pudding that time forgot

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Katharine Reeve Katharine Reeve | 11:11 UK time, Friday, 18 November 2011

When did you last bake a suet pudding? Despite the recent revival of interest in traditional British food, the iconic Jam roly-poly has not really caught on. There are those – Mrs Beeton is one of them – who would argue that this is a truly seasonal pudding as it makes good use of summer fruit jam  ‘when fresh fruit is not obtainable’. Being hot, filling and sweet it is perfect comfort food for the cold, wet evenings that lie ahead of us. If you’re currently developing an austerity menu – this certainly fits the bill.

Jam roly-poly features strongly in memories of my 1970’s childhood. Every Saturday evening my grandmother would lay out a steaming pudding surrounded by jugs of custard, 1940’s Susie Cooper ‘Dresden’ bowls, and old fashioned cutlery. A Roly Poly would always elicit appreciative noises from my father, along with remonstrations aimed at my non-suet pudding making mother and her modern ways in the kitchen. These fluffy pastry and jam concoctions, known delightfully as Dead-Man’s Arm, were a hit in the mid-nineteenth century and a regular on the nation’s dinner tables into the 1960s, and then they disappeared.

Roly-poly dough.

Soft, but not sticky, roly-poly dough.

The technique for making these puddings does seem off-puttingly unfamiliar, involving cotton cloths, kitchen string, large steamers, and the key ingredient suet is hardly a regular on our shopping lists. I realised that it had been an incredible twenty years since I last made this – in a school friend’s kitchen using a tea towel, hairbands, and guesswork in place of a recipe – remembering how we devoured it, I couldn’t wait to revisit this pudding from the past.

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Retro recipes: 1970s Vegetarian

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Fiona Beckett Fiona Beckett | 09:58 UK time, Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Hairy Bikers new series Best of British this week is a real blast from the past, particularly when it comes to vegetarian food.  I well remember their two featured dishes - Glamorgan sausages and Homity pie - the first learnt from Delia, the second from Cranks just off Carnaby street where you were lucky to get in without a queue. Who queues for a veggie meal these days?

Vegetarian restaurants were popular just because everywhere else was so meaty. The standard response to a request for a veggie dish was a cheese omelette, as it still is in many parts of rural France.  It’s no coincidence that Dave and Si’s chosen veggie dishes contain cheese. You found it in everything from salads to nut loaves and vast sodden baked potatoes (remember Spud-u-Like?) a lunch that lingered heavily on the stomach. Beans, lentils and grains like millet were compulsory too. No wonder one of Oxford’s most popular restaurants (still trading today) is called The Nosebag. Let Delia show you around the food on offer at Cranks in the 1970s (especially if you've got back trouble...)

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If it was a tough time for vegetarians it was even harder for vegans or the dairy intolerant (not that that term was coined in those days). Apart from veggie Indian restaurants round the back of Euston and in neighbourhoods like Southall, Tooting and Wembley there wasn’t a lot else.  Japanese food hadn’t come on the scene. There were no noodles (apart from chow mein),  no miso, no edamame, no veggie sushi, no Thai green - or yellow - vegetable curries. There weren’t the great fistfuls of fresh herbs you can buy nowadays to make your own pesto. (What was pesto?). You were lucky if you found one variety of hummus let alone the half dozen you now find on every supermarket shelf. No couscous. No quinoa . . .

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Weird and wonderful food pairings

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Nigel Slater Nigel Slater | 17:04 UK time, Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Whilst working on Simple Cooking, with its emphasis on successful culinary food pairings, we came across a number of secret confessions. The marriages of food that people tend to keep for themselves, either because they sound a bit dubious, or because they are distinctly personal. For every combination of flavours, textures, temperatures or contrasts that could be considered a much loved classic I came across something more curious or what you could probably call Weird and Wonderful.

Of course, few would deny that taste is such a personal subject that there is really no right or wrong, but some combinations of food can seem so unusual they defy the imagination. A mixture of salt and caramel would have been considered extraordinary a few years ago, and yet salted caramels are now on everyone's lips. I ate a dessert in a restaurant only the other day that contained peanut butter and salted caramel ice cream, a mixture that even now some might find a little odd. I am exceptionally fond of dark, almost bitter chocolate with sea salt, too. One of the most popular recipes in this series of Simple Cooking has been the dark chocolate discs with sugared roses, pistachio nuts and coarse sea salt flakes.

Sea salt chocolate snaps

Nigel's Sea salt chocolate snaps

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The glamorous life of a chocolatier

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Michael Kibblewhite Michael Kibblewhite | 17:35 UK time, Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Imagine starting the day dreaming of chocolate. That’s your job. First up you’re putting the final touches to a perfect tray of cassis and hibiscus truffles, then calmly unleashing alchemy with unlikely combinations like thyme and Scottish heather honey – or Szechuan pepper chocolates. Meet William Curley, he’s the man behind these creations.

William’s been tempering – manipulating chocolate with a calm hand – for years now, initially apprenticing and working in pastry sections in some of the country’s leading restaurants until opening his first small boutique in 2004.  “The patisserie section starts at 6.30am”, say William, “to finish the products for the counter in the shops and Harrods; then the chocolate section starts at 9am.” He’s got nine chefs, but the intricacy of the work requires an eagle eye, and he likes to watch over virtually everything product that will make it to the counter. The production process enables originality – giving each bite-sized item an identity – as Raymond Blanc found out in his Kitchen Secrets programme when he visited William.

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How can you start a career in this industry? "There are opportunities,” says Sara Jane Stanes, head of the Academy of Chocolate. “Rarely has a good chocolatier succeeded in using chocolate alone – understanding pastry is important. But, apprenticeships with chocolatiers and pastry chefs are the best way to learn – NVQ’s are available too.” Sara is often asked about chocolate-only qualifications – these aren’t currently available, but she’s working on the possibility with leading catering colleges. Would you sign up for a course?

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'Off the Books': One-Pot Spicy Squash Stew

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Katharine Reeve Katharine Reeve | 10:11 UK time, Monday, 7 November 2011

Seasonal, affordable meals cooked from scratch. It’s the holy grail of modern home cooking, and yet how many of us manage this every day? At the end of a busy day, the last thing we want is to spend ages following complicated recipes, full of ingredients we’d have to buy specially.

So, unless you’re a fully-fledged domestic goddess with plenty of time on your hands you can forget regular home-cooking, right? Well, not quite. Why not take a leaf out of your grandmother’s book and commit to memory a repertoire of basic meals – off the recipe book. These basic dishes can be customised to suit your family’s taste, budget, fridge contents, as well as the season.

One-pot stews

Spicy squash stew


Stews make good use of seasonal vegetables, and what better in the autumn than the squash, with its burnt orange colours and warm flavours. Using just one cooking pot – a heavy-bottomed pan – you can quickly create a welcoming meal and have fun experimenting. You can play with herb and spice combinations, adding meat or fish to ring the changes.I make double the quantity of this squash stew to save time the following evening, when I'll add prawns and some mangetout.

There are, of course, pitfalls to one-pot cooking. The 'chuck it all in' approach can lead to bland or confusing flavours. You can guard against this by focusing on a star ingredient and building complementary flavours around it. (Take fennel, so often the bridesmaid as an accompanying vegetable, it can take centre stage when backed with potato, cream and garlic in a smooth winter white soup. Some combinations such as scallops with lime and red chilli are tried and tested, others can come about by happy accident such as star anise ice cream.)

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Gunpowder, treason and potatoes

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Emily Angle Emily Angle | 15:46 UK time, Thursday, 3 November 2011

As the clocks go back and the long dark nights loom, there is the excitement and fantastic food of Bonfire Night to cheer us up. Odd though it may be to celebrate the torture and execution of a religious fundamentalist terrorist with a few sausages and cinder toffee, food has been at the centre of a fair share of treason and plot. 

Swan is the animal we most associate with culinary high treason – but it was actually widely eaten at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. (Only mute swans are protected by the Queen.)   However you could really get in trouble for eating hares, partridge and pheasants; they all somehow ‘belonged’ to the King. The punishment for poaching had been severe in Tudor times – hanging or having your hands cut off – then reduced to a more reasonable public whipping, fines and imprisonment.

We all know that Cromwell would do you for eating mince pies on Christmas during the Civil War. But later in the 17th century the country was once more on the point of rebellion, all hopped up on caffeine from coffee houses where treasonous talk was rife. King Charles II issued an order banning coffee houses in 1675, but it was quickly rescinded - presumably because they all started getting those caffeine-withdrawal headaches.

Even now if food doesn’t exactly make one a traitor, it can be decidedly unpatriotic. The US ban on Cuban imports doesn’t just mean that Americans can’t bring a bottle of rum back from holiday–  they are technically forbidden from purchasing Cuban products even when abroad. 

So while we don’t wish Guy Fawkes had succeeded with his plot, I think Bonfire night is a time for a bit of outlaw cooking.  If Halloween is a frenzy of sweetness for the kids, now’s the time for some grown-up autumnal treats.

Mulled cider toddy.

If you’re staying at home, why not cook dinner over your own little bonfire or resurrect the barbecue. Throw a few jacket potatoes, wrapped in foil, into the coals for forty-five minutes and top with beans or chilli.  While you’re waiting, pop a foil-wrapped box of Camembert in there as well.  Serve the molten cheese with chunks of bread and pass the flask.

Don’t live dangerously when cooking sausages over the open flames–  I boil sausages for about ten minutes so they’re already cooked, then pop them onto sticks to build up a caramelised veneer over the fire. Char, to taste. Follow with marshmallows.

If you’re out for the fireworks, make some homemade cinder toffee for the trip – ooh and ahh and stand back as the bicarb fizzes in the boiling sugar. Pack a thermos of mulled wine or cider – even Gunpowder green tea – and a box full of parkin.

Toffee apples are always on offer in the supermarket, but I think to be really authentic, we should be eating our golden toffee in a sticky pudding or cake loaded with dried fruits. Why? Because as they say, “treason is a matter of dates”.

Love to know what outlaw food you'll be cooking up over the bonfire, or indeed any criminal food factoids. I may have exhausted Wikipedia.

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