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When Advent got interesting

October 22nd, 2014 · Foodie gifts

I remember Advent calendars when I was a kid, lovely pictures with lovely pictures behind cardboard doors. I don’t think I can remember chocolate ones coming into the frame, although I think they did for my brother.

Well, now there are all kinds of chocolate ones on offer, but then I love that there is even more variety available now, especially for those of us who might have thought that we had outgrown advent calendars. I mean, who doesn’t want one of these?


Betty's Advent calendar


First up, a sweet offer from Betty’s, still one of my favourite places in the UK. This lovely fabric calendar was designed by Poppy Treffry, so Cornwall’s finest meets Yorkshire’s! A festive chocolate treat hides behind each pocket and this is one you could use for years to come, just top up the chocolates. This one goes on sale at the end of October and will be priced at £47.50.


biscuiteers advent


Again, on the sweet theme, then you could try this one from Biscuiteers. Now, this is not a cheap option in year one, as the fabric pockets is £55 and then the Advent Box of biscuits is £85. Now, they are beautiful, and you will get many years out of the pockets, so maybe it’s a worthwhile investment. Or buy the pockets and bake your own!


Tea Forte Advent


Need something to wash down all that sweetness? I rather like this Tea Advent Calendar from Tea Forte which gives you a different seasonal infusion of cheer each day. A nice treat, and definitely a lower calorie option than the others!


Beer advent calendar


But then there’s also another couple of drink based options, although less suitable for opening and tasting at breakfast time. This advent calendar is from Best of British Beer, so you can guess what’s behind each door! I like the Christmas Day option is a Champagne style ale, but plenty of variety to go at before then!


Ginvent Calendar


Rather more up my street is the Ginvent Calendar, but again not one for sampling at breakfast time perhaps! But 24 different gins to try? That’s like all my Christmases come at once!

So plenty of new, interesting choices. Though if you want the ultimate low-calorie advent calendar, then I can personally recommend this one!

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Week 4 Cookbook Challenge – Mexican Food Made Simple

October 21st, 2014 · Cookbooks, Foodie gifts, Places to shop online

This was another of MGG’s choices, a book we love, from a writer and chef I love and with memories of many happy meals MGG and I have had at Wahaca. And a few I’ve had there without her, that have involved considerably more tequila!


Mexican Food Made Simple

Mexican Food Made Simple


I’ve made quite a few things from this before, and always consult it when making guacamole, and have poached a few chickens and done mole poblano a few times too. But we chose to make a two course meal, one a Wahaca favourite, and one that is surely a favourite on many household menus.




First up, we made chorizo, potato and thyme quesadillas, something we’ve often order at Wahaca, where our order usually comes straight off the street food menu. These are quick and easy, incredibly tasty, slightly indulgent and a snack that I think I may well rustle up quite a few times more! Delicious!

Complete opposite of this is the “easy, speedy chile con carne”. Thomasina does say that it’s not a Mexican recipe but with it being such a favourite she wanted to include a version. I’d had this before at a friend’s house (we try not to mention the fortune her husband spent on a courier to get the right chillies there on time to cook for said event) and it is delicious.


Getting our spice on


The spicing in this is amazing, and is about flavours, not necessarily heat. The recipe calls for ancho chillies and chiles de arbol, which I’d recommend sourcing (in a timely fashion) from Cool Chile Co. But the chillies are only part of the story, as there’s also cumin, allspice, cloves, cinnamon sticks, bay and oregano, which makes for such amazing contrasts.


Silverside and chorizo


The other big surprise might be that there is no mince involved, but slow cooking of something like stewing steak, or silverside. I used a 1kg joint of Aberdeen Angus silverside, as you need this to start out in fairly big slices. The 3 hours cooking renders it to gorgeous tenderness, although in my case I cooked it for 8 hours in my slow cooker, to much the same effect. The 1kg made about 9 portions, so very economical, even given that it was good meat to start with.

I don’t make enough from this book, but every time I do make something then I really do enjoy the flavours, as they are varied and suprising. Maybe I’ll do a few more in time for Dia Los Mortes starting November 1st. Even if not, this book is still a keeper in my eyes.

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The height of chocolate sophistication

October 19th, 2014 · Chocolate, Foodie gifts

When I was a kid, there was one kind of chocolate that really wasn’t for sharing, was just for the adults. I didn’t even know what it was called, but it seemed so grown up with its gold foil and outer red and white cellophane wrapper.

To us, I think they were called elephants, and I know now they do appear to have little feet to them, and that the elephant is the brand mark of Côte D’Or. So maybe not such a random name as it seemed as a kid.


Cote Dor Bouchees


And oh the heaven when a small sliver did make it our way. Such creaminess, such sweetness, all wrapped up in even more delicious chocolate. Truly the adults got the best thing. And as I got older, and made my own trips to France, then I could at last acquire my own Bouchées.

I suppose they could have become an ongoing thing in my life, those little elephants of praline delight. After all, I’ve done many trips to France, and putting the words in Google will reveal nearly 63,000 entries. And I can afford to buy my own.

But somehow, some years later, they never have been a regular fixture here. Thinking of one now doesn’t fill me with longing, although admittedly a little nostalgia. Time has moved my tastes to the less sweet, not to mention the slightly more unusual.

For me, the stuff I would hide is less likely to be praline based, but a bar of something good. I have been known to hide a bar or two of the good stuff from Amelia Rope, in fact a hidden bar of the dark Hazelnut and Sea Salt was a small rebellion during the dying days of my marriage. Really a bad sign when you won’t share the good stuff!

I hope I’ve brought MGG up to enjoy all kinds of chocolate, although we’re still working on the dark stuff. I do think it’s something you only get a taste for as you age, a bit like my relationship with red wine and blue cheese. But like in many things in life, some things are worth waiting for.

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The Friday Five – Chocolate all round

October 17th, 2014 · Foodie gifts

I love chocolate, I may well have mentioned this more than once. So this week is one of my favourite weeks, although quite often every week is Chocolate Week here.

I don’t actually have any cookbooks devoted to chocolate, but I did, then I might pick one of these:


Chocolate at Home


Chocolate at Home – from master patissier Will Torrent, this really does show you how to start making your own chocolate wonders at home. I would suggest this was for someone who was semi serious about chocolate making, rather than just fancying knocking up some truffles on a Saturday afternoon.


Miss Hopes Chocolate Box


Miss Hope’s Chocolate Box – I think this is probably more my personal style, particularly after the recent TV series. I mean, any book with a recipe for a Walnut Whip is fine with me! Chocolate Ginger Creams wouldn’t be passed up either.


Totally chocolate


Totally Chocolate – I love Eric Lanlard, but then I always love people with passion and conviction, and he has those in large spoonfuls. This covers all kinds of things to do with chocolate, from quick bakes to very glamorous desserts and show stopping cakes. Truly something for everyone and every kind of occasion.


Adventures with Chocolate


Adventures with Chocolate – I’m very tempted by this one! I saw Paul A. Young do a great demo at the first Harvest a few years back, and it was fabulous. Best brownie recipe I’ve come across for when you wanted brownie with added attitude! But let’s face it, this one might win for having apparently the best Chocolate Martini recipe in there. I’m all for a bit of testing!


Montezumas Chocolate Book


Montezuma’s Chocolate Cookbook – I’m very fond of Montezuma’s, I remember when they just started out when I lived near Chichester. I love their big flavours, and that there’s nothing really delicate going on, which probably sums up much of my approach to cooking and baking. Orange and Geranium Chocolate Souffles have to be a dessert worth trying.

To be honest, I’d love all five of these. I’d order up a few bars of chocolate from Amelia Rope and settle down to some very tasty reading.

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Maybe this is just the treat of a Fortnum’s hamper I need

October 15th, 2014 · British favourites, Chocolate, Foodie gifts

I’ve always wanted a Fortnum’s hamper, just because really. It’s one of those stores that as a kid coming up from Bristol just blew my mind. Not as overwhelming as Harrods, but just an amazing store.

And with all the recent refits, it still does it for me.


Halloween Hamper


I think they’ve definitely got with the times, and I do love their Halloween collection each year (although being Fortnum’s it’s listed as Hallowe’en, and I do love good punctuation). This little Trick or Treat hamper is just so cute (possibly not the right word for Halloween) but who doesn’t want a Dracula gingerbread? Not to mention a whole stack of scary sweets.

And then that basket is perfect for collecting an awful lot of trick or treat goodies. But even more so it’ll carry a great picnic when the warm weather returns!

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Week 3 Cookbook Challenge – Ottolenghi the Cookbook

October 13th, 2014 · British favourites, Cookbooks, Foodie gifts

So, this one is not really a challenge, as this is really one of my very favourite cookbooks. There are a great many splattered pages, not to mention happy memories, contained in this book.


Ottolenghi the Cookbook


It came out because like many other times I had a girl friend coming to dinner and, whilst food is always important, the chat had a very important role too. I needed a dish that wasn’t going to need lots of last minute attention, and was something I could put together after work.


Otto 1


This time I made the puy lentils with sour cherries, bacon and Gorgonzola. What can I say? Just perfect. Sweet and salty, bit of fruit, healthy spinach running through it. What more could you ask for? It’s a really simple dish, with loads of flavour, and I really think anyone could make it.

In fact, I feel that way about lots of the recipes in here, and I’ve never had one fail yet. It’s a book for people who love great flavours and ingredients, even if they’re not confident cooks. I mean, figs with young pecorino and honey? Shop right and follow the straightforward instructions, and you’ve got a very impressive dish.

Even though my wonderful guest, Northern Girl, says she can’t cook, I reckon she’d dish any of these up just fine. In fact, I’m thinking that maybe I’ve solved her Christmas present. I know there are newer books from Yotam and Sami, but sometimes you just can’t beat the original!

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Too much to ask for a hand blender that works?

October 11th, 2014 · British favourites, Foodie gadgets, Foodie gifts

I’ve finally had enough of the hand blender I bought last year. It was a Kitchen Works one from Argos, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion I’d have as much success whizzing plastic knife around in a mug as using the mini chopper of this. It’s also useless in that most bits of it can’t go into the dishwasher, or get washed very well at all.


So, it feels like time for a replacement and upgrade. Having had a quick glance around various reviews and things, not to mention a few wishlists, then these are some up for consideration:


Bosch hand blender

I think this is probably at the top of my list, based on great reviews and that it doesn’t feel completely out of reach from a cost perspective. This is the Bosch MSM6700GB, in case you need to know that kind of thing. I like that it looks like it’s going to do a darn good job of chopping, but I also love the fact that it all the right bits can go in the dishwasher.


kmix hb800


Not many flash brand names in my kitchen, they all have to be workhorses. So, my mixer is a Kenwood Chef, and so perhaps I should move to the Kenwood kMix HB800. That said, I am not paying an extra £40 for the flashy red or black versions, the cream version will do just the same job. Looks like it will do a darn fine job too.


KItchenAig Blender

Of course, if your mixer is the flashy one, then maybe you’ll need the stick blender to go with it. The Kitchen Aid stick blender looks very nice, but what you see is what you get. Literally. No extras.



Lakeland Stick Blender


Lakeland have been busy with their own brand gadgets, and their stick blender looks very smart. It’s got plenty of added extras and a powerful 800W motor. So probably a lot more effective than my current one!


Sage by heston hand blender


So, if you had lots to spend, and wanted some extras as well, then the Sage by Heston Blumenthal one seems to have it all going on. It’s a bit more than just a stick blender but would seem to do everything you might want to do without getting out the big bits of kit.

I’m not sure where I’ll end up but these certainly make me know that I made a poor choice the first time!

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Well, that was some Bake Off final!

October 9th, 2014 · Baking, Foodie gifts

Bake off


I love Bake Off, it’s one of the few things that are an appointment to view in this house. It also gets me shouting at the TV a lot, when I have to remember it’s only about making good telly.

I mean, who the heck ever, ever makes their own filo? I swear even Paul Hollywood never made his own filo when he was in Cyprus. Why would you? So I’m not really sure what it proves. And I’ve never made my own  fondant. But have done my own marzipan just for the hell of it. Yes, it did taste better, but not that much better that it makes it worthwhile every single time.

I couldn’t pick in advance which finalist was our favourite here, as I think all three have been fantastic. I love that there were two guys in the final, and hope it encourages more men and boys to bake. To be fair, when I judged a bake off at work a couple of weeks ago then we had quite a lot of men enter (and one of the finance guys came second).

I hope lots of us are inspired by Nancy, that you can always have a go at stuff. Age is just a number, you can always decide to go for it and give it a go. And anyone who calls Paul Hollywood the male judge is ok by me.

Luis has produed some stunning bakes, although I still believe life is too short to gild an olive. Nancy’s a bit of a rebel, and I love that. And Richard has been consistent, and surely only a last minute melt down would stop him being crowned champ…

Anyway, our congrats to all three, I am sure we will hear more from them all, and really big congrats to Nancy!


Photo courtesy of the BBC

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Week 2 Cookbook Challenge – Lorraine Pascale’s Fast, Fresh & Easy Food

October 5th, 2014 · Foodie gifts

Lorraine Pascale



I think I chose this one as I had a run of guests for three nights, and by night three knew I’d needed to have planned something that was quick to put together.

I don’t think I’ve had this book too long, it’s obviously a bargain charity shop buy (think from Oxfam in Stratford Upon Avon, lovely quality books, always worth a look). I’ve not had any of Lorraine’s other books, but occasionally have caught her TV shows, think she comes across really well.

So for a girls’ dinner for Booker B, MGG and I then I decided on salmon saltimbocca with gremolata potatoes and crispy sage leaves. I love saltimbocca, often order it when I’m in Italy, but had never had a fish version before. I have to be honest, jury is still out for me on the ham and fish mix.

The potatoes were stunning, though served as another reminder that I need another stick blender, as the garlic really didn’t end up very finely chopped. Well, at least it meant you could avoid it if you wanted to in the final dish!

I would say the timings were pretty accurate, as long as you have everything ready to go. This is 30 minutes start to finish according to the recipe, although I would guess mine took a bit longer as there was quite a bit of chatting going on. Possibly some wine too. I loved it better than most of Jamie’s 30 minute recipes, mainly because it didn’t involve every single pan and utensil in my cupboard.

I think I should cook from this book again, as weekday meals definitely need to be quick and easy. That said, some of these recipes are quick on the prep but slower on the cooking, and as long as you are ready for that then they’re great.  If nothing else I’m sure I need to make the Let Them Eat Cake, Cake at least once, though I imagine I would get a bit OCD about putting on the Maltesers neatly.

Definitely a good alternative to Jamie, I think this one can stay on my book shelf a longer.

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The Friday Five – New books, but not the usual suspects

October 3rd, 2014 · Christmas foodie gifts, Cookbooks, Foodie gifts

It’s that time of year when a whole raft of new books are launched ready for Christmas, and I’m sure you’ll have seen new books, not to mention TV series, from Jamie, Nigella, Nigel…you name them, they’ve got a book. I would give shelf space to Ottolenghi’s new book, as very fond of the first Plenty, and Jerusalem, and they’re both well used. But I thought for today I’d look for new books about to come out that are perhaps a little less well known.


Venice Recipes Lost and Found


Venice: Recipes Lost and Found – I’ve probably mentioned before that Polpo is one of my favourite restaurants, and I would definitely credit it with the start of the British interest in Venetian cooking. This book looks beautiful and there are plenty of recipes that really make my mouth water and want to get into the kitchen! Out in early November.


Good Food For Your Table


Good Food for Your Table – the book of the shop, Melrose & Morgan is a bit of a success story given how many small grocers have disappeared. I love that this is as much about what to keep in a well stocked larder in order to always have good things to eat as it is about recipes. I’d find this a really interesting book, as much for reading as for cooking from.


The Mixers Manual


The Mixer’s Manual - one for the wannabe mixologist. Love the design of this book, and quite keen on the subject matter. Christmas Day always bound to go well with a few impromptu cocktails being made, so a good stocking filler, along with perhaps a few good beautifuls of interesting liquers!


Flavor Flours


Flavor Flours – this one is definitely on my list, as I have a growing interest in gluten-free cooking and baking. Focusing on buckwheat, sorghum and teff (a new on me) along with other ancient grains, it tries to show how these flours can add an extra dimension of flavour to regular recipes. I can really imagine Buckwheat Gingerbread having some real flavour and bite to it. Not out until early December, but think I could see this on my Christmas list.


Duck & Waffle


Duck & Waffle: Recipes and Stories – this is a restaurant definitely on my wish list, definitely got a great reputation for some amazing dishes. Hoping some of the favourites are in, and are replicable at home, sometimes a difficulty of restaurant to book recipes. Yes, I’m looking at you, River Cafe! But surely roasted beetroot with goat curd should be ok? Unless you have to make your own curd!

So of course you could treat someone to a big name book, and there are some great ones around. But with some great books from lesser known writers you could also decide to give something different this year.





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