Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Orange and Cranberry Muffins

One batch of muffins is never enough when I come home which explains the two muffin recipes back to back. Orange and cranberry muffins are by far one of my favourites and I always look forward to making them at this time of year when there are fresh cranberries in the shops.

I first discovered the tangy orange and cranberry combination at, ahem, Starbucks quite a few years ago as one of their Christmas limited editions and was entirely addicted for a whole winter. However I wasn’t going to let the obsession burn a hole in my pocket a second winter running so it became only wise to attempt to make my own. I played around with various recipes, some using marmalade, some using cranberry sauce, and the one I settled on draws from a couple. It makes gorgeous muffins that are not too sweet so the tartness of the cranberries really zing on the tongue which is just the way I like these. Although dried cranberries would do fine I’ve only ever wanted to make these with fresh berries for all their brightness, tanginess, juiciness and loveliness. They burst and wrinkle in the heat of the oven oozing their juices everywhere so when I pull the muffin tray out the whole thing looks like a delightful pink and orange explosion. These muffins don’t rise into the cute mounds I’m used to I think because of the weight of the cranberries. Instead they tend to ooze over the sides onto the tray further adding to that look of explosion but don’t let this dissuade you because they are still wonderfully moist and the scent that fills the kitchen as they bake is so uplifting. In fact I love to savour the scent of one of these first before I tuck into it.

Orange and cranberry can’t help but refresh the taste buds with their zest and sharpness combined. But I also love how their bright deep pink and orange together dance at the eyes and their tangy aroma awakens the nose. If like me you are not a morning person in the slightest, one of these muffins along with a strong cup of caffeine will at the very least give you enough zing to get you out of bed.

Orange and Cranberry Muffins

Adapted from ‘Muffins Fast and Fantastic’ by Susan Reimer

Makes 10-12

280g plain flour

3 tsp baking powder

½ tsp bicarbonate soda

½ tsp salt

110g caster sugar

1 egg

Finely grated orange zest of 3 large oranges

Juice of three oranges (about 260ml); add water to make total of 260 ml if not enough juice

85g butter or 90ml vegetable oil

110g fresh cranberries left whole, plus more for topping (increase the volume of liquid by 3 tbsp if using dried cranberries)

Preheat oven to 190-200˚C (375-400˚F, Gas Mark 6) and prepare muffin tray with muffin cases. In a large bowl sift together flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and sugar. In another bowl beat egg with a fork then add zest of orange, juice (plus water if needed), followed by oil/melted butter. Pour all of wet mixture into dry and stir until just combined, adding the cranberries during the final strokes. Batter will be lumpy. Spoon immediately into muffin cases and top each with a few more cranberries. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until tops are lightly browned and spring back when pressed gently.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Chocolate Muffins with Chestnut Filling

I’m back home for a couple of weeks now to spend Christmas with my family which is a great excuse to get muffin-baking not least because I have plenty to share them with and my muffin tray is at my parents’ place. As a fan of chestnuts especially at Christmas I wanted to incorporate some into a muffin recipe. Chestnut puree is quite often used as a layer in gorgeous Chinese cakes and this combined with the idea of muffins with fillings - think rhubarb muffins with custard inside - led me to chocolate muffins with chestnut filling.

Chestnut puree goes really well with delicate vanilla sponge in Chinese cakes because the cream enveloping the cake tempers the puree down to a lighter, milky chestnut flavour and the fresh fruit topping maintains the lightness of the overall cake. The muffin however lacks this room for manoeuvre so I felt the chestnut needed to be paired with something heady enough not to be overpowered by it, chocolate being the most obvious, although I think coffee would work well too. Chocolate it was and the result went down a treat with my only regret being that I didn’t fill the muffins well enough with the chestnut. I was quite hesitant in putting more than a small-sized blob into each because the chestnut filling was a culmination of guesswork and my faffing with a blender and some chestnuts. The materialisation of my efforts in the bowl therefore initially didn’t taste as good as I was expecting. It was a strange mixture of sickly sweet vanilla and salty however to my relief once baked in the muffins it mellowed out a lot to let the earthy nuttiness come through. My mum who loves chestnuts but has an odd aversion to chocolate still managed to gobble a couple of these down and like me would have preferred more of the chestnut please!

For the chestnut filling

200g roasted chestnuts
1 tbsp icing sugar
150-200ml water, hot from the kettle
Couple of drops of vanilla essence
Tiny pinch of salt

Puree the chestnuts in a liquidiser or blender with the icing sugar and 100ml of the water. I wanted some texture to the filling so I avoided completely blitzing the chestnuts and retained a good amount of coarseness. Scrape puree into a bowl, add the vanilla essence and salt and combine. Add enough of the rest of the water to make a light paste and set aside.

The texture of the filling is down to personal preference but I found that once cooked in the muffins, it became very set which I hoped for over a runny filling (adding butter would have made a more fluid filling I think). The 200g chestnuts made more filling than I needed but next time I make these I plan to incorporate more into each muffin anyway.

For the muffins
Adapted from Muffins Fast and Fantastic by Susan Reimer
Makes 10-11

225g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate soda
½ tsp salt
110g caster sugar
4-5 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 egg
260ml milk – I intend to up this quantity a little next time as the muffins didn’t stay as moist as others I have made before
1 tsp vanilla essence
85g butter or 90ml vegetable oil
100g dark chocolate chips plus more for sprinkling – I use 53.8%

Preheat oven to 190-200˚C (375-400˚F, Gas Mark 6) and prepare muffin tray with muffin cases. In a large bowl sift together flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt, sugar and cocoa powder, then add the chocolate chips. In another bowl beat egg with a fork then stir in milk and vanilla, followed by oil/melted butter. Pour all of wet mixture into dry. Stir just until combined and no dry flour is visible. Batter will be runny.

Half fill muffin case with muffin batter. Spoon one slightly heaped teaspoon of chestnut filling onto middle of muffin mix. Cover chestnut filling with more muffin batter and fill to three-quarters full. Sprinkle top with a few chocolate chips. Repeat for rest of muffin cases and bake for 20 minutes or until muffins are risen and tops spring back when pressed gently.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Damian Allsop Chocolates

For a blog named 'Chocolate & Jasmine' it's been a long time coming but it's finally here: the first entry on chocolate! And what could be more inspiring than the Milsom Place Chocolate Festival that took place in Bath on Saturday. It was a tiny and quaint affair with only a handful of traders but there was still plenty of indulgence to be had: the sights, the smells, the samples. So many samples! And the skies gave us the most perfectly crisp Winter afternoon in which to amble around and admire the expertise and creativity behind everything on offer.

And when I speak of expertise and creativity I could not have been more intrigued by Damian Allsop Chocolates. Damian Allsop is a former pastry chef who has been creating a bit of a buzz in the chocolate world by adopting and developing the revolutionary method of using water rather than cream or butter in his chocolate fillings. This came across as very odd to me because as far as I knew, chocolate and water don't mix, and apparently the science behind making them work is far from simple. His reasoning however is that using flavourless liquids allows the purer flavours of the cocoa to come through more intensely, and the palate appreciates a flavour profile that is truer to chocolate as it should be. He himself was there to explain the thinking behind his concept and allowed us to experience it for ourselves by heating up his drinking chocolate mix with water into luscious, thick samples. So taken with the novel idea and always wanting to try something new I purchased a bag to explore and appreciate at home. Blended with hot water the mix made a thick and intense chocolate drink. It's not indiscernible that it has not been made with milk however the bitter tang of the chocolate definitely comes through with more clarity and as a lover of dark chocolate this can only be a good thing.

A bit of a google since the chocolate festival led me to a recent interview with the chocolatier himself which is an insightful and inspiring read. With such a passion for the alchemy of chocolate it comes as no surprise that he has been likened to Merlin, Willy Wonka and Heston Blumenthall. The flavour sensations of his water-based ganaches sound so exquisite and exciting I suddenly have a huge hankering for the beautiful long box of them that caught my eye on Saturday. Presented so elegantly and proudly like chocolate jewels I couldn't help but admire them. They are definitely one to put on the 'to try in 2009' list.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Christmas Shortbread Stars

Whilst browsing through Cox & Cox I came across the brown sugar hearts pictured below and thought they were utterly adorable. When I first caught sight of them though I thought they were cookies and my heart sank a bit when I realised they were sugar lumps. I don't take sugar in my tea and I like my coffee only barely sweet.

Picture of brown sugar heart taken from Cox & Cox

The disappointment however inspired me to create my own cookies for perching so cutely off the side of a mug. I found a recipe for a basic vanilla shortbread dough and set about on my plan. With Christmas fast approaching (yes I know I know, but it is almost December now and I can't help but be excited) I thought why not be a bit seasonal and decided to go for stars rather than hearts. For added Christmas cheer I divided my batch of dough into two and added orange zest to one of them.

Carefully cutting nicks into my stars of dough I kept my fingers crossed this would work. The last thing I wanted was for their little arms to snap off after baking but as you can see they hung on in there! There were a couple of casualties but needless to say, they weren't wasted. The trick is to mould them slightly to your mug before they go in the oven. I've presented these with a mug of tea but I'd imagine they'd be just as happy clinging onto the side of desserts as well waiting to dive in! Countless biscuit recipes would lend themselves well to the idea. I can see ginger snaps with servings of vanilla ice cream... brazil nut biscuits with warm chocolate pots... elegant shortbread (again) with glasses of summery desserts of berries and cream... and homely oat cookie-bites on ramekins of stewed autumn fruits and custard.

The recipe made a nice crumbly shortbread. If I had dried cranberries or chopped almonds I think they would have complemented the zest very well. The basic vanilla ones were not as buttery as I would have liked but still very moreish nonetheless.

I'm really chuffed with how the idea turned out. Now mugs can enjoy getting into the festive spirit too. And looking at these pictures I wonder how cute the stars would have been had I iced smiley faces onto them!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Banana Bread

Everyone I know likes banana bread. It's one of those cakes that spans all tastes and ages. Young and old alike love it, even some who hate bananas love it. It's that very true and unassuming quality about banana bread which makes it appeal to the masses. It's the labrador of the cake world. It's a hug in a cake.

At home our most baked cake without a doubt is banana bread (or 'fanana fred', as we like to call it for some odd reason). This is no surprise because it is so quick and easy to make. At the same time it tastes scrumptious and fills the house with a welcoming aroma as it bakes. I'm certain that when I go home my mum buys more bananas than we can eat so she can dupe me into making batches of banana bread. And as the dutiful, banana-bread-loving daughter that I am, I pretend to be oblivious to her wily ways and bake double batches at a time with glee.

Traditionally we used to follow a recipe in one of my mum's cook books until I, like many the nation's domestic bakers, was drawn by Nigella Lawson's alluring love of food and I decided to try her recipe one day. What a revelation. I already thought our banana bread was good, but her recipe makes for one that is so much fluffier in texture and more melt in the mouth but without losing any of that all important hardy sponginess. Everyone I have made it for or I have passed the recipe to raves about how delicious and soft it is.

Nigella's recipe can be found here but I haven't mentioned yet that all my gushing refers to my version in that I omit the alcohol, fruit and nuts. I can't have foreign bodies in my banana bread! Banana bread is best enjoyed without crunchy nuts and chewy fruits disrupting its lovely squidgyness and comforting flavour. As I said it's the unassuming constitution that makes it what it is. Blinging it up is like trying to turn it into something it is not. I am so adamant of this that I will not even have chocolate in my banana bread. That is how stubborn I am about banana bread but it is only because I love it so, just the way it is.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Naked Chef's Truffles - Jamie's Italian

Last Saturday I made my first foray into the world of celebrity chef dining, not that I intend to make it a habit you understand, but in the British celebrity culture where chefs have carved quite a niche for themselves in the past few years it's hard not to notice the buzz when one of them decides to open a group of authentic restaurants dedicated to being affordable and accessible to everyone. And it's especially hard not to notice the buzz when one of them is located in the small town you currently reside in.

I wish I had more photos, but I was too busy eating!

Atmosphere and setting were lovely and what I'd describe as contemporary rustic. Cheeses and hams were hung from the ceilings above the antipasti kitchen and bar, tins of tomatoes were gathered in and around corners, large sacks of flour decorated steps and there was even a pasta-making machine quietly churning out fresh pasta where we had been enjoying our drinks. This was all dimly lit with the warm glow of low-hanging exposed lightbulbs and lamps, and scattered tealights to create a genuinely welcoming and relaxing ambience.

So what about the food? Well I am no expert on Italian food but I am an expert on what pleases my taste buds and they were for the most part pleased. Having perused the menu I decided on a pasta dish which is a very rare occurrence for me - the pasta machine sitting amongst the bar tables had obviously worked its charm. Cynicism aside, I should say I had arrived with the intention of ordering pasta the reason being I had not eaten fresh premise-made pasta before, only fresh out of a supermarket fridge. And on a roll for trying new things I went for the truffle tagliatelle which I decided to accompany with pan cooked garlicky green beans with tomatoes. I was going all vegetarian, another first. The boyfriend decided otherwise and opted for good old grilled steak with a side of skinny potato chips with rosemary salt. Good choice.

I also should not forget to give a special mention to Jamie's tomato ketchup which was presented in its own rustic glass bottle. It was tastily tomatoey and Jamie may want to cane me for saying this but as it touched my tongue I found myself reminiscing of my childhood when I loved to eat what all children loved to eat: fish fingers with Heinz tinned spaghetti. Sorry Jamie but believe me when I say this is a good thing. Your ketchup is like a grown up version of the tomato sauce I enjoyed as a child which is something Heinz themselves have not been able to bottle.

And of course despite feeling quite full I could not have a meal out without rounding it off nicely with dessert. The boyfriend was swayed by the idea of a bowl of Italian ice creams of the day which disappointingly had already started to melt when they arrived. We played a game of guess the flavour and concluded with vanilla (easy), rhubarb (I got that one) and what I think was toffee, he thought was cookie, then it all melted together so what it was will always remain a mystery. I ordered Gennaro's amalfi orange tart because I love citrus-based baked goodies and this one, which was of a sizeable portion, fulfilled my expectations. As we enjoyed these the chef approached us to say hello and asked if everything was ok. Another happy first for me. and I couldn't end without saying that the service from everyone who served us from the moment we joined the queue to when we left was faultless and friendly.

For the quality of food and dining experience prices were reasonable and quite competitive compared to other high end high street restaurants. Whatever your budget I recommend it to those who want to enjoy good simple food within a laid back but well executed setting. It seems reviews have been mixed but I can only go on my own experience which was on the whole positive.

Jamie's Italian
10 Milsom Place
Phone: 01225 510051

9th November 2008:
Since making this entry I have realised I lied! I only just remembered that in June this year I had some cracking fish and chips at Rick Stein's fish and chip shop in Padstow therefore when I said my visit to Jamie's was my first foray into celebrity chef dining I may have inadvertently told a fib. That said, my views of the old fuddy-duddy Stein's 'celebrity' status remain very dubious anyway although my brother would challenge me to the ground for saying that. I best be on my guard, he - my brother, not Stein - knows martial arts, and he may have Chalky on his side!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

early winter munchies

The clocks turned back two weekends ago and the boyfriend was remarking that if there is a being out there who flicks the switch for the nation to put us all into sync, they must have inadvertently flicked the winter switch too. It has been bitingly cold this past week and a half which means a further switch has been flicked inside me: the insatiably peckish switch.

Nomatter how well I plan my meals and try my best to assert some will power over the hunger pangs in my mind, I still end up quite indiscreetly reaching for the chocolates, the crisps, the cake. I'm quite astonished by my tendency towards excessive squirrel-like stashing of snacks during the colder months. However there really is something about the darker evenings and colder temperatures that bring out the instinctive squirrel in me as timely as they urge me to dig out the cosy scarves and gloves from the back of my closet. On a cold evening there is nothing more soul-warming than wrapping myself up in my duvet with a mug of hot tea, a good book or dvd on the laptop, and a sweet comforting bar of chocolatey goodness, knowing there is a lot more where it came from.

Yesterday I allowed myself to make yet another stash. It is the treasure of all my stashes. Not long ago supermarkets here stopped stocking one of my favourite ice creams of all time: Ben & Jerry's cherry garcia. For me, chocolate and cherries is one of the most complementary pairings that could be when you want something a bit feminine, decadent and heavenly, and I melt when I think of dark chocolate with kirsch cherries. They simply belong together and I believe such pairings create moments to savour or treasure in all aspects of life. Think of birthdays and candles, focus and achievement, stillness and snow. If all things could go so well together life would be nice.

Ben & Jerry's cherry garcia ice cream was inconsiderately replaced with the healthier frozen yogurt version in UK supermarkets which is pleasant enough but lacking in that all important creaminess which leaves it aiming quite a bit off-centre when it attempts to hit the spot. However, as if the ice cream angels were looking down upon me, I serendipitously came across what must be the last few tubs of cherry garcia ice cream in all of Britain at a local convenience store. And to top it all off with a cherry, at half price! Resistance didn't even dare enter my mind but unfortunately student budgetary constraints did so I restricted myself to two tubs, brought them back and tucked them nicely into the back of my freezer as a wave of contentment warmly swept over me. Ah, my little stash of chocolate and cherry treasure. Perfect to pair with those chick flick moments.

Monday, November 03, 2008

introducing my blog

I love food blogs. I could spend hours wandering through all the food blogs I've bookmarked, plus more, taking in the sights, the smells, the ideas. It is these journeys that have inspired me to create chocolate & jasmine my attempt to write about the food in my life as a very amateur foodie, and I do stress the 'very'.

I currently live in university halls therefore share a somewhat forlorn electric hob with many flatmates, I can only dream of owning an SLR with which to produce delicious food photography, I keep a very limited array of kitchen utensils because I know I'll be moving again, and while I am a competent enough cook, I am still very much a beginner with regards to the vast world of ingredients and flavours. If I had to choose one phrase with which to describe my cooking, it would be 'hit or miss'. I often surprise myself how well or bad something can turn out although I'm a baker at heart so at the very least anything containing flour that comes out of the oven tends to be a hit. On top of all this I live on a (mature) student budget so I often have to restrain myself and therefore recipes are always kept simple.

But for now, I do know that I love to eat and I love to cook. I also know I love taking photos however one thing I've yet to discover is whether I love blogging! So at the moment all I can do is try and hopefully I can nurture this blog into capturing the essence of food according to me.

So why 'chocolate & jasmine'? Well it combines two of my most foodie-loved: sweet delights and Chinese food. Anyone who knows me is aware
of my lifelong addiction to chocolates, cakes, pastries, desserts and puddings and the tardis-like second stomach I have to contain such treats (it's evolution I tell you).

The jasmine conveys my ethnic roots. I was born in the United Kingdom however my parents come from Hong Kong therefore my favourite cuisine would have to be what I have grown up with: traditional Chinese, accompanied by lots of fragrant jasmine tea of course.