Award season celebrations

It’s award season in Merton! And I was thrilled that Willow Bough, my beautiful little tea shop in Wimbledon, is a finalist in the Best Customer Service category of the Merton Best Business Awards run by Merton Chamber of Commerce. We’ve only been open for two years and are still becoming known in the borough, but it seems that so far our customers like what we’re doing!

 

We work really hard at Willow Bough to provide a high level of customer service, along with excellent food. We know it’s not just what’s on your plate that counts when eating out and you really do get the whole experience at Willow Bough.

So in September I’ll be dusting off my posh frock and glamming up for the awards ceremony. Whatever the results, I’m sure we’ll have a wonderful time and will feel proud just to have reached the final

We’ve also been nominated in two categories – Best Coffee/Tea House and Best Service – in the Time and Leisure Best Business Awards. Voting is still open so please do take a few minutes to make my day and vote for Willow Bough and hopefully there’ll be another award ceremony to get dressed up for!

Potato salad; making a meal of it

At the weekend I got a really bad craving for homemade potato salad. I have no idea why, but something in me wanted homemade potato salad and so that’s what I was going to have! So I based my whole meal around the potato salad and I didn’t let myself down.

To make the potato salad I boiled new potatoes and then chopped them into bite-size pieces. I added chopped red onion and mayonnaise with a squirt of fresh lemon juice.

It was so hot I decided to enjoy said potato salad with tuna steaks and a salad of lamb’s lettuce, radishes, cucumber and tomatoes dressed in olive oil and the juice of the other half a lemon.  I cooked the tuna steaks on a high heat for around six minutes, turning after four minutes and squirting with the remaining lemon juice. The fresh salad and tuna steak felt light and right with the potato salad.

For pudding I wanted something equally as summery, indulgent but also not horrifically naughty. So I made a raspberry Eton mess with meringue (yes, shop bought. I can’t bake and make everything all the time!), fresh raspberries and organic raspberry yogurt. It didn’t last long!

The wine I chose to enjoy with this meal was – and please note that I am no exceptional wine connoisseur, just someone who likes what she likes as long as it falls in budget – a white rioja. I’ve been drinking white rioja for a few years now and picked up a bargain bottle in Lidl for just under £4. What a bargain!

Easy pasta; the ultimate in lazy girl meals

I’ve been so busy this week running from the shop out to parties or networking events with hardly a second to spare! So I’ve been reliant on my lazy girl menu for dinner ideas. One of my easiest – and quite frankly laziest – meals is my easy pasta and it can be made with almost anything that you have left over in the fridge.

I boiled a portion of pasta until it was al dente and set it aside. Then, in a non-stick frying pan (let’s face it, non-stick makes the washing up so much easier!) I cooked slices of some leftover chorizo I found in my fridge. Once cooked I removed the chorizo and added soft cheese to the oil left by the chorizo and heated it slowly until it was a tasty creamy sauce.

I always keep a jar of black olives in my fridge and so I halved some of these and added them, with the chorizo, to the creamy sauce. I then stirred in the pasta and transferred to a dish and devouring with a much-needed glass of red wine!

Easy pasta can be made with pretty much anything you have left over in the fridge – it just takes a bit of imagination and an adventurous spirit.

Note – I munched on carrot sticks while preparing the easy pasta to make sure the meal was somewhat balanced!

Fairytale fantastic

And so it happened – last month I turned… well, let’s just say I had a ‘significant birthday’. And as per any significant birthday I thought I’d see it in with a stylish midlife crisis!

Bunny and fairy queen in the enchanted forest

Being an eternal child, Fairy tale fantastic seemed like the perfect theme. A few months ago I went to the bluebell woods where Palmer Photography London had photographed me and turned me into a fairy. I used this as inspiration for the whole party – setting up a Fairy tale Fantastic room with floral garlands, a lit-up cherry tree with life-like birds, an enchanted forest photo booth with fairy wings, flower crowns and rabbit ears, and a buffet that was fit for a midsummer night’s dream.

I’d spent the previous day making olive and parmesan dragonflies and butterflies – these proved to be so delicious that not all of them made it to the party! Continuing the enchanted forest theme I made bunny shape brie and red onion tarts, apple and goats cheese scones, love-heart marshmallow kebabs with brownies and strawberries, and cupcakes – both gluten-free – rose and pistachio (using real rose petals, of course) and chocolate and Bailey’s cupcakes with magic star dust. The centrepiece cake, which was fit for a fairy princess, was one of my two-tiered cakes (Pimms and gin & tonic) decorated with natural flowers.

I really love working with a theme, it brings so many opportunities to be creative and have fun with food, decoration and the dress code. The only thing that was missing was Prince Charming… for now!

South in south west; a taste of The South in Fulham

For a south-west London girl who loves country music and food (in no particular order), I was really excited to hear of a new southern American restaurant, Stagolee’s Hot Chicken and Liquor Joint, opening up in Fulham. While I’ve made the journey across the pond a few times I’ve never been to The South so this cuisine was virgin territory for me, and my taste buds were beyond excited. No pressure then Stagolee’s… 

The South is famed for its hospitality and Stagolee’s didn’t let us down. We were greeted by friendly (but not too intrusive) staff and enjoyed a chat with the Nashville-native owner, Jordan, who talked us through the menu, whisky, moonshine and what makes southern cuisine so special.

We started off sharing the hot spinach dip, a cheesy spinach and artichoke dip served with tortillas. I could have eaten this and nothing else all evening and left a happy woman. Spinach, artichoke and cheese are three of my favourite foods, so put them all together and I was in food heaven for a while. But it was my duty to eat a main course too…

We opted for the chicken platters; excellent value for money at under £10 each. Beware those of you who aren’t keen on heat, you might be best off choosing the skillet fried chicken. We went for the hot chicken which I loved – but I was pleased to have sides to balance out the heat. Olivia found the hot chicken a bit too hot, and she’s fairly hard-core, so tread carefully, but if you think you’re tough enough I personally recommend the hot chicken.

The deliciously refreshing carrot salad

When I say excellent value for money I really mean it. We each got two pieces of delicious chicken, two yummy sides and cornbread. And speaking of cornbread, where has it been all my life? I wasn’t expecting to enjoy what seemed like cake with a main course quite as much as I did. I really must have a go at making some myself! Sides include the classic mac and cheese, sweet potato, southern-style greens (served with ham hock – again, mouth-wateringly scrumptious), and carrot salad (which reminded me of coronation chicken without the chicken. Or the mayonnaise). The carrot salad was refreshing and full of flavour – definitely my favourite. Crinkle cut chips are also available but it seems a shame to me to not enjoy the other side dishes. Let’s face it, you can get chips almost anywhere.

I’m afraid pudding beat us – there was simply no room left. However, it would have been almost criminal to leave without enjoying a whisky. Having started the evening with a delicious gin cocktail and then enjoyed a bottle of red with the main meal I wasn’t really in the best place to judge how good a whisky it was, so I’ll just have to trust the barman on this one. Needless to say, I enjoyed it!

 So the big question is, would I go back to Stagolee’s? Absolutely, although really do feel the need to visit Nashville even more than ever now to check out the food, if nothing else!

A special cake for a special friend; chocolate and lavender cake

Me, with Helen, aged 18

Helen and I have been friends since our first year of secondary school. We first met when, after our last class of our first day (music), I asked her if she was getting the bus home. She was, and being bus buddies, it was a question that cemented our friendship. Twenty-eight years later and we’re still good friends and I am proud Godmother to her beautiful nine-year-old daughter.

This year Helen reached a landmark age and I was devastated that I couldn’t go to the surprise birthday dinner her husband had lovingly organised (I was off at the O2 dancing to all things country!). However, there was one thing I could do for her – make her a beautiful birthday cake to remember.

Chocolate and lavender cake

As you may know by now, I love to work with fruits and flowers and my initial plan had been to make Helen my delicious pistachio and rose cake (that’s a recipe I fully intend to share one of these days!). But I’m afraid that foolish me didn’t check the cupboard for rose water and so I had to improvise (sorry Helen!). For me, it’s when I have to improvise that I come up with my finest recipes. I had lavender but wanted to do something a bit more indulgent for Helen’s special birthday, especially as I wasn’t going to be there. So I decided to put lavender with rich chocolate. And thankfully it worked a treat! I’ve since made the cake a couple of times in the shop and at home and the noises that come from people when they taste it – well, what can I say? Simply tastetastic!

Happy birthday Helen, here’s to another 28 years of friendship and more x

 

Chocolate and lavender cake

Ingredients

12oz butter

120z sugar

6 eggs

9oz self-raising flour

3oz cocoa powder

100g dark chocolate, chopped

For the icing

3oz butter

1lb icing sugar

100ml milk

Lavender essence

Culinary lavender for decoration

Method

Cream the butter and add the sugar. Mix in the eggs one at a time. Sift in the flour and cocoa powder and stir in the chopped chocolate. Transfer into two 8” tins and bake in the oven (I bake mine at 150 for 30 minutes) until they pass the skewer test.

For the icing, cream the butter and add the icing sugar a bit at a time. Add the milk, again, a bit at a time until you get the consistency you want. Mix in the lavender essence – I use six drops but it’s personal taste, so add two drops at a time until you’re happy with the flavour.

Once the cakes are cooked and cooled off, sandwich together with the lavender icing and ice the top of the cake. Decorate with the dried lavender to make it look as pretty as it is tasty!

Having my noodles and eating them!

One of the tricky bits about working with yummy food and cake all day long is the affect it has on my weight. And with summer approaching I’m trying to shake off those extra pounds I put on during winter. One of my favourite dinners I make is my salmon and roasted vegetable pasta. However, my good friend Claire introduced me to some noodles which are only 12 calories a packet. Surely this is too good to be true?!

Having tried them with a stir-fry last week I’ve decided that it’s not! While I’m a huge fan of fresh, home-cooked food there are times (such as this spring diet) when I think a packet of noodles is perfectly acceptable. Especially if it’s only 12 calories a packet!

The noodles come packed in a liquid that you should rinse off and once cooked I really couldn’t tell the difference between these noodles and the rice noodles I usually use. So I thought they’d be perfect with salmon and courgette for a healthy, diet-friendly meal!

I cooked the salmon fillets in the oven with a slice of lemon. I cut the courgettes with a julienne peeler and then dry fried them with finely chopped garlic. Once the courgettes were cooked I added cherry tomatoes which I’d halved, so that they could warm up and slightly cook from the heat in the pan. I then flaked the cooked salmon and added this, along with the noodles. Technically this meal serves two, but it’s just so good you might want to keep it all to yourself!

If you’d like to order the same 12 calorie noodles visit www.actibeautyclaire.com

Every child free from fear

Ok so this isn’t technically about baking or anything delicious. But it is about something that’s equally as dear to my heart. Last week I stepped into my role as a World Vision ambassador and went to a local school – Carshalton Boys Sports College – and spoke to Years 9 and 10 about World Vision’s work as part of their RE day. I spoke specifically about World Vision’s humanitarian work in the Middle East, specifically Syria.

I have been a World Vision ambassador since 2012, having sponsored a child for over a decade. This role sees me go out to local schools and community groups to talk about World Vision’s work, collect fundraising cheques and to shake a bucket for donations when there are emergency appeals.

After a brief presentation, I took the boys outside to the playground where they formed a long line, standing shoulder to shoulder. Each boy had been given a character and had been asked to think about what life might be like for their character – whether they had free education and healthcare, a loving family, lived in a society where they didn’t feel discriminated against… I asked the boys questions – such as take a step forward if your character has never felt discriminated against because of their language or religion, take a step forward if your character has a house with a television and take a step forward if your character has a loving and supportive family. The final result was a visual reminder at how unfair life is – most of the boys had taken one or two steps forward, some had taken a step with every question to end up right at the front and sadly some of the boys hadn’t taken a single step forward. And it’s like this in real life for children.

Some of the boys had asked to swap characters: “I want a better one Miss…” And I wouldn’t let them because I wanted them to understand that, like this game, our start in life really is just chance.

I’d been warned that, as teenage boys, some of them might not care. And one or two did admit this and I respect their honesty. However, what really struck me was the thoughtfulness and compassion shown by some. One boy said he would like to move into his brother’s bedroom so that a Syrian refugee could live in his. It was so lovely, and reassuring to know that, that in a time that sometimes feels so full of judgement, fear and hate, there is always hope for the future.

If you would like to bring hope to children around the world visit www.worldvision.org.uk to find out more about child sponsorship.

Rock n sausage rolls

Ok, this is a long-winded explanation as to why I’m blogging about sausage rolls but please bear with me, I hope it’ll be worth it (or at the very least slightly entertaining!). 

Clare and Leigh with Charlie
Clare and Leigh with Charlie

Last March I went with my good friend Leigh to the CMA Songwriters Series – the opening night of Country to Country that takes place annually at the O2 in London. It was there that we discovered the fantastic talent that is Charlie Worsham; I’m not going to lie, all of us ladies went a little bit giddy for the weekend and we were lucky enough to see him four times (and meet him three times!). Through a couple of online fan groups I became friends with the lovely Anna Mac, aka Charlie-Anna (I have a few Annas in my life and I need to distinguish each of them somehow!). 

Clare and Anna
Clare and Anna

In early September Anna came to stay with me in south west London. This was a bit scary for both of us as we’d cultivated a great online friendship but how did we know neither was a crazy murderer?! Thankfully neither of us are and we had a lovely weekend enjoying some live music (thank you Lucie Silvas) and making Anna’s sausage rolls. Anna has a whole range of delicious flavours she makes but I’m such a fan of blue cheese I just had to go with the stilton and walnut sausage rolls. The joy of this recipe is that you can easily cheat using ready-made pastry sheets. It’s also a great recipe for anyone who likes to roll their sleeves up and get their hands in there! I recently made these sausage rolls again for a party I was catering for (but without the walnuts and parsley) and they were the hit of the buffet – I’m sure if I’d made twice as many they still would have all been eaten!

Next week I’m going back to Country to Country with Leigh and Anna; I think we probably should take Charlie a box of sausage rolls Anna – don’t you?!
Stilton and walnut sausage rolls
Stilton and walnut sausage rolls

Anna’s stilton and walnut sausage rolls

Ingredients

Two sheets of ready-made pastry (with the paper it comes with)

500g sausage meat

150g stilton

50g walnuts, chopped

Flat leaf parsley, chopped

Salt and pepper

1 egg, beaten

Method

Mix the sausage meat with the stilton, walnuts and parsley. Don’t be afraid to really get stuck but make sure you have a sink or some wipes close by! Season with salt and pepper.

Place one sheet of the pastry on a preparation mat leaving the paper on the underside. Take a small ball of the mixture and roll into a long, thin sausage shape. Place the sausage meat along the long side of  the pastry sheet one inch from the edge.  Carefully roll the pastry over using the paper to help you to wrap the sausage meat with a slight overlap. Trim above this and start again with the rest of the sheet to make another long sausage roll. I like to turn the sausage roll so that the pastry join is on the underside (top tip: this means you don’t necessarily have to seal the pastry with water).
Cut the long sausage roll into sections of around one inch and, using a sharp knife cut a slit in the top of each one. Brush with egg and place on a tray lined with baking paper. Bake on 180 for around 15-20 minutes or until they turn a lovely golden colour. Enjoy hot or cold, with friends or on your own, under a blanket, in front of a good film with a glass of something nice!

Well-seasoned soup; perfect for winter!

We sold a lot of our homemade soup in Willow Bough last week. It’s not surprising with the cold weather and the promise – or was it threat?! – of snow. What I love about our soup is that it’s so easy to make and there are an abundance of different varieties you can make; it really is just a case of what your favourite vegetables are.

The two tips I give for making soup are: firstly don’t worry about how neatly or small you chop the vegetables.  It’s going in soup and will get blitzed at the end so it really doesn’t matter what they look like; and for the same reason, I always buy the supermarket economy vegetables for my soups.

Today we made curried parsnip soup and Edie, who was working with me, was keen to take note of the recipe for when she goes to university in September. She’s conscious of cost and making sure she gets her five a day, plus Edie is a big fan of parsnips cooked in any way, and so this soup will be perfect for her once she moves into student accommodation. As with all homemade soups you can make a big batch of it and store in individual portions in the fridge or freezer. It seems obvious but I’ve learned over the years that it can be easy to get out of the habit of being organised in order to eat well on a budget. And the cherry on the top is, that this soup is so tasty it really is a win/win recipe!

 

Curried parsnip soup

Recipe

A knob of butter

1 white onion

2 packets of supermarket parsnips

2 vegetable stock cubes in 2 pints of water

2 teaspoons of mild curry powder

Salt and pepper to taste

Milk or cream (optional)

 

Method

Chop the onion and sweat it in the butter in a large pan. Chop the parsnips and add, handfuls at a time, sweating them with the onions. Once the vegetables have softened add the stock and simmer for around 20 minutes. Once the soup has cooled down blend it with a hand-held mixer (or similar) and add the curry powder and seasoning to taste. The soup can be decanted into individual portion-sized containers and put in the fridge or even frozen ready to be enjoyed on a cold day!