Monthly Archives: January 2015

Scottish Food: Skirlie

Burns Night might have passed, but I’ve got one last Scottish recipe that I would like to share. This one is great, as it is both incredibly tasty, very simple to make and really rather healthy given that the main ingredients is the wonderfood that is oats.

This dish is called skirlie, and I’ve been making it rather a lot recently. You can more or less make it from cupboard and fridge staples, and the taste is definitely a lot more than the sum of its parts.

Skirlie is made from onions that have been browned in butter or olive oil, and then you add some pinhead oatmeal and leave the lot to cook until the oats are slightly toasted. Season to taste. Voila! If you’re trying to imagine the taste, it is something like an onion stuffing (or at least, how a vegetarian might imagine stuffing to taste…). If you’re wondering what pinhead oatmeal is, it is the stuff that looks like little grains of oats, rather than the big, fat flakes. I don’t think there is any reason you could not use rolled oats, but don’t try to use oatmeal or oat flour, as they are too fine.

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I’ve tried to find out more about skirlie, but this seems to be one of those traditional Scottish dishes that doesn’t really have a lot to say for itself. No links to the Jacobites, no links to Robert the Bruce, and not (as far as I’ve seen) a favourite of Queen Victoria during her visits to Balmoral. This just seems to be a good, honest, traditional recipe, and that’s that! If you’ve got any secret knowledge, please do share! What I was able to find out is that skirlie is traditionally made with beef dripping as the fat to brown the onions, so if that’s your thing, you might want to have a go for a more “authentic” flavour. I think butter works well instead, but of course you can go for a completely vegan option by using olive oil.

This really does have the flavour of a very traditional dish, but for its simplicity, it really packs a flavour punch. To make this well, I think there are a few secrets: first, get the onions really cook down slowly until they are nicely browned, which can mean taking the time to get them cook for as long as you can on a very gentle heat. Next, let the oatmeal cook for quite a while, so that you develop some “nuttiness” in there. Finally, get a little creative with the flavours. You’ll need to add some salt, but this also benefits from some black pepper and aromatic herbs. One version I’ve seen uses generous amounts of fresh thyme and lemon zest, which makes this into a very aromatic, fresh-tasting dish.

There is, however, one way in which my version of skirlie really veers away from more traditional recipes. All the versions I was able to find told me to add the oats to the onions, and cook the lot, job done. However, I tried this and found the resulting skirlie to be a bit too dry for my liking. This would be fine if you’re serving it alongside something with a lot of sauce, or plan to mix it into mashed potato for some added flavour and crunch, but on its own, I was not convinced. The answer was simple – just add some water at the end of the cooking time, then keep cooking. It will initially boil up and thicken, looking a bit like porridge (at which point you think “oh no, porridge for dinner!”), but keep cooking and it will dry out a bit, but it will turn fluffy and the oats will be slightly tender. The end result is something with a texture a bit like brown rice.

To serve this, I think it really is best as a side dish, to provide a bit of variety from rice or mashed potato (or as I say – mix it into the potato!). You can also add other vegetables, such as mashed carrot or swede, or even some pan-fried spinach or kale for a properly healthy dish. Yes, it contains butter, but all those oats have to be doing you some good!

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To make Skirlie (serves 4 as a side disk):

• 2 large onions or 6 shallots
• 40g butter
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 150g pinhead oatmeal
• 1 lemon, zest only
• aromatic herbs (thyme works well here)
• salt
• freshly ground black pepper
• water

1. Peel the onions/shallots, and roughly chop. As the oats are fairly fine, you want the onions to add some texture.

2. Put the butter and olive oil in a frying pan. Heat until the butter melts, then add the onions/shallots and fry over a medium heat until they have a good brown colour.

3. Add the pinhead oatmeal and lemon zest, plus herbs, salt and pepper to taste. Cook for around 5 minutes, stirring frequently – the oats should start to brown, but should not burn!

4. Optional. Add some water to the mixture – it will thicken initially, but keep cooking until it starts to look try. Try the oatmeal – if you prefer it to be softer, add more water and keep cooking until you get the desired consistency.

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Scottish Food: Petticoat Tails

This evening is Burns Night, so time to celebrate all things Scottish! However, things like haggis can be a bit of an acquired taste, so I’ve gone for one of those perennial favourites, shortbread. Or more specifically, the rather pretty looking Petticoat Tails, a large disc of shortbread with a decorated edge and cut into elegant triangles.

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The actual origin of this rather curious name is lost, but there are a few suggestions. One is that the shortbread disc was said to resemble the stitches sections of cloth that formed the petticoats of ladies when them were laid out on the floor. Other ideas are less romantic, noting that the name could derive from petits cotés, a type of pointed biscuit, or the old French term for little biscuits, petites gastelles. Whatever the real source of the name, they are a perennial favourite and Mary, Queen of Scots was reputed to have been particularly fond of these sweet, buttery biscuits.

Petticoat Tails are very easy to make. You just need three ingredients (sugar, salted butter and flour), then roll out the dough, trim it and shape it, so it is perfect if you want to make in small batches. I think it is vital to use salted butter – that salt adds a little extra something, and takes biscuits from being a bit sweet but bland and into being rich and buttery with a tiny hint of caramel. The only other  tricks are to make sure that once you’re cut and shaped the dough, it should be chilled for about half an hour, then put into a fairly low oven and left to turn a golden colour.

When you make Petticoat Tails, you will have some offcuts when you cut out the giant disc. However, don’t throw them away! Collect them up, roll into a sausage and leave to chill in the fridge. You can then cut into thin slices and bake them until golden to enjoy with a cup of tea. Two bakes for the price of one!

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To make Petticoat Tails:

• 100g caster sugar
• 225g salted butter
• 300g plain flour
• 50g cornflour (not cornmeal)

1. Cream the butter until soft, then add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy.

2. Add the plain flour and cornflour, and mix to a soft dough. It might be easiest to use your hands, particularly if you’re working in a cold room.

3. Lay a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray, put the dough on top and roll it out. Use a plate, a tin or some sort of circle as a template and cut out a disc (mine was 24cm diameter). Trim away the excess.

4. Decorate the shortbread – use a knife to divide the disc into eight, cutting about half-way into the dough. Use your fingers, a fork or whatever utensil you like the crimp or decorate the edge. Use a cocktail stick to make random holes on each piece. Put the whole tray into the fridge for 30 minutes.

5. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Put the tray into the oven, and bake for around 40 minutes until golden. You might need to turn the tray round half-way, and adjust the time as needed – thinner shortbread will cook more quickly than thicker pieces.

6. When the shortbread is ready, remove from the oven and sprinkle lightly with caster sugar and leave to cool completely.

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Scottish Food: Dundee Cake

We might be in the New Year, with all manner of good resolutions, but this is a recipe that I really could not resist posting. We’re about to hit Burns Night, when there are celebrations of Scotland’s most famous poet up and down the land. And yes, that’s him on my header, along with a few lines from one of his most famous poems Tam O’Shanter, a cautionary tale about drinking too much and the ghouls and spirits that a man might see in the wee hours.

As part of this celebration of Scottishness, I thought I would have a go at making something that comes from near to where I grew up, the Dundee Cake. This is a rich fruit cake that is most notable for how it is decorated – concentric circles of whole almonds are arranged on top of the cake before baking, which will toast gently as the cake bakes.

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As with all good cakes, there are various stories about who created it and the right way to make it.

Some stories say that Mary, Queen of Scots did not care for cherries, and Dundee Cake was created as a version of fruitcake that did not contain them. This may or may not be true, but I think this is a bit boring, and besides, I quite like cherries in cakes, so I’m not convinced.

The version of the story that I subscribe to is that this was created by the Keiller family in Dundee in the late 1700s. They are famous as the founders of the first commercial brand of marmalade, said to have been the result of a flash of inspiration when a boatload of Seville oranges arrived in the port and they were perhaps a little past their best. In a flash of inspiration, Janet Keiller turned the lot into marmalade, and a legend was born. The Keillers are also famous as bakers of the Dundee Cake, and in this version, I’ve added orange zest as well as a generous amount of marmalade as a nod to their orange endeavours, so I think this story could well be true (or perhaps have some elements of truth to it). Indeed, so much is marmalade tied up in the history of Dundee that it is famous as the home of the three “Js” – jam (marmalade), jute (from textile mills, weaving hessian from the East) and journalism.

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Now, I have to admit that I am no expert in making Dundee Cake (even if I grew up not that far from the city itself), so if you’re sitting there quietly fuming, thinking we dinnae make it like that, laddie! then I suggest you calm down!

I’ve made the sort of cake that I prefer – I’m not a massive fan of cake which is too dark and heavy, so I’ve made a fairly light version. There is also no spice in here, but if you want to play around and add things like treacle or dark muscovado sugar, or even mixed spice or crystallised ginger, then be my guest. The only thing you cannot miss out on are those rings of almonds on top of the cake!

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A couple of little tips to finish – this is not a cake that needs to be fired for hours and hours and hours. In fact, when you bake it, you really only want it to be just done. When you test with a skewer towards the end of the baking time, it is fine to turn off the oven if you only have a few little crumbs sticking to the skewer, as this will help make sure the cake remains soft and moist. This is also a cake that keeps well, so it’s probably best to make it a few days before you need it, so that it can rest for a while.

How you finish this cake off is up to you, but I used a glaze made from sieved apricot jam mixed with marmalade. I brushed this over the warm cake, then covered the lot loosely with tin foil and left the cake in the (switched off!) oven until it was cool. The glaze will dry a bit, and the cake will have a glorious rich brown colour. Nae bad as they might say in Dundee!

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To make a Dundee Cake:

For the cake

• 100g whole almonds
• 160g butter

• 160g light muscovado sugar
• zest 1 orange
• zest 1 lemon
• 3 tablespoons marmalade (approx 100g)
• 225g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 3 large eggs, beaten
• 75g ground almonds
• 2 tablespoons milk
• 100g glacé cherries, rinsed, dried and halved
• 250g sultanas
• 100g raisins
• 50g currants
• 50g candied peel, finely chopped

For the glaze

• 2 tablespoons apricot jam
• 1 tablespoon marmalade
• 2 tablespoons water

1. Start by skinning the almonds – put them in a pan of boiling water. Simmer for 5 minutes. Drain, allow to cool for a moment, then remove the skins (they should slip off). Leave the blanched almonds to dry.

2. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Grease a loose-bottomed 20-23cm cake tin and line the bottom and sides with greaseproof paper.

3. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the orange zest, lemon zest and marmalade and mix well.

4. In a separate bowl, sieve the flour and the baking powder and fold in the ground almonds.

5. Add one of the eggs plus a tablespoon of flour to the butter/sugar mixture. Beat well. Repeat with the other two eggs, adding a spoonful of flour with each, until you have a light, fluffy mixture.

6. Add the rest of the flour, mix well and then fold in the milk. The mixture should be soft and drop slowly from a spoon, but definitely not runny.

7. Add the cherries, dried fruit and candied peel and fold gently to distribute the fruit.

8. Carefully spoon the mixture into the tin and level with the back of a spoon.

9. Arrange the blanched almonds in concentric circles on top of the cake, pressing lightly into the cake mixture. Put in the oven and bake for 45 minutes at 150°C (300°F). In the meantime, make the glaze – heat the apricot jam and marmalade in a saucepan with two tablespoons of water, and sieve to make a smooth glaze.

10. After 45 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 130°C (265°F) and bake for another 40-60 minutes, checking the cake after 40 minutes using a skewer – it should be just clean, or even come out with a few crumbs (so the centre remains slightly soft). If the cake looks like it is browning too quickly during baking, cover loosely with tin foil.

11. When the cake is done, remove from the oven, and brush generously with the apricot-marmalade glaze. Cover loosely with tin foil and pop back into the (switched off) oven to cool completely. When cold, wrap in foil and store for a few days before cutting.

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Shredded Sprout Salad

Ooof, still feeling the effects of Christmas and New Year? Even if you’re not into celebrating in a big way, January often comes as a relief when there is just generally less food, drink and sweets on offer. I kind of feel that I don’t really want to go near a spiced cookie for quite some time! At home we’re not doing anything too radical, other than an “eat less rubbish” drive. Everything in moderation and such like.

Well, this salad is a bit of an antidote to all that rich food. It’s actually my preferred way of serving Brussels sprouts, and is really very simple. Rather than trying to boil them, then cooking them too long and ending up with grey mush, you just leave them raw. Then it’s simply a case of shredding them finely, adding some nuts and soft cheese or thick yoghurt, dressing the lot and you’re done.

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If you’re thinking that raw sprouts aren’t really your thing, try one – they’ve actually slightly sweet, with a mild flavour. Not a hint of cabbage!  I’ve matched them with some tangy goat’s cheese, and then a selection of nuts and seeds. I use whatever nuts I have to hand, usually hazelnuts, but here I’ve used sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and almonds, all of them toasted to bring out their flavour. And finally, the dressing is a simply mixture of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon zest and lemon juice, which makes the whole dish taste really fresh.

There really is not much mystery to making this salad, other than making sure you shred the sprouts finely. This means that you can sort of fluff the greens up, so that everything mixes well. If the sprouts are too large, the nuts, cheese and dressing will stay separate. Other than that, it’s a case of having as much or as little of each part as you see fit. Personally, I would major on the toasted nuts and goat’s cheese, but that’s just my preference.

To serve this, I think it looks best on a flat plate piled up high rather than in a bowl. Given that you’ve got that wonderful green-yellow colour of the sprouts, a dark plate is best for dramatic effect (even it I’ve used a white one for my pictures!).

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So there we have it – a bit of a healthy start to 2015!

To make Shredded Sprout Salad:

For the salad

• Brussels sprouts
• nuts and seeds (I used almonds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds)
• soft goat’s cheese

For the dressing

• 1 lemon, zest and juice
• 6 tablespoons olive oil
• salt, to taste
• freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Toast the nuts in the oven. Allow to cool and chop roughly.

2. Trim the sprouts and remove any bad leaves from the outside. Finely shred them.

3. Make the dressing – add the lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, black pepper and salt to a jam jar and shake vigorously.

4. Make the salad – sprinkle half the sprouts on a plate, then half the chopped nuts and seeds. Drizzle over a little of the dressing. Add the rest of the sprouts, the rest of the nuts and seeds, then scatter chunks of the goat’s cheese on top with half an eye on coming up with something that looks a bit artistic. Finish with the rest of the dressing.

 

 

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Twelfth Night

Ah, Twelfth Night! If you haven’t already stripped the tree, this is the last day to do it, lest you suffer bad luck for the rest of the year (or so this suspiciously modern superstitious would have you believe). In our case, everything was taken down on New Year’s Day. It felt like the right time, bringing a bit of order to the house after the chaotic fun of the festive season. The cats, of course, were more displeased, as they had grown rather fond of drinking from the water under the Christmas tree.

Today was my first day back at work after the best part of two weeks spent watching films, meeting friends, enjoying culture (ballet, theatre and pantomime!) as well as playing for hours at a time with my cats. All in all, a great break, and today inevitably came as a bit of a shock to the system. I’m now firmly of the opinion that the best way to deal with it is to go headlong back into the daily whirl, and forget any notions of easing gently back into things.

However, in some ways, I’m really quite happy to be away from my kitchen. Yes, you’ve probably realised that I’ve just finished my fourth annual Christmas Baking Challenge. I’ve had a look at what I wrote in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and there are all sorts of vows to be more organised, to plan, to be more realistic in how I choose to challenge myself.

Well, let’s take a moment to be honest. This year, I didn’t get everything done by Christmas Eve, when I like to have posted all my recipes. No, life kind of got in the way, with lots of things diverting me. Then the baking had to keep going, past Christmas and towards New Year. The reality is that my cooking and my baking can be quite chaotic, very last-minute with choices made on the spur of the moment. And all too often, it has to fit around something else I have to do right this minute. I do this blog because I enjoy it and it is my hobby, a distraction from whatever else is going on, and I’m not quite obsessed enough at the moment to drop other things to perfect pictures of cookies.

So here’s to my 2014 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas, in all its chaotic and crazy glory! I’ve particularly enjoyed this series, which I think have been a bit more unusual compared to some of the more traditional recipes in previous years, and I particularly loved getting some feedback from a reader about how to make more authentic Hálfmánar. The Dutch Kruidnootjes dipped in dark chocolate were utterly delicious and proved to be a massive hit with children (apparently they go particularly well with hot chocolate and an afternoon watching Frozen on a projector, I was later informed!). The Almond Jam Cookies  were gorgeous to look at, and it was lovely to play around with the different fillings. And my favourite was the blazing golden glory that were my Saffron and Almond Buns – easy to make, and utterly delicious.

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As I’ve done in past years, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas (which was my original inspiration for the Twelve Days of Baking Challenge) with each of my recipes next to them. Again, you can see there is absolutely no correlation. Not a jot. None whatsoever! Well, other than the bright yellow Bethmännchen standing in for the five gold rings….

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Icelandic Rhubarb Hálfmánar)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Almond Jam Cookies)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Gingerbread Madeleines)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Italian Anise Cookies)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Frangipane Mincemeat Tarts)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (Saffron and Almond Buns)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Clementine and Clove Sableés)…
…five Gold Rings (German Bethmännchen)…
…four Colly Birds (South African Soetkoekies)…
…three French Hens (Dutch Kruidnootjes)…
…two Turtle Doves (Sparkling Quince Candy)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Danish Vanilla Wreaths)!

So that is that for another year. Time to take down those decorations and pack them carefully into boxes for another year.

But fret not, I’ll be starting with the Twelve Bakes of Christmas again in December 2015, so if you’ve got ideas, hints, tips or suggestions, please let me know! Any recipes with strange ingredients or requiring some funny mould or tool are particularly welcome. And if they come with an interesting or amusing story behind them, so much the better!

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{12} Rhubarb Half-Moon Cookies

That’s the end of 2014! Hope you had a blast! I spent the evening in central London to see the fireworks, which is something I haven’t done for about ten years. It might have been chilly, but we were all wrapped up and there was enough champagne and fireworks so that we didn’t really notice how cold it was. Today all the decorations came down and it was back to normal with a bit of a bump. Hey ho…

Today is also the final instalment of the 12 Bakes of Christmas. I usually aim to get them all done before Christmas, or at least before New Year’s Eve, but this year, things went slightly awry. I would love to imagine that I am an organised person, and I had all the best intentions about the bakes I was going to do. Everything would be done in good time. Festive baking would be stress-free. For my final bake, I had something quite impressive in mind too. I hunted around for the ingredients. I even bought a special mould! And then I made them…and they were really awful. Unperturbed, I put it down to a mistake I must have made, and had another go. Also dreadful. It turns out that my baking skills were spot on…it was just that my chosen recipe (which you may notice I’ve avoided naming) simply was not actually that nice! So, I had to abandon my original plan, and go on the hunt for something else to round off this year’s baking. But what?

Well, as fortune would have it, someone read last year’s post about hálfmánar, or Icelandic half-moon cookies. I had used prune filling, but my Icelandic reader told me that apparently this is not really authentic (based on a straw pole of some Icelandic people, which I am willing to accept as 100% scientific). So I was given his mum’s recipe for making them, using rhubarb jam (which I love) as well as baker’s ammonia (which is my all-time favourite novelty baking ingredient). And so it was settled – I would just have another go at one of my favourite recipes from last year, just a more authentic version of it.

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As with so many things, nothing beats an authentic recipe – the pastry is great (that baker’s ammonia makes they very light and airy) and the rhubarb jam really is nice in these things, a nice combination of tart and sweet. And yes – better than the prune fulling I used last time! I also took a little more time this year with the finishing – I used a scalloped rather than round cutter on the pastry, used a fork to get good, deep crimping on the edges, and brushed them with a little beaten egg to get a good colour and shine. They also provide a nice alternative to all those rich, spiced goodies at this time of year – lighter and a little unusual.

One final confession – this is not 100% my reader’s mum’s recipe. The recipe I got looked like it would make quite a lot of biscuits, so I divided it by three, which still yielded 25 little rhubarb pastries. Have some pity – when you do twelve recipes in rapid succession, you do get rather a glut of baked goods, and there are limits to how much my friends are willing to eat!

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Finally, I hope you’ve enjoyed the 12 Festive Bakes of Christmas series for this year. I’m sure we’ll be kicking off again in about 11 months’ time!

 To make Rhubarb Hálfmánar (makes 25):

• 165g flour
• 80g sugar
• 80g butter
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 medium egg

• 1/2 teaspoon baker’s ammonia
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• rhubarb jam
• milk, to seal
• beaten egg, to glaze

1. Start with the pastry: in a bowl, rub the butter into the flour. Mix in the sugar, spices and baker’s ammonia. Mix in the egg and work to a soft dough (add a dash more flour if needed). Chill in the fridge overnight (the dough will be quite soft, but will firm up in the fridge).

2. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

3. Make the biscuits. Roll out the pastry, then cut out 8cm diameter discs of pastry (use a round or scalloped cutter – I used scalloped). Put about a quarter of a teaspoon of rhubarb jam in the middle of each piece. Moisten the edges of the pastry disc with milk, them fold in half. Use a fork to seal and crimp the edges.

4. Beat an egg and brush the top of each bookie.

5. Bake the cookies for around 10-12 minutes until golden.

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