Sunday, 25 September 2011

The best chocolate brownie in the world

There are two things in life that I like to think I know a lot about. The first one is tea. The second is chocolate. In particular, chocolate cake. I am not one of these weak people who can be overcome by the richness of a chocolate cake. Oh no. I am a trained cake eater, practiced over decades. I am Olympic level. There is a restaurant near us that boldly announces that it has the ‘chocolate nemesis’ on its menu. Eating that was like a walk in the park for me as a true chocaholic. I blame my mum for this as when we were kids she would make us a big chocolate pudding and pour a melted mars bar over the top of it. THAT is a chocolate nemesis.

My chocolate brownie with a cup of tea pigs chocolate flake tea

Being a self-confessed chocaholic and a keen baker there is nothing I am more fussy about than chocolate brownies. First off all the chocolate has to be good, it must be dark and it must be good quality. Second of all it has to be slightly goo-ey and slightly cakey. Too gooey and it feels like eating chocolate flavoured butter (a bit wrong) and too cakey and, well, it’s a cake not a brownie.

As a chocolate purist I never add nuts to my brownies. You may well disagree, that is your prerogative, but this is my way! Baking your brownies is the real make it or break it moment. They should be thick so quantities and correct tin size is important. They should come out of the oven when the top is hard and just starting to crack a little at the edges. I insert a piece of uncooked spaghetti into the edge of the brownie first. From here it should come out pretty much dry. I then insert it into the centre of the tin where it should come out gooey but should feel firm as the spaghetti goes in - not like a big sloppy mess. A big sloppy mess is not cooked and will fall apart when you cut it. Unpleasant.

Now for the moment of truth, my brownie recipe. What you are about to receive has been honed over years of struggle. You are lucky people, standing on holy brownie ground. Enjoy it. And use it wisely.

150g dark chocolate
150g butter (unsalted)
25g cocoa powder
3 eggs
225g caster sugar
1tsp vanilla extract
100g plain flour

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C/Gas Mark 4.
Line your tin with baking parchment and grease.
Melt the chocolate, butter and cocoa powder in a bowl over a pan of simmering water.
In another bowl whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla. Continue whisking as you add the slightly cooled chocolate mixture until well combined.
Sift in the flour and fold in using a spatula.
Bake for about 25 mins using the advice above for pefect brownie consistency.
Cool in the tin, cut into square and enjoy!

Monday, 19 September 2011

Winter Veg

I mentioned on twitter that I am embarking on my planting for winter and received a fair number of interested tweets back along the lines of ‘what can I grow?’ and ‘will it really grow in winter?’ Naturally I felt a blog post was in order. Growing in winter is great in many respects. Your beds will otherwise look very dull indeed and my dreaded adversary, the slug, is less prevalent. You also need to water less, obviously, as it’s more rainy.

To keep your beautiful babies warm when the cold weather comes you can use horticultural fleece which is very cheap and if you buy a few meters of it you can cut it to the size of your plant pots of beds. On my tubs I secure it down with clothes pegs on frosty nights and sleep well knowing my plants are well cared for. If I become really obsessive and it is very cold I may bring some pots of plants inside at night. This is the massive advantage of container growing. In the summer you can relocate them to another part of the garden if they are looking a bit sad and perhaps need a touch more sun. In the winter you can move them to warmer spots and even take your winter lettuces inside. I always bring my Mediterranean herbs like marjoram and oregano in for the winter and the basil if it has survived that long (it rarely has!)

So what can you grow in winter? This is my first season of going all out on my winter growing with most of my containers full and I am growing a range of winter lettuces which I will cut small for salads. A good tip for making salads appetizing in colder weather is using a hot dressing. Sounds odd, tastes amazing! Try frying up a shallot in some olive oil and adding a tablespoon full of cider vinegar. This over Mizuna, an excellent winter salad leaf that tastes a bit like rocket, is amazing. I am also growing salad onions, kale, giant red mustards, frill mustards, spinach, corn salad, broad beans and some chilli peppers inside on my window sill. As in the summer I got all my plants as babies from Rocket Gardens.

It is very heartening to be planting in autumn when you can feel the winter drawing in. I had the perfect afternoon yesterday digging around in my garden with a robin bobbing about beside me thinking it was his lucky day as I unearthed lots of worms. I have finally got to the exciting (perhaps I use that word too liberally!) place where my containers are like living ecosystems with worms in them and good healthy soil. This is what you want! If it makes you feel better I achieve this by doing very little at all and letting my garden be a bit wild (much to my neighbours displeasure!) but I like it to be a place where both my gardening efforts and nature (except slugs!!) thrives.

Enjoy your garden this winter!

Sunday, 11 September 2011


I am quite convinced that there is no season that is not ideal for tea in some form but none more so that autumn. As the darker nights draw in what could be better than to settle down with a pot of freshly brewed tea and a slice of cake. This poem sums it up beautifully. Put your feet up and the kettle on.  


Carol Ann Duffy

I like pouring your tea, lifting
the heavy pot, and tipping it up,
so the fragrant liquid streams in your china cup.

Or when you’re away, or at work,
I like to think of your cupped hands as you sip,
as you sip, of the faint half-smile of your lips.

I like the questions – sugar? – milk? –
and the answers I don’t know by heart, yet,
for I see your soul in your eyes, and I forget.

Jasmine, Gunpowder, Assam, Earl Grey, Ceylon,
I love tea’s names. Which tea would you like? I say
but it’s any tea for you, please, any time of day,

as the women harvest the slopes
for the sweetest leaves, on Mount Wu-Yi,
and I am your lover, smitten, straining your tea.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Things to do with blackberries

It’s officially soft fruit season and if you value your finances and enjoy the odd berry or hundred then get ye to a bramble bush and get picking! Once you’re there you will likely find yourself overcome with fruit pickers enthusiasm as you survey your potential bounty. Never again will you be tempted by the sorry punnets on offer in the supermarket, a painful price for minimal fruity goodness. You may even find yourself cackling with glee in the fruit section as you remember your well-stocked freezer gained from just one delicious afternoon's fruit picking.

There are several fabulous things about blackberries:
  1. They grow everywhere
    I'm a bit fussy when it comes to where I pick. I prefer some rambling rural landscape rather than by a polluted roadside but hey-ho, each to their own. You can find berries in surprisingly urban settings though where you won't be putting car fume blackberries on your cereal. Try local parks or go for a walk by the river and have a hunt. Once you've discovered your patch you will return year on year, guaranteed. When picking go for the plump, soft but not squashy ones. Try as you go to make sure they are sweet and ripe.
  2. They freeze really well
    When you get home with your blackberries wash them really, really gently and then spread them out into a single layer on a baking tray. Pop them in the freezer for about forty minutes until they are hard. You can then scrap them off and bag them up and they won't stick together. This means you can take out handfuls as and when you need them. Perfect!
  3. You can rustle up amazing puddings all winter at the drop of a hat (or scarf)
    Grab some cooking apples, peel, core and slice them and drop them in a dish, sprinkle in some golden caster sugar and a couple of handfuls of frozen blackberries and top with crumble. Pop in a medium oven until the topping is golden and you have a delicious bubbly crumble. Domestic goddess status in no time at all!
  4. You can make smoothies from frozen
    If you put frozen berries in a blender with some yoghurt you will get a cool berry smoothie. No defrosting required.
  5. Cakes - many, many cakes
    My favourite cake to make with blackberries is upside down cake. Upside down cakes always remind me of being at my Grandma's house, stuffed and satisfied. Give it a go:
Blackberry Upside-down Cake
About 200g of blackberries (enough to cover the base of your cake tin without them being squashed in together, if they are squashed in it will be a nightmare to get the cake out of the tin in one piece)
220g golden caster sugar
200g plain flour
1 tsp of baking powder
½ tsp salt
120g unsalted butter (I use Stork for cakes)
2 large eggs
1 tsp of vanilla extract
Zest of a lemon
100ml of milk 
  • For this recipe you will need at 22cm cake tin with a loose bottom. Grease the tin and put a round of baking parchment in the base. Butter this as well and dust the whole tin with flour. Shake out the excess
  • Lay the blackberries on the base of the tin (see the note above) and sprinkle over a tablespoon of caster sugar.
  • Cream the butter and remaining sugar together until light and fluffy.
  • Beat in the eggs one at a time with a spoonful of flour to prevent curdling. Add the vanilla extract and zest.
  • Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Sift it into the creamed butter and sugar alternating with adding some milk. Fold until just incorporated. Add enough milk to have a smooth, thick batter. If it is starting to look runny then leave the rest of the milk as this will also lead to a cake that falls apart and you need it to flip successfully!
  • Pour the mixture over the blackberries and bake in a 180ยบC/gas mark 4 oven for forty minutes.
  • Leave the cake to cool in the tin then flip it over onto a plate, peel off the paper and you have a delicious, blackberry speckled cake for tea. Dust with icing sugar for a pretty finish.
The only downsides to blackberries that I can see is the inevitable scratches you will acquire as you throw yourself enthusiastically into hedgerows in search of the plumpest fruits. There's something nice about war wounds for your food though, well earned dinner.
Happy blackberry season!