New Years Eve 2012

As mentioned last year, I’m just not a fan of New Years Eve. It annoys me. Christmas, however…now you’re talking! I love every little thing about the festive season and it always begins, for me, November 1st, not a moment later. It would begin slightly earlier but alas, Halloween is also a very big part of my life and I just can’t encroach on those fun, spooky and ghoul-filled happenings.

Ahhhh, Christmas. Decorations, fairy lights, Christmas music that I start listening to in November and get sick of by November the 12th but continue to blare out in my car nonetheless, lie-ins, family time, the Christmas Radio Times, TV specials, parties, special sparkly outfits, cinnamon candles, bucks fizz, red nail polish, gift-wrapping, the smells of mince pies baking in the oven, The Snowman, and most importantly, the endless amounts of delicious party food, cheeseboards, crisps and general nibbly bits that are happily available at every house you visit for two glorious weeks.

Christmas Eve was always my favourite day as a child, I preferred it to Christmas Day! Something about the dizzying levels of anticipation that built up throughout the day until I felt I would burst just made it the best day for me.

We had a lovely Christmas this year. Myself and Ben were lucky enough to have a good two weeks off together and then I had a few more days on my own once he went back to work. I felt seriously relaxed by the end of the break and happy that we’d seen so many of our friends and family. I was spoilt rotten this year with prezzies and we also both got so many lovely presents for our flat from our thoughtful families πŸ™‚ I’m sure many of the kitchen gadgets will be appearing on the blog over the next few months!

The only thing I don’t like about Christmas is that it seems to get shorter every year 😦 This year, by the end of Boxing Day I was seeing people’s Facebook status’s expressing their desire to take their tree’s down and ‘get the house back to normal’!! I was shocked!! Our decs stayed up til January the 6th, the day before I went back to work, and let me tell you it was a very emotional day. I think our flat looks so bare without our trees (yes, we had two trees!!) and I’ve found I’m severely lacking in ornaments now I’ve boxed all the Christmas ones! I definitely need to get some new ones. Me and Ben are also at war over our Yankee Candles; I feel cinnamon is a year-round smell as I absolutely love it, whereas Benj feels it is now time to put away the cinnamon scents and bring out the lemon/linen/general Spring like fragrances. We’ve yet to come to a compromise…

We spent New Years Eve in our lovely flat, just the two of us. I was very, very pleased we’d made this decision once the day arrived, as it was freezing cold and watching the rain fall through our windows was a lot more enjoyable than being out in it πŸ™‚

So, what was on the menu? Obviously, I wanted to cook something special, something we don’t have very often. For me, this is steak. I only ever have steak if we go out to eat and it is a bit of a treat for me. We also decided on potato dauphinoise, our absolute favourite side-dish in the history of side-dishes. Ben asked for mushroom wellington and we added tenderstem broccoli to finish off our main course. I really wanted scallops for my starter and I had the genius idea to use Linda McCartney fish-free prawns in Ben’s starter, so we could have the same thing! We opted to use a chocolate fondue kit that we’d received for Christmas as our dessert, although we silently resigned ourselves to the fact that we almost definitely wouldn’t be able to manage it, we never can!

I used my new Canon EOS 1100D to take the photos this evening and I was extremely pleased by how they came out even with my minimal photography knowledge, what a fantastic camera! Thank you Santa πŸ™‚

The makings of a perfect evening πŸ™‚

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No New Years Eve would be complete without a shot!

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And carrying on with the Disney theme, Ben used our beautiful Mickey bottle opener to crack open some cider as we began cooking.

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We had made the dauph earlier on in the day and as is my style, used a completely new recipe/technique in an ongoing attempt to make the perfect dauphinoise potatoes. If my memory serves me correctly, this time we:

1. Sliced the potatoes really thin (using the RocketChef…see below)

2. Boiled the cream/milk mixture til it was hot, with about 4 garlic gloves crushed in there (I’m not even joking.)

3. Started to then boil the sliced potatoes in the hot cream mixture to start them off but got impatient at the tiny amounts of potato we could boil at any one time due to the size of our saucepan, gave up and just chucked the potatoes back into the dish. So technically, 1/5 of the potatoes had been boiled for a bit in cream but the rest went in the oven raw. I also HEAVILY seasoned each layer of potato, mixed them around a bit with a wooden spoon and then heavily seasoned again. We do not like bland dauph!

I then cooked them extremely low, like 120, for 2 hours. One hour covered in foil, one without. While they were cooking, we cracked on with the rest of the dinner!

I made Ben’s mushroom wellington first of all. I panfried a washed, dried portobello mushroom with a garlic clove just to give it some flavour. I then laid the portobello mushroom on a square of ready-made puff pastry and this formed the base of the wellington. I topped it with a mixture of spinach, chopped onions and chopped mushrooms which was all sauteed together for about 20 minutes with garlic and lots of salt and pepper. Finally, I added a big spoonful of cream cheese to the top of the mushroom mixture and covered the whole thing with another square of puff pastry. It was very easy to make and I hoped that the addition of cream cheese would elevate it to something quite special. Ben loves mushrooms and he REALLY loves pastry, so he was pretty psyched.

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Next up were our starters. Scallops in a garlic butter gratin for me, prawn-free prawns in a garlic butter for Benj! I mixed together butter, lots of crushed garlic, parsley and chilli flakes.

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We then realised we needed bread crumbs and we didn’t have a food processor. Enter – RocketChef!! I don’t know if anyone else has come across this little beauty but it’s a kitchen gadget from the 80’s we were kindly gifted by my Aunt, alongside a number of other exciting and very niche appliances. We’re going to have to really think about which appliances we’ll use going forward; at the moment we’ve got a whole two cupboards devoted to gadgets that I’m really not convinced we’ll ever need! But we shall see. The RocketChef, however, is a definite keeper. It’s amazing. Ben played around with the different blade options and in no time at all, we had fine breadcrumbs. We also used it later on with a different attachment to slice our potatoes!! Plus I love how catchy and just obviously 80’s the name RocketChef is. I like to pretend it was the star prize on The Price Is Right or something and we were lucky enough to win it πŸ˜€

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I mixed the breadcrumbs in with the butter and saved a bit to top the ramekin dishes before we baked them. I then layered flash-fried scallops in one ramekin and the veggie prawns in another, dotted the butter mixture around them and the starters were done! Super easy.

With most of our prep work done, we settled down to play the Big Fat Quiz Of The Year via 4OD, pens and paper in hand.

Not before we had a bit of this:

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(I was dancing to Single Ladies, can you tell?)

And a bit of this:

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At about 9.30 after the Quiz finished (neither of us can remember who won…but I do know I did better than I have ever done!!) we wandered back into the kitchen to start final proceedings on dinner.

We roasted the broccoli and I cooked my steak, on a frying pan, 2.5 minutes on each side for medium rare. It was perfect! I used St Agur for my blue cheese sauce and at 10pm we were ready to eat. We’d eaten late on purpose as I often get really tired after a big meal and just want to sleep so if we’d have eaten at 6 I wouldn’t have seen midnight!!

We ate at our dining table with some of Ben’s favourite folk music playing and lots of lovely scented candles burning. Perfect πŸ™‚

The starter was, quite frankly, phenomenal. That much butter in a single starter should possibly be illegal but oh my god, was it amazing. The scallops had almost been poached in the butter and as a result were silky and soft. I also loved the fact that we were both eating nearly the same thing – that almost never happens!

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Then, the main event…mushroom wellington, dauphinoise potatoes and tenderstem broccoli for Benjamin.

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The pastry was flaky and buttery, the mushroom firm and garlicy and the mushroom mixture and cream cheese helped keep it all moist and flavourful on the inside. I was ridiculously pleased with how this turned out and I’ll be whipping this bad boy out if we ever have a posh dinner party as I think it really looks the part!

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And, my steak. Sainsburys Taste the Difference sirloin, medium rare. With only salt and pepper as seasonings, the flavour of the beef shone through. I’ve waxed lyrical about my love affair with steak and blue cheese sauce but the combination really is divine! And the dauph? The best yet!! Cooking the potato soooo slooowwlllyyy meant we were rewarded for our patience with rich, soft, creamy potatoes and a silky smooth sauce that did not curdle, I repeat, DID NOT CURDLE! It was a miracle. And they were also lovely the following day!

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Perfectly cooked. I can’t remember which chef told me 2.5 minutes on each side for medium rare, I think it may have been Mr Ramsey, but it is the best advice. A searing hot pan too! Things got a little smokey but we are blessed with an extractor fan, a window and a large kitchen so it really wasn’t an issue.

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As predicted, we were way too full for dessert, I could barely manage to drag myself out of my chair and move the 3 foot to the sofa. We finished eating and clearing away at about 11.15, so there was just enough time to write out our resolutions for the coming year, reflect on the highs and lows of 2012 and grab a glass of bubbly before the countdown started. We welcomed in the New Year in our beautiful new flat, congratulating ourselves on a fantastic end to 2012 andΒ cheer’sing to 2013.

I feel so lucky to finally be living with my boy after nearly 9 years as a couple and every day I wake up and can’t believe we’re actually in here. I’m also thrilled to have such an incredible new job that has already exceeded my expectations by sending me to Bali for a week last November (still can’t believe that!!). I’m looking forward to a lot of things in 2013; first and foremost our 3 week trip to Florida in October which I just know is going to be spectacular. It’s the Happiest Place On Earth!! I’ve already started the planning spreadsheet so I’ll be spending a lot of my 2013 evenings tucked up on the sofa, Orlando guidebooks surrounding me and The Dibb on my laptop. I can’t even wait!! I’m also excited about the possibility that we may be getting a furry friend to join us in our new flat this year…I’ve wanted a kitten for so long and we are lucky enough to have found a flat that allows pets (SCORE!!) so we’ll be doing lots of research and I’ll be trying to persuade Benj that these beautiful babies make the perfect pets πŸ˜‰ We’ll probably wait til after Florida though as I wouldn’t want t0 leave her all on her lonesome for so long!

Happy New Year everyone! Here’s to a fantastic 2013 πŸ™‚

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Crazy Cheesy Baked Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni

A couple of weeks ago I was craving something cheesy, creamy and pasta-y. I searched my new Nigellissima book for a recipe but nothing quite hit the spot, so I just decided to make it up. Interestingly, whilst Googling, most of the American blogs were showing something that looked very similar to what I know as cannelloni, but calling it manicotti. This sounded way more exciting so I was calling it baked manicotti all the way through the cooking process til Ben said “…sooo, it is just cannelloni?” Yes babe, yes it is. Cannelloni!

Although the dried cannelloni tubes were super cheap in Sainsburys, I decided to go for the fresh lasagna sheets instead, thinking it would be easier to roll the filling up in them rather than trying to stuff it into little skinny shells. On reflection, we realised we could just buy the cheap dried lasagna sheets and boil them til they are pliable, to achieve the same effect. The fresh lasagna sheets were delicious but they were pretty expensive and quite frankly, January is not the time to be chucking money at fresh ready-made pasta!

I started off the filling mixture by sauteing garlic and fresh basil leaves in olive oil, to infuse the oil which would in turn flavour the spinach. I’ve learnt with spinach you have to add a lotttttt of seasoning otherwise it can be incredibly bland. I love the flavour of spinach on it’s own but it really is better with a bit of garlic, salt and pepper.

I’m afraid we are briefly reverting back to iPhone photos as I did not have my new camera at this point!

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Note the basil, which came from our little herb windowsill! (Ben’s Herb Box has yet to be re-filled this year!)

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I then added the spinach (I used frozen, defrosted in the microwave as it’s how I roll) and cooked it for a few minutes in the oil.

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I then added the spinach mixture to a bowl of ricotta cheese, cottage cheese, 2 beaten eggs and seasoning. I let this sit for a little bit while I made the tomato sauce.

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The tomato ‘sauce’ is just a couple of cartons of chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, fresh basil and seasoning. I let it simmer for about 15 minutes until it thickened.

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And then, it was just a case of layering! I’m very sad and really enjoy this bit; such satisfaction to see the final product! I laid out the fresh pasta sheets and spooned the mixture along one of the edges.

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Then I rolled it up! And laid them all in a lasagna dish next to each other, like little sardines in a tin!

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I then poured the tomato sauce all over the tubes, making sure they were all covered so we wouldn’t get any nasty burnt bits on the edges.

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Then covered it all with MORE CHEESE! You really can never have enough cheese in a recipe. Although, this recipe is just about my limit for cheesiness, you have been warned! I think only our baked tortellini dish is cheesier…and that is a whole new level of cheesiness.

I used medium cheddar, expertly grated by my boyfriend as I cannot be trusted with our Ikea grater (the first time I used it I grated the heel of my hand and still have the scar…it was deep.) followed by a generous sprinkling of parmesan cheese.

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25 minutes later (quite a short cooking time as the pasta is fresh!) I lifted this beauty out of the oven.

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(I love how in my photos it looks like I’m cooking for a family of 6 and in reality it is just me and Ben)

It was perfect! It was a real medley of textures with a lovely crunchy, cheesy topping, al dente pasta and smooth, creamy filling. It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten and I’ve battled not to make it every night since.

And heres a confession – I confidently piled two tubes onto my plate with some nice fresh, crunchy salad to balance the richness. And shock horror, I could only eat one!!!! The cheesiness really did beat me and I had to admit defeat and return my second tube to the baking dish, head hung in shame. This dish served two of us for 2 nights and 1 lunch! Pretty impressive.

Next time I make this, I’m going to make a few changes. As previously mentioned, I’m going to use dried lasagna sheets and boil them. Not only are these a lot cheaper than fresh pasta sheets but I also think they’ll look nicer than the fresh ones. They are long and thin and will produce much shorter tubes, leading to a much less daunting plateful!

I’d also like to try and make the filling in general a bit cheaper; I already used frozen spinach instead of fresh seeing as I had some in the freezer and I’m also going to experiment with different cheeses. We were shocked at the price of cottage cheese! I’m not even joking! Crazy money. I think playing around with low fat cream cheese would work quite well. The ricotta isn’t too obscenely priced (I think it was Β£1 for 250g?) and is an essential ingredient so I’ll let that one slide.

Overall this was an insanely delicious dinner and I think I even preferred it to lasagna! And I REALLY like lasagna. Give it a go if you like cheese even the tiniest bit, you will not be disappointed.

 

Garlic Mushroom Nutroast and My First Roast Dinner!

Yes, I had got to the age of 25 and never made a proper, full blown, British Roast Dinner. Pretty shocking really considering how much I love food/cooking, but roasts have never been one of my favourite meals and I just wasn’t fussed! But, now we are moved out and in our lovely new flat, I decided the time had come for me to tackle this most British of lunches. I asked Ben what vegetarian delicacy he wanted me to conjure up, thinking he’d say mushroom wellington, an exciting pie or some kind of bake. His answer? Nutroast! Well, if that is what the boy wants, that is what the boy will get!

I Googled extensively to find the best nutroast recipe in the world but none were quite what I wanted, so I combined two! My recipe is mainly this Hairy Biker’s Nut and Spinach Roast, with the addition of a garlicy, mushroom stuffing, as seen in this recipe. I just loved the idea of buttery, garlicy mushrooms nestling in the middle of the nut mixture and I thought it would help to keep it all lovely and moist. The Hairy Biker’s recipe was really good and we had most of the ingredients on hand; only really having to purchase the chopped nuts and cashews. I made a few substitutions like using parmesan cheese instead of Gruyere and eliminating the mint (because I don’t like it!) and the sundried tomatoes (too expensive!!) and I really don’t think it made any difference. I hardly ever follow recipes exactly, I think they are made to be played with!

All the ingredients in the bowl, ready to be mixed! I had to buy the bowl whilst in Sainsburys because I realised we didn’t actually have one…or a kitchen scales…so it was quite an expensive shop if I’m honest.

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It smelt really lovely with all the fresh ingredients and herbs, I was feeling very virtuous mixing it altogether! Ben chopped the mushrooms using our super duper hand-me-down food chopper which has CHANGED OUR LIVES!! We used to stand there for hours chopping mushrooms insanely small as I can’t stand them anything bigger, so this gadget is a real life saver!

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Frying them in butter, garlic and olive oil…in our defence, this was just before Christmas and therefore the gluttony was absolutely acceptable! The butter kept them really moist and juicy…yum.

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Once all the ingredients for the nutroast were mixed together, we put half the mixture in a greased loaf tin before adding the layer of mushroom filling. It was looking really promising!

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I then added the second half of the mixture and put it aside for a bit while I cooked my potatoes. My first ever roast potatoes!! How exciting. After some indecisive Googling, I selected Nigella’s roast potato recipe, figuring that if they were a complete fail there were plenty of other people’s to try! I had faith in Nigella though, she’s too pretty to get things wrong in my personal opinion.

Here are the little beauties, waiting to boil! I had no idea how many potatoes to boil to feed two people so I erred on the side of caution and did…an obscene amount.

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Here they are, post fluffing!!! That was some serious fluffing. I also added a bit of flour to help along the fluffing process and it definitely did!! As you can see I made a bit of a mess…

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We chucked the poor babes into a roasting tray filled with molten hot olive oil and the sizzling was merciless, I almost felt bad for them.
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45 minutes later…they looked like this!

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They bought a whole new meaning to the words ‘fluffy potato’ and I was immensely proud of them. And also slightly embarrassed to admit there were only 2 or 3 left once we’d had our lunch…oops.

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Everything then started to happen really quickly; the potatoes were ready but the nutroast needed a few more minutes. My yorkshires and stuffing was ready to go but the peas and broccoli was yet to be boiled. My roasted vegetables were beautiful, apart from the sprouts which were like burnt little fingernails. Nice! This resulted in a pretty stressful 5 minutes with both of us shuffling around our kitchen, opening oven doors, poking forks into things and apologising for repeated bumps. We decided to just eat the sprouts straight from the baking tray because they were actually delicious but I couldn’t bear to put them on my perfect plates.

Finally though, every item apart from the nutroast was ready, so Ben started plating up whilst I wrestled the nutty beast from it’s bed.

To be fair, I didn’t have to wrestle it; thanks to my over zealous buttering it slipped cleanly out of the loaf tin with a gentle tap! No-one was more surprised than me and we stepped back for a few seconds to take in this miraculous coming together of nut and vegetable.

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It really was a thing of beauty. I was so pleased it had not only held together but actually looked like a nutroast loaf!! We quickly realised the brown crispy bits were the best and there was a gentle jostle whilst cutting to ensure we each got our fair share.

My very first roast dinner, plated up beautifully for one very hungry boy πŸ™‚

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It got a double thumbs up from Ben and he actually leapt out of his chair, came round to my side and kissed my hand before returning! Quite the reaction!

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This was my plate; I’m a very naughty girl and have an unnatural hatred for peas so I passed on them and took extra carrots. We did have gravy obviously, but it would have ruined the photos so I waited til afterwards to drown my plate in the dark, rich liquid. Otherwise this would have been a ridiculously dry meal. The nutroast? It was fantastic. The Hairy Bikers got exactly the right mixture of herbs and ingredients so the end result was intensely flavoured, while still allowing the flavour of the nuts to shine through. You could really taste the grated carrot too which I enjoyed, it kept it quite fresh and interesting. We had the rest of the nutroast sliced for sandwiches the rest of the week, with lovely brown seeded bread and a squirt of naughty ketchup. Delicious!

Some more close-ups just so you feel you were actually on the plate with the rest of the food.

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As with all roast dinners, 2 hours of prep/cooking resulted in about 8 minutes of eating before the crumbs and drops on the plates served as the only reminder of what was once there. This was slightly depressing and left me a bit deflated but then I remembered we had the rest of the nutroast for sandwiches!!

I feel my first roast dinner was a resounding success and whilst this isn’t a recipe to be making every single Sunday as it is a bit labour-intensive, I’ll definitely be keeping this combination recipe in my repertoire for the future.

P.S As I have been so good all year, Santa bought me a brand new Canon EOS 1100d/Rebel T3 for Christmas! So brace yourselves for some photos on this blog that are actually not taken with my iPhone!! Exciting times πŸ™‚

Homemade Christmas Gifts – Cookies In A Jar, Chocolate Truffles and Chocolate Bark

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We moved into our new flat on the 24th November, one month before Christmas. With buying new furniture, appliances and home bits and bobs, together with the initial costs of rent and deposits, we realised we’d be pretty skint for Christmas! So, we decided to try out a few homemade gift ideas I’d seen online for our friends and family. Although we had the best intentions, what actually happened was we made all the homemade gifts (which were not as cheap as we thought they’d be…) and also got everyone additional presents because we kept seeing things they’d like. So, it didn’t really work out how we planned but I really enjoyed making the gifts and everyone we gave them to absolutely loved them. In fact, they couldn’t believe we’d made them! So I was really pleased with how it all turned out.

My favourite one was the Cookies In A Jar which went down an absolute treat πŸ˜€ I used this recipe from Chocablog, mainly because it was English so I didn’t have to convert the measurements! The idea is all the dry ingredients are layered beautifully in the jar and you just need to add an egg, butter and vanilla extract, mix it up in a bowl and voila, you have cookies!

They used chocolate chips as part of the ingredients but I decided we would go one better and make the cookies all colourful and festive! I chose white chocolate, pecans and dried cranberries and the result was really lovely and Christmassy. Funny story – a friend of ours picked up a couple of the Ikea Kilner jars for us to practice on and I began layering the ingredients in the jars, only to find the layers were really not going very far! I’d pretty much finished adding all the ingredients and I was only 1/4 of the way up the jar, what was going on!? I need to add that I was extremely jetlagged at this point after returning from Bali the previous day (amazing work trip, Bali food post coming up in the New Year!!) so was really not in the mood for this to be going wrong for no rational reason. I then double checked the barcode number on the Ikea website and it all became clear when I read out the jar size to Ben – “1.8 L.” The recipe I was working for called for a 1 L and we hadn’t realised it was twice the size. Oops! We went to Ikea the following day to stock up on the correct size jars and we still have that 1.8 L jar on top of the fridge, 1/4 0f the way full with cookie ingredients, to be used on a rainy day. Bonus!

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Aren’t they beautiful!? I was really pleased with how they came out! I designed the labels in InDesign with a simple snowflake design and the one on the back had the recipe and timings on it. The bows are from Wilkinsons and are actually tree decorations – very handy because they had green wire attached which made it super easy to tie them to the jars! And obviously, they are red polka dot, so very me/very Polka Dot Kitchen!

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The ingredients layered up perfectly and I added enough chocolate chunks to fill the jar and stop the contents from shifting too much in transition.

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Overall, this was a fantastic Christmas gift and all our friends and family loved it. My colleague has already baked the cookies and she said they were delicious and didn’t last very long at all! A very successful present, I recommend. We didn’t work out all the costings but the jars were 80p each, the bows were 25p and I would estimate the ingredients to be about Β£2.50/Β£3? Most of which is the pecans which are one of the most expensive nuts I’ve ever come across!! The nice thing about these though is that the recipe is really flexible; you can really add whatever toppings you like to the base ingredients and I think they’d turn out perfectly!

We also made chocolate truffles with various toppings/coatings and piled 6/7 in a smaller kilner jar as a gift. I followed Gordon Ramsey’s recipe minus the honey and mint and they turned out perfectly, if a little moist. I substituted 250ml double cream for the single as I’d bought a big carton of double but I didn’t think that would affect the consistency? I guess it did! Anyway, they were tricky to work with but we froze the baking dish for 20 minutes or so before making the mixture into truffles and that firmed it up nicely. We dipped some of the truffles in cocoa powder, some in melted white chocolate and some in chopped mixed nuts. They were beautiful! I very cleverly didn’t take a photograph of the finished truffles in the jars but here are a few photos of the creation process!

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Beautiful! These were also very warmly welcomed by our friends and family and everyone who has tried them so far has loved them! We gave our friend Jason a jar on Boxing Day and they didn’t even make it back to his house!

Finally, we made white chocolate bark. This seriously is the easiest treat to make, ever. We had leftover white chocolate from making the truffles so I melted it, spread it on a baking tray quite thickly and sprinkled mixed chopped nuts, cashew nuts and dried cranberries all over. An hour in the fridge and it was set enough for me to break into pieces and pop into a couple of jars. Once again I was a very bad blogger and forgot to photograph it but I did somehow take some photos of it waiting to go into the jar!?

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chocolate bark

There we have it! Three beautiful homemade gifts that I’m sure your friends and family will appreciate so much due to the love and thought that has gone into them πŸ™‚ Merry Christmas everyone! Christmas and general 2012 in review posts coming up!

Water Margin Chinese Restaurant and Takeaway – North Baddesley

We have been going to this Chinese restaurant for a few years now and have yet to have a bad experience. The food is always hot and tasty, the service is adequate and although I have to drive and can’t have a drink with dinner, the restaurant is not too far away. Every lunchtime and evening (apart from Fridays and Saturdays) the restaurant serves a ‘Grand Buffet’ which is Β£16.95 per person for dinner and a bit cheaper at lunch. Considering all the food is cooked fresh and brought to your table (none of this getting up out of your seat nonsense!) we believe this is a bargain. In most Chinese restaurants the food has been sat out for an unimaginable amount of time and you have to just grin and bear the luke-warm spring rolls, cold noodles and vomit-inducing film across the top of the sweet and sour sauce. Ergh. At Water Margin, you sit on your bottom for a pleasant couple of hours and people will just bring you food, it’s fantastic. It’s eat as much as you like, but they prefer you to finish all the food you’ve got before you order more, which is fair enough and avoids the ‘eyes bigger than belly’ symptoms I often suffer from when visiting buffets.

We did actually have one very awkward experience with this restaurant, which has remained a secret between myself and Benjamin for many months now…but it is time the world knew.

So we rocked up one Friday night, craving prawn gyoza and salt and pepper mushrooms and ready to have a bloody good time. We were welcomed into the restaurant, seated and handed the menus. The waiter took our drinks order and disappeared to bring back our delightful non-alcoholic beverages. What followed is something that to this day we absolutely crack up at, but also makes me shiver in a mortified, kill-me-now kind of way. A few moments passed as we perused the menu before Ben piped up ‘Where’s the buffet menu, I can’t see it?’ My whole life flashed before me as I realised the buffet menu was nowhere in sight and we were in fact looking at the A La Carte menu, currently showing prices of around Β£30 per person. My mind racing, I remembered it was a Friday and the horrible realisation that they DO NOT DO THE BUFFET ON FRIDAYS hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew we had mere moments before the waiter returned and as embarrassing as this is, we were absolutely skint and could not afford Β£30 each for dinner – we could barely afford Β£16 each but we’d had been saving up for this special treat 😦 My mind was made up, we had to leave. I looked at Ben and I could see he was on the same page as me. I chucked the menu full of expensive food on the table, grabbed my coat and bag and power walked out the restaurant, avoiding any eye-contact with staff. We hopped in the car and revved out the carpark, pausing only when we’d gone a safe distance down the road to discuss our options. We ended up driving home, parking and walking to the local pub where we spent Β£10 on two burgers. CHEAP. SKATES.

That was a couple of years ago now though and although I couldn’t say with all honesty I wouldn’t have done the same a month ago, we are slightly more accepting of expensive food now and in fact recently spent Β£1o0 on dinner at JW Steakhouse in London for my birthday. This is a fantastic restaurant by the way and probably my favourite dinner in the UK πŸ™‚ (American restaurants always top this list and I imagine will continue to do so as we continue to visit!!)

ANYWAY. A couple of weeks ago we decided to treat ourselves to dinner here one Sunday night, having not spent a penny for the previous 2 or 3 weekends due to buying stuff for our new flat. We arrived for dinner about 7.30 and were seated immediately in a pretty empty restaurant which grew increasingly busier during our visit.

We ordered a diet coke and a beer from our surly waiter – the service here is not at all fantastic and generally, grumpy is as good as you’re going to get. It doesn’t bother us at all as we go for the noms but you have been warned! There is a bowl of prawn crackers on your table as you sit down which I try very hard not to nibble at and generally fail.

Our attention then turned to the Grand Buffet menu which really is a beautiful sight. I absolutely LOVE seafood and they have all manner of king prawn and squid dishes. If you come for lunch though, most of these aren’t included 😦 So go for dinner!! Alternatively, if you aren’t a cheapskate like us and want a little treat, the non-buffet menus include scallops, seabass, lobster and oysters! *makes mental note to save up* They also have looaaads of meaty and veggie options so something for everyone really. The idea is that you order a number of starters to share, then a mid-course of crispy duck pancakes or similar, then your main courses. It is a lot of food and a few times we’ve been, I’ve got so carried away with the starters that I end up too full for my main course. A hazard of the game but one I struggle to avoid.

We each ordered 4 starters, specifying that Ben was vegetarian so they wouldn’t come all jumbled up on one platter, chicken splayed on top of tofu and meat juices soaking into seaweed.

I ordered (clockwise, from top) Grilled Pork Dumplings, Chinese Style Spare Rib, Salt and Pepper Squid and Salt and Pepper Prawns. The chunk of green on the right is just a garnish, obviously I didn’t eat that.

This was all wonderful, as ever. My favourite is the salt and pepper squid, SO GOOD!! Everything was crazy hot and tasted fresh and I was very pleased with my choices.

Benji ordered (clockwise, from top) Crispy Seaweed, Vegetable Spring Roll, Salt and Pepper Mushrooms and Vegetable Wonton. Ben would like me to add that the mushrooms are ‘the best mushrooms I’ve ever eaten.’ Quite the accolade! If I ever want to go to this restaurant, I mention the salt and pepper mushrooms and he’s instantly keen.

After we had finished our starters, we have a brief conversation about ordering more. I wanted to, as messing about with loads of different little bits and bobs is my perfect meal. However, it is a shame I can never order a main course at this restaurant and I was feeling quite satisfied. So, I very bravely resisted the urge to order more salt and pepper squid and instead we turned our attention to the next course, variations of duck pancakes.

I chose the Mongolian Lamb with lettuce wraps, AKA the light option! Well not really, but I can kid myself. Benji ordered his usual, Mock Duck with plum sauce and pancakes. It’s very cool that they do mock duck here and he really loves it.

Our waitress bought us a serving tray with a lit candle underneath, to keep the food hot. Our intermediate courses arrived a few minutes later.

Mock Duck on the left, crispy lamb on the right.

The lettuce wraps and sauce for my lamb.

I really enjoyed this course and was glad we’d ordered it. The lettuce wraps were crisp and fresh and the perfect shape to wrap tightly around the lamb and sauce. It was a bit messy as the sauce is thin (in a good way) but I just went with it and ate each wrap slightly quicker than the last, to avoid it all falling apart. Ben enjoyed his wraps too and it was nice for him to have the lovely flavours of crispy duck wraps without the meat. I’d love to recreate this at home one day but I’ve not had much luck tracking down mock duck – I can only find the tinned stuff which is rubbery and glutinous and not really what I’m aiming for.

Next, we quickly ordered our main courses as we were becoming painfully aware of our dwindling stomach space. I should really have called it a night here as I was already feeling very full but I cleverly managed to ignore this and order 2 dishes anyway. Plus another appetizer on the side. And half of Ben’s rice and noodles. Good one Lib.

I chose Honey Roast Duck which was amazing, and Satay Chicken which was also lovely but has somehow managed to avoid being photographed. Slippery devil that Satay Chicken. I also ordered a serving of Smoked Chicken from the appetisers menu because I quite fancied it.

I instantly realised my error when the duck arrived and it was an entire breast. A huge, beautiful, glistening breast of duck. In normal circumstances this would have been a fantastic turn up for the books but instead I started worrying about getting told off and possibly charged for all the duck breast I was going to leave. Eeek!!

Doesn’t it look magnificent though?

Ben ordered Sweet and Sour Vegetables with cashew nuts, andΒ Bean Curd with Green Pepper and Black Bean Sauce. Bean curd is tofu, and it is delicious at this restaurant. We can never achieve that texture at home so it’s nice to have it out sometimes. We also got noodles and egg fried rice to share which you can see in the backgrounds! Both lovely and nice to break up the meat and veggies a bit.

My alarmingly coloured Smoked Chicken. It was very nice though!

I feel pretty knackered just writing up this multi-course feast so I can only imagine how we were feeling at this point. This really was a lot of food, but what a bargain for Β£16.95 each! I’m sure you can see why we go to this restaurant. The bill came to under Β£40 and we left feeling absolutely stuffed and about ready to cry, but very happy. I love this restaurant and whole-heartedly recommend the buffet if you fancy some delicious, fresh chinese food at a great price.

Remember, don’t visit on a Friday or Saturday though!!

BBQ Quorn Nachos

Another veggie post! Where’s all the meat at!? Don’t worry my carnivourous friends, there will be some meaty posts coming up soon (with one in particular involving a chinese buffet and a frighteningly excessive amount of duck breast) but I’ve been cooking lots with Benj lately and that always means vegetarianism rules!

One Friday night last month, I wanted something trashy and American. To be honest, this is what happens every Friday night. And most Saturdays. And if I’m honest, pretty often during the week. Anyway, we had some Quorn mince hangin’ around, Ben hadn’t had Mexican food in about 2 weeks and was getting withdrawal symptons and I had a craving for avocado. The dish that met all of these requirements? Nachos! But not just any nachos. I often find the chilli sauces/seasonings too spicy, even with lashings of sour cream, so I prefer my mexican food with a heavy BBQ twist. If you’ve never tried BBQ mince or chicken with the usual tex-mex condiments like sour cream and guac, you seriously need to! It is so good.

This recipe, for me, SCREAMS Friday night! It’s super quick to make, generates minimal mess and washing up and it goes perfectly with alcoholic beverages. Perfect. We enjoyed ours catching up with our current TV show obsessions – Homeland, Dexter, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story. Seriously HOW amazing are all these shows right now!? We just need Breaking Bad back and I honestly don’t see us leaving the comfort of our (brand new, to be delivered in December :D) sofas anytime soon!

BBQ Quorn Nachos

The portion sizes got slightly out of hand here and we ended up having loads left over, so I’d probably say these serve 3 people, or possibly even 4 people with low hunger levels.

1 350g Quorn mince (or any supermarket own brand veggie mince – the Tesco one is amazing!)

tortilla chips – we used 2 packets of Sainsburys basics because they are a. cheap and b. cheap.

1 sachet of Old El Paso original fajita seasoning mix

1 tin chopped tomatoes

a big old hunk of cheddar – I feel cheese is a very personal thing so however much cheese you feel is adequate is the correct amount. I use a lot, because I like each and every mouthful to be fully encased by the stringy wonder-product.

1 avocado – this makes a lovely addition to the top of the nachos. Ben doesn’t like avocado (bit weird) so I had 1/2 on my portion and I really enjoyed it.

barbecue sauce – I used a few generous squirts of Heinz BBQ sauce to amp up the BBQ flavour but this is not essential.

optional – kidney beans, chilli powder, peppers, mushrooms, onions etc – Β basically anything you could add to a chilli will work well in this recipe. I hate kidney beans and prefer my chilli to be a pure, virginal meeting of (veggie) meat and sauce so don’t add anything extra. I realise this is odd though so add as you see fit.

1. Defrost the Quorn mince slightly either in the microwave or by leaving it out on the side for an hour or so. This just means you don’t have to add any oil to the saucepan to ensure it won’t stick, which saves on deadly calories.

2. Add the Quorn mince to the saucepan and saute it for a few minutes with a couple of tablespoons of the fajita seasoning. Add the chopped tomatoes and the rest of the seasoning and simmer gently. If you are opting to add in some more ingredients, do this now!

3. Grate your cheddar. Don’t be shy.

4. Taste the mince – add seasoning and extra BBQ sauce if needed. Arrange the tortilla chips on plates and add the cheese and mince Β – I opted for one layer of chips, one layer of cheese, one layer of mince and then repeated. Like a beautiful nacho lasagne. Top the lot with sliced jalapenos, avocado, sour cream or all of the above, and enjoy!

This is such an easy ‘recipe’ and it tastes like a lot of work went into it…but we know the truth!

Linda McCartney Fish Free King Prawns

Wow. These little beauties have forever changed the game for me and Ben. They’ve opened up a whoooole new world of prawn dishes for us and I’ve already got loads of bookmarked recipes to try out!

I was innocently strolling through the frozen vegetarian section to pick up our usual bags of mince and chicken chunks when a little red bag caught my eye in the ever-expanding Linda McCartney section. I gasped in shock when I read the title on the bag – “FISH FREE KING PRAWNS.” I’m a sucker for new veggie products and these were pretty much the most exciting I’d ever seen, so they went straight in the basket.

Although there were a million recipes running through my head with these sat in the freezer, I decided to cook them really simply for my first taste. Ben had already tried them so he was possibly disappointed with this decision. I panfried them straight from frozen, as recommended on the bag, with garlic, sesame oil, salt and pepper. I panfried them for about 7/8 minutes, until the sides went slightly crispy, and I served them with a little dish of soy sauce. They were seriously amazing!

For me, the texture is very similar to scallops – slightly overcooked scallops, but scallops all the same. They have the same just-on-the-cusp of rubbery feeling, buttery but with that satisfying bite. Honestly, I really think if you gave me these and told me they were prawns, I would be none the wiser. I would be slightly sceptical of your cooking skills but I would definitely think they were prawns. They smell fishy too! How do they do that!? If you are a veggie who misses shellfish, these may just change your life. After finishing the bag in a matter of hours, I’m now on the quest for what to do with the next bag. At Β£2.50 a pop they aren’t cheap, but they are definately worthy of being the centrepiece of a special meal. I’m thinking paella first, then maybe a creamy carbonara pasta dish. And obviously I want to make Ben a classic prawn mayo sandwich. Not sure how these would taste thawed, cold though – I think I’d probably cook them in salt and pepper and then refrigerate before using, just to be on the safe side.

Overall, these are a winner and you’ll definitely be seeing a lot more of these fish-free treats on the blog in the coming weeks!

OH, I almost forgot, I have some very exciting news! Me and Ben signed the contracts on our very own little flat last week and will be Β moving in together next month! We are both so excited and I can’t wait to stock my fridge and cupboards with all the kinds of foods we like, experiment with all the recipes I’ve been wanting to try and just be able to cook aaallll the time πŸ™‚ We’ll also be on a budget for a little while as we adjust to the cost of rent/bills/life etc so I’ll be researching some cheap, tasty meals to keep us going. And then we have Christmas coming up so OBVIOUSLY there’ll be some festive cooking and baking – we’re also trying to save money by not going out so much so I think my weekends will be mainly kitchen based from now on! I can’t wait πŸ™‚

Look at my new kitchen! Isn’t it beautiful!? Not polka dot unfortunately but I already have a selection of polka dot kitchenware and utensils, to keep me going until we buy our own house and I can have an entirely polka dot kitchen!