Cocoa and Quesadillas

Does anyone drink cocoa anymore? I don’t mean hot chocolate – delicious and welcome as it is – but cocoa. Made with cocoa powder and sugar, with water if you’re feeling austere or milk if you want to be a bit more indulgent. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually had it. In fact, rather than a taste memory of it, I think more of literary references, associating it with Enid Blyton-style midnight feasts. It’s about campfires, adventures and nostalgia.

Cocoa powder in my kitchen is generally used in chocolate cake. My favourite is Nigella Lawson’s sour cream chocolate cake, where the sour cream produces a lovely, soft, luxurious cake. More regularly I use cocoa powder in granola. The recipe I use comes from Joy the Baker‘s first cookbook, in which a couple of tablespoons of cocoa powder are stirred into the base of a granola, making it subtly chocolate-y. It’s paired with coconut, cinnamon and, in my version, whatever nuts or seeds happen to be in the cupboard (peanuts and pumpkin seeds this week).

However, a new cookbook induced me to use cocoa powder in a very different way. I was introduced several years ago to the idea of chocolate or cocoa powder in chillis, in which the dark bitterness of chocolate is used like a spice to provide depth, and have used this several times in various chilli recipes over the last few years. The other week, I tried a recipe from the Whitewater cooks at home cookbook, a Canadian cookbook I was given for my birthday, for chicken quesadillas with pumpkin mole sauce. This uses cocoa similarly to how it’s used in chilli – as a spice to provide earthy depth to the sauce – but here it’s smashed into a loose, gritty paste with ground pumpkin seeds and peanuts, chillis, cinnamon and cumin. The sauce is then spread onto one side of a tortilla, topped with cooked chicken and cheese and cooked as usual for a quesadilla. The flavour was fantastic, not at all chocolate-y, but deep and earthy, complementing the chillis and making a simple quesadilla a bit more special.

Apples and Cinnamon

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Autumn has arrived. We’re teetering on the edge of October, the leaves are turning golden and I’m craving apple crumble. It’s definitely time to bring out the cinnamon.

I was trying to use up some cinnamon sugar recently, leftover from some snickerdoodles, and came across a recipe for ‘Baked Apple Cider Doughnuts’ in  Lily Vanilli’s Sweet Tooth by Lily Jones. I love doughnuts, but am not generally up for attempting them at home. I associate them with seaside holidays, eaten hot from the fryer out of a paper bag, licking the sugar from my fingers. Although I like the iced and glazed doughnuts which you can buy in coffee shops, I’m particularly nostalgic for simpler sugar-coated ones.

However, as the recipe title suggests, these are not traditional fried doughnuts, but baked. A good number of apples are diced and mixed with a relatively small amount of cake-like batter, coated in a spiced sugar and baked. Admittedly, they aren’t as wonderful as the fried kind, but they were still really good and far easier and less messy than attempting deep-frying in a home kitchen. It wouldn’t have occurred to me before to use a cinnamon sugar mixture to coat doughnuts, but it worked really well. The apple and cinnamon combination is, of course, delicious, and reminiscent of those apple crumbles I’ve been craving. The gentle spice of cinnamon is perfect for this time of year, providing something warming but not quite as heavy as the soups, stews and rib-sticking puddings of winter.

Rice Pudding for Summer

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Nigella Lawson’s Forever Summer (or Nigella Summer, depending on your edition) is unsuprisingly a book about summer food. I bought my copy from a charity shop in the depths of last winter, when I tend to eat more soups, stews and hot puddings in order to stay cosy. I was therefore thrilled to be able to try out some of the recipes from this book over the last few months.

The recipe I chose to make uses ingredients that are easily available all year round. Lots of the recipes in the book use typically summery ingredients (e.g. strawberries, fresh tomatoes etc.) but this Lemon Rice Pudding is, rather, a summery interpretation of what is classically a cold weather dish. Rice pudding in Britian is rib-sticking and nutmeggy. Associated with school dinners and Sunday lunch, it’s something you would load up on to spend an afternoon running around outside in the cold. Nutmeg is a crucial flavouring and a spice generally used in the colder months of the year in Britain, particularly around Christmas.

This was a very different kind of rice pudding. Rather than baking it in the oven, it’s cooked on the stovetop for a considerable period of time and flavoured with lemon zest. Once cool, you beat in lemon juice and, once chilled, fold in some whipped double cream. I was initially wary of a lemon rice pudding because I am so used to the hot, nutmeg-skinned ones we normally eat, but the lemon works spectacularly well in this chilled version. The double cream gives a fantastic texture, making it seem almost mousse-like, and in turn the sharpness of the lemon cuts through the richness of the cream. Nigella suggests serving it with blueberries, but I think it would be good with any fresh summer berries alongside, perhaps as a way of easing us into the autumn to come.

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Cloves

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Flavour-wise, cloves pack a punch. This is probably why I always have loads of them in the cupboard – you don’t need many of them in any given recipe. They mostly remind me of Christmas due to their presence in spicy, warming recipes, like gingerbread and mulled wine, but I’ve recently been using them in other types of dishes.

When looking for a way to use up an almost full jar of whole cloves in the cupboard, I found a recipe for ‘Minced Lamb Korma’ in The Complete Book of Mince which is a spoof cookbook by, apparently, René La Sagne. Although this is a very silly book, the recipes I’ve tried so far genuinely work.

I enjoy the combination of lamb and spices, having first attempted it in the Turkish Lamb Pilaf recipe I made at Easter. This curry has an array of spices – cardamom, cumin, turmeric, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. Rather than just adding all these spices into the curry sauce, the recipe instructs you to mix the cardamom, cumin and turmeric into the raw meat and allow it to hang out in the fridge for an hour or so before you cook it. This allows those flavours to really permeate the meat itself, rather than just the sauce.

This was a good, solid recipe – although it produced an extraordinarily unattractive curry, it was tasty. It was a great way of clearing out the storecupboard, just a little.

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Sausage Swirls

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Sausage rolls are everywhere. They can be everyday and humdrum, available in supermarkets and petrol stations, good as a snack or for lunch, or perhaps for tea with a tin of baked beans and some oven chips (yum). They’re picnic food, something easy you can grab from the supermarket if you’re heading to a potluck-style picnic in the park with friends after work. There can also be something celebratory about them, given the frequency with which they turn up on buffets at parties.

Last week, I tried a Hairy Bikers’ recipe for ‘Minced Beef Pinwheels‘ which is from Mums still know best: The Hairy Bikers’  Best-Loved Recipes – a treasure trove of good, simple home cooking. They are like sausage rolls, but rather than containing sausagemeat the filling is minced beef mixed with dried herbs, tomato puree, onion and garlic. Rather than cooking onions and garlic and allowing them to cool before mixing them into the raw meat, as the recipe suggests, I used an onion seasoning blend, which both saved time and reduced the number of dishes I had to wash. You then dollop the meat mixture onto sheets of ready-made and (if you want minimal effort) ready-rolled puff pastry and roll it up like a Swiss roll.

The result was tasty and made a nice change for lunch. They’re quick and simple to make and therefore a fun little summertime project. Their swirly, celebratory appearance also makes them perfect for a party.

Toasty Oats

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Oats are a staple food in Scotland, and like most staple foods they are incredibly versatile. They are generally associated with frugal dishes like porridge and oatcakes, but they can also be such a treat, particularly when their texture and flavour is enhanced by toasting them. Granola is an obvious example of this, making a welcome change from a bowl of porridge. Flapjack is probably the most common way of using oats in a sweet treat and is comforting, cheap and easy to make. Toasted oats are perhaps at their best in cranachan, where their crunch provide a contrast to the soft cream and raspberries.

I’ve made a couple of oat-based traybakes recently. The first is from Roald Dahl’s Even More Revolting Recipes by Felicity Dahl, which is the companion book to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes. The recipe for ‘Pishlets’ is based on The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me, which I don’t actually think I’ve ever read. They were sticky and gooey, a bit like a super-charged flapjack. Rather than golden syrup, they contain demerara sugar and include both dried fruit (I went for sultanas and cranberries) and fresh fruit (apple and pear).

When I read the recipe, I thought they would be a cross between flapjack and a fruity granola bar, but they didn’t quite turn out like that. Due to the lack of syrup, I suspect, they didn’t hold together as much as I thought they would and I ended up eating them with a spoon, so they were less useful for packed lunches than I hoped. I also found them a bit too sweet for my taste, so would next time add a little salt and perhaps some cinnamon or ginger to boost the flavour a bit. They were still tasty though, and were great for a mid-afternoon energy boost.

The second oat-based recipe I made was rhubarb strawberry crisp bars from Smitten Kitchen. I love rhubarb and have cooked with it a little, but have never before tried the popular combination of strawberry and rhubarb. These bars, which I made exactly as the recipe suggests, were a perfect treat.

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Empire Biscuits

Glacé cherries are today seen as a bit of an old-fashioned ingredient. You may be advised to avoid them and either use fresh cherries instead or use the less garish, naturally coloured ones. I prefer to enjoy the nostalgia of them. Truth be told, I’m not much of a glacé cherry eater, but enjoy them on occasion in an old-fashioned cherry and almond cake or on top of a Fat Rascal from Bettys. Of course, cherries also signify celebration. Placed on top of a Knickerbocker Glory, now itself part of British seaside nostalgia, the cherry on top signifies that extra little bit of unnecessary indulgence, like a special birthday treat.

I had a very small number of glacé cherries to use up recently, unfortunately nowhere near enough to make a cake with them, but just enough to top a few buns or biscuits. I chose to make Empire Biscuits – another old-fashioned treat. They are the sorts of things you’d find in local bakeries or at coffee mornings, rather than in the trendier coffee shops that populate Glasgow’s West End.

Empire Biscuits are basically posh jammy dodgers. Two shortbread biscuits are sandwiched with jam, glazed with glacé icing, and a glacé cherry is placed on top. The recipe I used for them was from The Hairy Bikers’ Family Cookbook: Mums Know Best! This is a great cookbook, featuring recipes from a variety of real home cooks – often the best sorts of recipes. This one is entitled ‘Mrs Miller’s Empire Biscuits’ and it is clear that Mrs Miller really knows how to make shortbread. The biscuits contain cornflour and icing sugar and, I think because of those ingredients, they really melted in the mouth. I used a homemade jam to sandwich them together (Nigella Lawson’s cranberry jam from Feast). They tasted unlike any shop-bought biscuit I’ve had before, although they were a bit messy to eat due to the generous quantity of jam and my inept and slightly clumsy icing skills. They were great for a special treat with a cup of tea, leaving me with very sticky fingers.