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!

 

Burns Night delight!

It’s Burns Night tonight so I wanted to share a new Scottish-themed recipe with you. I love Burns Night because I absolutely love haggis! Even though we’re not a Scottish family my Mum always serves up haggis each year with a side of neeps and tatties. As much as I love my mother’s Burns Night meal this year I fancied doing something slightly different and have taken my favourite Scottish ingredients – haggis, black pudding and whisky – and created this scrummy gnocchi dish. A perfect plate of comfort, I served it with green beans. It was so tasty, it had me and Lovely Livvie, a fellow food fan, going back for seconds!

Haggis, black pudding and whisky cream gnocchi

Ingredients

300ml double cream

A generous tea spoon of Dijon mustard

A generous glug of whisky

A packet of fresh gnocchi (or homemade gnocchi)

Haggis (available from any good butcher)

Black pudding

 

Method

First to cook the haggis; remove the outer plastic and place into a casserole dish, cover and bake in the oven as per the instructions on the packet. Fluff out the haggis half way through baking.

Unwrap the black pudding and slice. Grill both sides of the black pudding slices for two minutes and set aside.

Heat the cream on a low heat and add the mustard and whisky. I love the flavour of whisky so I tend to add a good glug but if you’re after just a hint of whisky add a couple of tablespoons. Don’t worry, the alcohol will burn out through cooking it. Turn the heat up and simmer the sauce for a few minutes.

Stir in pieces of the cooked haggis.

Cook the gnocchi as per the instructions on the packet (if you’re feeling more adventurous you can make your own gnocchi!). Pour the sauce over the gnocchi and garnish with a couple of slices of black pudding. This is a rich dish so I suggest you enjoy with green beans, curly kale or something equally as fresh and green!

Roses and raspberries: a December wedding cake

One Friday in December my friend Mary sprung some surprise news on me: “I’m getting married on Monday!”

This was a surprise to me because, despite having known Mary for over 15 years I had no clue that she and her partner weren’t already married. What came next was an even bigger shock: “Can you make me a wedding cake please?”

What an honour to be asked to make such a special cake – the centrepiece of any wedding breakfast – but only having a couple of days’ notice, combined with having new staff to train in the tea rooms and already having other commitments that week did make this a bit of a challenge, but as I’ve said before, I do like rising to a challenge!

marys-wedding-5Mary loves anything chocolatey so we decided on a large chocolate and raspberry sandwich. It’s always a good idea to choose a contrasting flavour for your second cake, rather than something similar, so that you’re catering for wider tastes, so we chose a lemon buttercream sandwich for the top tier. Mary’s colour scheme was burgundy, perfect for a December wedding, so we decorated the cake with fresh flowers in white and dark red, and also used some lovely dark foliage and sparkly pine cones. And sitting on the very top of the cake was some miniature ‘Just Married’ bunting.

marys-wedding-2To accompany the main cake I also made some matching cupcakes – chocolate with vanilla buttercream icing topped with raspberries and lemon buttercream topped with red rose petals. The guests really enjoyed the cakes and the bride was thrilled with what I’d made for her. It really was a lovely cake for a lovely couple!

Pesto and parmesan pinwheels

This weekend I catered for a new year party in Surrey. I love new year parties – while extending the party season – and let’s face it, you can never have too many parties! – it’s the first opportunity to get creative in the kitchen with new ideas, moving on from Christmas flavours for another year and rediscovering other winter treats.

Because it’s so early in January and most people will still be on somewhat of a health kick, we decided to keep lots of the canapés fresh and light – melon and jambon de pays, on-the-vine tomatoes and crudités. But it is still winter and of course I wanted to include some more hearty goodies too, including homemade sausage rolls (watch this space for another blog about those beauties!), cheese biscuits, savoury tartlets and pesto pinwheels. I have my firm favourites but I’m always interested to hear what other people enjoy. The pesto pinwheels received rave reviews from the guests, many of whom were vegetarian and were grateful for the non-meat selection. They not only taste great but look great, especially if you use both red and green pesto. And they’re so easy to make, especially if you use the ready-made pastry! I can also imagine the bright swirls of pasty would be a super addition to a bonfire night buffet.

Pesto and parmesan pinwheels

Ingredients

2 sheets of ready-made short-crust pastry

1 small jar of red pesto

1 small jar of green pesto

100g parmesan, grated

1 egg, beaten (optional)

 

Method

Unwind the first sheet of pastry, leaving it on the paper, and using a palette knife, or similar flat-edged knife, spread out the red pesto until the whole sheet is covered. Sprinkle half of the grated parmesan on top of the pesto. Using the paper to help get you started, roll the pastry slowly and gently, width-way so you have a long roll of pastry. Wrap the roll in the paper and pop in the freezer for around 20 minutes.

Do the same with the second roll of pastry, green pesto and remaining parmesan.

Once you’ve removed the pastry rolls from the freezer slice them at intervals of around half an inch. Pop on a tray lined with baking paper, lightly brush the beaten egg on top of each pinwheel and bake in the oven, heated to 180 or equivalent, for around 25 minutes or until the pastry turns golden.