Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Macaroni Cheese with Bacon

In Winter, there's nothing better than comfort food. All those delicious, stodgy foods that make you feel cosy and warm. Pie and mash, sausage and mash, pasta bakes all do the trick. For me though, the ultimate comfort food is macaroni cheese. The cheese sauce on its own is enough to win me over! Ultimately though it is pasta and cheese, and that can get a bit much without some other flavours to break it up, so I tend to throw in some other ingredients.

Macaroni cheese isn't really the friend of a healthy diet if you eat it regularly, so squeeze it in now before your January health kick! Perfect dinner to have before going out for New Year's Eve celebrations.

The Improving Cook- Macaroni Cheese with Bacon

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Beginner's Spaghetti Bolognese

Christmas is over for another year and there's no excuse for eating lovely treaty things every day anymore, unfortunately. Back to normal dinners!

Spaghetti Bolognese was something I made a fair bit before I started trying to learn more about cooking. It was only when I discovered several years ago that,  as with most mince dishes, the key is cooking it in stock and reducing it down that I really made a good one. That's what gives you the best flavour. Obvious, I guess, but then nothing's obvious to a beginner. That's the point!

So here is a beginner's recipe. One to get you started if you've never made it before.

If you're doing Slimming World, and you swap the oil for cooking spray, this recipe is 3.5 "syns". Leave out the wine and it's syn free.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Brussell Sprout Hash with Garlic and Bacon

Like many, I'm no fan of the Brussell Sprout. My husband loves them but I follow the 'one sprout when it's Christmas' rule! I think I have been put off by a few soggy, watery sprout encounters...

When you search around for alternative Brussell Sprouts recipes for your Christmas dinner, there are lots to choose from. A lot of them are different variations on the Brussell Sprout hash idea. So I gave  my own version a go and... I ate it all! Well, not the whole thing, but my portion of it! I'm a total convert.  Won't ever eat a plain boiled sprout again.

We had it as part of our pre-Christmas dinner. We always have the real Christmas dinner with family, but this year we thought we have an extra day, just us, and it was lovely! The bacon and garlic add lots of flavour and really lift the sprouts out of the ordinary.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Roasted Short Saddle of Lamb with Garlic and Rosemary Butter

I am a massive fan of turkey for Christmas. I love it with bread sauce, love it with cranberry  (the jammy chutney kind, not the runny sauce kind), love it with gravy, love it cold in sandwiches. It gets a big thumbs up from me! It might be different if it was just me and my husband for Christmas lunch though. 

I know you can get turkey crowns and those sorts of alternatives, but I might be tempted to try something different, if not on Christmas day, then on Christmas eve. One possibility is saddle of lamb. You can buy it, bone in or bone out from most butchers, some online sellers and some supermarkets. It's one of the more expensive cuts of lamb, so it's definitely worth keeping it for a treat! I used a boneless short saddle, which had been rolled and tied for me, for this recipe. I got it from Donald Russell when it was on special offer: Donald Russell. It cooks for a total of 35 mins plus 10 mins resting, so it times well with making roast potatoes etc.

If you fancy something different this Christmas, give this a try.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Christmas Biscuits for icing

Now is the time of year that I always look with envy at all the beautifully decorated biscuits that you see on the internet. I think to myself that I don't have the time or the patience (and definitely not the skill!) to do that. In the past, I have made attempts, but the biscuit dough spreads, so you can't tell what shape it was supposed to be, and I realise that I don't have the first clue how to ice them!

However, I started looking into it a bit more and there is an art to it all, and there are tips and tricks that can make it a lot easier. Anyone can make the biscuits and they won't spread if you follow the tips I have outlined in the recipe below. You can also can make a decent attempt with icing them. there are ways to make it much easier. If you're really creative, you can make them look amazing!

This 'sugar cookie' recipe works well if you are using cutters and you want them to hold their shape, and it works every time. I used glace icing for some of them and royal icing for others. Tips and tricks included below in the recipe! Good luck!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Mexican Spicy Rice

More Mexican style food today. I can't get enough of it! We love fajitas in those brilliant Stand 'n'Stuff tortillas.  Saves loads of mess for one thing, lets you put more filling in for another! I never knew quite what to put with them though, as a side dish. Salad is great in the summer, but I can't get into the mood for it when the weather's cold and windy like this. I got the idea for spicy rice from a Mexican restaurant, who put a little terracotta dish of it on the side of the fajitas. I have made a simple version of it here, in risotto style.

If you're doing Slimming World, this recipe is "syn" free if you swap the oil for low fat cooking spray.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Microwave Syrup and Ginger Sponge Pudding

Microwave syrup and ginger sponge pudding in a dish

Today's recipe harks back to my school days- Microwave Syrup and Ginger Sponge Pudding. When I think back to my childhood and school dinners, I remember them reasonably fondly,  especially the ones we had when we lived in Scotland. I was faintly horrified by the change when we moved to England. What was the obsession with using salad cream in everything? Why was the yoghurt so lumpy? (Answers- salad cream is much cheaper than mayonnaise. The yoghurt was made in gigantic buckets from a powder mix, and stirred with what looked like a stick...) 

Before this disappointing change, the meals had been pretty good, the desserts especially. All those traditional puddings- syrup sponge, spotted dick, jam sponge, jammy rice pudding and so on. All good. It was a bit of a gamble having the custard though, as you wanted to avoid the skin at all costs! 

Those school puddings were probably all steamed in the traditional way, a bit of tricky business. It also takes some time. So, I was very interested when my mum showed me that you can get similar results using the microwave! 

Microwave Syrup and Ginger sponge brings back all those school dinner memories. Warm comforting sponge with the sweetness of golden syrup and ginger for added kick, but only minutes to make in the microwave. Mix it up like you would a normal cake batter and zap it. Easy. Quickest hot dessert you can get. Hope you enjoy!

Microwave Syrup and Ginger Sponge Pudding pinnable image with text

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Mini Cinnamon Doughnut Muffin Bites (Duffins)

Three mini cinnamon duffins on a white plate

One of the recipes that I bake most often, because it's quick, easy and always has good results is Strawberry Doughnut Muffins, or duffins (Strawberry Duffins). This week I decided to make an alternative using the same batter,  but sprinkled in cinnamon sugar instead- Mini Cinnamon Doughnut Muffin Bites (Duffins). 

They are bite-sized duffin yumminess, covered in cinnamon sugar, that are too little to be that naughty, unless of course you end up eating 4 or 5 of them in one go, which I would never do, obviously...

I made mini versions  of these cinnamon duffins because, with no filling in the middle, the full-size might be a bit too much. They are ridiculously moreish. You've been warned! They are moist and remarkably like eating a doughnut, but without the grease. 

Mini Cinnamon Doughnut Muffin Bites make a good afternoon treat for the kids or a treat for their lunchbox, because they are just the right size to pop inside.

3 cinnamon  duffins on a white plate viewed from above

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Pesto Crusted Salmon with garlic potatoes

I love pesto. I started eating it in my first few years as a teacher when I realised how quick it was to boil up some pasta and stir the pesto through. Ta da! Dinner in 15 minutes. The reason I love it now is the fact that you can use it in so many ways plus there are so many different varieties. Recently, we used pesto instead of the tomato sauce on pizza (because we had run out of tomato puree and I was thinking on my feet!)  It was delicious. Even if you only ever have it pasta, you can switch it up all the time- classic pesto, chilli pesto, rocket pesto, black olive pesto and so on and so on. My absolute favourite is sun-dried tomato pesto, and that's what I used today.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Slow Cooker Leek and Potato Soup

It's been a busy week with parents' evening and my birthday, so not much time for cooking! But today I made a gorgeous slow cooker leek and potato soup with one of my birthday presents.  It was a new Morphy Richards slow cooker and I love it. 

I haven't made leek and potato soup very often at home before, but I'm always drawn to it, if it's on offer for a restaurant starter, and I do occasionally buy tins of it. There's something very comforting about eating it. The advantage of slow cooking the soup is of course the convenience, but also that you don't need to use any butter. It makes a nice thick, creamy leek and potato soup that keeps really well in the freezer. A definite winter warmer.

If you are doing Slimming World, this recipe is "Syn" free.

Slow Cooker Leek and Potato Soup pinnable image

Friday, November 20, 2015

Cheat's Mince Pies

These are quite the cheatiest mince pies you'll ever find! Minimal effort, a bit of mess, but worth it. Shop-bought mince pies are lovely, but the pastry is usually quite soft. I much prefer it to be short and crumbly. By posting this, I'm doing something that annoys me so much, when I read other people's recipes. So many times I have been researching something new and found something that looks good to try, and the recipe is full of shop bought items, jars of enchilada sauce, Italian dressing and so on. I get grumpy, and then start googling "How to make traditional enchilada sauce". It's not the sort of thing I would normally post about.

So be warned, if you've arrived at this recipe, it's not really a recipe, it's more how to put these ingredients together! As you know, I don't make pastry, and the mincemeat was on special offer.

Basically, if you want to eat home-made tasting mince pies with minimum fuss, this is for you. If you want to make your own pastry and learn how to make mincemeat from scratch, keep on googling!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Rustic Chocolate Chip Scones

Close up of scones in a cake tin with text

Scones are a fabulously British thing, the cornerstone of every Afternoon Tea. Traditional scones are light and fluffy, perfect with fruity jam and clotted cream. Usually the only additions to the traditional dough that you might find are dried fruit or cheese. I like a lot of different non-traditional scone flavours though, and chocolate chip is one of my favourites.

These chocolate-chip scones are nothing like the delicate scones you get at afternoon tea. They are much more rustic; nothing delicate about them and they have dark chocolate chips dotted through them which gives them a rich flavour. Not exactly a traditional scone, but sometimes you just need more chocolate in your life. You probably won't want any jam with these scones, but some clotted cream won't go amiss!

Rustic chocolate-chip scones are great for a breakfast treat, afternoon tea or an after-school snack. Hope you enjoy them!

Images of chocolate chip scones with text

Monday, November 16, 2015

Mini Chimichangas

We are obsessed with Mexican food at the moment.  Due to the sad lack of Mexican restaurants where we live, we always choose Mexican whenever it's on offer in other places. Cardiff, which we visit a lot, has an abundance of choice! We can't go to Cardiff every time we fancy some though, so trying to do home-made was the next step.

My husband recently tried chimichangas and loved them, so that's what I went for first. Very simple.  The trickiest part is the folding and keeping them together when they fry. Lesson learned, keep  toothpicks in the cupboard for this purpose!

The chimichangas became mini when I realised that I had small flour tortillas. Another lesson learned, the bigger the better really, unless you want to have mini ones as part of a buffet.  Which would be amazing, so we should all definitely do that too! In this instance, it was for dinner, so we just had lots of mini ones. They are great with spicy rice ( a recipe for another day!) or with salad.

A note about the level of spice. I put a fair bit in, but we thought it could have taken more. So if you are a spice fiend like we are, add more, if you're spice wary, take a bit out.

Well worth giving them a try.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

How to Use Yummly to Store Recipes

Yummly is a fab new find if you are a recipe fiend like me. It's a haven of millions of recipes from blogs and websites around the world and it allows you to store all the recipes that you find in one place together. I highly recommend signing up for an account (it takes seconds).

Cheesecake Swirl Brownies

Brownies  are not something that I bake very often, despite how much I enjoy eating them! I tend to veer towards cake or tarts when I want to bake something. These Cheesecake Swirl Brownies are lovely and fudgy, but the outside edge is quite cakey, which is handy if you have some people who don't really like the fudgy texture.

The  cheesecake swirl in the brownie gives them a nice additional flavour, but more importantly, makes them look pretty! Using cream cheese in the UK can be problematic as our cream cheese, including Philadelphia, has a lot more water in it than US cream cheese. So when we use it for baking, mixing it with egg etc, just makes it even runnier. Some bloggers advocate squeezing a lot of the water out of it using a cloth, not something I have tried! I tend to just try and work with it.

You will need to be persistent with this recipe, to make sure the cheesecake swirls through effectively. It's worth the effort, though, as they look and taste amazing. Good luck!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Sausage Tray Bake

Pinnable image with text for Sausage Tray Bake

This is the quickest sausage recipe that I know. It's a brilliant 'chop it all up, chuck it all in' type recipe. Perfect after a long working day for a quick weeknight dinner. Ideally you need one of those large rectangular baking trays to cook it on. My favourite are the Circulon ones. They are just the right height at the sides to stop oil spilling over, and they clean beautifully. Nothing sticks to them either!

The Sausage Tray Bake recipe has parsnip, potatoes and peppers with garlic, thyme and rosemary mixed together with the sausages for added flavour. Because all the ingredients in this recipe cook together, none of the flavours are lost and everything gets a lovely stickiness from the sausage juices. I can't tell you how delicious it is! If you're not a huge fan of sausage, you could swap it out for chicken, but you would need to let the veg cook for a good 15-20 minutes before you add the chicken, so it doesn't dry out.

Put Sausage Tray Bake on your list of quick dinners today!

Pinnable image with text for sausage tray bake

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Traditional Apple Crumble

Close up of a dish of cooked apple crumble

Apples are in abundance at this time of year, so it's a brilliant excuse to make apple pie and apple crumble. 

You just can't beat crumble in the autumn; lovely crunchy crumble topping, sweet/sour apple filling, a hint of cinnamon and a great big dollop of custard. Yum! It also brings back memories of childhood. My mum makes a mean crumble, usually with fruit my dad has grown. Making apple crumble is incredibly easy. You just need to make sure you have the quantities right and that you get the blend of spices that you like. I personally prefer a high crumble to apple ratio, especially if I am having custard.

The Americans call Apple Crumble, Apple Crisp, which I don't really understand- it's not crispy? Apple Crunch would be more like it! Crumble is very quick and simple to make and it's usually a crowd-pleaser as it's such comfort food.

Pinnable image and text of traditional apple crumble recipe

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Slow Cooker Brown Sugar Gammon

Close of up of shredded brown sugar gammon

Today's recipe is for Slow Cooker Brown Sugar Gammon. Gammon reminds me a lot of my childhood. Gammon steaks with pineapple and eggs! It's a bit of a weird British thing. I didn't eat it for a long time as an adult, but in my search for different meals to cook for dinner, it came back on my radar. It's often included in the 3 for £10 meat deals, making it very affordable too. 

I have cooked gammon steaks on the grill in old-school style, but they can be quite rubbery if you're not careful. By far the best results I have had with gammon, is by slow cooking it. For slow cooking, I buy the gammon joints which are around £3 for 750g usually. Slow cooking them makes them fall apart beautifully so they can be shredded and shredded gammon makes amazing sandwiches! This Slow Cooker Brown Sugar Gammon recipe has a sweet, garlicky flavour to offset the saltiness of the meat. It's amazing hot with roast potatoes or cold in salad.

Give it a try- it's a cheap and easy meal.

Slow Cooker Brown Sugar Gammon pinnable image with label

Friday, November 06, 2015

Easy Meat Pie

My mum is a  pie-maker extraodinaire. My husband and my brother-in-law are always pleased when "Pam's Pies" as they call it, makes a delivery. My dad is less pleased about how many pies get given to them and not to him!

I decided I ought to learn from the master and get to grips with pies myself, so that I could  make a pie for my husband when Pam's Pies were on hiatus. The easiest way, I have found, is to use the slow cooker to cook the meat.  As I use shop-bought pastry, that means there's very little to do after that. Easy.

You can also use this mixture to make mini pies as snacks, you just need to cut up the ingredients much smaller.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Chicken Fajita Pasta

Close up of chicken fajita pasta with grated cheese on top

Quick weeknight dinner ideas are a must in our house and Chicken Fajita Pasta is one of our favourites.  I try to have a few quick dinners at my fingertips for days when I have late staff meetings, parents' evening and that sort of thing. Sometimes we'll have something shop-bought with a jacket potato; chicken kiev and jackets, chunky breaded cod and jackets, that sort of thing. But more often than not, I prefer to cook something quick myself.

When I want to cook, pasta is always a winner for speed. Plus you always have some in your cupboard! I quite like spicy pasta dishes, and Mexican food is a great inspiration. I'm a huge fan of Mexican food. There are no Mexican restaurants where we live, so we always take the opportunity to eat out in one if we go anywhere else. I always order the chicken fajitas- yum! And that's what inspired this chicken fajita pasta dish. Chicken, peppers, onion, tomato and seasoning- All the flavour of fajitas, but with pasta instead of tortillas! 

Chicken fajita pasta is easier to make than it might first appear- I always read recipes where it tells you cook something and then set it aside while you do the next bit, with some suspicion. Sound complicated! Well there's some 'setting aside' involved in this recipe and it's really not complicated, so don't be put off!

You don't need many ingredients that you wouldn't already have. Fajita seasoning is easy to find; most supermarkets have their own version and all the big spice companies make it too. Jalapenos are also widely available- I like the Santa Maria brand. They really give the pasta dish the kick it needs. 

Next time you are in the mood for Mexican, give Chicken fajita pasta a try!

Monday, November 02, 2015

Apple Pie Cupcakes

My dad brought me another big haul of apples from his garden last week. I wanted to use them to do something different for lunch, when my sister and her children were visiting.  I came up with a twist on an apple pie-  apple pie cupcake! I told my niece that the cake had a surprise inside. She first licked off all the icing and then an hour later ate the cake part and declared "Apple!"

The batter needs to be quite thick to stop the apple from sinking to the bottom, so don't over mix it.

Onion Gravy for Sausage and Mash

Onions are such a staple. I go into panic if I forget to buy them- there's not many recipes that can be done without an onion! I tend to keep traditional white onions and shallots to hand all the time, with the occasional red onion if I need it for something in particular and spring onions in the summer.

Onion gravy is really something that I only ever had in a pub meal. Gravy at home was either good old Bisto, or was made from the juices from the roast. But those gravies are just no good for when you're having sausage and mash; onion gravy is so much nicer. It's very easy to make, but you have to be patient!

You need to resist the temptation to turn up the heat and cook them quickly. Ideally, you want a medium heat and to cook them really slowly until they almost break down a little bit. It will probably take around 20 minutes if you do it right. The slower you do it, the more the natural sugars are released (apparently!).

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Slow Cooker Chilli

The Improving Cook- Slow Cooker Chilli

One of the first thing I cooked for my husband was chilli, mainly because it's easy to make in bulk and it freezes brilliantly. He's a fan of hot and spicy food, and at first, I probably made it too mild for him! It was only when he tried my dad's "blow your head off chilli" and loved it, that I realised just how mild mine was comparatively. I have upped the heat since then. I used to make chilli in a pan,  but I almost always make Slow Cooker Chilli these days as it saves so much time.

Making Slow Cooker Chilli really doesn't involve anything complicated and it's a great thing to have in the freezer for weeks when you just don't have the time or the inclination to cook from scratch. The bonus of freezing is that the chilli heat gets even more intense when you heat it up. Bear that in mind if you prefer it milder. 

I often froze it with a portion of potato wedges for an easy dinner for my husband to heat up when I wasn't there. It's so easy just to throw it all in the slow cooker and leave it to do its thing. It was a total life saver when our kitchen was being re-done, although it was a bit strange cooking chilli in the living room!

Slow Cooker Chilli is great with the traditional rice, but I also love it with potato wedges or over jacket potato, or even just with salad if it's for lunch.

If you're doing Slimming World, this recipe is 7 syns purely due to the wine. Leave that out and it's syn free.

The Improving Cook- Slow Cooker Chilli pinnable image

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Temp conversions

Just a quick post to say that I have added Gas Mark temps to all the recipes which use an oven.

If you need other useful cooking info and conversions, such as cake tin sizes, I can recommend the BBC Good Food site:

Cheat's Cinnamon Swirls

Close up of a cooked cinnamon swirl

Are you a cinnamon swirls fan? I love them. They're often my first choice when I go out for a cuppa with friends. My sister had very strong cravings for cinnamon swirls when she was pregnant, so I made some home-made ones for her. I did them from scratch, which was a lot of fun but really quite time consuming and nerve-wracking. Will they rise, won't they? Will they be fluffy, or chewy or soggy?

This time, I decided to use a short-cut and make Cheat's Cinnamon Swirls. There are some very good bread mixes out there, which I use occasionally to get a quick, fresh loaf out of my breadmaker. Of all the ones I have used, Wright's are by far the most reliable. I have tried supermarket own-brand ones, as they are a fair bit cheaper, but the loaves they produce are incredibly bland and tasteless. I would not personally recommend them.

So, armed with my Wright's breadmix and my Panasonic breadmaker, I got started. Cinnamon swirls are actually very easy to make using a breadmix, if a bit messy, and you get some very impressive results. My sister prefers them not to be iced but my husband likes them Starbucks style, with the icing drizzled over the top. I could go either way myself. I made a batch this week when she visited and they went down well!

So if you are in the mood for cinnamon swirls but you're a bit scared to make them, get yourself some breadmix and give these a try!

Cheat's Cinnamon Swirls pinnable

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

American Style Chocolate Chip Cookies

Two chocolate chip cookies on a plate

I remember the first time I had an American Style cookie. We were visiting friends in Texas and we had been to one of their big supermarkets. At the end of many of the aisles, there are people offering sample of various things. They even have mini cooking stations offering little pots of freshly cooked meat and fish for you to try.  As a small person, I  thought this was amazing, having your lunch in the supermarket while you were shopping! One of the samples was a piece of chocolate chip cookie. Soft and chewy, so different from a biscuit! At that time, you couldn't buy cookies like that in an British supermarket, in bags of 5 from the bakery section, like you can now.

This recipe will make you a good batch of 12 large American-style soft, chewy,chocolate chip cookies. It's pretty foolproof- I made a batch of 120 as favours for my wedding and they worked perfectly! 

They will keep for 3-4 days after you have made them.  You can also freeze them. You'll need to freeze them separately on a baking tray at first and then put them in freezer bags, or freeze them in batches, if you know you'll want to get 5 out at a time.

Ideally you need a cookie sheet for easy baking. I can recommend the Circulon ones:
They also sell them at John Lewis and House of Fraser  and there are cheaper versions at Asda and Sainsbury's which also work pretty well.

American style choc chip cookies pinnable image

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Meatball Sauce

Meatballs with spaghetti are one of my go-to quick weekenight dinners when things are busy at work. They are fairly easy to make from scratch, but they are on my very short list of things I can't bothered with! Along with pastry, I think the ready-made ones are more than good enough to use at home for the time that you save. All you need to do is cook the pre-made meatballs, make a decent meatball sauce and get some pasta on the go.

The Meatball sauce that I make can be easily made in bulk and frozen ready to use. It's very versatile and can be used as a base for pasta sauce, lasagne, salsa, chilli and so on. It's very handy to have in the freezer, ready to go.

The Improving Cook- Meatball Sauce pinnable image

Friday, October 23, 2015

Ginger and Caramel Loafcakes

Ginger and Caramel Loafcakes

I love Jamaican Ginger Cake. It'so sticky and delicious and moreish. It inspired me to make these Ginger and Caramel Loafcakes. The only problem is that usually lasts about 5 minutes once it's been opened! 

These little Ginger and Caramel Loafcakes are made from a recipe which can also be used to make a bigger sheet cake to serve warm with custard (my husband's favourite way) or as cupcakes. The caramel comes from the icing which is incredibly rich so don't get too carried away with icing them!

Today I made the Ginger and Caramel Loafcakes with my new mini loaf tin. It's a Lakeland one and has handy loose bottoms for pushing the loaves out easily. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

White chilli

White Chilli in a bowl

I was whiling away time on Pinterest recently, looking at recipes, when I noticed a phrase that kept coming up- White Chilli. I had never heard of it before. Effectively, it's your usual chilli but with all the colour taken out. Sounds unappealing, but it's really yummy! White Chilli is made with chicken and white beans instead of beef mince and kidney beans. There's also no tomato, that's replaced with chicken stock instead. I thought it would be great for using up leftover chicken, so I started playing around with different combinations of ingredients.

While I have been playing around with the White Chilli recipe over the last few weeks, I have been taking it to work and eating it as a soup. It's very filling, pretty good for you and the spice warms you up! It freezes well, so it's great to have to hand when you don't have much time.

White Chilli

Monday, October 19, 2015

Chicken and broad bean risotto

Chicken and broad bean risotto pinnable image

I was originally slightly put off trying to make a Chicken and Broad Bean risotto. It's all because I am obsessed with Australian Cooking programmes- My Kitchen Rules, Australian Masterchef. If there's cooking and some Aussies, I'm there! They tend to last for a gazillion episodes a series too, so plenty to keep me going. One thing they often say, is that people are crazy to do risotto- "No-one has been successful with risotto on this show!"  they cry when some poor soul declares they are making mushroom or chicken risotto. They then judge the dish, declaring it to be one of the following: gluggy, undercooked, bland, soggy, mushy. You get the gist.

This is one of the reasons that I was afraid of risotto for quite a long time. Yes, it's just rice, but they make it seem so complicated and difficult to perfect!  It actual fact, it's very easy. At least, it's easy to make it to 'eating at home' standard! I often choose risotto in restaurants. The most delicious one I have ever eaten was a parsnip and parmesan risotto. It had parsnip crisps sprinkled over the top- yum!

The main downside of risotto is that it's not a 'leave it to cook' type recipe. You will have to stand over it, so bear that in mind when you plan to cook it. This Chicken and Broad Bean Risotto recipe uses broad beans- not something I am normally a great fan of, but the baby broad beans that you can buy frozen or in tins are really nice, and that won me over. Even better if you can get them fresh. They are full of protein, fibre and Vitamin B which is a bonus too!

You can make a big batch of this Chicken and Broad Bean risotto and have the leftovers for lunch. Just make sure that you cool it quickly after cooking and heat it all the way through when you eat it.

This recipe is syn free on Slimming World if you swap spray oil instead of using the olive oil and leave out the optional Parmesan.

Chicken and broad bean risotto pinnable image

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Chocolate Brownie Cupcakes

Chocolate Brownie Cupcakes

If you're needing a chocolate fix, then these Chocolate Brownie Cupcakes will definitely hit the spot!  There's nothing better than chocolate. It's essential food when you feel a bit sad, when you're celebrating, having a cup of tea, coffee and just because. 

I like my chocolate cake to be really chocolatey. Sounds obvious, but I've had plenty of chocolate cake that draws you in by looking all brown and chocolatey, but is actually just being a fairly standard sponge, or relying on the icing to bring the flavour. The key to it, I think, is the type of chocolate. Cocoa powder won't ever give the same level of chocolate taste that good quality dark chocolate will, which is why I try to go for chocolate whenever possible.

My favourite kind of chocolate cake are the really fudgy, brownie-like ones. These Chocolate Brownie Cupcakes, are just that; so fudgy and delicious. I tend not to ice these cupcakes because they are already very rich, but you could if you wanted to, especially if they are for a birthday or another occasion.

Hope you enjoy!

Chocolate Brownie Cupcakes

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Slow Cooker Vietnamese Style Beef Stew

Slow Cooker Vietnamese Beef Stew pinnable image

I love stew, especially at this time of year.  It's so homely and comforting and it begs to be mopped up  fresh crusty bread. It's also perfect for the slow cooker. Being chucked in and left for several hours does it the world of good.

If you're making stew, you really want to use "humble cuts" of meat that benefit from long cooking times and then fall apart beautifully. For beef stews, I get really good results with beef rib trim, or shin. Normally, I would throw the beef in with some carrots, onions and stock, possibly potatoes, add stock and leave it to cook. 

Recently, though, I have seen a few recipes for Vietnamese stew which looked delicious, so I started reading through a few to work out what the key ingredients are. It sounds more like a cross between a stew and a curry, which works for me! Vietnamese stew, or Bo Kho, has Asian elements like fish sauce, complemented by spices like chilli and cinnamon. It's eaten in different ways in different parts of Vietnam, sometimes for breakfast! Sounds interesting, right? So, I gave it a go in the slow cooker!

Let me warn you now- this smells amazing while it's cooking. So much so, that my husband commented on it when he walked into the kitchen and asked if we were going to eat it straight away.

You only need half a butternut squash for the recipe, so make a batch of this soup with the other half: Curried Butternut Squash Soup

This recipe for Slow Cooker Vietnamese Beef Stew is syn free on Slimming World if you swap the lemongrass paste for fresh lemongrass.

Slow Cooker Vietnamese Beef Stew pinnable image

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Banana Raisin Flapjacks

Banana raisin flapjacks

If you need another "using up bananas" recipe, here it is- Banana Raisin Flapjacks!

I had never thought of putting bananas in flapjacks before, until I was visiting my fiancee (as he was at the time) and all he had in the cupboards was brown bananas and porridge oats. I grabbed a couple of other ingredients from the shop and hey presto! They are well-worth trying as they last a good while in a tin; great for lunchboxes or after-school snacks.

The great thing about Banana Raisin Flapjacks is that, as well as using up ripe bananas, they have a really good banana flavour and when you take the raisins into account as well, there's a lot of natural sweetness. That limits the need for a lot of golden syrup. You could even reduce the amount of sugar I have listed, if you're trying to cut back.

Banana Raisin Flapjacks

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Slow Cooker Spanish Chicken

Today's recipe is Slow Cooker Spanish Chicken. I first had Spanish Chicken in this style when we were staying with a friend. I enjoyed it so much that I made it several times again at home, adapting it over time. It can be made in a casserole dish in the oven but, even better, it works beautifully in the slow cooker! My husband is a big fan, and the added bonus is that it's very light on calories. It's packed with veggies and you can add more on the side too.

Slow Cooker Spanish Chicken is great for freezer meal cooking. We regularly cook up a large batch for the freezer.  The sauce protects the chicken from getting freezer burn. We often eat it with mini roast potatoes but it also works well with jacket potato, new potatoes or rice- very versatile! 

If you are on Slimming World, this recipe is syn free.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Lemon tarts

lemon tarts on a plate

I love lemon. It's probably my favourite flavour to bake with, along with chocolate. These particular lemon tarts are not the kind with pastry and just a lemon filling. They are more like little lemon cakes inside a pastry shell. 

But before you go any further, I need to confess that I don't "do" pastry. That is to say, I don't make it from scratch. In all honesty, it's pure laziness. I just can't be bothered. Especially when the pastry blocks you can buy in the supermarket are so good. I don't generally buy pre-prepared things, but pastry is the major exception. My mum always makes pastry from scratch for pies, tarts and so on, and is generally horrified by my pastry purchasing. Oh well, the fact that Mary Berry has said that she has used ready made pastry makes me feel better! What's good for Mary, is good for me!

I often make these lemon tarts for afternoon tea with friends, because they are just the right size to pick up and eat in a few bites. They are made from a shortcrust pastry shell with lemon curd filling, topped with cake and then lemon icing. They are little lemony bites of goodness!

The Improving Cook- lemon tarts pinnable image

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