Most popular recipes of 2016

Happy new Year! 

The blog has been going for 15 months now and I'm pleased with how far it has come. I can't devote my full-time attention to it and I haven't monetized it, so I am pretty happy with what I have managed to do in the last 12 months.

If I am not monetizing it, why am I doing it you might be wondering? Well, it was originally born from wanting to get back into cooking and expanding my recipe repetoire and it still serves that purpose for me. There also does seem to be a market for easy-to-follow recipes and my page visitors are increasing, so, if people are interested in reading, then it's worth carrying on. That's not to say that I have ruled out monetizing it at some point...

As 2016 is over, I thought I would do a round up of how things have gone for The Improving Cook Blog- social media followers, popular recipes etc.

Top Food News Stories of 2016

Well, that was 2016! Gone in a flash and memorable for many reasons. There were plenty of good, bad and very, very bad things that happened in the world this year, but as this is a recipe blog, let's focus on food!

2016- the bad

* The Great British Bake Off- I don't think I was alone in being devastated about the end of GBBO as we know it. I am sure Channel 4 will throw everything at the re-boot, but it won't ever be the same again without the BBC, Mary, Mel and Sue. There was something so quintessentially British about it and it inspired so many of us, including me, to get back in the kitchen and bake from scratch. I will miss it terribly. Oh well, there are always the repeats!

BBC- Mary Berry leaves Bake Off

* Crumpets- We found out that some crumpets contain as much salt as 3, yes 3, bags of crisps. Given that many people regularly use crumpets as a breakfast or after-school snack option for their children- this was shocking news. Household name Warburtons was named as one of the worst offenders, despite having reduced its salt content by 25%.

Telegraph- Crumpets contain as much salt as crisps

* Chocolate- They kept messing about with our chocolate! There were many chocolate crimes committed this year. It all seemed to happen in the build up to Christmas- maybe they thought we would be distracted and wouldn't notice? First, in October, Terry's Chocolate Orange crept out onto the supermarket shelves 10g lighter than they were before and, in most places, selling at the same price. Then in November, the makers of Toblerone reduced the weight of their bars by 20g and changed the shape. Instead of the shape we know and love, with lovely thick triangles of Swiss chocolate, they stretched out the spaces between the triangles, leaving it resembling a toast rack/bicycle stand/not a proper Toblerone. Of course, it was another cost-cutting measure. Again, selling at the same price. Then, just to top off the year, Quality Street announced that the beloved Toffee Deluxe was being retired and replaced with the Honeycomb Crunch. Honeycomb Crunch- sounds pretty yummy, but can't we have both?

Metro- New Toblerone Bar

2016- the good

* The Sugar Tax- The Sugar tax, or the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, as the government would prefer that we call it, was announced in the 2016 budget. I've put this in good news because the intention behind it is good. Whether a 6-8p tax on certain soft drinks will have an impact on the consumption of sugar, and the linked obsesity in childhood, remains to be seen, especially when fruit-based drinks and milk-based drinks are not included. It certainly has made Jamie Oliver happy anyway!

* Healthy Pins- the top ten pins on Pinterest this year were healthy (in the main). Fruit Smoothies, Broccoli Tots, Pesto Salmon were all pinned and pinned and pinned again. You've probably seen them in your Pinterest feed, or even have them on one of your boards; inspiration for your new year health kick. Healthy has never been so delicious!

* No-bake desserts- No-bake is one of the most-searched terms on Pinterest. No-bake cheesecake, cookies, granola bars, chocolate cake and many more. What's not to love about desserts and treats that require no cooking? Wow everyone at dinner or at parties with your amazing dessert making skills, and you've not even switched your oven on! Here's a good one to get you started with the no-bake trend.

Personal 'goods' for 2016

My own personal foodie 'goods' would be:

* A massive upswing in my blog traffic thanks to a better Pinterest strategy
* Taking part in the #GBBOTwitterBakeAlong with other GBBO fans on Twitter
* Sailing through 50k page views in my first year was a highlight too, may there be many more!

Real Hot Chocolate

Real Hot Chocolate

When I think of cosy winters, sitting snuggled under a blanket on the sofa watching Christmas films, I also think of hot chocolate. There's just no other drink that adds to the cosiness like hot chocolate. Don't get me wrong, I live for tea, especially on a work day. I do believe it solves most problems and I power through the day on 3-4 cups. But, because I drink it most of the time, it just doesn't have that cosy factor. It's just not indulgent enough. Only hot chocolate fits the bill! 

You can get some pretty decent hot chocolate in some of the coffee shops these days and you can buy the packet mixes for home, but nothing beats real hot chocolate. It has a much deeper, creamier flavour (probably due to all the chocolate and the cream...)

Making your own hot chocolate is very easy and totally worth the small amount of effort required. Once you try it, it's pretty hard to go back to the alternatives! Don't believe all the recipes that tell you that you need a double broiler, or to melt the chocolate over hot water. That's a right faff and you honestly don't need to do it. 

When I make real hot chocolate I prefer to use a decent dark chocolate, as I find milk choc just a bit too sweet. Melted together with milk and cream and a couple of secret ingredients, it tastes divine. My secret ingredients, the things that I think elevate it beyond just ordinary hot chocolate, are vanilla essence and a touch of cinnamon. They add a little bit of pizazz!

So why don't you treat you and yours to some real, hom-made hot chocolate this Christmas Eve? Get under that blanket, put on Elf, Love Actually or whatever Christmas film floats your boat, and drink up!

Real Hot Chocolate pinnable image

Orange and Almond Cookies

Orange and Almond Cookies

I have been trying to expand my biscuit repertoire for some time, instead of always making Chocolate Chip Cookies

I had some flaked almonds left over from making a bakewell tart but I wasn't sure what flavour to put them with in a biscuit. After a bit of pondering, I decided orange would be a good match, as long as it wasn't too sharp. I used orange curd to get a more mellow flavour and it was a lovely combination, just enough orange flavour without drowning out the almonds. Plus, orange is just a little bit Christmassy, so Orange and Almond Cookies are lovely for this time of year.

These are the soft, chewy cookie type of biscuit but you do get a bit of crunch from the almond flakes. If you wanted even more crunch, you could use whole almonds chopped up instead.

Orange and Almond Cookies Pinnable image

Spicy Maple Chicken

We visited family in Canada earlier this year; beautiful place, lovely people. At the end of our holiday, I carefully transported some genuine Canadian maple syrup back in my suitcase, wrapped in ziplock bags and a layer of socks! it was the good stuff, A-grade, and tasted absolutely a world away from the nasty slop from the bottom of the barrel that they export to Europe. Wise people, keeping the good stuff for themselves! 

The bottle's half-empty now, and I know I won't be able to go back to the low-grade syrup that we used to buy. So, in celebration of of the delicious maple syrup we have left, I used some to make a sweet and spicy marinade for chicken, and served up this Spicy Maple Chicken with rice.

It was quick and delicious and the sharp spice of the cayenne pepper was a good contrast to the sweetness of the maple syrup. If you made the marinade in the morning and put the chicken in before you went off to work, Spicy Maple Chicken would make a very quick and convenient dinner in the evening.

Spicy Maple Chicken Pinnable image

Chocolate Sandwich Cake with Whipped Cream

Chocolate Sandwich Cake

At the weekend, I made a chocolate sandwich cake. It's one of those soft, fluffy cakes that's so light it melts in your mouth. Essentially, it's a chocolate version of a Victoria Sponge!

This type of cake is the perfect cake to whip up quickly when you've got visitors coming round. There's no fuss, no fancy techniques, no icing to pipe, and it's sure to be a winner with anyone you give it to.

I normally say that you can make cakes by hand just as well as you can with a fancy mixer or a hand mixer, but Victoria Sponge style cakes are where the gadgets come into their own. If you have one, you can incorporate a lot more air into the sponge and really get that light texture.

I prefer to make Chocolate Sandwich Cake with a sweetened whipped cream filling, but if cream's not your thing, you could make a chocolate or vanilla buttercream. You could also leave the cream unsweetened. I personally like to add a little icing sugar because I think the slightly sweetened cream is a nice contrast to the dark chocolate taste of the sponge.

Hold on to this recipe for the next time you have people popping round for a cuppa. You can make it the day before. If you use the cream filling, make sure you keep it in the fridge. It will keep for 3-4 days if chilled.

Chocolate Sandwich Cake Pinnable image

Mocha Cupcakes

It's that time of year again at work (parents' evening) where I try to do my bit and provide cake for all the teachers doing a 12-13 hour day. It's amazing how much a little bit of cake can cheer you up when you're exhausted and feel like you've talked the hind leg off a donkey!

So far, over the years, I have made blueberry doughnut muffins, lime and coconut cupcakes, chocolate brownie cupcakes and lemon drizzle cupcakes. I spent a while pondering what flavours to do this time and finally settled on Mocha cupcakes and Victoria Sponge cupcakes (coming in a later post).

I'm a bit of a funny fish with coffee things. I don't really like coffee as a drink. I would choose tea every time, given the chance!  An occasional latte is about my limit. However, when it comes to coffee flavoured things, I'm straight in there! Coffee truffles, coffee ice cream, coffee cake- all winners for me. Part of love of coffee flavour is how well it is complemented by chocolate. Chocolate really adds something to it; takes the harsh edge off. So, mocha cupcakes are right up my street.

These mocha cupcakes have a small shot of strong coffee, tempered by a chocolate hit from cocoa powder and then topped with some chocolate buttercream. Perfect for the coffee-lovers AND the chocolate lovers in your life.

Guide to the Best Pinterest Group Boards for Food Bloggers

This post is a follow up to my earlier Pinterest post- Beginner's Guide to Pinterest for Food Bloggers, so if you're a food blogger starting from scratch with Pinterest, you might want to start with that post first. This post focuses on how Group Pinterest Boards increased traffic to my blog.

Warm Chocolate Orange Brownie Dessert

Warm Chocolate Orange Brownie Dessert

Today's post is a dessert recipe for Warm Chocolate Orange Brownie Dessert. 

I don't often make dessert when we have guests, mainly because I don't feel that inspired about what to make. Don't get me wrong, I love a dessert. It's just that I would always choose a starter over a dessert given the option! If I am having dessert, I often choose some kind of molten chocolate thing, or a chocolate brownie concoction. All that squidgy, delicious chocolatey goodness, topped off with some ice-cream, is right up my street!

So, today, I thought I would give this idea a try with chocolate orange flavours. The essence of a good warm brownie dessert is in the previously mentioned squidginess. To get that, you need lots of moisture- melted butter, melted chocolate and eggs are usually the combo that will get you there. Add orange curd to that and you got chocolate orange yumminess!

Timing is pretty important with this Warm Brownie Dessert; you want it to be just a little runny at the bottom. Cook it too long and you'll get a chocolate sponge, cook it too little and you'll have a lot of raw batter at the bottom. I like it somewhere in between. If you shave a few minutes off my timing, you'll get more sauce at the bottom.

I highly recommend serving Chocolate Orange Brownie Dessert with ice-cream, cream or some creme fraiche- something to cut through the sweetness. Depending on what you call a dessert portion, you can get around 6 servings out of the ingredients, 4 if you like a nice, big bowl!

Warm Chocolate Orange Brownie Dessert pinnable image

Ultimate Mince Pies

Ultimate Mince Pies

Most people fall into one of two categories when it comes to mince pies. You're either beside yourself with excitement when you see the first packet in the shops and you have to buy some straight away, or you can easily wait until Christmas day and you wouldn't be that bothered if you didn't end up having one that year. If you're in the first camp, then it's that special time of year- Mince pies are everywhere you look!

There seem to be a dizzying array of options on the mince pie front these days: standard mince pies, puff pastry mince pies, luxury mince pies, iced mince pies, mini mince pies and so on.You could probably buy a different type every week from now until Christmas! Shop-bought mince pies are really good, but home-made ones always taste that little bit better. If you want the easy version, try making my Cheat's Mince Pies

This year, I decided to make mince pies with a difference. These 'Ultimate Mince Pies' have a shortcrust pastry base with a mincemeat filling which is topped with frangipane and then iced with a lemon icing. Delicious! I prefer them to a standard mince pie, as I often find the mincemeat filling a bit too rich in those. Using frangipane reduces how much mincemeat you need and adds a cake-like element. I topped them with lemon icing, but if you're not a fan, you could swap the lemon juice for water. If you don't want to make your own pastry, you can use a 500g block of shop-bought shortcrust and it will work beautifully.

I'm sure these 'Ultimate Mince Pies'  could win over some of the hardened 'don't care about mince pies' people of the world!
Ultimate Mince Pies

Sausage Casserole

Sausage Casserole

There's nothing better than casserole to warm you up on a winter's evening. All that beautiful meat and veg falling apart in a rich sauce is very comforting somehow. It doensn't hurt that casserole is so easy to make. The trouble is that it take time, either in a slow cooker on in an oven to get those cheaper cuts of meat falling apart so perfectly.

If you're looking for a quicker casserole with ingredients that you will usually already have to hand, then a sausage casserole is worth a try. It doesn't require such long cooking; you can usually have it ready in under an hour.

It doesn't matter which sausages you use, just grab your favourites. I sometimes use chipolatas, if that's what I have to hand. For the veg, I usually use carrots, but you can also add mushrooms, or switch the carrots out for butternut squash or sweet potato, whatever takes your fancy! Sausage Casserole freezes well, so it's a good recipe for making in a big batch.

Sausage Casserole- pinnable image

Traditional Jam and Coconut Sponge

Jam and Coconut Sponge slices

If you ask people what they remember about school dinners from their childhood, the traditional jam and coconut sponge is usually one of the first things that they say. Great big pieces, usually served with custard and often one of the few things that people liked too!

I love a traditional jam and coconut sponge. It's a really simple sponge cake, but with really soft buttery sponge, fruity strawberry jam and dessicated coconut. It's so perfect for afternoon tea, the kind of cake that you can have ready in a tin to whip out for guests. It will last  3-4 days (if you can hold out that long!)

I tend to make it as a loafcake, so that it's easy to cut slices, but if you are thinking of having it as dessert with hot custard, then it's better to make it as a traybake. That way you will get more surface area for jam and you can cut the cake in the more traditional cubes of sponge. Either way, it's good!

The Improving Cook- Traditional Jam and Coconut Sponge pinnable image

Slow Cooker Broccoli Cheese Soup

Slow Cooker Broccoli Cheese Soup in a bowl

Just in the last few days, the temperature has really dropped here in the wintery UK. I've gone very quickly from half-heartedly taking my coat with me 'just in case', to having it on plus scarf.  This, coupled with the rather temperamental central heating in my day-job workplace, means one thing; it's time for home-made soup lunches again!

Today, I'm going for a childhood favourite, broccoli cheese soup.  It's the only soup I remember my mum making on a regular basis- enormous saucepans full of broccoli boiling away on the hob with cheddar cheese stirred through.

As you know, I am a big fan of making soup in the slow cooker, so I don't have to stand over it, or even check on it regularly. In fact, I can even confidently go out leaving something cooking, which I would never do with a pan on the hob.

Brocolli cheese soup works beautifully in the slow cooker. Brocolli, carrot and onion are pretty standard in a brocolli cheese soup, but I also use potato to add some creamy thickness. Many recipes will ask you to make a traditional cheese sauce to add to the soup, but my feeling is that my slow cooker is supposed to save me time and effort, so why would I want to faff about with a cheese sauce? Some other recipes replace this by adding a tin of condensed soup. With that idea, I think if I'm buying a tin of soup, why not just eat the tin of soup...? No- I want home-made brocolli soup, so I use potato and cheddar to get the thick, cheesiness that I am after. The bonus is that it makes it more filling too! I have suggested 100g of grated cheese for the soup, but go ahead and use more if you love cheese! The more mature the cheese, the less you'll need, because it will have a stronger flavour.

You can make nice big batches of this soup, and it will freeze well. Like most soups, it will need a really good stir when it's defrosted and re-heated, and it will be delicious.

Slow Cooker Broccoli Cheese Soup pinnable image

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Cake

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Cake

I mentioned in my last post that I had some tins of pumpkin puree that I used to make my Easy Pumpkin Pie (This post also explains where you can buy the puree in the UK). I wanted to make something else with it too. I have made some really nice pumpkin cupcakes with chocolate icing before,  so I thought perhaps a full-sized layer cake might work, with similar flavours.

This Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Cake is made of two layers of moist pumpkin sponge dotted with dark chocolate chips and a very indulgent caramel filling. It is one of the most delicious cakes I have ever made, if I do say so myself! It would be perfect for Thanksgiving dessert, a Halloween party, or as an alternative Christmas treat.

The caramel icing between the pumpkin cake layers is quite sweet, which goes down well with my husband, but you could swap it for a plain buttercream or perhaps some whipped cream. That will tone down the sweetness if you don't have a sweet tooth.

If you're a bit scared of eating pumpkin, or you think you won't like it, I dare you to try this recipe. I will be amazed if anyone could say that they didn't like it, after trying a slice!

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Cake

Easy Pumpkin Pie

I've been AWOL for the last 2 weeks, as it's been half-term and before that work was VERY busy! I have barely done any cooking or baking during this time because we have been out and about and staying with family. The only exception was making a fruit crumble with my niece, who became fixated with the idea of blackberry crumble after seeing it in a children's tv programme. A bit awkward when blackberries are going oput of season, but the freezer section saved the day!

Once we got back, I had itchy fingers to make something, anything food-related! My husband requested pumpkin pie- very seasonal with Halloween around the corner and Thanksgiving on the way.  Luckily, I had some tins of pumpkin puree handy as my mum had brought some back from America thanks to our family friends from Texas. 

I am a big  fan of pumpkin pie myself. The first time I ate it was in Norway, where we were living at the time, were at a Thanksgiving party throw by some American neighbours. I vividly remember eating it and wanting some more. It was the texture and the spices that made it so delicious I think.

The tricky part about making pumpkin pie in the UK is that you would normally have to use fresh pumpkin, chop it up, boil it down, cool it, puree it and so on. However, the tinned pumpkin puree that the Americans take for granted is becoming more available here. It's usually freely available at Waitrose and Ocado, although quite pricey at around £2 a tin. You can also buy it on Amazon but it tends to be even more expensive there. If you can get hold of some, then you can save yourself a lot of time!

For this easy pumpkin pie recipe,  I used shop-bought shortcrust pastry to cut the time down even more, but if you would like to make it from scratch, go ahead. I prefer to use an unsweetened pastry because I think there is enough sweetness in the pumpkin filling already, but if you have a sweet tooth, you could use a dessert pastry.

This recipe makes a massive amount of pie, just to warn you! It's mainly so that you can use up a full tin of the pumpkin puree, rather than having half leftover. You could make two full pies, or, as I did today, one full pie and around 20 mini pies or even 40 mini pies. They freeze well, so you don't need to eat them all in one go!

Pumpkin pie  is often served with whipped cream, but I went with ice cream today. Both are delicious!

Chocolate Chip Cupcakes with Marshmallow Icing

Chocolate Chip Cupcakes with Marshmallow Icing

I made these chocolate chip cupcakes with marshmallow icing last weekend. The original plan was to try and use the marshmallow icing to create a ghost shape and then use black icing or chocolate chips for the eyes, ready for Halloween. It would have worked beautifully, if I had used the biggest circle icing nozzle but I used the next size down which didn't make large enough swirls. Oh well, they weren't ghosts but they were pretty delicious!

Marshmallow icing, if you have never had it, is essentially a buttercream with melted marshmallow added to it. When it is set, it's soft and pliable. You need quite a good grip to pipe it, but it holds the shape that you pipe, beautifully. Biting into it is like eating a marshmallow but with a thicker texture. It tastes delicious! I can imagine it would be beautiful on top of dark chocolate cakes too.

The cupcakes in their accidental form would be great for kids parties. Chocolate chip cake is always a crowd pleaser and it's very simple to make. You can also decorate the marshamllow icing with anything that you can push into it. Sprinkles will just fall off, but you can push chcolate chips, sugar crystals etc into it enough that they will stay.

Hope you enjoy!

Chocolate Chip Cupcakes with Marshmallow Icing Pinable image

Slow Cooker Chicken and Butternut Squash Curry

Slow Cooker Chicken and Butternut Squash Curry with rice

Our shopping delivery had the most enormous butternut squash in it this week. I could have made an enormous batch of Curried Butternut Squash Soup but it really would have been an enormous batch! So, instead, I decided to use half of it to make soup and half to make a Slow Cooker Chicken and Butternut Squash Curry. Good timing as it's National Curry Week from 10-16th October.

The curry I decided on was a Slow Cooker Rogan Josh style one with a tomato base. The butternut squash and the addition of red pepper add a lovely touch of sweetness to the flavour. I made the chicken curry at a medium-hot chilli heat, but you can adjust the heat to suit your own palate by using a milder or hotter curry paste and/or a milder or hotter chilli powder if you don't like too much spice. I didn't make my own curry paste, although that's something I would like to try in the future. Companies like Patak's do an amazing array of pastes, including for specific curries like Rogan Josh. If you can't find a Rogan Josh one, the Madras ones are widely available and are a good substitute.

I would recommend using chicken thighs ideally but, if you don't have those to hand, chicken breasts will also work. I used them myself this time and they worked very well. If you do use chicken breasts, make sure they lie on the top so that they don't get too soft and start shredding due to the slow cooking. 

Serve it up with some naan bread and some rice and away you go! A delicious home-made curry that takes virtually no effort, is much cheaper than take-away and definitely much lower in calories.

This recipe is Slimming World Friendly at 1 syn per portion (for the curry paste). If you are following My Fitness Pal, it's around 200 calories per portion with chicken breasts and 220 per portion with chicken thighs (rice not included).

Slow Cooker Chicken and Butternut Squash Curry- pinnable image

Cinnamon Swirl Yoghurt Loaf

Cinnamon Swirl Yoghurt Loaf

On Sunday, I was in the mood to bake and I really fancied something with lots of cinnamon. Cinnamon is such an autumnal flavour, I find it really comforting. It makes me think of apples, fruit crumble with custard, leaves on the turn and splashing through puddles! The very start of Autumn is one one of my favourite times of year because it's still warm enough to venture out without a coat, but the cosy nights are starting to draw in.

To feed my cinnamon cravings, I usually make a batch of Cheat's Cinnamon Swirls, but this time I wanted to try something different. I decided to make a Cinnamon Swirl Yoghurt Cake. It's a cake with a thick golden crust, a moist sponge and cinnamon syrup swirled though it. It's not overtly sweet, so you can easily eat a nice, thick slice without feeling too indulgent.

The cinnamon syrup is made with brown sugar, cinnamon and butter. You don't need to swirl too carefully; it really doesn't matter, as long as you get it distributed fairly well through the cake batter.

Cinnamon Swirl Yoghurt Loaf

Garlic Red Cabbage

I made Garlic Red Cabbage to have with roast dinner recently. It was so nice that I ate it before the roast potatoes- I know, unthinkable! 

In winter, I usually get quite lazy about vegetables, rotating between carrots, peas and broccoli, carrots, peas, broccoli. Occasionally adding some sweetcorn to the peas doesn't really qualify as changing things up, does it? In the summer, there's all sorts of excitement with different types of salad, avocado, spring onions, so many colourful veggies! But in winter, I am often totally lacking in vegetable inspiration.

One way of having a bit more variety, is to look at what's in season. The supermarkets tend to have everything in stock all year round, so it can be hard to eat seasonally. I find the Great Grub Club website as well as the  BBC Good Food Seasonal section good for info on this subject.

Red cabbage is coming into season now and will last into December, so it's a great choice as a dinner vegetable. It really brightens up a plate of food, so why not buy some in your next shop and try this simple Garlic Red Cabbage recipe with your next roast dinner?

Red cabbage is a beautiful shade of deep purple. The only problem with such a dark pigmentation is that it 'bleeds' into anything liquid that's put with it and, when cooked, it turns a rather disturbing shade of blue! To stop the red cabbage from changing colour so dramatically,  a little red wine vinegar is essential. Make sure that you don't get a bit slap dash with it  though, as it will ruin the flavour if you use too much. If you don't have vegetable stock handy, you can substitute it with chicken.

If you couldn't get a small red cabbage and you have ended up with some leftover, shred it and make some home-made coleslaw!

Hearty Slow Cooker Beef and Bean Stew

Slow Cooker Beef and Bean Stew

When you ask someone what they make in their slow cooker, invariably they say 'stew'. It's a slow cooking staple. I make it quite rarely myself though. I think have been so determined to find other things to make in my slow cooker that I have rather neglected the humble stew! 

This week I decided to remedy the situation and make a Hearty Slow Cooker Beef and Bean Stew. I had a late meeting coming up and took the chance to put this stew on overnight and portion it out in the morning. It was so nice to walk through the door at 7pm and know that it only needed a quick zap in the micro and it would be ready. I call this beef and bean stew hearty because it's so filling. As you're using a cheap cut of beef and packing the stew with veg and beans, it's also very low cost to make. Slow Cooker Beef and Bean Stew is also  perfect to make in big batches for the freezer too.

I used carrots and haricot beans as the main bulk of the stew, but you could easily swap them out for parsnips and borlotti beans, for example. Whichever beans take your fancy! I also included potatoes, but if I was intending to make a big batch for lunch, rather than dinner, I'd be tempted to leave out the potatoes and serve it with a big hunk of crusty bread instead. 

I can see this Slow Cooker Beef and Bean Stew recipe becoming a bit of a winter staple for me. Hope it will be for you too!

This recipe is syn-free if you are following Slimming World. If you are using My Fitness Pal, it's approx 350 calories per person for a dinner portion.

Slow Cooker Beef and Bean Stew- image for Pinterest

Banana Toad in the Hole

Banana Toad in the Hole

It was the first ever Batter Week on GBBO last week, and after a great deal of umming and aahing, I have made a Banana Toad in the Hole as my contribution to the #GBBOTwitterBakeAlong

Batter is a tricky beast. I have great success with pancakes, but home-made Yorkshire puddings are a bit scary. It's partly because my mum is the absolute Queen of Yorkshire Puds. Hers rise to epic proportions and everyone fights over the last one. Her Yorkshire tin got a bit past its best after so many years of use, so she threw it out and bought a new one. She claims that her Yorkshires have never ever been as good again, but they taste pretty great to me!

As I had chickened out of doing individual Yorkshire puds, I decided to go for what is effectively one giant Yorkshire and make Banana Toad in the Hole. I sweetened the batter with caster sugar, added cinnamon and laid sliced bananas in the batter. Yum! It's a bit like a pre-built pancake. Even better when you pour some of the chocolate sauce over it! Ideally, you need bananas that are not over-ripe if you want to successfully slice them lengthways. If you really need to use up over-ripe banana, you might get away with slicing it in circles and tipping them into the batter once it's in the dish.

Like all oven-baked batter, it's important that the batter is really well whisked and that the oil is sizzling hot in the dish before you pour the batter in. That helps you get a nice rise and crispy edges.

If you want to have a delicious chocolate sauce poured over your Banana Toad in the Hole- there's a nice one here: BBC Good Food Simple Chocolate Sauce Otherwise, vanilla ice cream works well.

Banana Toad in the Hole Pinterest Image

Chocolate Brioche Twist

Chocolate Brioche Twist

This week, for the #GBBOTwitterBakeAlong,  I have made a Chocolate Brioche Twist.

My heart sank a little when I saw the challenges in last week's GBBO. I love watching Bread Week and I love making bread in my breadmaker but I have little to no experience of any kind of fancy breadmaking. So when I saw twists and sweet dough and showstoppers using 3 different types of flour, I wasn't sure how I would get on with trying something similar out for myself.

I decided to make a Chocolate Brioche Twist as it didn't seem too scary or complicated and I was very pleased with how it turned out. It's absolutely delicious for one thing, and it looks pretty impressive when it's baked.

Brioche is made of an enriched dough using eggs, sugar and butter which gives it a slightly more cakey, buttery texture. As you'd expect from the name, it's French, but you'll also see it baked in Greece as a traditional Easter food.

For my Chocoloate Brioche Twist, I made a basic brioche dough, risen once. I made it in the breadmaker, but if you don't have one, you could make your dough using a food processor with a dough hook. Once it had risen, I rolled it out, spread meted chocolate, mixed with butter across it, rolled it up, sliced it and twisted it. Much easier than it sounds! When baked, it perfect as a little something to have with a cuppa for elevenses, or as an after-school treat.

 Go ahead and give it a try- it's easier than you think!

Chocolate Brioche Twist- pinnable image

Maple and Thyme Roasted Carrots

I made Maple and Thyme Roasted Carrots to go along with dinner this week. Carrots are hands-down my favourite vegetable because they are so versatile. Grated on a salad? Cut into sticks and dip into houmous? Roasted? Boiled? Put them in a cake? All good. They also complement a lot of different flavours and are especially good when a little extra sweetness is added to them. 

These Maple and Thyme Roasted Carrots have that sweet edge to them from the maple syrup, complemented by the garlic and the thyme. When you roast them and they caramelise slightly, they taste even better! If you don't have maple syrup to hand (we've still got some of the really good stuff from our holiday in Canada), then you can easily substitute it with honey.

I served the carrots as an accompaniment to Lime and Ginger Turkey Steaks along with some new potatoes. They would also make a great side dish for Christmas dinner along with Brussell Sprout Hash.

Give them a try next time you cook a roast dinner!

Slow Cooker Carrot and Coriander Soup

Well, we're back to school after the long summer holiday and that means I have to start thinking in advance about what I want for lunch. No more deciding on a whim, no more choosing what I fancy at the time, no more lazy mornings with no lunch prep. I actually don't like getting my lunch ready in the morning, I find it strange thinking about lunch while I eat my breakfast!

Soup is my go-to lunch, especially for the Autumn and Winter. You can make it in big batches, it freezes well and you don't have to put much thought into it. This recipe is for Slow Cooker Carrot and Coriander Soup. Carrot and coriander is a classic flavour combination that works beautifully; the sweetness of the carrot and the spice of the coriander are perfect. It's full of veggie flavour and goodness with the bonus of not having to stand over it while it cooks. Thank you, slow cooker! I added an orange pepper for additional veg and some potato to bulk it out and make it go further.

This recipe makes enough for 4 people to eat for lunch possibly more if having as a starter. It freezes beautifully. If you're using Sistema Soup Cups, it will fill three about 2 thirds full for quite hefty portions.

It's gorgeous with a swirl of yoghurt and a crusty roll. Hope you enjoy!

This soup recipe is syn-free if you are following Slimming World. If you are following a calorie controlled programme like My Fitness Pal, it's approximately 100 calories per portion (400 calories in total).

How to make Viennese Whirls

A plate of Viennese Whirls

If you watched the Great British Bake Off last week, you'll have seen the group of bakers tackling Viennese Whirls with mixed results. I watched them myself, thinking that it looked pretty difficult. Actually, they are fairly easy if you tackle them with confidence! In today's post, I am going to show you how I got on with making Viennese Whirls using a slightly adapted recipe from The Hairy Bikers and give you some top tips for trying it yourself. So, if you are wondering how to make Viennese Whirls and want to have a go, keep reading!

Viennese Whirls

Viennese Whirls are an entirely British creation that get their name from being inspired by Austrian pastries. They are biscuits, very similar to shortbread but with a much lighter texture. What makes them distinctive is the fact that they are piped biscuits in a swirl pattern, which are then filled with buttercream and jam. Usually the jam is strawberry, but you can use whatever your favourite  is. I made half with strawberry and half with blackcurrant. Unlike other biscuit recipes, Viennese Whirls are made with corn flour and icing sugar, and, if done well, they should almost melt in you mouth.

There was a bit of trial and error involved when I made these Viennese Whirls. The trickiest parts of the process are the piping of the biscuit dough and then putting the filling inside. The rest really isn't a problem. My first tip would be that you need to get your butter out several hours before starting as, ideally, you want it as soft as possible.

I  managed to make my biscuits fairly uniform when I was making them, with a few rogue ones. Luckily, even the slightly mis-shapen ones had matching partners, so they still looked good when they were put together! 

For piping the icing, I used a small star icing nozzle, so I would have better control over the quantity going onto the biscuit, and I chilled the buttercream to make the biscuits more stable when assembled. I also found that less is more when it comes to the jam, and that it also benefited from being chilled.

For top tips on how to make your own Viennese Whirls, follow the recipe below.

How to make Viennese Whirls

For the Original recipe from the Hairy Bikers go to the BBC Food website: Hairy Bikers' Viennese Whirls Recipe