Friday, 29 October 2010

Pizza Part II

Although the Cheat's Pizza I wrote about a few weeks ago was a revelation, I kind of wondered what part it could play in my life. What problem does it solve? Great for one or two people, but impossible in larger quantities - and isn't the whole point of making a pizza, at home, from scratch, to give other people a home-made pizza experience?

And I was also curious about Jamie Oliver's pizza dough, which a lot of people say is nice, but I wanted to see it for myself. And it is fantastic - obviously. You sacrifice nothing: not taste, nor texture.

So I made up a quantity of this dough and rather than dithering about frying it in a pan and then putting it under a grill, I found a flat baking sheet that could fit both in my oven and under the grill and decided to go with that. The trick is to briefly bake the pizza base in the oven before you put the ingredients on top and then finish it off under the grill - it stops the whole thing going soggy.

I used a 12in x 17in baking tray, which gives enough pizza easily for 4 people, or enough for about 6 hungry children. Wow that makes me sound like a really nice person, like I might be making this for a bunch of 7 year-olds. Fat chance.

This recipe makes enough dough for TWO 12in x 17in pizzas. I recommend freezing the extra for another pizza moment as making the dough is the only faffy bit.

500g very type 00 italian flour
400g very strong plain bread flour + 100g semolina
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon sugar
7g dried yeast
325ml warm water
2 tablespoons olive oil

1 Sift together the flour and salt and make a well in the middle.

2 Mix together the water, oil, sugar and yeast. Stir and leave for 3 minutes. Then pour into the flour and mix round with a fork. When it comes together, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead for 4-5 minutes until it's springy and cohesive

3 Put it on some kind of floured surface, your choice what - dust with more flour, cover with a tea towel and leave somewhere warm for an hour.

4 After that time, pummel the dough out a bit on a well-floured surface and knead it round for 4-ish minutes. Then divide this ball into half and roll it out very, very thin to about the shape of your baking sheet - it doesn't have to be a precise rectangle. Make sure the pizza base is well-dusted top and bottom with flour so it doesn't stick to anything.

5 Put this to one side for 20 minutes. Now turn your oven and your grill on to the highest they will go and make some tomato sauce (1/2 can chopped tomatoes, 1 clove garlic, 1 spring basil, 1 glug olive oil, large pinch salt and whizzzzzz in a whizzy machine) and chop up all your toppings now because you'll want to scatter them quick quick over your pre-baked pizza base.

6 Your kitchen by now ought to be worryingly hot from the heat blasting out of your grill and oven. Slide your baking sheet into the oven, as close to the top of the oven as you can get it, for about 3 minutes.

7 Remove from the oven and scatter ideally with semolina or you can use flour. Now carefully lay your well-floured pizza base into the now-boiling-hot baking sheet. This isn't that easy. I recommend picking the dough up with a rolling pin and then laying it down on the sheet and sort of rolling it on - if that makes any sense. Anyway, just do it the best way you can see how and if you find a foolproof way, do share.

8 Stick this back in the oven for about 3-4 minutes, just until the edges of the dough are begining to very lightly colour and the dough feels light and not sticky to the touch.

9 Remove and pour over the tomato sauce, spread it around and add the mozzarella and whatever else you want to it. Then shove back in the oven for about 6-8 minutes until the dough is crisping up and going dark brown around the edges. Finish off under the grill. Produce for lunch to screams of awe.

I can't quite believe that I've got this far without launching into a huge insane rant about what a terrible mood I'm in. Like I'm angry like I used to get at my old job. I just filed a piece and got an email back along the lines of "Thanks. Could we make a few changes..." and there followed, I promise you, about 18 things they wanted to change. And they're shite changes. But BIG changes. And I've written it now and going back over it seems like being made to eat the dinner you didn't want last night for breakfast. And I want to tell them to go and fuck themselves, right in the bum, but I can't, because it's that kind of shitty attitude that got me into this mess in the first place.

But, you know, it's only pride. And they probably know what's best for them. And at least they asked rather than just changing everything themselves to make me sound like someone else was using the family braincell when I wrote it.

I would say that being able to write whatever I want here and not being asked to change things has spoiled me - but being asked to change things has always pissed me off no end. Unless it's the Mail, of course, in which case you just smile and think of the money.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Zombie Brain Cupcakes (Easy Halloween Cupcake #2)

Zombies. Rotten reanimated corpses stumbling hither and thither in search of brains and other various human body parts on which to feed. I love them for it. Zombie movies, zombie games, zombie merchandise, I devour them all with a ravenous hunger that rivals any denizen of the undead. Unlike the other usual suspects of Halloween, such as vampires, witches and mummies, who can simultaneously be bad while exuding both sex appeal and style (don’t think a mummy can be sexy? Then you haven’t seen Arnold Vosloo), zombies seem to exist for no other reason than to kill. They are remorseless, they are ruthlessly terrifying, they are…not at all appetizing. And, at least for those zombies of George A. Romero’s fertile imagination, they are actually quite gross. I don’t want to see that on a cupcake, although there are some who might. But, there are ways to create a zombie-themed confection without resorting to decomposition.

One easy way is to use something like zombie hand picks, which can easily be put on an Oreo crumb-covered cupcake to simulate a zombie rising from the dead. The way described in this post is to make “brain” cupcakes, which would also feel right at home at any mad scientist gathering.

But first, a scientific interlude about zombies and their quest for

Skip to below if you just want to get to the cupcakes!

We’ve all seen zombie movies. We all know the vague anecdotal references to zombie-like trances that voodoo-ish practices can supposedly cause. The question is, can they exist? And the answer is…what do you mean by zombie? There are two main classes of zombies, as I see it. Those that are truly dead, and those that are mindless.
Radiation. Apocalypse. Mystery virus. Or, as is the case with many zombie movies: cause unknown. The catalyst in any classical zombie outbreak is some precipitating factor that inexplicably reanimates dead tissue. The dead rise and inevitably being to hunt humans.  Can it happen?

Negative. When I say dead, I mean really dead, not just clinically dead. In the laboratory, scientists have been able to revive dogs who had been clinically dead for up to 3 hours. But I’m not talking about someone whose heart stopped and was revived. I’m talking someone who is truly no more…has ceased to be…is expired and gone to meet his maker…is a stiff...bereft of life…metabolic processes are now history…kicked the bucket…shuffled off his mortal coil…run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible…an ex-parrot, er, I mean ex-person. Yeah. That won’t happen. Without getting too scientific, muscles need energy to move, in the form of ATP. ATP production requires functional metabolism on a cellular level. Muscles also require input from the brain for coordinated movement. Reflex movement, no. But the type of coordinated movement that is necessary for walking (much less hunting) would be impossible for a dead brain. Nevermind that in order to hunt, zombies would have to retain some level of higher cortical function. Yes, in the confines of a fantasy movieverse, one could make a tenuous rationale for undead zombie metabolism and movement that can hold up well enough for two hours, especially if people want to believe, but as far as having to worry about undead hordes, it won’t be a problem. Although, if you are interested, a Harvard psychiatrist named Dr. Steven C. Schlozman has written an interesting mock journal article examining the zombie brain.

However, another important tenant of undead zombie lore (and the zombie mythos in general) is: if you get bit (and aren’t completely devoured on the spot by zombies) you’ll become a zombie yourself. For Romero zombies of the undead variety, it isn’t always clear whether the transformation occurs because the person died and death itself is the only requirement for becoming a zombie, or because there was some sort of contaminant in the blood, either a toxin or a virus. Which segues into the second form of zombie: living people who act like zombies.
Whether by voodoo, toxin, or pandemic illness, some zombie outbreaks are caused by living people who only act like the undead, without higher brain functions. Such scenarios encompass the Haitian “zombies” as well as the “zombies” from stories such as 28 Days Later and I Am Legend. Is it possible?...Maybe…

Voodoo Zombies
According to West African and Haitian traditions, zombies (or zombi) are dead people that can be revived by a sort of shaman called a bokor. In Haiti, zombie creation is accepted as a reality, so much so that there are laws enacted by the Haitian government outlawing it. In the 1980s, the work of a Harvard ethnobotanist (someone who studies how different cultures use plants), Dr. Wade Davis, brought Haitian zombies to worldwide attention when he published books claiming that he found evidence that bokors induced a zombie-like mindless trance through the use of chemical agents, namely tetrodoxin that had been isolated from pufferfish. Dr. Davis’ hypothesis was that the combination of tetrodoxin and dissociative drugs first induced a state of animated suspension which the person believed was death, followed by re-awakening post-burial inducing a psychotic state (perpetuated by continual medication from the bokor) that convinced the person he was a zombie, and making him susceptible to control. As evidence, Davis highlighted the now-famous case of Clairvius Narcisse, who claimed that he had “died” in 1962 and was revived by a bokor and forced to work on a sugar plantation for 18 years as a slave. However, there are some gaping scientific holes in Dr. Davis’ theories, starting with the fact that tetrodoxin can cause paralysis and unconsciousness, but not the trances that Davis describes, and certainly not for years. Many in the scientific community also doubt that any person, bokor or not, would be able to keep someone in a constant hallucinogenic trance for years.

Far more likely, the reported zombie cases in Haiti are a combination of people being accidentally buried alive and suffering several psychological trauma as a result, or of mistaken identity due to a combination of a wandering mentally ill person identified by mourning relatives. A case study published in Lancet examining “zombie” cases in Haiti (Lancet 1997; 350:1094-1096) used DNA testing to determine that most “zombie” cases were actually cases of mistaken identity by a bereaved family. In only one case was the “zombie” found to actually belong to the family that claimed her, with a quick examination of her tomb revealing that it was empty. She was diagnosed as having suffered anoxic brain injury from being sealed in the tomb, which accounted for her zombie-like trance – oxygen deprivation destroyed her higher brain functions. That particular case is a tad sinister since it was clear that 1. She was buried; and 2. Someone probably removed her from her tomb, because her tomb was filled with rocks. The scientists who investigated left the door open to the possibility that some person (call him a bokor or whatever) might very well have poisoned her to simulate death, and then retrieved the body later. The possibility for that to happen to other people does, in fact, exist.

Zombie Infection
So what about a plague upon mankind that reduces its victims to mindless and/or crazed hordes, a la 28 Days Later? These “zombies” are definitely alive, but no longer in control of their faculties. Could humans become exposed to or infected with some disease that alters their brain chemistry to such an extent that they can exhibit zombie-like behavior? It might be unlikely, but it isn’t technically impossible.

When neurotransmitters become aberrantly regulated, they can have a severe impact on behaviors such as aggression. Pump rats full of serotonin, and they attack each other more easily than they would otherwise. Throw them enough out of whack in response to a disease, for a large enough segment of the population, and theoretically it is anyone’s guess what will happen.

As far as viruses go, there is already at least one virus out there that mucks up brain chemistry, causes hyper-aggression, and is transmitted through a bite: rabies, which proves that aggression-causing viruses do exist in nature. Given the rate of expected new virus discovery in the coming decades (Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 275 (1647), 2111-2115), plus, the constantly expanding pool of zoonotic viruses (viruses that are coming from animal hosts to infect humans), who knows what challenges new viruses might bring. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying it will happen, I’m just not saying it can’t.

There are other infections that can cause gross behavioral changes. Take Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which is a fungus that infects ants, turning them into so-called “zombie ants”.  Basically,  this fungus can only thrive under certain exact conditions, and when it infects an ant, it hijacks the ant’s behavior to the point where the ant seeks out leaves in those exact specific locations where the fungus can grow, and when it finds them, it clamps down on the leaf and dies. Once that happens, the fungus spores in the ant’s body sprout and disperse seeds. If the ants are moved to even slightly different locations after death, no spores sprout, so this induced behavior is extremely specific and solely designed to provide the fungus with the correct environment. Or how about Toxoplasma gondii, for instance. This parasite lives the majority of its life cycle in the gut of cats, which is where it wants to be most of the time. But when it sheds its eggs, those eggs are eaten by other critters such as rats, where they hatch. But the brand-new T. gondii wants to get back to cats pronto, so it alters the behavior of infected rats in one vital way: Normally, rats have a panic attack when they come into contact with cat urine, which is an evolved response to keep them out of areas where cats live and patrol. Buuuut...infected rats lose this anxiety when they smell cats, so they just waltz into cat-infested areas, presumably to get eaten. Humans can also be hosts to T. gondii, and there is some (controversial) evidence that this parasite can also alter behavior in humans. There might even be a link between T. gondii infection and schizophrenia, although this is not completely understood, and is a matter of much debate. But the point is, there are parasites out there that can hijack behavior in a variety of different ways, even when those ways go against every tenet of self-preservation. Just because it hasn’t verifiably happened yet for humans doesn’t mean that it never will.

Now, are these living zombies true zombies according to genre purists? If you have hordes of crazed people hunting down humans and chomping on them, do those distinctions even matter?

Whew! That was a long interlude! Sorry, I’m a biologist, and this stuff excites me. But now on to the

These cupcakes are pretty easy, they are more decoration than anything else. I injected heated jam into them to make them look “bloody” (check out my Vampire cupcakes to see more details on the actual injection). But, you can fill them with anything you want, or nothing at all. Some cherry pie filling from a can would work well mixed with some almond extract, or some red Jell-o to make a poke cake. If you are using cherry pie filling, or any filling that involves cutting a plug out of the cupcake for filling, you can use any type of batter you want. If you are relying on something soaking into the cake itself, like jam or Jell-o, I recommend a yellow or white batter so it is easier to see.

So, step one, bake those cupcakes!

Step two, fill them or poke them, or whatever you are planning to do. Like the vampire cupcakes, I used a syringe to fill these. And like I mentioned in my previous post, if you remove the needle part too fast, the jam will come gushing back out of the hole, so easy does it. Although, these can look a little messy. They are brains, after all.

Then, make some icing, and dye it a light grey color or a light beige color with some gel. I used a basic buttercream (recipe below) but you can use any icing that will stand up to being piped, and that you can dye grey.

You are going to be piping either with a round tip (#12) or with a bag with a ½” snip taken out of the corner. Mentally divide your cupcake surface into halves. Then, in one sequential motion, draw a line down the center of the cupcake, and bring it back up around the edge, tracing a semicircle. Without interrupting the flow of icing, fill down the empty semicircle with a curving zig-zag motion (see diagram below).

This is one hemisphere, so repeat the mirror image for the other half of the cupcake, and voila, brain!

To make it a little more gory, you can dab your bloody filling along the brains. I have a feeling this would work better with the Jell-o than with the jam. As thin as the jam was, it was still a little too thick to run down the sides of the icing in the way I was hoping for. But it didn’t turn out too badly, although it was so hot in my apartment that my icing started to melt.

These cupcakes only take a little extra effort, but they are a great way to pull together a theme. If you have more time, they could be done a heck of a lot nicer than I did, but they get the job done either way. They definitely qualify as on e of the easier Halloween treats!

Basic Vanilla Buttercream


  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 1-3 teaspoon milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

1. Beat softened butter until fluffy, then add in the sugar and salt.
2. Add in vanilla extract, and milk one tsp at a time until you reach desired piping consistency

Vampire and Slayer Cupcakes (Easy Halloween Cupcake #1)

Like my previous Halloween post on Quick Creepy Treats, this post and the few following it are not actual recipes, but ideas and directions for assembly of some quick Halloween-themed treats, in this case, cupcakes. But not just any cupcakes…vampire cupcakes…and slayer cupcakes!

In other words, 

Welcome to the Hellmouth. Or my kitchen. Either way. Now, vampirism is a cumbersome and complex topic, full of history and pop culture references. For just a bite (get it?) of vampire lore concerning that most famous of all vamps, keep reading, or scroll down to the pics to get back to the Buffy baking!

Vampires, those eternal creatures of the night that feed on the life forces of the living, make an appearance in the legends of nearly all of the world’s cultures, from the Lilitu of ancient Persia and the Lamia of ancient Greece, all the way to the Loogaroo of the Caribbean (as well as several varieties not brought to you by the letter “L”). Stories of the undead who drain the life essence of humans exist on every continent, but perhaps nowhere so famously as in Eastern Europe, the home of the infamous Dracula.

Even before Bram Stoker came along, vampire mythology had a long tradition in eastern Europe, most notably amongst the Slavs and Romanians. Although he was not the original source of the vampire legends, one man’s legacy provided the basis for our modern classical concept of vampires as described by Stoker: Vlad the Impaler.

Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Tepes, was born in Transylvania, but he did not technically reign there. Vlad III was actually the Voivode of Wallachia, a principality that is part of modern day Romania. Voivode is a uniquely Slavic title that combines the authority of a prince with that of a supreme military commander. Vlad inherited the voivodeship from his father, Vlad Dracul, so named because he was a member of the Order of the Dragon (from the Greek: Δράκων (Dracon)). Because of this, Vlad III became known as Vlad Dracula, literally “son of the dragon”.  But there was something prophetic about this moniker, because the Romanian word drac has a meaning of its own: devil.

Now, Vlad did not start out as a torturer and mass murderer. He started out as an eleven year old boy who had been sent as a political hostage to the Ottomans as a show of loyalty between Vlad’s father and his tenuous Turkish allies against the Hungarians. Such things were common during this time period, but Vlad was badly mistreated by the Ottomans over a period spanning 5 years, which sowed the seeds of his implacable hatred of the Ottomans later in life. At the age of 16, Vlad’s father was murdered by the boyars (aristocrats) of Wallachia, who had allied with the Hungarians, while his older brother Mircea was blinded and buried alive. So there was quite a bit of revenge mixed into Vlad’s bloody story. Everything came to a head on Easter Sunday, 1457, when Vlad finally had his revenge: the older boyars and families were all impaled, while the younger boyars were enslaved to rebuild Poienari Castle. None survived. Over the rest of his reign, Vlad systematically wiped out the entire aristocracy of his country, who were not only associated with the murder of his family, but who also had a long history of undermining the Voivode’s authority.

Vlad III’s reign itself was not so very remarkable in the context of a 15th century ruler who was trying to consolidate power – he killed everyone opposed to him or who he thought might pose a challenge to his authority in the future, including both his own people and those of rival nations.  But what made Vlad so interesting, and what undoubtedly caught Stoker’s attention, was his unusual method of killing and torturing. As he did with the boyars, Vlad preferred impalement as his execution method of choice, with a side of torture thrown in: the stake was gradually driven into the bodies – so gradually that it could take days for the victim to die. And Vlad didn’t stop with the boyars, he impaled tens of thousands of people, many of whom were prisoners of war.  In 1462, Mehmed II, ruler of Constantinople, was said to have retreated back to Ottoman lands with his army in fear and disgust when he encountered more than 20,000 Turkish prisoners of war staked to the ground outside of Vlad’s capital city.  And while tales of his cruelty and massacres are still infamous in adjacent areas and found their way into many local vampire legends, in Romania he is still lauded as a national hero for his war against the Ottomans.

However, the real-life Dracula didn’t lend much to Stoker beyond his name, location, and method of execution: a stake through the heart. Which brings us to:

The contributions to pop culture of Joss Whedon notwithstanding, the most prevalent vampire hunter lore again comes from Eastern Europe, especially from Romani oral traditions (not to be confused with Romanians, Romani are Gypsies). According to Romani legends, the offspring of a vampire and a mortal, dhampir, had the ability to see and identify vampires, and could thus protect their villages from them. They also had the extra advantages of superhuman speed, strength and agility, making them well equipped to throw down with vampires.  There are rough counterparts to this concept in several Balkan and Slavic areas, some half vampires and some not, but all endowed with extra abilities to combat the supernatural. However, unlike modern fictional portrayals of vampire hunters, the hunters of legend were usually identifiable by the fact that they were grossly malformed.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled baking!

 These cupcakes are so simple, I really think I gave them their own post in order to have an opportunity to write about vampires and somehow incorporate Buffy into my baking. But in any event, as with the previous Halloween treats I posted, this is the simplest version of a theme. Depending on the amount of time you want to spend, you can get proportionally more elaborate than I did here.

This is what I used.
First, you bake some cupcakes. Easy, right? I used a Sprinkles vanilla cylinder because I had it on hand, but you can make any kind you want. But, give some forethought to how you want to fill these cupcakes and the method you are going to use to fill them. If, say, you are going to cut a plug out of the cupcakes and fill them with some red colored cream filling, or some cherry pie filling mixed with almond extract, then the cupcakes can be whatever flavor/color you want. If you are going to be like me, and poke some red stuff (ie warmed jam or Jell-o to make a poke cake) all over the cake, chose a light batter so that people can see the red soaked into the cake.

Next, you fill the cupcakes. Now, you don’t have to fill them, but it really looks nice to have some red stuff in there for when people bite down. Like I said, you can make your own cream (recipe at end) and dye it appropriate colors, or you can use some chopped cherry pie filling from a can mixed with some almond extract. If you do either of these methods, cut a plug out from your cupcakes and fill them.
Heat until the jam is thin.

Now, rather than this, I took an easier route with these. I decided to try poke cupcakes, which usually means that you poke the cupcakes with a toothpick and pour something thinned out over them to be soaked down into the cake. The most common thing to pour over is Jell-o, either strawberry or cherry. But I went one step easier, and used raspberry jam heated (carefully!) in the microwave. If you do this, be sure to buy jam and not preserves, because preserves don't melt in the same way.  It was fast, easy, and made the vanilla cupcake taste rather like a thumbprint cookie. But, instead of just poking, I actually used a syringe to inject the cupcakes with the jam, since it was still a little thicker than Jell-o (the same syringe as in my Mini Tortuga Rum Cakes, if you want to see detailed syringe pictures).  
I'm not trying to be spooky with this pic, I didn't realize the flash was on...
Don't mind my messy table...
The syringe sort of looks like an overgrown reverse mosquito, forcing blood in rather than sucking it out. And I learned something very important. When you do this, with jam at least, withdraw the syringe tip slowly, otherwise the jam will come gushing back out of the hole like this:

This isn't tragic, they are Halloween cupcakes after all. If this happens, just be a little more careful when you frost, because you want the icing surface to be as white as possible. You'll notice that I poked anywhere from 1-3 holes per cupcake. I think 2 holes worked out ideal. If you are going to use Jell-o, you can still use the syringe, but it will have an easier time soaking into the cake than the jam, so you can just poke with a toothpick and let the liquid soak in.

Now you can frost. You don’t need to do much with the frosting itself, so you can use white icing from a tub if you wish, or a basic buttercream, or you can slap on a Swiss meringue buttercream or 7 minute frosting…really whatever you feel like, as long as it is white. When you choose your frosting, go ahead and frost your cupcakes smoothly, not in a terribly thick layer.

Now, you poke holes in the frosting and add “blood” and this is really where it helps to have a red filling that can double as blood on the top of the cupcake. Make 2 holes in the frosting that look like a vampire’s bite mark, and fill them with your “blood”, dribbling blood away from the holes. Voila! Easy vampire cupcakes. I rushed them a little bit, so they aren't as pretty as I would have liked, but you get the general idea...

My apartment was unseasonably hot, and my icing started to melt!

And then when you cut it open, there is a nice amount of bloodiness in the cake:

In this particular cupcake, I managed to line up the bite puncture wounds perfectly with the jam in the cake. It looks cool, but it wasn't intentional, and isn't necessary. The only way anyone would notice is if they split the cupcake down the middle anyway.

To complete the theme, because I was determined to tie it in somehow, I made some “slayer” cupcakes, settling on a "stake through the heart" theme: assemble them the same way as the vampire cupcakes up through the frosting part. After the layer of white frosting is down, take some of your frosting and dye it red. Then, pipe a heart onto the top of the cupcake, and put a stake through it (in this case, a pretzel stick). 

If you think the cupcake is a little ambiguous, you can always write “Stake the <3” on them instead of just the heart, like I did. And if you want, you can ground up some Oreo “ashes” for decoration around the edges, because you, my friend, have just dusted a vamp.

Is this sophisticated decorating? Not at all. Marshmallow fondant would probably make a nicer surface than the icing, but I just didn't have the patience. Ditto for the heart. A chocolate-dipped pretzel rod would have made a better Mr. Pointy. I could have dribbled the jam a bit more artistically. But you don't have to go nuts for a simple theme. After all, everything doesn't need to look like the Cake Boss did it. I don't know about you, but my baking time is always competing with other things. When I made these, I was simultaneously baking and decorating cupcakes, getting dinner together, assembling a Halloween costume, and reading articles for work. But these cupcakes work with my schedule. They are easy, cute, and get the point across. 

This recipe is actually a Twinkie filling copycat recipe that has been floating around the internet for years in many different places.

  • 1-7oz jar marshmallow cream2 tsp hot water
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 C shortening
  • 1/3 C powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla

  1. Dissolve the salt in the hot water and allow it to cool down to room temp
  2. Whip all ingredients except the salt water until fluffy
  3. Slowly add the salt water and whip well until fully combined and fluffy
  4. Add dye gel if desired

Apple Cider Doughnuts (Oct '10 Daring Bakers Challenge)

This month's Daring Bakers Challenge (my first participation in a while) was extremely exciting for me: doughnuts! I've always wanted to try my hand at doughnut making, and I even have one of those baked doughnut pans although I've yet to use it. For this challenge, I decided to give it a try, and I decided to fry them, despite having never deep-fried anything in my entire life. This process was a definite learning experience, but a lot of fun, and the doughnuts were super-tasty.

I chose apple cider as the doughnut flavor I wanted to make, which leads us to another historical Halloween interlude:

Bobbing for Apples 

Apple bobbing, the practice of diving for apples submerged in buckets of water, and pulling them out with one's teeth, has a long history -- over 2000 years of it! The Romans conquered Britain in circa 43 A.D., and when they did so, they brought many Roman customs and traditions with them. One such tradition was the festival of Feralia, a public celebration of the Manes (Roman spirits of the dead) which marked the end of the Parentalia feast honoring dead ancestors. The second custom was the worship of Pomona, the Roman goddess of plenty, namely fruit and fertility. Worship of Pomona was especially prevalent during the Roman harvest season. Although Feralia was held at the end of February in Rome, eventually both Feralia and Pomona worship became merged with the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain in Britain. Apples in particular were of special mystical significance, because if one cuts an apple in half, there is a pentagram clearly visible, studded with apple seeds. The belief that apples were tied to fertility and could predict the future led to the superstitions that the first person to successfully bob for an apple would be the first to marry.

As another interesting historical aside: when English settlers first came to America in the late16th and early 17th centuries, they found only crab apple trees, which are indigenous only to North America. The colonists brought seeds with them to plant apple trees, but these early orchards were largely failures because there were no honey bees to pollinate the blossoms. In 1622, the first shipment of honey bee colonies to the New World landed in the Colony of Virginia, with additional shipments of honey bees landing in Massachusetts Bay in subsequent years.

Cider Donuts

I decided to make apple cider doughnuts, because to me, it is one of the most definitive Autumn foods. There really is nothing like a warm apple cider doughnut on a crisp Fall day at an orchard while you pick pumpkins and/or apples. So, I decided to try and replicate the cider doughnuts at my local orchard, and to do it, I modified a cider donut recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

This recipe isn't hard, but it can be time-consuming, and it definitely isn't a "one-bowl" recipe. The key is to have all of your equipment and ingredients out and ready to go, so you're not scrambling later on.

The first thing you need is some good-quality apple cider. I got mine at my local orchard.

You then take a cup and a half of this cider, and reduce it down to 1/4 C. It is hard to judge how much volume you have in the pan, but when it doubt, it is better to reduce it to a smaller volume than you need rather than leave it at a bigger volume -- if you end up with less than 1/4C of reduced cider, you can always bring the volume up with unreduced cider if need be. When I was doing this, it was getting late, so I reduced the cider, covered it and stuck it in the fridge overnight. You can do the same, and it'll shave a little time off of the entire process.

Take the dry ingredients, spices, flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt, and combine it in a bowl so that it is ready.

If you need to clabber milk to make buttermilk (1/2 tbls of lemon juice or white vinegar in 1/2 C milk for 10 minutes), now would be the time

Then, cream together softened butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time, and beat each one until incorporated.

Then, add the reduced cider, buttermilk, and vanilla to the mixture on low, and beat until just combined.

Add in the flour in gradually (can do in batches of 2 or 3), and beat until just combined

Then, parchment line and generously flour 2 cookie sheets. Take your dough, and deposit it on one of the cookie sheets, sprinkling flour on the top of the dough and on your hands. Pat the dough down in a rough rectangle until it is about 1/2 inch thick. Add more flour to your hands and to the top of the dough if it is a little sticky.

This dough needs to firm up in the freezer for about 30 minutes. The surface of the dough should be stiffening when you pull it out. You have 2 basic options for cutting the dough: 2 circular cutters from a set of biscuit cutters, or a doughnut cutter. For this recipe, I used the 3" biscuit cutter on the left, and a second 1" cutter to make the holes. I did this because the only doughnut cutter I could find was 2.5" and I wanted something a little larger. In retrospect, 2.5" would have been fine too.

Take these cutters and carefully cut your holes in the dough. Make sure to flour your cutters or the dough will stick. I found that a nice side-to-side turning motion once you've cut down to the bottom of the dough helps release the dough from the cutter.

Then, you carefully transfer the doughnuts and holes to the second cookie sheet. If the dough seems to be too soft, pop the dough back in the freezer for 10 minutes before you try transferring them.

Once the doughnuts are on the second sheet, pop them into the fridge for a half hour or so. If you have leftover dough, you can repeat the process, re-chilling in between.  In the meantime, now is a good time to get the oil heating. You want to assemble a deep pot with a deep frying thermometer attached to the side, with the probe end deep down but not touching the bottom of the pot.

For this recipe I used solid Crisco shortening as per a suggestion by Smitten Kitchen that using solid shortening will make the end product less greasy since it is solid at room temperature. But you can use whatever oil you feel comfortable with -- just be sure to research the flash point of whatever you are planning to use (i.e. the temperature at which the oil becomes ignitable). You want enough oil to be 2-3" deep in the pan. The temperature range you are shooting for to fry the doughnuts is somewhere between 350F and 365F -- if the oil is too cool, the dough will absorb too much, and if it is too hot, the outside will cook too fast, leaving a raw doughy center.

It'll take a little while for the oil to melt and come up to temperature, so now is a good time to think about doughnut toppings. These doughnuts happen to taste great bare, but here are 2 different potential toppings you might want to try (recipes below): cider glaze (confectioner's sugar and cider); and cinnamon sugar.

Now is also a good time to prepare a blotting station for the newly-fried doughnuts. You can reuse that first cookie sheet that you used to pat the dough onto -- just line it with fresh parchment and add several layers of paper towels.

I have a confession to make: my oil was probably closer to 325F, but I was getting impatient so I started frying. They turned out great, and they didn't absorb too much oil -- I'm not sure if this was a function of using solid shortening, or a function of an uncalibrated thermometer, or perhaps a function of the fungible nature of deep frying...

If you're not sure whether the oil is at the right temperature, test it out on one of the doughnut holes. Give it a few minutes after it comes out of the oil and drains before you cut it open to have a looksie. If it is cooked through without being oil-logged or burned on the outside, you are good to go.

Now you are ready to start frying the doughnuts. Carefully add one or several doughnuts to the oil, but don't over-crowd the pan. Keep a close watch and flip it over when it gets golden brown, anywhere from 30-60 seconds (mine took about 45). Then flip it over and let it cook on the other side an addition 30-60 seconds. When you flip it, do it gently, the doughnut is not quite set yet. And when you lift it out of the oil, also be gentle, it'll only firm up as it blots and drains on the paper towels.

When you are done, you end up with a doughnut, after it has blotted and cooled enough to handle (they are hot when they come out of the oil!!), that is ready for a topping. Topping is best done while the doughnut is still warm. Whether you dip just the tops of the doughnuts or the whole doughnut (as I did) is totally up to you!

Cinnamon sugar:

And cider glazed:

As you can guess, I made more cinnamon sugar doughnuts than cider glazed ones, because that is how I traditionally see cider doughnuts topped...but I have to say that I really liked the glazed ones too! They both are great for different reasons: the glaze really brings out the taste of cider, while the sugar ones have that great texture. The people who sampled my doughnuts were split down the middle 50/50 on which topping they liked better, so my advice is to split the batch evenly between the two toppings. I've been mulling over combining the two (glazing and then dipping in cinnamon sugar), but I'm not sure if this would be a little too sweet.

All in all, this challenge was a complete success. This recipe yields doughnuts that are satisfyingly apple cidery, and taste even better than ones from an orchard. The process is a little involved (so is the clean-up), but it is totally worth it, especially if you're like me, and Fall is the most wonderful time of the year!


For doughnuts:

  • 1 1/2 C apple cider, reduced to 1/4 C and cooled
  • 3 1/2 C flour, plus additional for cookie sheets, and dough
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg, freshly grated
  • 1/2 stick butter, softened
  • 1 C granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 C buttermilk (clabber 1/2 C milk with 1/2 tsp lemon juice or white vinegar for 10 minutes)
  • Vegetable oil or shortening for frying
For cider glaze (mix until smooth):
  • 1 C confectioner's sugar
  • 2 tbls apple cider
For cinnamon sugar:
  • 1 C sugar
  • 1 tbls cinnamon


  1. Reduce apple cider to 1/4 C, and set aside to cool
  2. Combine all dry ingredients (flour, spices, baking powder, baking soda, salt) in a bowl and set aside
  3. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy
  4. Add eggs one at a time and mix until just combined
  5. Slowly add the reduced cider, buttermilk and vanilla on low, and beat until just combined
  6. Add the dry ingredients in 2-3 additions, mixing until just combined.
  7. Turn dough out onto a parchment-lined and floured cookie sheet, and pat down until it is 1/2" thick
  8. Freeze for 30 minutes
  9. Cut out doughnuts and holes with chosen cutter, and transfer to second parchment-lined and floured cookie sheet
  10. Place doughnuts in refrigerator for 30 minutes
  11. Heat oil to 350F-365F
  12. Gently place one or several doughnuts and/or holes in the oil to fry. Fry the first side 30-60 seconds until golden brown, then flip and fry the other side an additional 30-60 seconds.
  13. Remove with steel mesh frying skimmer onto a paper towel-lined cookie sheet and allow to blot. Repeat for all doughnuts and holes.
  14. Assemble toppings and dip the warm doughnuts into the topping of your choice (can dip tops only or entire doughnut)

Happy Baking!

Obligatory Daring Bakers blog check line: " The October 2010 Daring Bakers challenge was hosted by Lori of Butter Me Up. Lori chose to challenge DBers to make doughnuts. She used several sources for her recipes including Alton Brown, Nancy Silverton, Kate Neumann and Epicurious."

Monday, 25 October 2010

Sausage casserole

One of the more exciting things about being pregnant - (aside from the stress incontinence, which adds a not unthrilling frisson to sneezing) - is the idea that the child might inherit some useful qualities from its father's family.

For example, my husband and his sister are both amazing mathematicians. And by that I mean they've got great mental arithmetic, which is really the only cool thing to be able to do with maths.

My sister-in-law has applied her maths wizardry to playing cards, with great effect. I hear that beyond a certain element of cunning and luck, being good and consistently taking money off other people at such card games as this "poker" I hear so much about, requires a facility with maths. I don't know why, and I know it's nothing to do with 'counting cards', which I'm pretty sure isn't allowed, but I know it's the case that maths is the thing.

And she's good at spelling, too. So in all, there's very little that I can do that my sister-in-law can't.

My one tangible, definable skill is my outstanding timekeeping. I am never late for anything, ever. And I know how long five minutes is, almost to the second, without using a watch. And pretty much any time of the day, you can ask me what the time is and I'll know. But what fucking use is that? I don't want to work in a train station. And my sister-in-law has her very own watch. It is pink.

But occasionally she will ring the house looking for her brother, who will be out strangling dogs somewhere, and get me. And she'll occasionally humour me with a question about cooking.

Like the other day.

"I know what I could ask you. Do you think," she said, "if a recipe says cook a casserole on the hob for 50 minutes and you would actually rather do it in the oven, you can?"

"Yes," I replied, sounding grand and patronising. "Yes that's fine. Stick it in at 180 for 50 mins. Would this perchance be a Nigel Slater recipe from this weekend? The sausage casserole one where he - snort - FORGETS to instruct you to put the sausages back in the pan [shaking head] - I don't know..."

And she said "Oh I'm not sure. It's Nigel Slater but it might not be that one."

And I said "Well, let me know how it goes anyway."

And this is how is went:

Victoria's sausage casserole

"This one's still pretty simple. Basically, you colour up some onions in (well, this is how I did it because of not having a big enough casserole dish that cooked on the stove) - I coloured up some onions in a frying pan, chopped up some Cumberland sausages and browned them, all of that in a pan with fennel seeds, chopped garlic and a couple of bay leaves.

Then I put it all in an oven casserole dish with some chopped up apples and a spoonful of mustard, a litre of stock and some Madeira, and a tablespoon of flour stirred in. And salt and pepper of course, good old salt and pepper. Cooked that (braised? baked?) in the oven for half an hour, then added a tin of haricot beans (obviously you're meant to have dried haricot beans that you've soaked in water overnight but, I mean, LIFE'S TOO SHORT), then cooked it for another half an hour, then stirred in another spoon of grainy mustard - done. Nigel Slater might have had some other stuff in his recipe, I can't remember now, but that's what I had mine.

In the Nigel Slater version, all done on the stove, after 50 minutes the liquid should be "mostly dissipated" or "mostly disappeared" or something, so I imagined a thick stew for plates and forks.

It didn't come out like that, either because I fiddled with the measurements cos I was cooking for more people, or because he hadn't tested it properly - or just because I cooked it in the oven with the lid on, so obviously the liquid can't disappear off into the air quite so easily.

Anyway, it was very liquidy (though a nice thick liquid because of the flour) so I served it in bowls with a spoon, and granary bread to dip in - the bread dipped in the liquid was delicious, mmm."
I didn't ask her to send a photo too, because she doesn't even know I'm posting the contents of her email here, so I thought a photo as well might have been a bridge too far.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Chicken curry

So I made this curry last night, but decided I wasn't that crazy about it, so didn't take a photo. But then I had a bit more and thought "Actually this is great" and my husband said "Yeah it's really great."

And so I resolved to take a photo this morning. But then I forgot and turned the leftovers into a salad, so now I've got nothing to take a photo of. So here's another photo of me on holiday:

Yes I don't look too fat here until you have a look at where my back ends (bottom right)

Anyway, it was an approximation of a thing I got off River Cottage Bites and it's a nice curry although it'll make your house stink like the local Taj Star.

The really interesting thing about it is that I implemented some advice given to me, indirectly, by the film director Gurinda Chadha, who said on some cooking programme that her family always cooked chicken with the skin off. She said "I don't know why," but I do.

It's because chicken skin is unbelievably greasy and curry doesn't need to be any more greasy than it already is. So last night I skinned the chicken drumsticks before browning them as normal and the result was superb.

So here we go, the River Cottage Bites chicken curry, for about 4 people

8 chicken drumsticks (or thighs)
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 can coconut milk (I use those small turqouise ones from Waitrose)
1tsp coriander seeds
1tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp ground turmeric
2 tsp ground cumin
1 fresh chilli, seeds in or there's no point
1 2cm square of fresh ginger
1 small onion

1 Grind together the seeds, the turmeric and the cumin and toast gently in a dry pan until the kitchen smells like the set of Slumdog Millionaire. It seems like a shiteload, but just tip it all in.

2 In a food processor, whizz up the ginger, onion and chilli to make a paste. Add some oil to the pan that the spices are cooking in and then tip in this paste. While that's cooking gently for about 10 mins, bloop into the processor the chopped tomatoes and coconut milk and whizz. Leave it there for a bit.

3 Skin the chicken and brown in a pan for about 4 minutes each side. Arrange in a baking dish

4 When the paste/spice mix has had about 10 mins, add in the tomato/coconut mixture and wibble this around until it's all bubbling. Then taste - it will be bland as hell, but spicy, so add salt bit by bit until it starts to taste like something nice. In the end I added - no joke - about four big pinches of salt, but it's best to start small.

5 Pour this mixture over the chicken and bake in a 180C oven, uncovered, for 1 hour.

Very nice re-heated, or cold. The leftover sauce makes a really delicious light curry dressing when mixed with yoghurt, cucumber and mint.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Buckwheat pancakes

Urgh I've got SO MUCH cooking to do. So MUCH. And I don't know why, but I don't want to do any of it. Even starting it feels like the biggest load of homework ever, or a tax return.

It's all my fault, too. I offered to do it all and now I don't want to do any of it. The most pressing and urgent thing is a beetroot soup I said I'd test for my friend James who is writing a cookery book and I've just completely failed to do it. Every time I go to the shops I forget to buy some key ingredients and then get home and think Oh God Oh God I haven't got the stuff. But I AM going to do it as I'm now ashamed of myself.

An equally pressing thing is a pork pie I've got to make as a thank you. Now's probably a good a time as any to tell you that those four days when I went missing just now I was in Miami. On holiday.

Coral was very  much the toenail varnish colour du jour out there

 I didn't say anything because I never want to know about anyone else's holiday, particularly not in winter.

I try to be nice when they want to tell me about their six weeks in Thailand. I say "Oh how lovely, how lovely - your own pool, really? Free, you say? Best food ever? And Bradley Cooper chatted you up at the bar, wow. That is one. Cool. Holiday!"


But now there's a picture of me in Grazia at a party in Miami for this hotel so it seems weird to not mention it. It's like I've been presented with a picture of me being unfaithful and I'm just trying to ignore it. I look fat and sweaty anyway, and had to go to bed about half an hour after it was taken because I'm the biggest most pathetic person ever when it comes to jet lag.

We were there because my husband knows Nick Jones, who owns Soho House and Babington House and all those other houses and now Soho Beach House and we went to have a poke around and complain about the plumbing. But then you get home and you're, like: "What the hell do we get him to say thanks? His own personalised unicorn? A lapdance from Beyonce? This man owns EVERYTHING: he doesn't want dinner, he doesn't want champagne, he doesn't want a lapdance from someone else's wife. I mean... probably not."

So I thought I'd make him a pork pie. But I can't seem to get started. And now I've just found out that I put the lard I bought specially for it in the freezer (WHY?!?!?). So that's delayed that for another few hours. And God only knows where Nick is anyway, he could be half-way to China by now.

I've also got to make a giant chilli - but that's another story.

But I did get off my fat pregnant wheezy arse and make some buckwheat pancakes this morning, out of the really excellent new Leon Cookbook 2 (more of which, inevitably, later). They are wheat-free, for anyone doing a wheat-free thing and although they are not as bouncy and sinful as proper American diner pancakes they are pretty nice with butter, banana and a splosh of maple syrup of a morning. They are dense and nutty and a good alternative if you don't want to have a finely-milled white flour event in your kitchen.

So here we go - buckwheat pancakes.
for 4

125g buckwheat flour
pinch baking powder
pinch salt
3 eggs
1 large teaspoon runny honey

1 Sieve the flour into a bowl and add the baking powder, salt and honey. Separate the eggs and put the yolks in with the flour. Make sure the egg whites go into a large bowl because you're going to beat them - (or straight into a processor).

2 Mix the yolks into the flour and then add milk until you get a smooth batter - not too thick. Then beat the egg whites until they're stiff and fold them in. You can always add a bit of milk after the egg whites if that thickens the whole thing up too much.

3 Cook as normal. You can make the mixture the night before if you like.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Pecan Pie Muffins

Mid-October begins the official pecan harvesting season, and they are ubiquitous in baking and cooking throughout Autumn. I adore pecan pie, it is one of my Fall baking staples, so I jumped at the chance to try Pecan Pie Muffins -- all the goodness of pecan pie in a muffin form. 

Pecans, or Carya illinoinensis, are native to North America. They're called after the Algonquin name for the nut, "pekkan" which literally means a nut that has to be cracked by a stone. These nuts were very popular in America from the colonial period onward, and had some notable fans early on. Thomas Jefferson used to grow them in his nut orchard at Monticello, and he made a gift of pecan trees to George Washington, who henceforth began to grow them at Mount Vernon. Although they were grown on a small scale sporadically in America, mass commercial cultivation had to wait nearly a century for a slave named Antoine of the Oak Alley plantation in Louisiana to develop a method for grafting and propagating pecan trees in 1846-1847. This cultivar was dubbed "The Centennial", and was the first commercial variety of pecans in the world. Two of the original pecan trees grafted by Antoine still stand today at the Oak Alley plantation, which is less remarkable when you realize that pecan trees can live to be over 300 years old!

I first noticed a recipe for Pecan Pie Muffins on Tasty Kitchen, and it instantly attracted me because 1) I was intrigued by the thought of a muffin replicating the taste of pecan pie; and 2) the recipe was exceedingly simple, with only a handful of ingredients. So, I made some minor modifications to suit my taste buds (a little less sugar, and the addition of some chocolate) and gave them a whirl.

This recipe contains the simplest ingredients: flour, sugar, butter, eggs, pecans and chocolate. Note that there is no leavening agent. Pecan pie is not known for being light and fluffy, and likewise these muffins are dense morsels of intense flavor.

First, you combine the flour, sugar, pecans and mini chocolate chips in a bowl and set aside.*

Then, you beat the butter until nice and fluffy, and then add in beaten eggs and mix until fully combined.
Add in the dry ingredients and mix until just combined.

Fill muffin tins 2/3 full (I used paper liners but it isn't mandatory), and bake at 350F for 20-25 minutes.

Let them cool for a few minutes before you take them out of the tin. The original recipe suggests melting a small pat of butter on top and eating it warm, which I'm sure is delicious, although I didn't try it. I just ate one warm, and one cooled. They definitely do firm up a little the cooler they get, but it is a trade-off because the flavor intensifies. If you don't like the consistency when cooled, you can always heat it up in the microwave for about 20-30 seconds. I, however, am just fine with the room temperature muffins. If you can, though, you might want to make them fresh the day you need them. They are definitely at their best then (although still tasty the next day).

These muffins really do taste like little pecan pies. They are quick, easy, delicious, and now part of my permanent Autumn baking rotation!

*Just one quick point about the workflow. The first time I made them, I didn't even look at the assembly directions, and I just made them the way I would normally put together the ingredients: namely, cream together the butter and sugar, add in the eggs, then the flour, then the pecans and chips. And they turned out just fine (although the flour coating the pecans and chips helps them to not sink in the original directions), so if you have an "oops" moment, don't fret, you haven't ruined them.

Pecan Pie Muffins


  • 2/3 C butter, softened
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 C flour
  • 3/4 C packed brown sugar
  • 1 C pecans, chopped
  • 1/2 C mini chocolate chips
  1. Preheat oven to 350F
  2. Combine flour, sugar, pecans and mini chips in a bowl. Set aside.
  3. Beat softened butter until fluffy, then add in eggs and mix until incorporated
  4. Add in the flour/sugar/pecan/chips mixture, and beat until just combined
  5. Fill muffin pan (with or without liners) 2/3 full
  6. Bake 20-25 minutes, be careful not to over-bake
  7. Let cool in pan 5 minutes before removing
  8. Melt a pat of butter on top and eat warm (optional)