Sunday, 13 February 2011


I've been trying to ween myself off certain pieces of kitchen gadgetry, mainly because past purchases have led to disappointment or simply because what I thought would be a labour saving device has turned out to be more trouble than its worth.

I've had my fair share of gizmos that ended up gathering dust in the back of the cupboard, a pasta machine, that was fun to start with, but why make it when shop bought is perfectly fine. Then there was the bread machine, which did get used several times, but I was never happy with the texture of the loaves it produced and the ice cream maker, which requires the bowl to be placed in the freezer for hours on end before I could even start churning the ice cream, but most annoyingly of all, is that I rarely had room in the freezer to fit it in, in the first place.

My cynicism for culinary contraptions almost stopped me taking up an offer from a PR company (Mad as a March Hare) to try something out for them. Luckily nothing too complicated or electrical was required for testing and I'm now completely sold on it.

You may be familiar with those clever little Toastabags, well they've now brought out another cook in the bag method called Quickasteam.
Most people have a microwave (yes, even me) and the Quickasteam bags allow to steam cook anything from vegetables through to fish and chicken, whether it's fresh or frozen. It takes only a fraction of the time that it would take using a conventional hob or oven so saves time and is very economical with the gas or electricity, which is very welcome considering the rising price of utility bills.

I was sent two packs of bags, one large set suitable for 3-6 servings and a smaller one for
1-2 servings. They're very easy to use, I dropped in some new potatoes with a sprig of thyme, salt and pepper and a knob of butter, sealed the bag, placed it in the microwave on high for about 4 minutes, and ping! they were done to perfection.

The great thing about cooking this way is that the bag keeps in all the flavour and if you're health and nutrition conscious, all the goodness too, although you may want to skip the butter.

I also cooked some curly kale which turned out rather well. There was the barest amount of water on the leaves, left after washing them, this generated just enough steam to make the kale tender but not wet and mushy. Another plus point for the bags is they keep in most of the cabbagey pongs, I shall bear this in mind when doing cauliflower, anything to avoid infusing the house with smell of boiling brassicas.

At just £1 a pack, I think I'll be ordering some for myself when this little lot runs out.

For more information and to buy online: www.toastabags.com
Pictures taken from Toastabags website.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Fudge Kitchen

I haven't had any decent fudge for a long time, so I was pleasantly surprised when Fudge Kitchen offered to send me a selection to try.

The very next day, the postman arrived with quite a weighty package, I almost dropped it, when he passed it to me as I misjudged its heft.
I opened the corrugated cardboard box and inside was a dark green carton with a flash of gold from the maker's logo.
I couldn't wait to see what was within and lifted the lid to reveal four generous pieces of fudge wrapped in paper and individually labelled – all a very luxurious affair.

Each piece of fudge was a sizeable slice, which appeared to have been cut from a vast log. There was Traditional Toffee, Belgian Chocolate Swirl, After Dinner Mint and Rich Chocolate Orange.
The accompanying booklet with its enticing pictures and copper-inked type certainly gives an overall feeling of opulence, which I later found to be highly appropriate.

Fudge Kitchen hand make their fudge every day in their shops. The process involves stirring the mixture in huge copper cauldrons, it is then turned out on to marble slab to be worked by hand. If you have the pleasure to visit one of their shops you can see for yourself how it's done, I was content to watch a video on their YouTube channel.

I'll start by saying that this probably the best fudge I've ever had. Previous experiences have found that lesser fudges can be rather chewy, not so with Fudge Kitchen's offerings. As soon as you pop a piece into your mouth it melts into a glorious creamy and silky texture, but be warned you need to have a very sweet tooth, fudge after all, does contain lots of sugar.
You really only need a little nibble at time unless you're a real sugar fiend.

Sweetness aside, the flavours are immense, my favourite in particular, is the Rich Chocolate and Orange. Generous with chocolate, the fudge is dark, almost black, velvety and there are little explosions of orange zest with just the right amount of bitterness.
After Dinner Mint is just like a certain thin confection, whose box bears a clock logo, but far more substantial. A chunky core of cool mint fudge is wrapped in a broad band of chocolate.

It could be the sugar rush but this fudge blasts your brain into space – a not unpleasant experience!

For more information and to buy online, visit their website: www.fudgekitchen.co.uk

Featured on The Artisan Food Trail

Photo: ©childsdesign 2011

Friday, 4 February 2011

King of the Cookers

My first article published in the local magazine, Letchworth Living. (February 2011 edition) www.letchworthliving.co.uk

This month it’s Bramley Apple Week, a time to celebrate all that is great about this versatile and tasty apple.

Name me a typically British fruit and I’ll bet you'll say the apple, but there is one, I feel in particular, more deserving of the highest accolade, and that is the Bramley. I can't think of a better variety for cooking, with its sharp taste and melting texture, it is superior in every way. Tolerating just about any cooking process, the Bramley is able to retain its distinct appley flavour that other apples cannot match. The Bramley is a 'cooker' and 'king of apples' in the kitchen.

I learned from an early age that Bramleys were the best for cooking, both my Mum and Grandma always used them for pies. When watching Mum in the kitchen, she would sometimes offer me a piece of the tart tangy apple to eat, letting me dip it straight into the sugar bowl, just to take the edge off the astringency before popping it into my mouth. I didn't mind that it was sharp and made the edges of my tongue tingle, the intense apple flavour was always enjoyable.

My Grandparents had a Bramley tree in their garden and Grandma would send me, her little helper, off to pick some when she was baking. "How many do you want?" I would ask. "Just two or three", she'd reply. That didn't seem enough, but when I got to the tree I could see why. The apples were huge and my hands could barely hold one easily. The branches, heavy with fruit, hung low enough even for a little girl to reach.
I would grasp one in both hands and twist the apple around, until it freed itself from the twig. The prodigious green fruit, all shiny with a hint of red blushing across its skin, smelled fresh and enticing.

The Bramley apple is just over 200 years old and sprung in to life when in 1809 a young girl by the name of Mary Ann Brailsford planted some pips in her Nottinghamshire garden.
Later in 1846, a local butcher, Matthew Bramley bought the cottage and garden, but it wasn’t until 1856 that the apple became properly established as a new variety. Henry Merryweather, a local nurseryman, asked if he could take cuttings from the tree and start to sell the apple. This was agreed by Matthew Bramley, who insisted that the apple bear his name – hence ‘Bramley’s Seedling’ as it’s properly known.

Bramley Apple Week
Every year, the Bramley is celebrated with an awareness week, and this year it will be held between 6–13 February.
Joining in the celebration of this versatile fruit The Bramley Campaign has enlisted the culinary talents of the BBC’s Great British Menu winner, Mark Hix to develop some delicious recipes.

In the Kitchen
There really is so much you can do with a Bramley. Cut into big chunks it makes a perfect filling for pies and crumbles of course, but it really does have so many uses for both sweet and savoury dishes.

Try them simply baked whole in the oven, just core them, score the skin around the equator of the apple (this prevents them bursting) and then fill the centres with a mixture of sultanas, cinnamon, and lashings of muscovado sugar and butter. Place them in an ovenproof dish and bake at 200C, Gas 6 for about 25 minutes until the apples puff up.
When they’re done the apple flesh will be gloriously fluffy and there will be lots of rich syrupy juices to spoon over.

They are also great made into chutney and go well with meats such as pork and game, they even work well with fish such as mackerel. The sharpness complements well by cutting through the oiliness.

Easy Apple Sauce

Next time you’re having roast pork or even just some humble sausages, try making my easy apple sauce to perk up your meal.
I can assure you that it is so simple to prepare and more delicious than the shop bought stuff.

500g Bramley apples
50g sugar
1 tbsp water

Peel and core the apples, then slice them.
Place into saucepan with the water and sugar and cook gently, stirring occasionally until fluffy.
Leave to cool before serving.

For a dessert version, add raisins and some more sugar if required – this is lovely as a filling for pancakes or yogurt topping.

Best Ever Apple Crumble

Crumble is comfort food, and often a fond reminder of the good things about our childhood. I can’t think of anything nicer than a warm bowl of apple crumble served with a generous amount of custard to cheer me up.

To achieve the best results, I do recommend that you use butter (cold and hard, straight from the fridge) to make the crumble topping. Please do not be tempted to use margarine spread instead as this will not give you the right texture or indeed the taste.

Serves 4–6

For the apples
4 large Bramley apples
knob of butter
zest and juice of 1 lemon
175g caster sugar
a good pinch of cinnamon

For the crumble
125g unsalted butter
225g plain flour
140g caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 200C, Gas 6.

Peel and core the apples and cut into big chunks.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan, add the lemon zest and juice, sugar, cinnamon and then drop in the apples.
Cook gently for about 5 minutes to soften slightly.
Tip the apple mixture into a large ovenproof baking dish and set aside.

Tip the flour into a large bowl and then cut the butter into smallish pieces and add these to the flour. Rub the flour and butter together using your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. It is good if the mixture clumps together a little.
Add the sugar and stir in.

Spoon the crumble mixture over the apples, letting it fall loosely. Avoid squashing it down so that it remains light and fluffy.
Place in the preheated oven and bake for 30 – 40 minutes until a good golden brown.

Local apple varieties

Although Hertfordshire is not known for Bramleys in particular, it would be unfair not to mention two very local varieties.

Young’s Pinello
Letchworth’s very own dessert apple was raised by Miss Eva Young in the 1930s and is still available to buy as tree stock.
It is a medium sized apple with pale yellow skin with a scarlet flush and stripes and firm, aromatic sweet tasting flesh.

Hitchin Pippin
This apple dates back to 1896 but seems to have proved very elusive in tracing an original tree. It was feared that it may have been lost to history, but recent research by the Hertfordshire Orchard Initiative has found a tree that could re-establish the old variety.

Useful websites
Bramley Apple Week

Hertfordshire Orchard Initiative

East of England Apples and Orchards Project

Food photos: ©childsdesign 2010
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