In Which There are Some Disturbingly Addictive Chips…

I’ve been nibbling FAR too many of these…

I daresay that junk food of any sort has always been given a bad rap due to the fact that they’re normally devoid of the proper nutrients required by the human body to function properly.  Chips, in particular, have been criticised for being little more than crunchy little bits of fat-soaked carbs loaded with sodium.  So could someone please explain to my why they make me feel better in times of crisis?!

You could, of course, chalk it down to the fact that my chips-of-choice at the moment are these particularly noshable PopCorners.  These wee beasties are touted as the new shape of popcorn because that is exactly what they are: popped corn pressed into crunchy triangular crisps.  Plus, they’re air-popped so there’s very little in the way of fat as far as these crunchies are concerned.  Incidentally, if the nutritional stats on the bag are to be believed, these chips are packed with iron, niacin, and folates.

I’ve been a longtime fan of the sweet-and-salty kettle corn-flavoured variety, though the jalapeno-infused ones are interestingly zingy-tasting.  However, I find the sea-salt variety rather insipid for some reason: there’s very little, actually, in the way of salt.  On the other hand, the butter-flavoured ones taste strangely like cheese.  (Which, oddly enough, caused me to speculate that the rather cheesy-tasting Belgian butter was used for flavoring them…)  According to the product website, they’ve introduced a new caramel (!) variant; alas, I’ve not seen it in local supermarket shelves.

You cannot eat just a mere handful of these: they’re more than a little moreish, you see, popcorn being a rather comforting thing and quite an appropriate snack on hand for movie nights, television series marathons, and those odd nights when you stay up talking to friends to commiserate on the more grim aspects of life.

PopCorners are available at your local S&R and at most branches of Healthy Options.  Whatever you do, don’t buy those niminy-piminy solo-sized snack packs.  Go large or go without – end of story.

In Which the Blogger Puts Her Own Spin on an Irish Classic…

Soda Bread (Picture by Sydney Oland @ Serious Eats)

Ever since I learned how to bake my own bread, my family has been trying to find occasions on which to eat the stuff.  These can be as eventful as someone’s birthday or, at the most mundane, a simple pasta supper.  (But hey: simple is a relative term as far as we’re concerned.  What’s simple to us may very well be bloody damned complicated for others!)

For bread, however, you need to have yeast in your store cupboard.  Under ordinary circumstances, there are either packets of Red Star or Fleischmann’s Rapid-rise Yeast or a six-packet box of Hovis Fast-acting Yeast in mine.  However, for some weird reason, there wasn’t any yeast available in the baking aisles of my favorite supermarkets and over at the grocery section of the Union Jack Tavern.  As ridiculous as this may sound, it was enough to make me cry.  It was a good thing that a recent peek at Serious Eats pointed me in the direction of an Emerald Isle classic: Irish soda bread.

Here’s the beastie…

The original recipe was food blogger Sydney Oland‘s soda bread with port-soaked raisins: a behemoth of a loaf made with buttermilk and more butter and studded with the aforementioned raisins soaked in ruby port.

While reading the recipe, I thought it looked easy enough but had a few reservations.  I’d tried making soda bread before, this made from a recipe my cousin made with her classmates for a school project.  It was, alas, an unmitigated disaster and the resulting mini-loaves were hard enough to cause serious cracks if chucked at a nearby wall!

But you know the old saw: if at first you don’t succeed, try and try till you actually do.  I am pleased to say that the resulting loaf was an excellent one.

Just a few things, though.  Buttermilk is not easy to find in this part of the world and, even if you can manage to track it down, it’s not always available.  In which case, I recommend souring milk with some balsamic vinegar – a hack which results, surprisingly enough, in sour milk with a balanced mix of tanginess and a hint of buttery sweetness.  Plus, given how I didn’t have any port (it’s not something we keep in the downstairs room where the wines are stored), I soaked my raisins in rum; the results were pretty good.  Plus, I used vanilla sugar in this loaf to give it a sweeter fragrance.

The resulting loaf will not bake with a white crumb like Sydney Oland’s because of the balsamic-soured milk; it’ll actually turn out beige.  Nevertheless, it will look pretty good and taste lovely.  It will have a good crust – neither too hard nor too tough – and a dense but moreishly tender crumb within.

Balsamic Soda Bread with Boozy Raisins

  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup dark rum
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons compound vanilla sugar or dark brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) cold salted butter, cut into chunks
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar + enough milk to yield 1-1/2 cups liquid
  • 1 egg

In a small, non-reactive bowl, pour the rum over the raisins.  Cover and leave to soak overnight.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat your oven to 400 degrees / Gas Mark 6.  Grease a standard-sized baking sheet; set aside.

Whisk together the milk and balsamic vinegar; leave at room temperature for about 30 minutes to an hour.  Sift together the sugar, flour, and baking soda.  Rub the butter in with your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.  Make a well in the center.

Whisk the egg into the soured milk and pour into the well.  Drain the raisins and add to the well.  Using a wooden spoon, mix until a rather moist dough is achieved.  Tip the dough out onto a clean, floured surface and knead for a couple minutes.

Shape into a round…

Place the kneaded dough onto the prepared baking sheet and form into a round.  Leave to rest for about a couple minutes.

Make a wish whilst you’re cutting a cross into the dough!

Using a serrated knife, cut a cross halfway into the dough as shown above.  This ensures that the loaf cooks through properly, but I think you should follow the old Irish superstition of saying a prayer or making a wish as you cut through.  It’s a comforting wee gesture, really.  🙂

Dust the top of the loaf with more flour and bake for 25 minutes.  At the end of baking time, turn off the oven but leave the loaf inside for an additional five minutes.  Remove from oven and leave to rest for another five minutes before slicing.  Serve with lashings of butter, marmalade, jam, or potted meat spreads.

Makes 1 loaf.

In Which There is a Lush, Decadent Pudding for One…

No, I’m not sharing! >_<

Every other Sunday, whenever the help decide to go on a day off or whenever I’m too blue to join the rest of the family, I find myself home alone, happily puttering about the kitchen, and trying out new recipes for one.

Because last week was an ordeal and a half to get through, I was totally grateful for the opportunity to just stay in and not have to interact with the rest of humanity or deal with the bloody blistering heat that has all the brainless beach bunnies excited and yours truly in a right, proper snit.  It was nice to just be able to curl up on the living room couch to watch reruns of The Voice, eat savory tartines for lunch (sauteed mackerel with Cheddar on buttered whole wheat = YUM!), and prepare a truly indulgent dessert for myself that takes less than ten minutes to go from store-cupboard to stomach.

This is a variation on the Nutella mug-cake I posted a few weeks back, but this one is less stodgy as it uses orange marmalade instead of Nutella.  It’s an easy-peasy sort of dessert, but one that really satisfies any chocolaty cravings as well as any need for edible comfort.  The dark smokiness of the cocoa powder is brought into sharp relief by the tangy, bittersweet marmalade.

Oh, and another thing: vanilla ice cream isn’t optional here – it’s a necessity.  Putting the ice cream on the pudding whilst it’s still hot melts it into a delectable sauce and keeps the pudding nice and moist while you eat.

Quickfire Chocolate-Orange Pudding

  • 1 egg
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 3 tablespoons orange marmalade (the chunky kind works best, by the way)
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup granulated white sugar
  • 2 scoops vanilla ice cream

In a large microwaveable bowl, whisk together the oil, milk, and egg till frothy.  Sift in the cocoa, sugar, and flour; mix till smooth.  Add the orange marmalade and mix until well combined.  Microwave at HIGH for two minutes.  Serve immediately topped with the ice cream.

Serves 1.

Incidentally…  Hey-ho!  ‘Tis the weekend and my stress therapist tells me that a good laugh can do a lot to help relieve serious stress.  That said, check out the 2009 Australian short feature Multiple Choice for some seriously funny misadventures:

In Which the Blogger Improves a Favorite Recipe for Roast Pork…

Sticky hoisin roast pork

Chinese-style roast pork has long been one of my favorite recipes and for a number of good reasons: it tastes amazing, it feeds a crowd, and it’s an amazingly simple dish to make.  The recipe I’ve been using for the past several years is one I found in the recipe anthology towards the back of Time-Life’s The Good Cook: Pork.  It was penned by a Yank rather than anyone Chinese, but the ingredients and flavors are totally Oriental: soy sauce, hoisin paste, and Chinese five-spice powder.

As good as it tasted, though, I couldn’t help but feel that my pork roasts tended to be a tad on the dry side.  That said, I’ve pored over numerous cookbooks and food magazines to figure out what I’ve been doing wrong and how in blazes I could get pork that was magnificently succulent on the inside and caramel-sticky and burnished on the outside.

One winter issue of Donna Hay magazine gave me the answer I needed: a longer soaking time and continuous basting whilst the roast was in the oven or turbo-broiler.  As tedious as it sounds, actually brushing the meat every five minutes with the residual marinade amps up the flavor; plus, I got the wonted burnished, sugary-sticky crust that ensures all the juices are locked within.  Needless to say that the finished dish – made with slabs of fatty, rich-tasting pork belly – was a magnificent success.

Oh, and these babies are portable, too.  I packed a quarter-slab over some rice for a tuck-box lunch for work the next day.  😉

Sticky Hoisin Pork Roast

  • 1/4 kilo pork belly slices (the thick ones)
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon honey or golden syrup
  • 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/8 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Place the pork in a large non-reactive bowl.  Whisk together the other ingredients and pour over the pork; massage well into the meat.  Leave to soak for at least four hours or overnight.

Pre-heat your oven or turbo-broiler to 375 degrees / Gas Mark 5.  If using an oven, place the pork in a roasting pan; if using a turbo-broiler, set the pork slices on the rack in the main chamber – be sure to reserve the marinade.  Cook for 40 minutes, basting with the leftover marinade every five minutes; turn the pork after the first 20 minutes of cooking time to ensure that the meat is cooked evenly.

Serve immediately so as to enjoy the full syrupy goodness of the pork.

Serves 6.

In Which the Blogger Serves Up a Surprisingly Scrumptious Supper…

What’s in the oven…?

If you’re into the arcane art of Tarot reading, you are probably aware that the Nine of Swords card usually means that the querent – the person for whom the cards are being read – is under a lot of stress and needs to find an outlet for all the tension building up within.  Unfortunately for me, that is exactly how things went for me this past week: too much tension, a great deal of pressure, my body screaming for rest and not getting any of it.  As a result, I ended up throwing a fit at my desk on Thursday, feeling more than a little abandoned, unappreciated, and utterly frustrated because I hadn’t written anything of my own – stories, poems, and even this blog – for over a week.  Believe me when I say that it really wasn’t my finest moment.

But the week is, mercifully, over.  I found myself taking Friday off: did errands, wrapped up some paperwork at Social Security, went to the doctor for a check-up (and ended up with only a marginally clean bill of health, alas), saw my spiritual director for confession, and pretty much did a lot of thinking of what I really wanted to do in life.  And really, all I want to do right now is pack my bags, move to Scotland where it’s wonderfully cold all the time but people are said to be so warm-hearted, and find a career that involves cooking and writing in equal measure.  But, that, I fear is still some way off.  So, till then…

Only the very best cheese buns you’ll ever have…

I came home on Friday afternoon and decided not to mope and, instead, focus what little energy I had left to make quite a smashingly simple yet amazing supper for my family.

To start off, I whipped up some fantastic cheese buns made from a dough meant for foccaccia or schiacciata stuffed with a mixture of mozzarella and mild Cheddar and topped with pepper-spiced Parmesan.  These little beasties are huge – just a little bigger than my fist and have a magnificently crisp crust, a fluffy interior, and a meltingly scrumptious middle.  I daresay these would be just perfect with a good salad, but I was searching for plenty of edible comfort, something only a really good bowl of pasta could give.

And so…

On stressful days, carbo-loading is a must…

This creamy mushroom pesto pasta is all about building things up with the stuff you have in your store-cupboard.  It involves mixing a pack of ready-made pesto with cream, sauteed onions, garlic, and mushrooms and stirring through some pre-cooked ribbon pasta – fettucine or tagliatelle, whatever suits your fancy.

To be very honest, I looked at my family’s faces around the dinner table later that evening and breathed a sigh of relief.  Not only were they happy and satisfied by my cooking; but the dreadful, grueling week was finally over.