Thursday, 20 December 2007

Gluten Free Mince Pies (egg free, dairy free, gluten free)

There is a little known law of the Cosmos that runs thus:

‘If your husband is out of town, your chances of having to deal with a serious medical emergency involving a child, increase significantly’.

So it really should have come as no surprise that whilst my husband watched belly dancers and dug for gold in a desert – or whatever it is that he does – I should wake up to a son who had lost the ability to walk. He was like the drunkest drunk and could only manage three lurching steps before keeling over with a thud.

You know it’s bad when you arrive at the hospital and they whisk you past the queue and ensconce you in a private room. You know things are not good when the junior doctors are crowding into the room and the Consultant can barely contain her excitement at this rare example before her. You know it’s all gone horribly wrong when they tell you it’s viral Meningitis.

You may sit sobbing in the corridor as they perform a lumbar puncture and you might be slightly shaky as you follow the trolley down to the EEG room. When your son starts to vomit violently whenever he’s upright, you may really, really wish that the flight bringing your husband to your side had landed 10 hours earlier.

The admission to hospital was a formality; I’d come prepared with a bag. Yet I wasn’t prepared for the drip, the sensors on his chest and a son who seemed to be travelling off to a land of his own. His eyes stared dully at me and he cried from time to time because of the pain in his head. He drifted off into sleep and didn’t really wake up for a couple of days. When he was wheeled off for tests and scans, the concern and worry written on the faces of strangers in the lift, filled me with dread. Their expressions told me that they were looking at a little boy who was very ill. I just couldn’t believe it was my little boy who was so ill.

The lowest point came – as surely it always does – in the early hours. I was woken by the alarm from the monitor and watched as my son’s heart rate slowed down and then crawled back up again. It did it again. And again. I told a nurse, and her quick trot down the hall to get a doctor didn’t fill me with hope. The doctor stood next to me and we watched together. He left the room and returned with a portable ECG machine. He fixed on the sensors and concentrated for another ten minutes on the printout. The silence was deafening.

I haven’t told you, but our hospital room had a five star view of the Eiffel Tower. I haven’t told you, but my son was admitted on December 20th, and by now it was about December the 23rd. All through the festive period the Eiffel Tower twinkles on the hour for ten minutes; it’s a lovely sight. As the doctor pored over the machine I turned and stared out of the window. The Eiffel Tower was twinkling at me. With my own heart constricted to a tiny ball, I stared at the twinkles and thought very clearly;

‘As I stand here looking at the Eiffel Tower, my son is going to die.’

It was a very low moment.

My son did not die. He was very ill for 9 days. For 9 days of Christmas. The celebrations we had planned were in tatters. We couldn’t all sit on the bed on Christmas morning and squeal with delight at each other’s goodies. We couldn’t go and decorate the tree that was standing forlornly outside the house where were due to spend part of the festive season. We couldn’t drive to England wearing the Christmas hats we’d bought for the occasion. We spent the days and nights doing shifts at the hospital and struggling to muster Christmas cheer for our other children.

He finally came home on December 29th. He was unsteady on his feet, and uncoordinated. It would be weeks before he was back to his usual boisterous self. We did manage a dash to the UK and we eventually decorated, and then planted, our tree. It stands in our garden as a memory of the awful Christmas of 2006.

It was a year ago today that my boy was admitted to hospital. A lot happens in a year, but memories can remain raw. They can haunt you and tinge your life with fear. Yet I’m trying to push them aside and focus on the imminent festive celebrations.

We decorated the house last weekend and we’ll be on our way there in a couple of day’s time. The tree is standing outside; impatiently waiting to be brought in and adorned. If the Cosmos allows, I’m hoping that this Christmas will be happy and healthy. I think it will be all the more precious because of the Christmas that never was.

Dear readers, I shall eat my mince pies, drink to the health of my family, and see you in the New Year. Have a really lovely Christmas!

Meningitis Mince Pies (makes at least 12)

This year I made my own mincemeat (get me, I'm so perfect) partly 'coz it's not easy to get here in France, and partly to be a domestic goddess. However, bearing in mind that Christmas is only 5 days away (inhale, exhale) it's probably best to rush out and buy some gluten free stuff in a jar.

For the Mincemeat:

My first two daughters gasped - and one gagged - when they tried this in a probably want to reduce the alcohol content if serving to small children. The baby couldn't get enough of the pies though, I'm not sure that's a good thing...)
4 medium eating apples

4 tbsps Calvados (or apple juice)

2 cinnamon sticks

1 vanilla pod

200g muscovado sugar

100g sugar

250g raisins

150g chopped dates

150g dried cranberries and blueberries (or just cranberries)

2-4tbsps chopped ginger in syrup (or about a 1cm cube of fresh ginger)

1/4 tsp of ground nutmeg (or a good grating of fresh nutmeg)

the zest, juice and pulp of one orange

100ml of brandy (or you could try orange juice, although I haven't given that a whirl yet)

  • Peel, core and finely chop the apple. Put the apple, Calvados (or apple juice), cinammon and vanilla pod into a saucepan. Over a low heat, gently bring it to the boil. Let it simmer for a couple of minutes then remove the vanilla pod, split it down its length, and scrape the innards into the pan
  • Add the sugar, and stir until it has dissolved. Remove from the heat
  • Add the rest of the ingredients and stir thoroughly. Leave to cool completely, then place into clean jars that you have briefly heated in a low oven (to sterilise)
  • Place a disc of baking parchment over the top of the mincemeat in the jar, then set aside in a cool dark place for, well as long as you have. Mine snoozed for about three months
For Dairy free pastry:
300g wheat flour
150g dairy free spread
cold water to bind
  • Put the flour into a large mixing bowl
  • Add the dairy free spread and rub it into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs
  • Make a well in the centre, and add 2 tbsps of water. Mix with a metal spoon. Add another 2 tbsps water and repeat until you have a smooth, pliable dough
  • Follow the steps outlined below* for rolling out and assembling the pies
For gluten free, dairy free Pastry:
200g sweet potato, (peeled, cooked, cooled and mashed)
130g rice flour (+ extra for rolling out)
1 tsp xanthan gum 1 tsp gluten-free baking powder
100g dairy-free spread
Icing sugar to decorate

  • At least 4 hours, and up to 24 hours, before you're ready to start your mince pies, cook the sweet potato, let it get completely cold and put it in the fridge
  • Heat the oven to 180 degrees celsius
  • Put the rice flour, xanthan gum and baking powder into a large mixing bowl
  • Add the dairy free spread and rub it into the flour. It won't look like fine breadcrumbs, it'll end up fairly lumpy
  • Add the sweet potato to the bowl and mix together with a wooden spoon. After a bit abandon the spoon and start to squidge it together with your hands until you have a smooth dough
  • *Flour your work surface with rice flour and roll out the dough. If it's too sticky add extra rice flour, it doesn't seem to make the pastry tough or dry
  • *Roll out to a thickness of 2-3mm, and stamp out a large round with a pastry cutter, and then a slightly smaller round for the top
  • *Grease a mince pie tin lightly with dairy free spread, then press the larger round into the tin. Dollop on some mincemeat (just over a teaspoon), then use the smaller round to make a lid
  • *Press the edges together, plead with them, mould them with the end of a teaspoon and try and stick them together with a bit of water. Hope for the best
  • *In a bid to get my pies to go golden, I smeared them with my daughter's 'allergy milk' (Nutramigen). You couldn't taste it in the final product, but alas, it didn't really make them very golden. I covered this fact up with sprinkled icing sugar
  • *Prick the top of each pie with the point of a sharp knife and place the tin into the oven
  • *Bake for 12-15 minutes, the tops will go slightly golden and some of the cheeky mincemeat will try to ooze out
  • *Allow to cool for a bit in the tins, then ease them out and place them on a cooling rack to cool. When ready to serve, sprinkle with icing sugar
  • *Eat with gay abandon, repent in January

The pies shown are egg free, dairy free and gluten free
© Pig in the Kitchen 2007

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Monday, 10 December 2007

Chocolate Yule Log (egg free, dairy free, gluten free)

Some of my early childhood memories are of camping holidays in France. I loved the fluffy white baguette smeared thickly with Nutella, and I loved listening to the locals talk.

You know Simon, they don’t actually say ‘myrrrh-seee’ for ‘thank-you’, it’s more like ‘myrrh-ack-see’.

My brother stared at me in astonishment; had I really just handed him this golden opportunity to tease me mercilessly? But I was right. What I was hearing was the throaty ‘rrrr’ sound; try hawking up some phlegm and you’ve got it about right. It's a sound that us Brits find so hard to master.

Throughout my teens I was in love with France and anything French. A couple of French boys figured in my teenage love life and my vocabulary broadened considerably. Whether my desire for Christophe and Gilles was for their personalities or their ability to improve my French is a moot point, yet I embraced them both with gusto. My goal was to be mistaken for someone French. I listened to French music, read French books, and got into tons of trouble when I started sleep talking in French;
Jean-Claude, c’est toi?’
I had lots of explaining to do, why do parents have to listen to us even in our sleep?

I still love the French language, and I still enjoy speaking French. However, when you are surrounded by four children yelling at you in English, and your clothes are more slept in than Couture; there’s very little chance of anyone thinking you’re French. Furthermore I find I no longer have my youthful enthusiasm for all things gallic. In particular I don’t want people I barely know, lunging at my cheeks and breathing wine, garlic and coffee fumes all over me.

The whole kissing thing in France is a minefield. Just when are you supposed to kiss them and when should you shake their hand? I know the basic rules – always shake at the first meeting, always shake with your boss, kiss someone if they kiss you – but the lines start to get blurry and indistinct after you’ve met someone a couple of times. I’m always more comfortable with the handshake, but they may dive in for a kiss. This leads to the excruciating situation where you are kissing someone you barely know whilst firmly holding their hand.

These sorts of cultural differences are so confusing when you first arrive in a foreign land. My husband was strongly advised by his colleagues that handshaking was essential and that if you didn't greet with a handshake you were being spectacularly rude. He took this very much to heart and the next time he visited the bakery, he knew what to do.

Rather than shuffle in, avoid eye contact and join the back of the line, he entered the Boulangérie with his colleagues' advice ringing in his ears. With a deep breath, he adopted a solemn and professional look - as you do when being formal - and carefully moved along the line of people, gravely shaking their hands and saying 'bonjour'. He felt rather pleased with his integrational skills, and failed to notice the rictus of embarrassment on the faces of his victims. It was only when his French colleagues found out and fell about laughing that he realised his error. It was a faux pas of the same magnitude as peering over the urinal partition and checking out the size of the competition. Or so I'm told.

I'm often reminded of his mistake as I join the silent queue in my local Boulangerie; it makes me smile and cringe in equal measure. The other day as I quietly waited to be served I saw the sign telling me to place my order for my Bûche de Noël. I was thankful for the reminder; only 3 weeks to go and I hadn’t had a bash at a gluten free, egg free Chocolate log! Well I’ve had a few goes now, and here is the recipe for your delectation.

Chocolate Yule Log
This recipe was conceived one lonely Sunday evening when my husband had left me for another aeoroplane. His gleeful text telling me he had the whole of First class to himself and that he'd just been handed some Christian Lacroix pyamas, did nothing to lift the mood. However, when both the wheat flour version and the gluten free version worked first time, I was a very happy bunny.
This is yummy cold, but perhaps even better slightly warmed; the chocolate melts a little and makes it deliciously naughty. We ate it with Oat Supreme, but you could substitute dairy cream, coconut cream or soya cream according to your dietary needs. The children came running back to the kitchen - bowls aloft - demanding more. That's always a good feeling.

Egg free, dairy free with wheat flour:

4 heaped tsps Orgran 'no egg' egg replacer mixed with 8 tbsp orange juice
1 heaped tbsp ground linseeds (put whole linseeds in your blender and blitz)
1.5 tsp gluten free baking powder
1 tsp mixed spice
110g sugar
2 tbsp vegetable oil
110g wheat flour
rice milk to mix
Cornflour or potato flour for sprinkling

Egg free, dairy free, gluten free :
4 heaped tsps Orgran 'no egg' egg replacer mixed with 8 tbsp orange juice
1 heaped tbsp ground linseeds (put whole linseeds in your blender and blitz)
1.5 tsp gluten free baking powder130g sugar
2 tbsps vegetable oil
100g rice flour20g potato flour
1 tsp mixed spice
1tsp xanthan gum
rice milk to mix
Cornflour or potato flour for sprinkling

Gluten free, with eggs:
4 eggs
2 tbsps vegetable oil
130g sugar
100g rice flour
20g potato flour
1tsp xanthan gum
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp gluten free baking powder
rice milk to mix
Cornflour or potato flour for sprinkling

For the filling and icing:
200g gluten free dairy free dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)
130g dairy free spread
6 tbsps icing sugar
2-3 tbsps gluten free cranberry sauce

  • For egg free versions: put the 'no egg' and the ground linseeds into a bowl and whisk gently to remove any lumps. Set aside
  • Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees celsius/Gas 4
  • Grease and line a 23.5cm x 34cm baking tray with baking parchment
  • Put the 'no egg' and linseed mix - or eggs if using - into a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar and oil. Either use a hand whisk or an electric whisk to whisk the 'egg' and sugar together until it thickens slightly. If you are using real eggs, you will need to whisk until the mixture has doubled in volume (or is at least very fluffy and puffy)
  • Add the mixed spice, baking powder and wheat flour if using. For gluten free: add the rice and potato flour, xanthan gum, mixed spice and baking powder. Mix gently with a metal spoon until all the ingredients are mixed together
  • If the mixture seems too thick/stiff, add enough rice milk to give a soft, dropping consistency
  • Pour the mixture into the middle of the baking tray. Then using the back of the metal spoon, gently ease the mixture to the edges of the tray ensuring that you have an even spread of mix over the baking tray
  • Bake for approximately 10 minutes until it has risen, is golden brown and springy to the touch. Remove from the oven
  • Now work quickly, tear off a piece of baking parchment that is a bit larger than the sponge you've just baked. Lie it flat on your work surface and sprinkle it with cornflour or potato flour, it's to stop the sponge sticking. Stay with me, you'll see in a minute
  • Next, tip the newly-baked sponge face down into the cornflour/potato flour, oh the ignominy!
  • Remove the baking parchment that is sticking to the sponge's bottom (the piece you baked it on)
  • Now very carefully roll up the sponge (see the above picture to get an idea of what you're aiming for) with the baking parchment inside. Set the cake aside to cool completely
  • When you're ready to fill and ice the cake, melt the chocolate in a bain marie. To do this: put a little water into a small saucepan. Place a large heatproof bowl on top of the saucepan and start to heat the water. Break the chocolate into small pieces and place into the bowl. As it starts to melt, stir it so that it doesn't stick
  • When the chocolate has just melted, remove the bowl from the heat and add the dairy free spread. Beat until the spread has melted and it's looking glossy. Seive in the icing sugar, use more or less according to taste
  • Allow the icing to cool for a while. It's a bit tricky knowing how long to leave it because it can suddenly just 'turn' and go thick. I would say 10 minutes at least, but keep stirring it. It's ready to use when it will still drop off a wooden spoon, but some remains suspended from the spoon
  • Whilst you're waiting for the icing to cool, very carefully unroll your cold Yule log. With the egg free versions, I did find that the parchment stuck a little and I had to work a little to get it off. Don't worry if the sponge cracks as you unroll it, the beauty of the icing is that it keeps everything together, a bit like those control pants you can buy
  • When you have the sponge all unrolled, spread a good layer of cranberry sauce all over it. Now dollop some chocolate icing over the top and spread it over the cranberry sauce, make sure you go right to the edges
  • Very carefully roll the sponge back up again. The chocolate and cranberry may squidge around and ooze out the ends, I don't think it's a problem
  • Now transfer your roll onto your serving plate. Smear it all over with the rest of the chocolate filling, making sure you cover the ends and right down to the plate. Decorate with a little robin, sprinkle with icing sugar for a snow effect, make it as kitsch or as stylish as you like
  • And there you have it, one Bûche de Noël. Now go snog a Frenchman
© Pig in the Kitchen 2007
    The cake pictured is egg free, dairy free and gluten free

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Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Christmas Chocolates (dairy free, gluten free, egg free)

Have you read the Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton? It recounts the adventures of Fanny, Bess and Jo. When they move to a new house, they discover an enchanted wood nearby, and the enormous Faraway Tree. If you go to the very top of the Faraway Tree there is a cloud with a hole in, and you can climb through into whichever land happens to be there. It might be the land of Hippety Hop - everything has to hop - the land of Take What You Want – the clue is in the name – or the Land of Birthdays. Perhaps best not to visit that last one if you’re the wrong side of 35; I mean who wants to be partying alongside pert young twenty-somethings flashing their gravity-defying mammaries and knocking back alcopops?

I rediscovered The Faraway Tree when it came to bedtime stories for my own children. I managed to procure a copy that still called the children, Fanny, Bess and Jo. Some modern-day reprints have changed some of the names. Fanny is now Susan, and Cousin Dick is now Rick. This is because…well why is that exactly? Is it because 6 year olds up and down the land will be saying,

‘Mummy, Daddy, isn’t Fanny another word for front-bottom?’
Mummy, Daddy, isn’t Dick another word for todger?’

Is it because it would alienate our cousins from across the pond?

‘Jeez Mommy, do all the English name their children after parts of the body?’

I do get a little exasperated with the PC re-writers of literature; do they really have nothing better to do with their time?

Anyway, back to the book. Now whether Enid Blyton was a dreadful mother or not, there’s one thing of which we can be sure; she did have a vivid imagination. I don’t know what’s in those mushrooms in the Enchanted Wood, but they certainly make for a great story. However, it’s a mystery to me that dear Enid didn't mention the ‘La La land of Escape’ in any of the three Faraway Tree books. I feel sure she must have known of its existence.

For those of you not familiar with the La La land of Escape, let me elaborate.

You are faced with a mountain of jobs to do. You do not want to do them. There are lots of other things you would rather be doing, even though perhaps you shouldn’t. It’s time for a trip to the La La land of Escape.

As you approach the tree, keep an eye out for the Brownies that hang around the trunk. I’m sure those long beards aren’t really hiding anything sinister, and the clothes are probably appropriate to their culture, but really, do they have to look so different? I think we’ll make them a bit more mainstream in the next reprint.

As you start to climb the tree, you might bump into Moon Face. I'm going to need some ideas for his new name, because I have a feeling that the 'Moon' in fact refers to the rotundity of his face. I mean this guy could be obese! Let's not call a fat face a fat face, we need to find an excuse for him. How about Roland? That way, we could call him 'Roly' and it would be perfectly clear that the 'Roly' is a diminutive of 'Roland' and that we are in no way causing offence by calling him the other kind of 'roly' which would mean; roly poly, fat git, do a bit of exercise and your face might slim down.

Moving up the tree, keep a close watch out for Dame Washalot; she’s got a horrible form of OCD and she just can’t stop washing her clothes. She’s refusing all medication, won’t let health professionals near her and keeps lobbing the water down the tree. She’s in clear violation of health and safety laws and is an offence to the Kyoto treaty; do you think we can get her to wash at 30 degrees? We may have to airbrush her out of the next print run.

Anyway, once you’re past her, you’re nearly there. Step up through the cloud and ahhhhh. You’ve arrived. Let all the very real worries drop away, and feel that relaxation envelop you.

You see the world stops turning in La La land. All those things that are pulling you down, clogging up your brain and making your heart beat with anxiety; they are not allowed in. Now, what is it you really want to do? Read a book? Look through baby photographs? You can do it all in The La La land of Escape; it exists so that you can forget your worries. It allows you to be kind to yourself and take an hour or so out from your problems.

I had such a lovely time in La La land the other evening. The end of term has just eased into fifth gear and I am being pulled along in a disorganised flurry of nativity costumes, present buying, party organising and Christmas card writing. As the rev counter goes into the red, it is adding to the white noise of the ever-present piles of washing, the untidy bedrooms, unpaid bills and bottle recycling. I may not be far from breaking point.

So I turned my back on it all and wandered off into the Enchanted Forest. Wisha washa wisha washa wisha washa went the trees as I navigated the mossy paths that lead to the foot of the faraway tree. It was getting late so all was quiet. I did bump into Silky - who has hair just like on of my daughters – we had a quick chat, but before long I was at the top of the tree.
I stepped up through the cloud and into La La land.

It was all there waiting for me. The chocolate machine, the cute Christmassy chocolate moulds and the super duper pretty sprinkles that the postman delivered the other day. I spent an hour or two making dairy free chocolates for my littlest girl. December the 1st was looming and Advent Box preparations were underway. After tea in December, the children take it in turns to open the advent drawers (see picture) and dole out the chocolates. I wanted my allergic girlie to enjoy a pretty chocolate like her siblings do. I stirred and sprinkled, smoothed and scraped. It was absorbing, it was soothing, and it was a complete break from stress.

The washing piles are still in situ. The 11 nativity costumes still have to be made.
I opened my big gob and offered to do it. Next year I shall keep my big gob firmly shut.

Still, I feel renewed and I can now go forth and do battle with the end of term, and Christmas.

This is because I’ve had my R & R in La La. You really should pay a visit.

Christmas Chocolates

I was so excited when I found Carnival Sprinkelz available from the wonderful Dietary Needs Direct. Psychadelic, e-number enhanced sprinkles can trigger asthma in my eldest girl, and are usually full of something my youngest girl can't eat. These sprinkles though are great. Dairy free and gluten free, and they look so pretty! You have to put a good layer of them into the mould before pouring on the chocolate, otherwise the chocolate seeps through.

I got some fab chocolate moulds from Home Chocolate Factory, but if you don't want to buy chocolate moulds, fear not. A very, very clever lady who reads my blog emailed me with her A1 idea. She had very selflessly eaten the entire contents of a milk chocolate advent calendar; Mother love is second to none. This was so that she could thoroughly scrub, rinse, scrub and scrub the advent calendar moulds so that they were chocolate free. She then melted some chocolate her child could eat and poured it into the moulds. Et voila, one happy child, one amazing mother. (Wish I'd thought of it)

100-150g dark chocolate 70% cocoa solids or more (dairy free, gluten free) You might need more or less depending on how many chocolates you wish to make
A box or two of sprinkles (optional), buy them here

  • If you have a chocolate machine, turn it on. If not put a little water into a small saucepan and set a heatproof bowl on top. The water shouldn't touch the base of the bowl. Put the saucepan on to a low heat
  • Break the chocolate into the chocolate machine or the heatproof bowl
  • Stir it frequently as it melts to prevent it from sticking. Take it off the heat when all the chocolate has just melted; you don't want it too runny
  • If you are using sprinkles, cover the base of the chocolate mould with them. Make sure you get a good thick layer
  • Using a teaspoon, spoon the chocolate into the moulds. Put in one spoonful and gently 'push' the chocolate to the edge of the moulds. Add more spoonfuls if necessary, push to the edges and fill the mould to the top
  • Put the moulds into the fridge and leave to harden, it should take about 40 minutes
  • Turn out the moulds onto a cooling tray or plate. Aren't your chocolates pretty?!
  • I wrapped mine in tin foil and put them in the advent box, you must do as you see fit with yours.
  • I tell you what, it's miserable having a child with allergies, it's a lot of saying 'no'. So it's just lovely when you put something pretty and gorgeous in front of them and they gasp with delight and their siblings yell that they want one too...this was one of those times.

© Pig in the Kitchen 2007

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Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Polenta with Rich Tomato Sauce (egg free, dairy free, gluten free)

Everyone knows the cliché; Births, Deaths, Weddings and Moving, these are all events that are guaranteed to push you to the limits of your sanity.
  1. They all require huge amounts of organisation. Well, perhaps not death, although you do have to organise the aftermath. I think if you organise the before bit, I’m pretty sure that’s called murder.
  2. They all entail pain – slimming for your wedding day is agony, trust me – and,
  3. They all have the potential to cause your emotions to run amok.

Having had a taste of all four, I think I’d rank death as the worst, (tough one to call though; death / marriage, marriage / death….no it’s definitely death) but Moving is right up there on the podium of stress.

Moving is miserable. When I was little, moving was not about family excitement and jumping up the property ladder. It was about childish dreams of happy families spinning wildly off their axes. Moving brought division and bitterness, and the realisation that the world will not be happy just because you desperately wish it to be so.
Moving is scary. When I know I have to move, my first reaction is panic. The little cocoon I’ve built around me feels threatened, and I’m never sure I’ve got the emotional capacity to re-build it somewhere else.

Moving is exhausting. Even the thought of it tires me. The final fumbling climax in the last house - utilities cancelled, post re-directed, keys handed over – the stifled sobbing as you drive off down the road and the dazed disorientation you feel as you arrive at the next place. The awful thought that you’ve got to set up the framework of your life in this different place, and perhaps it won’t quite fit.

Moving means: Ghost Boxes. These are the boxes that travel with you when you move, but they are the ones that never get unpacked. Like the Ghost Ships, they are condemned to fester in an area where they can easily be overlooked. As long as they are far enough away from the hub of the house, you need not worry about them too much, but their presence looms up at you in your dreams. Another thing you haven't done. You may not know what is in them, and you’re pretty sure that it won’t be useful or necessary; it’s just that you can’t bring yourself to throw the boxes out. They are condemned to travel with you forever until perhaps - by some beautiful quirk of life - the moving company loses them and you can again sleep easy at night.

So - call me simplistic -but moving equals stress, misery and fear. All thoughts of moving are always firmly taped in a ghost box somewhere towards the back of my mind.
Therefore I was completely unprepared when my lovely friend Jane bounced up to me the first day back after half term.
‘We’re moving!’ she announced excitedly.
The familiar fear, the slight shift of the ground beneath my feet, the dragging feeling of tiredness;

‘Wow, where are you going?’
‘Hong Kong’.

Hong. Bloody. Kong. Not back to London, or up the road to Lille. Hong. Bloody. Kong.

Jane bounced up to me in a similar way just over a year ago, as I stood in a daze in the playground. It was our first day in a new school.
Hello! Are you new?’ she smiled. Jane helped me settle in, and we clocked up the kilometres as we ran around the Versailles grand canal, training for the Paris Half Marathon. She’s a bubbly, chatty friend who made my first year here a lot more bearable. And now she’s off, moving to Hong Bloody Kong.

There are a few weeks left before she goes, but I booked her early for lunch. I’m aware that packing takes on a life of its own. It will pull you down into its vortex until you only have time to scratch your stress eczema, spin on the spot and fret. You definitely don't have time for relaxing lunches with friends.

Jane and Kathie came last week. We lunched like proper expat ladies, and we discussed her impending move. We talked and we smiled, and I was painfully aware that it was probably the last time. Before long the festive outings will impinge, her shipment date will loom large, and all too soon we’ll be crying at the school gate as we say goodbye.

I wish you every success in Hong Kong, dear Jane. Brace yourself for the coffee mornings, and the slow process of making the friends who will keep you sane. Be excited about the new sights, the buzz and bustle and the nipping over to China for dirt-cheap designer goods. Think of the serviced apartment that will soon be yours, your sauna and your pool; and make sure you find a yoga class quick!

Moving Polenta with Rich Tomato Sauce (serves 3 lunching ladies and there's a small portion left over)

I got a bit flustered over what I should feed to Kathie and Jane, and ended up serving a three-course meal. Just rustled it up, you know how one does. We had Pumpkin Soup to start and then this Polenta. We are lucky and allergy-free, so we sprinkled it with grated Parmesan. We finished off our moving lunch with fresh fruit and chocolate fondue from one of these bad boys. Parting is such sweet sorrow…
For the polenta cakes: (the polenta needs to be made at least 8 hours before you want to form them into cakes, although I'd be cautious and go for 12)
(Here's a handy conversion tool if you need one)
180g of polenta
Approx 860ml
(Check the packet for polenta - water ratio, they may differ slightly to mine)
2 GF non-dairy stock cubes
A small whisk for frantic whisking
olive oil for grilling or frying
green salad for pretty garnish
For the tomato sauce:
The sauce can be made up to 24 hours ahead and kept in the fridge. This makes a big batch, but you could freeze it and use at another time (or half the quantity)
8 big beef tomatoes
2 large onions
3-4 cloves of garlic
olive oil to fry
60ml red wine
150ml passatta
About 15 fresh basil leaves
Salt and black pepper to taste
  • Line a 19cm by 27cm (or thereabouts) rectangular baking tin with baking parchment
  • Measure out the polenta, and put the cold water into a large saucepan
  • Bring the water to the boil and add the stock cubes, stir until dissolved
  • With the water still boiling, pour the polenta into the pan and using your whisk; whisk very frantically to disperse any lumps
  • When the polenta is popping and blowing bubbles, reduce the heat to very low. Keep whisking. The polenta should become thick and eventually will start to come away from the sides of the pan. This could take up to 5 minutes. Add a dab more water if you think it's looking scarily thick, you should be able to stir it quite easily
  • Scrape / pour the polenta into the lined baking tin. Use the back of a wooden spoon to level the surface
  • Drop the tbsp of dairy free spread onto the top of the polenta and use the wooden spoon to smear it over the top, this also helps level out the surface. Leave the polenta to cool, then place in the fridge
  • When the polenta is completely cold, it will be firm. Turn the polenta out onto a chopping board and use a 7cm biscuit/cookie cutter to stamp out rounds. If it's an informal meal, you can use the remaining odd shaped cuttings as well, they taste fine, they just look odd
  • Set the polenta cakes aside and make the tomato sauce as follows:
  • Wash the tomatoes, remove the stalks and place them in a large mixing bowl. Boil the kettle and pour the boiling water over the tomatoes until they are submerged. Leave them for at least 20 minutes; their skins should start to crack and shrivel a bit. Yours probably would if treated the same way
  • When the water has cooled slightly, carefully drain it off without scalding yourself. Using a sharp knife, peel off the skins and discard them. You will be left with some sheepish looking tomatoes that feel a bit exposed. Roughly chop them (I always cut out the hearts, but keep them in if you like them), then set them aside
  • Peel and finely chop the onions and garlic, place into a large saucepan. Add a good glug of olive oil and cook them over a low heat. Stir occasionally so that they don't stick, until they are sizzling and transluscent
  • With the onions and garlic still sizzling, pour the chopped tomatoes into the saucepan and stir
  • Add the red wine and passatta and stir again
  • Now leave to simmer very gently for about 30 minutes, do make sure you stir occasionally so that it doesn't stick to the pan. If it starts to go a bit dry, slosh in some more red wine, it never goes amiss
  • When the sauce has reduced (it should be quite thick but still with some juice), roughly chop the basil leaves, add them to the pan and stir. Season with salt and black pepper to taste
  • Now, you're ready to assemble the meal. Keep the tomato sauce warm in a saucepan or warm up the sauce you made earlier
  • You can either grill or fry the polenta cakes. I prefer to fry, but don't let me sway you.
  • To fry: put about 1cm of olive oil into a non-stick frying pan and heat until it is hot but not smoking. Add the polenta cakes, reduce the heat and let them sizzle for about 4 minutes on each side. You can increase the heat when they are warmed through, but mine never seem to go very brown. Remove from the frying pan and put onto a plate lined with kitchen paper
  • To grill: heat the grill to medium and brush each cake with olive oil. Grill them gently until they are warmed through, then increase the heat and grill on each side until they are sizzling. NB: If you're in a rush, you could warm the polenta in the microwave (gasp of horror) so that you're sure they're warm, then do the grilling or frying to crisp them off a bit
  • When the sauce has warmed up, put the polenta cakes onto your serving plate and spoon some sauce over the top of the cakes. Add some green salad and carry to your expectant guests. Pause briefly at the door and assume a shy, 'oh it's nothing' smile as they cry out in admiration and awe at your fabulous cooking skills.
© Pig in the Kitchen 2007

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Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Christmas Cake (egg-free, dairy-free, gluten-free)

Every year I think that if I start planning and preparing for Christmas early enough, when the day finally arrives everything will be perfect. On Christmas Eve my husband and I will sit in a tranquil state in our perfectly tidy drawing room, sipping mulled wine and talking quietly about sophisticated topics.  I will go to bed well before 3am and I shall arise refreshed and flawless on Christmas morn.

My children will sleep until 11am and after calmly opening their presents (from their hand-embroidered stocking), they will dress themselves and then file quietly down the stairs, looking for all the world like little catwalk models. I will not see them again until 1pm for they will be engrossed in their hand-carved wooden toys. We will share a delightful lunch, which will be cleared away in time for our bracing walk through the perfect white snow.

After a few parlour games and a little time spent admiring the various diamond accessories my husband has bought me, the children will go to bed at 6pm. My husband will surprise me with a delightful yet simple repast, and we will drink champagne and smile amicably at each other.

It is little wonder that the festive season fails to live up to my wild imaginings. My chaotic preparations hurtle wildly out of control towards December 25th resulting in a spectacular pile up at around 1am. It is at this point I realise I still have a good 2 hours of vegetable preparation and present wrapping to go. When over-excited children wake me in the very small hours, Christmas cheer is far from my mind.

The day doesn’t really get much better. I always make the mistake of opening champagne while cooking and I insist on playing Christmas CDs too loud.  This means that everyone has to shout to be heard and the noise in the house becomes unbearable. At some point in the last few years I developed the tradition of everyone donning glad rags for the big meal. This means the kitchen becomes a highly dangerous zone as I totter around in heels, staggering slightly and wielding pans of boiling water and sizzling potatoes.

By the time the meal arrives on the table it is nearly 3pm and the night is already drawing in. When we have finished helping the children pull their crackers, changed the nappy we hadn’t realised was full, found the corkscrew, and mopped up the lemonade that an overexcited child has spilt, the food is nearly cold and it’s way too late for a walk in the woods. Dinner lasts about ten minutes as ungrateful children push their food around their plates, and my temples start to throb. The day invariably ends with my husband and I slumped exhausted on the sofa, our feet lost in a sea of brightly coloured wrapping paper. As I eye the piles of Christmas cards I haven’t got around to opening, I swear to myself that next year I’ll be more organised.

This year I again had grand preparation plans. I thought I would start a little light Christmas shopping in August. I planned to calmly and sensibly move it up a gear in September, culminating in that golden moment – around mid-October – when I would have all presents assembled in the house. I was going to start a staggered gift-wrapping programme; a couple one day, maybe five the next. By the end of November – tops – it should all have been done. My cooking preparations were supposed to have dovetailed neatly into the gift gathering; a cake baked in early September, mincemeat made in October, Christmas pudding mix ready to be stirred from November the 1st.

Of course it’s all gone to pot. We are nearly in December and the present pile is woefully small. I’m ramping up my Internet purchasing but I have a familiar sense of doom; I’m sure the wheels will be falling off the Christmas Bus at around about 1am on December 25th.

And this year I’ve played a blinder. We could argue that I was incredibly ahead of the game by baking a gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free Christmas cake in July. We could take solace from the fact that the cake was nurtured and fed with spiced brandy for three months, until its raisins and cranberries were juicy and plum. We could feel happy that I came up with a substitute for marzipan. We could rejoice that after the photo shoot, when I finally got to sample the cake; it tasted great. I’ve had to restrain my eldest daughter on a number of occasions; she loved it.

But dear reader, the Christmas cake has all gone. It has all been eaten. I now have about 35 days to make ANOTHER Christmas cake. I’m afraid there’ll be no gentle feeding of this cake it will be on an extended binge drink for the next few weeks. The Christmas pudding is a nagging worry at the back of my head, and although the mincemeat is made, the pies are not.

I’m sure it will all get done, and I’m sure the children will not notice the chaos. I think they will struggle not to notice the enormous dark sacks under my eyes, but I suppose that’s all part of surviving the festive season. Next year I'm thinking; Sun, tag-along au pair, beach resort, swim-up bar and cocktails before breakfast. Who says Christmas should be all about the children?

Christmas Cake (makes a 16cm cake)

Forgive me for only having made the 'fully allergic' version. As mentioned, I still have to make our Christmas cake, so may make it with wheat flour...but imagine it all goes wrong?! I only have 35 days left! I will update the recipe when I can!

Spiced Brandy for feeding the cake: (this can be made days/weeks ahead)
500ml Brandy
3-4 star anise
2-3 mace blades
2 cinnamon sticks
1 vanilla pod
1-2 tsps of sugar

For the cake:
40g ginger in syrup or I guess you could use about 20g of fresh ginger, very finely chopped
90ml of spiced brandy (see above)
85g dried cranberries
85g dried chopped dates
250g raisins
250g sultanas
1.5tsp mixed spice
0.5tsp Pure Bourbon Vanilla Powder (if you have some. If you don't you should get some it's yummy)
0.5tsp vanilla extract
200g dairy free spread
200g regular sugar (or dark muscovado if feeling lavish)
zest of 1 lemon

zest of 1 orange
90ml port

Either: 200g plain flour + 1 tsp gluten free baking powder


75g gram flour

125g rice flour
3/4 tsp xanthan gum
1 tsp gluten free baking powder

Either 3 eggs OR:

4 heaped tsps Orgran 'no egg' egg replacer mixed with 8 tbsps rice milk
2 tbsps linseeds (either whole or ground)
1/4 tsp xanthan gum

For the 'marzipan', icing and holly decoration:
1.2kg sugarpaste icing (this company will ship it to you, I've used them before) You may end up with some icing left over, but better to have surplus than to be scrabbling to cover your cake, no?
1 pot Christmas Red 'Sugarflair' sugarpaste colouring, or pre-coloured red sugarpaste icing (that would be easiest wouldn't it?!)
1 pot Holly Green 'Sugarflair' sugarpaste colouring, or pre-coloured green sugarpaste icing
1 pot Egg Yellow 'Sugarflair' sugarpaste colouring
1 pot Dark Brown 'Sugarflair' sugarpaste colouring
About 4tbsps of apricot jam
icing sugar to dust
NB: you will only need tiny dabs of the sugarpaste colouring, so you'll have tons left over for birthday cakes...or Christmas cakes for years to come

  • To make the spiced brandy, put 500ml of brandy into a saucepan. Add the star anise, the mace blades, the cinnamon sticks. Split the vanilla pod, scrape the seeds into the brandy and then add the split pod. Heat it slowly and let it bubble for about a minute. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool. When completely cold pour it into a bottle / preserving jar and push all the spices in as well. You may have to cut the star anise in half to get it through the neck of a bottle, but not to worry. You now have brandy to make the cake, feed the cake and to swig at stressful moments of the Yuletide Season. You can remove the spices after about a month, or leave them in for a very spicy drink
  • You can prepare this part up to 48 hours ahead if you wish (indeed, it is advisable to do this if you've left your cake really late like me). Put the dried cranberries, chopped dates, raisins and sultanas into a saucepan. Pour 90ml of your spiced brandy into the saucepan, cover the saucepan with a lid and gently heat. (Note: if your spiced Brandy has not had time to infuse - at least a week - put the brandy spices into a piece of muslin, tie the top with string, and add to the dried fruit mix. Simmer as above, then remove th spices and put them into your spiced brandy bottle). Stir occasionally, and when it has bubbled for about a minute, remove from heat, keep covered and allow to cool
  • Grease and line a round, 16cm cake tin with baking parchment. Heat the oven to 160 degrees celsius / Gas 4
  • Add the chopped ginger, the 2tbsps of linseeds and the orange and lemon zest to the dried fruit mix
  • Mix up the egg replacer with the rice milk and set aside
  • Weigh out the gluten-free flours, add the xanthan gum, baking powder, mixed spice and vanilla powder
  • Put the dairy free spread and sugar into a large mixing bowl. Beat it together until thoroughly mixed and slightly paler in colour
  • Add about a quarter of the eggs or the 'no egg' mix to the bowl, and seive in about a quarter of the flour mix. Gently mix together until combined. Repeat the process until all the eggs or 'no egg' and flour has been incorporated
  • Add the vanilla essence and port and stir until everything is mixed together
  • Add the dried fruit and brandy mix to the mixing bowl and stir throughly
  • Scrape into the cake tin, leave a slight dip in the centre, the cake should rise to even itself out. Cover the tin with tinfoil and place in the oven
  • Now all ovens are different, the following is a guide: Bake the cake - covered - for about 45 minutes at 160 degrees C. Lower the oven temperature to 150 degrees celsius then bake for a further 45 minutes. Uncover the cake and bake for a further 20 minutes. An inserted skewer or knife should come out clean when the cake is done. The cake should be risen and golden brown
  • Leave the cake to cool in the tin, then turn out onto a cooling rack. Then wrap it up. I wrapped mine in kitchen towel, followed by greaseproof paper, then put it all into a plastic bag and then into an airtight tin. Yes, fairly paranoid.
  • Leave for a few days/ a week, then get it out for its first feed. Using a skewer, gently poke holes in the top of the cake, you can poke down almost to the base. Take take 2-3 tbsps of your lovely spiced brandy and suck it up into a syringe (non hypodermic). Gently drip your brandy into the holes you have made. If you listen very carefully you will hear your cake sigh with happiness.
  • Wrap your cake safely back up and feed it again in a week's time. Or twice a week. Or more if you're in a hurry
  • For the icing: When you are ready to ice your babe of a Christmas cake, shoo everyone out of the kitchen and let some lovely classical music waft over you
  • For the 'marzipan' I used food colouring to colour 500g of the white sugarpaste icing. Squidge it in your hands until it's warm and malleable, then dust your worksurface with icing sugar and place the icing on it. Roll out the icing sugar; don't be neat, you just need it stretched out at this stage. Use the tip of a knife to dab a little yellow food colouring into the centre of the icing. Fold the icing over the food colouring and then start to roll out the icing with a rolling pin. The colour will gradually start to spread through the icing. Add some brown colouring to the icing and repeat the rolling out. Remember to keep the worksurface well dusted with icing sugar or it will start to stick. Keep going until you have mixed the colours into the icing and it resembles a marzipan colour. It does require a fair amount of elbow grease
  • Pause a minute and melt half the apricot jam in a saucepan (or microwave) until it's just liquid, don't let it get too hot
  • Now that your icing is marzipan coloured, roll it out to a thickness of about 2-3 mm
  • Put the cake onto its serving platter and brush the top and sides with the molten jam, it just needs to be a glaze
  • Carefully place the 'marzipan' layer over the cake and smooth the surface with the palms of your hands so that the icing moulds to the cake. Gently smooth around the sides. You'll end up with a 'skirt' of extra icing sticking out. Carefully cut off the surplus. Do it in stages so that you don't cut off too much. Smooth and mould and squidge and cajole the icing into the sides of the cake until it looks smooth. Use the flat edge of a knife to push the icing right under the cake, you don't want any air getting to the cake
  • When the cake is happily wrapped in its icing layer, leave it uncovered for at least 12 hours to dry out
  • Now for the final push. Take the remaining apricot jam and melt it gently until it is liquid. Leave to cool a bit
  • Take 600g of the white sugarpaste, dust your worksurface with icing sugar and roll out the icing. It may take a few goes to warm up the icing. Roll it out to a thickness of about 2-3mm
  • Using a pastry brush, brush the 'marzipan' all over with apricot jam
  • Place the white icing layer over the cake, and repeat your smoothing, cajoling, cutting off excess, squidging procedure. Use the flat edge of a knife to push the white icing right under the cake. Don't worry if it doesn't look perfect around the base, that is what your thick Christmassy ribbon is for; it will hide all imperfections
  • Have a rest, you deserve it
  • You can either decorate the cake with pre-made, take-the-easy-option-it's-nearly-Christmas-and-I-have-tons-to-do decorations, or you can make life extra hard for yourself and make the decorations yourself. I chose the latter, after all I only have four children and a permanent Everest of washing. Clever.
  • If you want to make the holly decoration, you will need a holly shape cutter. First you have to colour the icing. Use about 100g of white icing for the holly and 50g of icing for the berries
  • Colour the 100g of white icing using the Holly Green colouring. Follow the procedure described above for colouring the 'marzipan'. When you have it to the shade you want, roll it out to about 4mm thick and stamp out holly shapes. My lovely second daughter did the holly decoration for this cake. She coloured the icing, stamped out the shapes, everything. She worked like a trooper and I sat back and had a coffee. Child slavery; it's the way forward. Set the holly shapes aside
  • Colour the 50g of white icing with the Christmas red colouring. Roll and dab colouring and roll and squidge, as per the 'marzipan' technique outlined above. When it's the right colour, break off little bits and roll them into small balls. Flatten the balls until they look berry-esque.
  • Stick the holly decoration and berries onto the cake using apricot jam. Tie a Christmas ribbon around the cake and breathe a huge sigh of relief. It is done. Now, have you got enough sellotape in the house for all that wrapping you still need to do?
  • Merry Christmas!
© Pig in the Kitchen 2007

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Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Orange Muffins (egg free, dairy free, gluten free)

I’ve always loved trains. I love the soporiphic sway that draws you out of the station, and leads you through unfamiliar, remote landscapes. I love the mounting excitement as you arrive at a strange platform, the anticipation of an adventure about to begin.

When I was 21 I queued up to buy an Interrail ticket. It was to be a whistle stop tour around Europe before starting a work placement in France. A friend and I took the sleeper out of Barcelona and headed north to meet another friend in Nice. There was no itinerary, there was no plan; just an urge to head for strange and foreign lands.

I remember sweating in the 40 degree heat of Budapest, desperately trying to stay focused on thrilling architecture, but so relieved when we could duck into Burger King where they had veggie burgers and air conditioning.

I remember at the start of one long journey, bagging a compartment all to ourselves. We didn’t want to share it so came up with a plan. We removed our stinking shoes and grime-encrusted socks, and shut the window up tight. As hapless backpackers hove into view and eyed our compartment, we broke into seemingly spontaneous laughter. They looked at our stinking, hot compartment filled with crazed, close-knit friends and moved swiftly on.

I remember the sun setting on the flat Hungarian fields. I sat by the train’s open door and watched the world trundle past; I felt so happy, so free. When I returned to the carriage Ian informed me that he could see a nun’s knickers. She was fast asleep, legs akimbo, knickers for all to see. Chickens clucked around her feet; I don’t think they belonged to her, they seemed to be with the unsmiling men in their suit trousers and string vests.

I remember being woken in the night by a train guard, snarling at us in a strange tongue. The panic we felt as we understood that our section of the train was about to stop and only the front section would be carrying on. The mad scramble to get the backpacks, the dash down the corridor and Emma’s big mistake as she went out the wrong door and landed on the track. We hauled her back in by the top of her rucksack and collapsed in a heap in yet another train compartment.

When the guard came and woke us again, we were not in the mood. We grunted and turned over, and awoke much later to a very silent train. A silent train that was not moving. A glance out of the window confirmed that we were in a siding, but where? It was hours before we were due to arrive at our destination. Again the scramble, the heavy backpacks, stumbling along in the siding dwarfed by freight trains, trying to find a platform. We staggered up to the first man we saw, as he appeared out of the early morning mist,
Where ARE we?’
Krakow’ he replied.

We laughed in our hotel room at our fear, the thought of being lost in a siding somewhere in the Eastern bloc. We laughed as we changed up our money and briefly became Zloty millionaires, and we rejoiced in the cheapness of the beer. Yet later, as we walked silently around Auschwitz, there were no more reasons to smile. The piles of shoes, the human hair, the glasses hastily removed; it’s an experience that never leaves you.

A couple of months ago this jumble of memories filled my head as my train pulled slowly out of the Gare de Lyon. I was on my way to Lausanne; no children, no husband, just me, off to visit some friends.

I spent the only hot weekend of the summer discovering a small corner of Switzerland. We went to see the cows coming down from the mountains for winter. Impossibly large bells and their daft, floral hats weighed them down. We watched men perform the gentle art of flag throwing, accompanied by the haunting melodies of Swiss horns. We sampled, light, fresh Swiss wine; so lovely yet so unavailable to the rest of the world. The viticulteurs we spoke to don't export; they have tiny production runs and serve the domestic market. Surely there should be an EU subsidy to remedy this crying shame? We brunched on Sunday by Lac Léman and all too soon I was boarding my train back to Paris.

Before I left, Fran made me some muffins. Deliciously light little babes of muffins. Fresh and zingy, they were gone in a flash. I’ve managed to make them gluten free and they are the perfect snack for a long, thoughtful train journey. Be it to Lausanne, Poland or just for the 7.25 out of Charing Cross.
Orange Train Muffins (makes about 12)
Fran took her recipe from a book called, 'The Best of Annabel Langheim'. The author writes that they were a speciality of her mother. They are indeed very special; I love the blitzing of whole oranges, so simple, so clever.
Gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free version:
2 medium oranges
1ooml orange juice
1 tsp Orgran 'no egg' + 2tbsps orange juice
1 heaped tbsp ground linseeds + 1 tbsp orange juice (You can make ground linseeds by blending whole linseeds. Dead easy)
150g sugar
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
For egg-free, dairy-free version:
Use the first 8 ingredients listed above.
Omit the xanthan gum and use 215g plain flour (I used 130g wholewheat and 85g white flour)
Still use the linseeds.
For the gluten-free version: (note, I've not yet tried this version)
Use the gluten-free flours and xanthan gum shown above
use 1 egg instead of the the egg replacers.
Still use the linseeds.
  • Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius / Gas 4
  • Line a muffin pan with muffin cases
  • For the egg-free version; mix the egg replacer with the orange juice and set aside
  • Mix the tbsp of ground linseeds with the tbsp of orange juice. Set aside
  • Melt the dairy free spread in the microwave or by gently melting in a small saucepan. Set aside
  • Roughly chop the oranges and remove any pips. Put the chopped orange into a blender and add the 120ml of orange juice. Blend until the mixture is smooth. You might end up with little morsels of orange peel, but it works fine in the muffin, don't fret
  • To the blender add the following: the egg replacer mix / real egg, the ground linseed mix, the melted dairy-free spread. Blend again until it's all mixed together
  • In a large mixing bowl put the flour (GF or wheat), baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, sugar and xanthan gum (if using GF flour). Use a mini whisk to make sure everything is combined
  • Add the contents of the blender to the contents of the mixing bowl and stir gently with a wooden spoon until it's all mixed together. Don't beat it, just be gentle
  • Add a good dollopy tablespoon to each muffin case, aim for about half full
  • Bake for about 15 minutes, but keep your eye on them. They may take longer, they may go more quickly. Cheeky muffins - they keep you on your toes
© Pig in the Kitchen 2007

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Friday, 2 November 2007

Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Croutons (egg free, dairy free, gluten free)

Joining a new family, whether by marriage or co-habitation, is a bit like travelling to a new and unfamiliar land. A land where the people look the same, they generally speak the same language, yet there is something very different. You may notice the difference when it comes to the size of their house or the price of their holidays. You may notice the difference when it comes to the newspaper they read, or whether the toilet roll is replaced with the paper hanging forward, or lying flat against the wall. That last one could be a deal breaker couldn’t it?

Yet perhaps the differences are most noticeable when it comes to how you celebrate the festivals that crop up throughout the year. Did you always open all your Christmas presents before breakfast? Or was the agony prolonged until the formal Aunts and Uncles arrived after the festive turkey? Did you only ever paint eggs you had blown yourself? Were you familiar with the concept of the Easter Egg Hunt?

I pondered family differences last weekend as three generations assembled in a corner of England. By nightfall the family was all present and correct. Our side rolled up fresh from Birmingham airport, our children proudly wheeling their wheely bags into Nanny and Grandad’s house. My little elves brought laughter, good cheer, and an awful lot of mess.

My husband’s brother took a circuitous route from London via Birmingham, was met by his lovely girlfriend, and they completed the rest of the trip by car. As the freshly-carved pumpkins nestled in the rockery, and the children’s eyes shone with excitement, we commenced a long-standing ritual – a bit early this year - the celebration of Guy Fawkes, and my Father-in-law’s birthday.

The first time I attended this celebration, I stood in awe as the well-oiled machinery rolled into action. Under the careful eye of my Mother-in-law, my Father-in-law taped old bedspreads to the dining room floor. Years of experience had taught them that by dawn, food, mud and grease would be well ground into the carpet. The table started to groan under the weight of grated cheese, ketchup, jars of pickles, bread rolls, knives and forks, glasses and bowls of nuts and crisps. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the jacket potatoes were filling the oven and pan after pan of fried onions were adding their fragrance to the house. The sausages were lined up on plates and industrial amounts of baked beans were at the ready. The mince pies nestled in a tin, the thick cream impatiently awaiting its moment.

It turns out that it was ever thus. From earliest memory my husband has huddled around a fire eating jacket potatoes, hot dogs and beans whilst his Dad has launched fireworks from a pipe in the garden. The neighbours would come, the neighbours’ children would come and other friends and colleagues would drop by. Some brought food, others brought fireworks. As the eating and drinking began and the show commenced, there would be much ribbing if someone had offered sub-standard explosives. As the years have rolled on, the gathering has diminished, but the tradition remains strong.

This year there were 10 of us - two of us interlopers - Deborah and myself. We caused some consternation by adding to the menu. I had devised a soup, and Deborah – who hails from a land north of Luton – gave us ‘black peas’. When I heard that the recipe simply is: Black Peas, I was all for adding garlic, stock and spice, but my Mother-in-law urged caution. How right she was. Although they were a tad overcooked (by about an hour we think), the addition of vinegar to the black pea mix produced an amazing alchemy. All the water around the peas thickened instantly and with a sprinkling of salt these bad boys were delicious.

My soup was also hailed a success, as were the frankly terrifying fireworks I’d bought earlier in the day. How it is possible to unleash weapons of such potential destruction from your garden is beyond me. Every year I mutter, ‘how long until these are banned?’. This year my mutterings were drowned out by the wailing of my two year old; she is clearly too young for public displays of gunpowder. The evening came to a peaceful end with us sipping red wine and shivering uncontrollably as the fire died down.

I am fully on board with this family’s bonfire night tradition; I particularly enjoyed the slightly drunken staged photo we managed before the children went to bed. We balanced our cameras on the bird bath then raced excitedly down the garden to the whoops and cries of those already assembled. This last little ritual almost seemed the most important part of the evening; we have so few photos of everyone together. I plan to continue the celebration of Guy and my Father-in-law for many years to come, and I may have to add this soup to the evening's menu. It's best served in a cup and eaten with a teaspoon. It doubles up as a great hand-warmer.

Guy Fawkes' Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Croutons

If you are very organised, the pumpkin roasting part of this recipe can be done up to 24 hours before.
I like my soups really thick, a broth if you will. If you don't like it so thick, simply add a little more stock, but be careful, you don't want those croutons to sink now do you?

1 culinary pumpkin
3-5 cloves of garlic
salt and black pepper
olive oil for basting
2 large carrots
4 small leeks or 2 large ones
1 small potato
a handful of fresh coriander
a pinch of hot ground chillis (I cheated and used English Provender's 'very lazy red chillis')
a litre of boiling water
2 gluten free stock cubes

6-8 slices of gluten free bread for the croutons (I used this)
oil to fry
  • Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius
  • Cut the pumpkin into wedges and scoop out all the seeds and messy inner bits
  • Peel the garlic
  • Put the wedges and garlic onto a baking tray and pour over a good glug of olive oil. Use your hands to make sure each wedge is coated with oil. Grind over the salt and black pepper
  • Place in the oven for about 10-15 minutes, then turn them and cook for another 10 minutes until they are tender. Leave them to cool
  • Peel and chop the carrots into large chunks, prepare the leeks and also chop into large chunks. Peel the potato and chop into chunks
  • Put the carrots, leeks and potato into a large saucepan and add some olive oil to prevent sticking. Heat them very gently for about 10 minutes, making sure they don't stick
  • Add the chopped fresh coriander and the red chillis and stir
  • Mix the stock cubes with the boiling water and add to the pan. Bring the pan to the boil and leave to simmer uncovered until the carrots are tender. Remove from the heat
  • When the pumpkin wedges are cold, peel off the skin so that you are left with the soft inner part. Wipe any salt and pepper that gets left on the skins onto the flesh, you don't want to waste any flavouring, make sure you keep the garlic too
  • Using a ladle, remove about three ladlefuls of stock from the saucepan, keep it safe in a jug. I do this because I'm always paranoid about ending up with a runny soup; you can always add more stock, but you can't take it away. You can have that motto for free.
  • Put half the flesh into a blender, then add a few ladles of vegetables and stock from the pan
  • Blitz the mix, and transfer it to a bowl or a clean saucepan. Keep repeating this until all the stock/veg and pumpkin/garlic is blended
  • Now have a look at your soup and decide whether it's thick/runny enough. Add more stock if required
  • Now to the croutons. These are fiendishly easy and reminded me of the fried bread my Dad used to make when I was little. Cut the crusts off the gluten free bread and slice the bread into cubes
  • Pour enough oil into a frying pan to completely cover the base, then add an extra glug or two. You want about a centimetre of oil in the pan
  • Heat the oil until it is hot but not yet smoking. Put some sheets of kitchen paper onto a plate
  • Add the croutons to the oil and watch them sizzle. You'll have to turn them when the one side is brown, it's a bit of a painstaking procedure, but worth it. Brown the other side, then remove the croutons and put them onto the plate with kitchen paper. Ta-daaa! Isnt' that clever, you made your own croutons! I was very proud of myself.
  • When ready to serve your soup, warm it up, put it in cups and add a generous handful of croutons. Carry the cups outside to your guests, and remember, never go back to a firework that has failed to ignite.
© Pig in the Kitchen 2007

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Sunday, 28 October 2007

Halloween Biscuit Cakes (egg free, dairy free, gluten free)

The whole Halloween thing leaves me a bit perplexed. I like to know the roots of traditions and festivals, and it was only when the children started asking questions a couple of years ago, that I realised I didn’t have a clue. A quick internet search talked of ghosts and ghouls coming back from the dead looking for living bodies to inhabit. I wasn’t sure I wanted to mention this to my tender 5, 3 and 2 year olds, so I think I just glossed over it all and bigged up pumpkins, things vaguely spooky, and Trick or Treat.

I'm hoping I won't have to Trick or Treat with my children for at least another 5 years - dragging four children around the streets at bedtime is not a tempting thought - but it was a lot of of fun when I was little. One memorable year I joined a band of children for our annual Trick or Treat fest. For some reason all parental control was relaxed and we were allowed to roam the dark streets with no adult chaperone, just a few thrilling older boys taking charge. I’m not sure my Mum had vetted those thrilling older boys, (T.O.B’s) they wore Harringtons and boots and were rather fanciable.

I joined the band with pride, for I had a pumpkin suspended from a cane, complete with lit candle inside; health and safety be damned. So off we set, a motley assortment of witches, ghosts and thrilling older boys, did I mention those?

Around the houses we went, our ‘Trick or Treat’ chorus growing louder and louder with each suburban doorbell. The pockets of the thrilling older boys were filling with our loot, it was all going very well.

At one house, Martin (T.O.B.) seized my pumpkin on a cane and danced up to the door waving it as we yelled, ‘Trick or Treat! Money or Sweet!’ Rather unfortunately, my pumpkin-with-candle design was a bit flawed, and he succeeded in setting one of the ghosts on fire. When the bemused homeowner finally opened her door she was confronted with a screaming ghost, crying witches and T.O.B’S desperately trying to extinguish the flames.

Alas, we promptly lost the ghost and her sister; they were ushered into the goodly folk’s home so that parents could be called. The poor ghost was sobbing desperately; for a minute there I suppose she thought she was going to be joining the dead souls that were swirling around our heads eyeing up our bodies for inhabitation. Fear not dear reader, the ghost was not injured, just very shocked.

We decided we’d probably had enough Trick or Treating for one year, and we headed back to someone’s garage to count out the cash. I somehow ended up in the garage with a couple of the T.O.B’S as they started a pile of money for each trick or treater present.

‘A pound for him, pound for her, pound for you…’ etc.

Then one of the handsome Harrington-clad boys flashed me a smile. As he started his second round of dealing out the cash, he put a pound on our three piles and skipped everyone else. On the next round everyone had a pound, but on the following round he again missed out everyone else and only put the money on our piles.

I was horrified. No matter that he wore a Harrington and daring, lace-up boots! He was nothing but a common swindler! My convent training came to the fore and I roundly condemned what he was doing. The T.O.B smirked, re-adjusted the piles and no more was said.

A clear blow for truth and righteousness.

All chances of ever getting to first base with a T.O.B. - scuppered.

With the benefit of hindsight I can shrug and think that he was probably on crack cocaine before he was 20, and really not as attractive as I found him at the time. Or I could have ignored the swindling, been a few pounds richer and might have had a squeeze with an older boy in a Harrington and lace up boots.

Oh the tortured life of a young girl trick or you know where your daughter is tonight?!

Halloween Biscuit Cakes (makes about 25 ghoulish biscuits)

It's a slightly odd title I know, but it really is the only way to describe these little ghouls. When you sandwich the tender biscuits together with the orangey chocolatey inner...well. It is a symphony of yearning sweetness, a rich hit of dark and mysterious chocolate and a naughty orange tang. So like one of those Thrilling Older Boys.

Please note: these biscuits are labour intensive, but really worth the effort; your darling children will think you're fabulous. You could easily make the biscuits one day, store them in an airtight container, and then your children could help you sandwich them together the next day.

gluten-free version, egg free, dairy free version:

1tsp bicarbonate of soda

175g sugar (caster would be best, but I've made with granulated and it's not a problem)

175g golden syrup

1 heaped tsp of Orgran no egg egg replacer mixed with 2 tbsp of orange juice

zest of one orange

a pinch of clove powder

a big pinch of ground ginger

0.25tsp ground nutmeg

1.5tsp ground cinnammon

0.5tsp mixed spice

wheat flour, no egg, no dairy version:

Use 350g of wheat flour and omit the xanthan gum

gluten free with egg version:

use the GF flour and xanthan gum and substitute the 'no egg' with a real egg. As a real egg usually yields more liquid than the 'no egg', you may have to add more GF flour (I would go with rice flour) to give you a workable consistency. This recipe is very forgiving, if you have to add quite a bit more flour, it shouldn't affect the final outcome.

For the filling:

125g dairy free spread

a medium orange - use the one whose zest you stole for the biscuit mix

4tbsps icing sugar

  • You will need your oven at 180 degrees Celsius / Gas 4, but it takes a while to carve out your halloween shapes, so you won't need to light it until after you've started cutting out the shapes

  • Mix the heaped tsp of no egg powder with 2 tbsps of orange juice (if using a real egg, ignore this bit your turn with the orange zest will come in a bit), add the zest of the orange and set aside

  • Put the rice flour into a large mixing bowl and seive in the gram flour. If using wheat flour, place the flour into the mixing bowl

  • Add the xanthan gum (for GF version), bicarbonate of soda and spices and stir well to combine

  • Rub the dairy free spread into the flour using the tips of your fingers, until the mix resembles fine breadcrumbs

  • Stir in the sugar

  • Mix the golden syrup with the no egg and orange zest mix and add to the mixing bowl. If using a real egg, beat the egg and the golden syrup together, add the orange zest, and put it all into the mixing bowl

  • Using a wooden spoon, mix it all together, then use your hands to squidge everything together to form a dough. If you are using GF flour, you may find that the dough really sticks to your hands. Moisten your hands with a little rice milk and carry on squidging, it will sort itself out when it comes to rolling out

  • If need be, you could now wrap the dough in cling film and chill in the fridge for an hour or so, or you could crack on, only a few days until halloween

  • Flour your work surface with rice flour and roll out the dough until about 2-3mm thick. Use a bamboo skewer or a very sharp craft knife to carve out a pumpkin shape, or a ghost shape with scary eyes, or a witch's hat with a crescent moon, or whatever you like. You might need to 'dot' out your design with the skewer end and then do a 'dot to dot' with the knife to cut out the dough(Make sure your design has some holes in it so that the chocolate mix will show through). When you've carved your shape, lift it up gently and place it onto an uncut piece of dough, cut around the shape so that you have a matching shape

  • Put your shapes onto a baking tray lined with baking parchment

  • You could now light your oven, by the time you've finished cutting out shapes, it'll be warmed up

  • Carry on cutting out the ghoulish shapes until all the dough is used up

  • Bake in the oven for about 10 mins, but watch it, they cook really quickly and you don't want them too brown

  • Leave them to cool on the tray, then transfer to a wire rack and let them get completely cold. If you wanted to take a break now I would fully understand. Pop the biscuits into an airtight container, pour yourself a glass of wine and when you're ready....

  • For the filling: Cut the orange into small pieces and remove any pips. Blend the orange in a blender until smooth, you may have to add a splash of orange juice to achieve a smooth mix. Set aside.

  • Melt the dark chocolate in a bain marie. When it has melted, remove from the heat and add the dairy free spread. Mix until the spread has melted and it's looking smooth and glossy

  • Add 7 tbsps of the blended orange and mix

  • Add the 4 tbsps icing sugar. If it's not sweet enough for you, add some more

  • Put some cold water into your sink - it should reach about halfway up the bowl of your chocolate mix.

  • Put the chocolate mix bowl into the sink of cold water and start stirring. In fact, I reckon you could wander off for about ten minutes whilst it cools and then start the stirring. You are waiting for the chocolate mix to cool so that it thickens

  • When the mix has thickened enough for you to spread it, but so that it doesn't ooze out of your biscuits, you are ready to start

  • Have your scary biscuit pairs to the ready and spread the one without holes with some chocolate mix. Put the biscuit with the pumpkin face / ghost face / whatever/ on the top and press gently. The chocolate mix should spread to the edges and the biscuit should come to life as per the picture.

  • Continue until you have stuck your pairs together

  • Any left over inner mix can be made into truffles....that recipe is coming soooooon!

  • If it all gets too much, see the picture below for another idea

  • Enjoy halloween, and don't answer the door to trick or treaters, they're such a pain in the arse, aren't they?

Pssst, may I add another picture?

When it's nearly midnight, and you're really fed up of crafting halloween shapes, but still have tons of dough left....rummage in the cupboard, find a round cutter and stamp out lots of little circles. Sandwich them together with chocolate filling to make cute little 'burgers'. Great for the school run and very impressive served after your fabulous champagne lunch on Monday. Oh, doesn't everyone have a champagne lunch on a Monday?

© Pig in the Kitchen 2007

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