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

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: http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/conversion-guides

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

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:  http://circulon.uk.com/circulon-bakeware-51187-baking-sheet.html
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

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

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. 

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

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

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, especially for brownies.

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

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

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

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.

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

Slow Cooker Beef Brisket

Slow cooker Beef Brisket

I didn't eat red meat for a long time. I didn't really enjoy it, so I stuck to chicken and fish from my mid-teens, apart from the occasional bacon sandwich. In my 30s I started to like it a little more and over time, really began to enjoy it. As a result of all those years,  I'm certainly no meat aficionado, and don't really know all the different cuts.  I have learned a lot from other people, including my dad, who loves his red meat!

One cut my dad recommended to me was beef brisket. It's a so-called "humble cut" because it needs a lot of cooking. It costs about £8 for a large piece which would feed 4-5 people.You really don't need to add much to Slow Cooker Beef Brisket, because it's full of flavour. Slow cooking is the perfect way to cook it, as when it's cooked low and slow, it will just fall apart beautifully. It's fantastic for batch cooking and freezer meals and you can serve it with pretty much anything. It's one of our go-to meals now. I promise you won't be disappointed if you try it!

If you want to cook some potatoes in the Slow Cooker Beef Brisket meat juices, peel and chop them into slightly smaller chunks than you normally would, add more stock from the beginning and place the potatoes around the sides of the meat. For the steak seasoning, I use the one that comes with Donald Russell steak boxes, but the brisket will still be delicious without it.

Slow cooker Beef Brisket

Strawberry Duffins (Doughnut Muffins)

strawberry duffins

Duffins? I know- strange name. They are literally a cross between a doughnut and a muffin. I discovered them when I was reading an article about NYC's famous cronuts. Then I noticed them in cafes; Starbucks occasionally have them. The first time I made Strawberry Duffins, I was very sceptical, but they are oh so good! Great for afternoon tea or a children's party. Mostly, I make them just because, why not? 

Strawberry Duffins have that lovely thick doughnut texture, but slightly lightened, like a muffin. It's all the yum of a doughnut but far easier to make. They are so more-ish, it's ridiculous! I made strawberry ones today, but they are great with raspberry jam, or lemon curd. My husband loves them and hopefully you will too! One tip that might help you, is that if you don't have any plain yoghurt, you can substitute a fruit yoghurt instead. I have made strawberry duffins with strawberry yoghurt and they still turned out well.

Once you make these Strawberry Duffins, you'll keep coming back to make more, I promise you!

American Style Banana Pancakes

American Style Banana Pancakes with ice cream and chocolate sauce

Another leftover banana post! Again, I had a couple that were over-ripe that I didn't want to eat and I thought- American style Banana Pancakes. If you've never had American pancakes, you have really missed out!  They are thick, almost verging on a cakey texture and come in small rounds, rather than the large thinner pancakes that we would normally have on Pancake Day, which are more in the French style. They are so good, especially if you have them with maple syrup and bacon for a real American touch. (I know it sounds weird, but it's amazing!). 

The only problem was that I wanted to make the Banana Pancakes in the afternoon, which is not really when we would want to eat them. Good news though, they can be frozen! I'm very excited about the fact that we could have mini batches of Banana Pancakes available to just grab when we fancied them for breakfast or dessert!

They are well worth trying, very little effort required.

The Improving Cook- American Style Banana Pancakes

Cod with lime and chilli salsa and mini roasties

We eat cod fairly often, usually with a dusting of chilli and garlic or lemon and garlic. It's quick to cook and is great with rice, roast potatoes or salad. This time, I decided to make a lime and chilli salsa to add more flavour. Takes no time at all, and is great for a quick dinner.

Oaty Banana Muffins

Oaty Banana Muffins

Usually we eat all the bananas that we buy, but occasionally we have a couple on the turn. I'm not a fan of soggy banana, so I usually make some cupcakes or banana bread. This time I thought I would go for something different, not quite so sweet and cakey- Oaty Banana muffins. Muffins- delicious, banana-yum, oats- makes it seem healthy so I can have them for breakfast! They really aren't too sweet, so it doesn't feel that naughty.

Muffins are all about texture. It's what makes them different from a cupcake, so the important thing when you're making them, is to avoid over-mixing. You're not looking for a super-smooth batter, like you would expect for a cake. It should still be thick and almost lumpy.

So if you have a couple of bananas on the turn, make a batch of these. I give you permission to have them for brekkie. You can always have a yoghurt as well to make up for it!

Oaty Banana Muffins