Saturday, 1 August 2020

Cooking American Style

I feel like I went on a holiday around the US with this book. I bought a new cookery book a few weeks ago, Magnolia Table by Joanna Gaines. I think she's pretty well known in the US but I first heard of her when I stumbled across the American DIY/Home Improvemennt TV programme Fixer Upper one night, and was instantly hooked. In the programmes, she and her husband, Chip, renovate run down properties for clients - he is the builder while she does the interior design (which I really like by the way, she has a great eye) - and it's developed into the Magnolia business in Waco, Texas, with shops, restaurants, a bakery and cookery books too it appears.

The thing about this book that you have to know from the outset is it's all in American terms, so weights are in cups, ounces and sticks rather than the metric measurements we use in the UK, and the ingredients have not been translated for a British market, so your courgettes are zuccini, your coriander cilantro, and so on. Some people might find this off-putting, even annoying, as there is a bit of translating to do as you read each recipe, but I saw it as a challenge and kind of relished it. I think there is something about cooking and cookery books that brings out my inner geek (not a lot does) and so I had a very lovely time indeed cooking from this book, which is beautifully put together with lots of photos and very clear instructions, plus a bit of history or context for each recipe, like if it was passed down from a family member. The breakfast chapter was large (and included a lot of food I consider lunch, like quiche) but I was really keen to try The Best-Ever Fluffy Pancakes. They are fairly similar to my normal American pancake recipe but include buttermilk, which makes them lighter I think. I feel traitorous to Nigella to admit this, but yes these pancakes were amazing. So light and soft, and the maple syrup soaked in making them almost cakey. I made them again this morning and they were just as good.

Next we tried Becki's Mac and Cheese, which differed a lot from my normal cheese sauce method. I usually make a white sauce, starting with a roux of butter and flour and adding milk, then add the grated cheese. Here, you cook the macaroni in one pan, and mix together milk, cream, butter, something called "Velveeta" (I just used cream cheese), cheddar and some seasoning in another, then you mix the drained pasta and creamy sauce together, pour into an oven dish and bake with more cheese on top. The amount of cheese it contained was staggering but it was so good, more like the kind of macaroni cheese you'd eat in a restaurant than at home. Probably because a restaurant macaroni cheese contains a lot more cheese and cream than one you'd make at home, now I come to think of it, but I do still dream about this dish sometimes. 

We ate it with Meat Loaf and a lot of green vegetables. I was really excited to try the meat loaf because I think it's one of those dishes that always seemed to feature in the American TV and films I watched growing up as a kind of nostalgic, homemade comfort food, and I always wondered what it was as a child. Well, it's basically a giant burger. It's minced beef and fried onion, breadcrumbs, an egg, some cheese and seasoning, all squished together  formed into a long loaf shape, drizzled with ketchup and baked. It was quite nice but didn't go down as well with John and the kids as I'd hoped. 

The appearance of my meatloaf may have had something to do with it, I don't know...

A much more successful family meal was Sour Cream Chicken Enchiladas. This was not how I make enchiladas (which is probably the wrong way, to be fair); here, you mix together a jar of enchilada sauce with a tin of condensed chicken soup and some sour cream. I couldn't find the exact kind of sauce specified so improvised with what they had on the shelf in Waitrose, and I have never used condensed soup in cooking before, although I know often people do in casseroles or slow cooker meals, so I was intrigued. You make up all your rolled tortilas containing chicken, peppers and a little cheese then, when they are all snug in their oven dish, pour all the sauce over the top and bake. The result is a creamier enchilada with a lot more flavour than the usual way I make it. 

Another good find was Bow Tie Pasta, a really quick and easy weeknight dinner. While the farfalle is cooking, you saute some garlic then add cream and cream cheese to the pan, creating the base for your sauce. Then you add parmesan, loads of spinach and some sun-dried tomatoes and let the spinach wilt in the sauce, before mixing it all together with the cooked pasta.

You were supposed to add artichoke hearts and garnish with walnuts but, knowing how those two ingredients would go down, I left those out, and it was well received by everyone, although Angus did pick out all his sun-dried tomatoes.

Bella and Angus don't like risotto, so one night when they were having something different - probably chicken nuggets - we tried the Fresh Spinach and Leek Risotto. It's a fairly standard risotto recipe, but uses leeks instead of onion, then at the final stage where you stir in the parmesan and butter, add lemon zest too. I loved it, John less so, although he did take the leftovers to work the next day for lunch so it can't have been that bad. 

Now on to desserts and cake, always the best bit! I made Mina's Lemon Bars, which were a bit of a revelation. It's a simple biscuit base which is blind baked, then you top with sugar, eggs and lemon juice, and bake again. 

It's like all the best bits of shortbread, lemon curd and lemon drizzle cake all put together in a bar, and they were so good. However, I didn't grease my pan well enough and so the edges of the bars burnt and stuck on in a very unattractive fashion.

Hmmm, I thought, this doesn't look like the photo in the book. However I was able to chisel them out, cut off the burnt edges and they were ok, proving once again that dredging icing sugar over your baked goods always covers a multitude of sins. If I ever write a baking book it will definitely include lots of opportunities to cover your burnt cake in icing sugar, I feel it's my signature style.

Finally we have Bevie's Chocolate Roll, which is a like a chocolate log or Swiss roll. You're supposed to fill the cake with "Cool Whip" before rolling but I have no idea what that is so used whipped cream. Once the cake is rolled, you put it in the fridge for a few hours so that it's really cold and firm. I didn't get this - cake straight from the fridge generally isn't very nice as it loses all it's soft airiness - until I realised that the cake is served cold with a jug of hot fudge sauce, which you pour over the chocolate cake.

It is every bit as good as you imagine, and the kids said it had made it into their top three favourite puddings, which is quite some accolade. 

So all in all a very good book. I liked the Americanisms, I like that it all felt a bit different to my usual cooking and made me try some new things. I've found some very good recipes here and had a lot of fun cooking from it, although I might lay off the cream for a while.


Thank you so much for all your good wishes for my career change. It was so heartening to hear so many of you had made similar changes and that you enjoy the job so much. I know it's going to be a very demanding year, and that's partly why I waited until both Bella and Angus were older, but I feel it will be worth it. I definitely plan to continue blogging, and cooking, crafting and everything else that I love to do, although it might be fortnightly rather than weekly. 

So far we are having a lovely start to the school holidays and have been much busier than I'd planned, which has been unexpected but also wonderful. We've spent time with friends and family, enjoyed the weather, eaten out, explored our local area, gone to the beach....I will do a proper post soon. 

Friday, 24 July 2020

End of term, end of primary school

It's all been going on here, the big and the little. I blinked and both our children appear to have left primary school. Here he is, after his school "Oscars", clutching his trophy for "Biggest Daydreamer" (spot on, I thought) which consists of the school mug stuffed full of sweets. He was beaming and so proud of himself. This year has not been easy for children (or adults too, for that matter) and I have been so thankful that he was able to return to school for the last six weeks of term. It made such a difference with how ready he feels to go to secondary school in September. 

We celebrated with a meal out at the kids' favourite burger place, 7Bone, which was our first meal out since February. Their safety measures and social distancing were brilliant, not that I was overly worried about that. I was more concerned about having my temperature taken upon entering and finding that it was too high and we wouldn't be allowed in, but fortunately nothing came between us and our dirty fries. 

I finished school a couple of days later, on Wednesday, and it was a strange old week at work.  I work in a pretty tight-knit school with a team that rub along pretty well together, but with Covid, and the lack of children, plus a few staff members leaving - it just all felt a bit sad. This was probably compounded by me handing in my notice from my role as Teaching Assistant, as I'm going back to university in September to do Teacher Training. I swing between excitement and terror, mostly terror if I'm honest, but the flowers and cupcakes did help.

Ziggy turned three. We bought him a stupidly big bone and called him Birthday Boy all day long.

He wore himself out, as you can see.

In house news, we painted out front door. I have never liked our uPVC front door which came with the house, but since there's nothing wrong with it we can't really justify replacing it....yet. I reasoned that I could not hate it more than I already did so why not paint it, just to cheer it up? I did a lot of research into painting uPVC before we committed and, after sanding the door lightly and making sure it was spotlessly clean, gave it two coats of this primer which comes in black or white. You have to leave it for five days to "cure" before adding your topcoat, or you could leave it black I suppose if you wanted. 

Then we gave it two coats of paint to match the blue balcony railings above, Woad by Little Greene Paint. 

I adore it, and so does John. I find people's reaction to painting this door hilarious though - people seem genuinely shocked. One set of neighbours called us "bold" while another wanted all the paint details from John as they were also wanting to paint their uPVC front door. Our window cleaner absolutely loved it. It makes me smile.

Saturday morning pancakes made a comeback after a long break. I do love the fluffy American ones but if it's just me having them I make these oat ones. They are made with 100g oats, 200g cottage cheese and 4 eggs. I blitz it all together with a stick blender and usually get nine from the batter, and eat two or three for breakfast. They are denser than the usual flour-based pancakes but I really like them.

Less healthy, but I also made fudge, from this recipe. I had 3/4 of a tin of evaporated milk to use up and just googled "recipes with evaporated milk" and fudge was the first to pop up. I think it's the best fudge I've made. After cooking, you leave it to cool for five minutes then beat it in the food mixer for five or ten minutes. This takes away the slightly glossy, chewy texture and makes it thicker and grainier, which I much prefer. I like my fudge really crumbly, maybe more like Scottish tablet. 

I also made chutney with the redcurrants I picked in the garden, and I think it's the best use I've found for redcurrants yet. I followed this recipe and it is so, so good - I think it's the Chinese Five Spice that really makes it work. 

I'm sure it's lovely with brie or any other soft cheese, but I found it was delicious with cream cheese on a ryvita. 

I ordered myself a new bedside table locker during lockdown, but it took ages to come because of covid, so it was quite a nice surprise when I unwrapped it. I love these lockers, and they come in the most gorgeous colours; I couldn't decide between forest green, mustard yellow, grey or white, but in the end pink won. 

 I picked my sampler up from the framers. They made such a beautiful job of framing it, I'm so glad I paid to have it done professionally rather than trying to do it myself. 

The garden is looking a bit parched and not quite so well tended as it was during April, May and June. 

 But I try not to be too critical, and ignore the dead plants, and focus on the nice bits. Like all these pears hanging over the fence from the garden that backs onto ours...

And there are sunflowers too, which always make me happy.