Birthday- Part II of II

And so to continue on the theme of birthday greed, here are some photographs and recipes from my final bash at Wilton’s Music Hall last Friday.   
I had been at a total loss trying desperately to think of somewhere to have my do, when a copy of East End Life landed on our doormat.  Normally it ends up in the recycling bin, with a mutter of ‘Humph! Council propaganda’ from Toby.  But on the cover last month was a story about a new grant to save the dilapidated grande dame that is Wilton’s, sparking my ‘ah-ha!’ moment.  It’s the perfect, slightly unusual, place to have a party.  
The building itself has a colourful history dating back to 1743.  It has been an alehouse, a saloon theatre, a Methodist mission and soup kitchen as well as, of course, a music hall.  Today, it produces a varied programme of performances, talks, screenings and events.  And there are several beautiful rooms to hire (I chose the library due to its proximity to the bar). 
In terms of catering, I only wanted to offer my guests a few nibbles to snack on with their drinks.  Initially, I got carried away planning fancy canapes- a little mini this and a wee taster of that.  However, the weather had other plans.  I don’t know if you’ve seen what happens to canapes in 34 C.  It isn’t pretty.  And frankly the logistics of making, transporting, storing and serving perfect, dainty party morsels was more than I could be arsed with. 
So what to do now that I’d settled on the glamorous theme of non-melting, heat resistant snacks?  Well, the bulk of my prep involved sitting on our living room floor in front of a Channel Four screening of The Net (do you remember The Net?  Sandra Bullock in a time when the Internet was out to get us all…) making a gazillion paper cones.  I filled these with cheap sweets, rosemary flavoured nuts, dill and lemon popcorn, chili and lime popcorn and pita crisps (with some cannellini bean dip).  All ridiculously easy to prepare. 
As a token nod to the original canape theme, I turned to the beautiful (and very reliable) What Katie Ate cookbook for Parmesan biscuits topped with pesto and cherry toms as well as pork and apple sausage rolls.   Finally, for my sweet-toothed friends, lemon and coconut meringue cupcakes (cupcakes minus melting, sticky icing = a bit less sickly).  I was also fortunate to have the wonderful cuisinegenie make cookies for the party, absolutely delicious. 

Hmm.. the perfect pairing? 

Although I have to say in all honesty, and I think many would agree,  I wish the cupcake would die a swift death.  However, in miniature they can be quite useful for parties.  They look appealing, are bite-sized and come with their own self-contained wrappers, which is pretty convenient.  So I suppose I reluctantly have to admit that there is still a time and place for them, but only if carefully considered.

Although still very sweet, these ones are a little bit more ‘adult’ in that you can add coconut rum and they have a meringue topping rather than frosting, which also makes them a bit more durable.  They are therefore actually baked twice, so it is worth making sure you don’t over-bake them the first time round or they will be on the dry side. 

Mini Lemon and Coconut Meringue Cupcakes
(for approx. 20 mini cupcakes)

You will need :

For the cakes:
 125g unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp lemon zest
150g caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten
80ml milk
1 tsp coconut essence or 1 tbsp coconut flavoured rum (optional)
80g desiccated coconut
185g self-raising flour

For the filling:
1 jar shop-brought lemon curd (or make your own!)

For the topping:
4 egg whites
250g caster sugar
100g desiccated coconut
coconut flakes, to decorate (optional)


1.  To make the cakes, preheat a 180C oven and line a mini muffin/cupcake tray with paper cases.  I have some mini silicone cases, which I simply lined with mini paper cases for extra support and placed on an oven tray.  

2.  Beat softened butter with the sugar and rind until light and fluffy.  Slowly add the eggs so the mixture does not separate.

3.  Add the sifted flour and coconut.  Finally stir in the milk.

4.  Divide the mixture among the cases.  Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden and beginning to come away from the sides.  Allow to cool completely on a wire rack. 

5.  Using a teaspoon, make a small hole into each cake.  Eat or throw away the tops.

6.  Use piping bag fitted with a small nozzle or a plastic bag with a corner cut off to fill the holes with lemon curd. 

7.  Preheat the oven to 200 C.  Make the meringue by beating the egg whites until medium peaks form.  Gradually add the sugar and continue beating until you have stiff peaks.  Fold in the coconut.

8.  Pour some of the meringue mixture into a piping bag and pipe onto the tops of the cakes in a swirling motion, creating a fair bit of height as you move towards the centre of the cake.  Top with a flake of coconut if desired. 

9.  Bake the cakes in a hot oven for 10 minutes until the meringue has set and is beginning to crisp up and brown a little (but not burnt!).  Remove and cool on a wire rack. 

Easy-Peasy Flavoured Popcorn

Lemon and Dill Popcorn

You will need:

100g popcorn ( 1 microwavable bags worth, basically)
30g butter
2 tbsp dill, chopped finely
1 lemon, juice and zest
Sea salt


1.  Pop your popcorn and decant into a large bowl.

2. Melt the butter and allow to cool slightly.  Add chopped dill, lemon zest and a few drops of the juice.

3. Pour over the popcorn.  Season with sea salt and use your hands or a large wooden spoon to mix until most of the popcorn is covered with the lemon-dill butter.  Consume. 

Chilli and Lime Popcorn

You will need:

 100g popcorn (1 microwave bag)
30g butter
1 tsp chilli powder
1 lime, zest and juice
Sea salt


1.  Very much as per the above recipe, pop your popcorn and decant into a large bowl.

2.  Melt the butter and allow to cool slightly.  Add chilli, lime zest and a little of the juice. 

3.  Pour over popcorn and mix together to combine completely.  Season with sea salt. 

Parmesan Biscuits
(adapted from the cookbook What Katie Ate by Katie Quinn Davies)
Makes about 60

You will need:

 4 garlic cloves
260g plain flour, sifted
200g unsalted butter, cubed and cold
2 tbsp double cream
1 tsp dried thyme
140g Parmesan, finely grated

30 large cherry tomatoes, halved
olive oil
sea salt + black pepper
grated Parmesan
1 jar pesto
extra virgin olive oil
thyme sprigs


1.  To make the biscuits, first roast the garlic cloves in their skins, drizzled with olive oil, in a 200 C oven for about 30-40 minutes.  They should be totally soft and gooey inside.  

2.   Blitz together the the flour and butter in a magi mix to a breadcrumb consistency.  If making the biscuits by hand, quickly crumb together with cool fingers (run under the tap), making sure there are not large lumps of butter.  If the mixture gets too greasy, refrigerate for 10-15 minutes before continuing.  

2.  Add the cream, roasted garlic (squeezed out of their skins), thyme, Parmesan, salt and pepper and mix until just combined.  Turn out onto a floured work surface and bring the dough together with your hands to form a flat, puck-like shape.  Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3.  Roll out the pastry on a floured surface to the thickness of about 5mm.  Cut out rounds with a small cutter, about 3 cm in diameter, I used a shot glass. Place onto a baking sheet and refrigerate until firm.

4.  Preheat the oven to 160 C.  Sprinkle the biscuits with a little extra Parmesan and a good grating of pepper.  Bake for 25-30 minutes until lightly golden and set.  Allow to cool on a wire rack.

5.  To make canapes, drizzle the cherry tomatoes with olive oil, season and roast in a hot, 200 C oven until soft and beginning to caramelise.  Allow to cool before assembling the biscuits.  Dot each with a little bit of pesto (I actually found it easier to put the pesto in a plastic bag, snip a corner off and ‘pipe’ onto the biscuits), top with a tomato half and sprinkle with a little Parmesan, thyme leaves and salt and pepper.  Serve immediately. 

Lentils and Light

I’ve always been a fan of things you can whack into a large pan and walk away from.  Leave to potter and simmer and come together whilst you crack on with one or two of the other things that demand your time.

This stew is one such dish.  It takes about 35-45 minutes to cook and no time at all to prepare.  It sits happily on the stove while you crack on with those emails, feeding the cat, ironing or whatever. I served it last weekend for my film-maker friend, Mike, who kindly came round to give me a photography lesson.  Followed by a slice of plum and pear pie, I suppose it was really a bribe to trek East and patiently explain clever things about light sources and let me try out some better lenses.  But it is also exactly the kind of food I crave on days like these, when it starts to get dark around 4.30 in the afternoon and the heating needs to be whacked up.  In fact, it was the perfect meal before heading off to see the Guy Fawkes fireworks on Blackheath.  

Lentils and sausages are of course very good friends and I for one have always thought of them as a particularly Germanic combo.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course, but I think this recipe is a fresher, spicier take than the wurst you too might be familiar with.

Sausage and Lentil Stew with Fennel and Paprika
Serves 3 hungry people

You will need:

6 Sausages (preferably of the stronger, Italian variety- I used fennel and chili)
2 onions
2 garlic cloves
olive oil
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp smoky paprika
300g green lentils (not puy please)
700ml passata
700ml chicken stock
A handful of parsley
Black pepper.


1.  Slice the onions and fry them in a large stewing pot over a medium high heat.  They should begin to caramelise ever so slightly.

2.  Meanwhile, brown the sausages all over in a separate frying.

3. Add the minced garlic, fennel seeds and paprika to your pot and stir for about a minute.

4.  Add the sausages, passata and stock.  Stir together.

5.  Add the lentils and cook over a low, simmering heat until the sauce has reduced slightly and the lentils are cooked through.  They should absorb a fair bit of the liquid.  This should take about 40 minutes.

6.  Plate up into large bowls, scatter with chopped parsley and plenty of black pepper.  Serve with chunky bread.

Pickles, Pumpkins and Pigs.

Despite summer’s confused arrival at the start of October, the evenings are really drawing in now, the clocks have gone back and I could have sworn I saw a frost on the grass this morning.   I’ve got my massive box of woolly things out of our storage room/cupboard (which Toby’s mum calls the ‘glory hole.’  Someone pointed out that the term is actually quite rude, but it’s too late now.  Glory hole it is.)  My wardrobe is ready for colder climes but my pantry (ie a shelf in the kitchen cupboard) is not.  So I spent a weekend pickling, preserving and jamming some of the autumn harvest, with pretty decent results. The post on that is on its way. 

I also bought a pumpkin, in the spirit of all things autumnal.   Having gone to an American primary school when I was little, I have a real soft spot for Halloween.  It reminds me of being a kid, clutching a lunchbox and crayons ready for the new(ish) term, dressed in my AMAZING superwoman costume.
Originally I thought I could carve it for Halloween, using the shell for decoration and the fleshy pulp for soup.  However, the thing about pumpkins is this- they don’t actually taste of much.  A pumpkin is no butternut squash which is full of sweet and nutty flavour.  You really need to do more with a pumpkin, give it a bit more love and thought, simply blitzing the flesh into a soup won’t really do. But if you spend a bit of energy on it,  you will be rewarded.  I used my medium sized £1.50 pumpkin from Tesco for three different recipes, each of which fed the two of us with plenty of leftovers.  How’s that for a credit cruncher? 
First up, I made a pumpkin, chicken and peanut soup.  I was up in the Lake District recently, visiting a friend who doing a rep season at the Theatre by the Lake is Keswick.  It’s absolutely stunning there and despite the rain, we managed a 5 am walk to see the sun come up over a stone circle.  Ok, so there wasn’t any sun, but we watched it get lighter, which still felt like an achievement.  I also found some real treasures in the Oxfam in Keswick, which was full of charity shop gold.  A gorgeous dress with a suitably autumnal print (just needs a little taking in at the shoulders and a bit of a play with the hem) and a book on soups by Hannah Wright.  
This recipe is from that book:
Chicken, Pumpkin and Peanutbutter Soup
You will need:
2 medium onions
2 small sticks of celery
12oz (350g) sliced pumpkin
1-2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed with salt
8 allspice berries or 1/4 teaspoon each of cinnamon, clove and ginger
freshly milled pepper
1 1/2 pints (900ml) good chicken stock
1 heaped tbsp peanutbutter
meat from half a breast of half a leg of chicken or a few thighs, cooked. 
  1. Roughly chop the onion, celery and pumpkin flesh and put in a heavy pan.
  2. Add chili, garlic, spices salt and pepper and the chicken stock.  Bring to boil and simmer for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.
  3. Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little before stirring in the peanutbutter.  Blend with a stick blender or in food processor.
  4. When you want to serve it, dice the chicken into neat cubes and add to the soup.  Gently reheat and taste to season when hot.  Do not let boil.
You can add a garnish of sliced onions, pepper and parsley if you would like. 

Then I roasted pumpkin with sausages (the pig in the title of this post.  Sorry, I was a bit stuck for inspiration), sage and red onion, a bit of olive oil and balsamic.  This has become a bit of a favourite with butternut squash.  We normally eat this with some rice, but you could add it to pasta as well.   Also works with the addition of fennel and chili, if you prefer a spicier version. 
This was then followed a few nights later by a  sausage (pig again!) and pumpkin cassoulet, which really did feel like the perfect antidote to the autumnal winds and drizzle.   
Pumpkin Cassoulet
You will need:
A knob of butter
A pack of sausages, chopped into chunky bits
2 red onions
2 garlic cloves
pumpkin (about a quarter to half of a medium one, depending on how much you would like to use), chopped into chunks
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tin cannelloni or berterolli beans
500ml chicken stock
salt and pepper
parsley to serve (optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 180C (350F or Gas mark 4)
  2. Heat about half the butter in a large casserole dish and fry the sausage pieces until brown and caramelised
  3. Add the rest of the butter and the chopped onions.  Fry until softened before adding the minced garlic and chopped sage.
  4. Add the pumpkin and stir well until combined.  Increase the heat and add the vinegar, let it bubble and evaporate.
  5. Add the tomatoes, beans and stock before seasoning.
  6. Bring this to the boil and then transfer to the oven for up to one hour, until the sausages are cooked through and the pumpkin is tender.
  7. Serve in hearty bowls, scatter with parsley.  Enjoy next to a roaring fire.
Finally, roasted pumpkin, chorizo and quinoa salad, which is a real winner.   I basically just used what I had in the fridge, roasted the remaining pumpkin and fried up slices of chorizo.  I added this to some quinoa, chopped tomatoes, avocado and basil.  I made a zingy lemon-based dressing to accompany this one.  Simple and incredibly moreish.   
Another brilliant autumnal ingredient is, of course, the humble apple.  I really enjoy apples in savory dishes- depending on the kind of apple it can add a sweetness or tangyness, crunchy texture or a soft one.  Here are two of my favourite seasonal apple dishes:  
Normandy pot roast chicken with apples
You will need:
Olive oil
1 onion, sliced
2 sticks of celery
1 pack of lardons
6-8 pieces of leg and thigh (depending on the size of the pieces)
300 ml (1/2 pint) dry cider
300mol (1/2 pint) chicken stock
3 apples of your choosing, Braeburn works nicely
4 tbsp crème fraiche (I always use half fat)
handful of chopped sage
  1. Preheat the oven to gas mark 4/180C.  Heat the oil in a large pan, add the onion and celery and cook until softened.  Remove from the pan and put in a large casserole dish or large pot.  Add the lardoons to the pan and cook until golden.  Add to the pot. 
  2. Add a little extra oil (or butter if you prefer), to the pan and brown the chicken pieces all over, seasoning as you go. 
  3. Remove the chicken from the pan and pour in the cider, scraping any crispy bits that have stuck to the pan.  
  4. Arrange the chicken pieces in the pot, so they sit on top of the onions, celery and lardoons.  Add the cider juices and the chicken stock and sprinkle with half the chopped sage. Cover with a lid and bake for 50 minutes.
  5. Add the apple slices, rest of the sage and stir in the crème fraiche.  Cook uncovered for another 20 or so minutes, until the juices of the chicken run clear. 
  6. To serve, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with rice or mash and a simple green salad or perhaps some tenderstem broccoli. 
And here’s one for those with a sweet tooth, although this honestly doesn’t feel too naughty as it is jam-packed with the fruit.  Sort of.  
Apple streusel cake or Apple crumb cake
Taken from the newest Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, p. 42.
You will need:
120g butter, unsalted (40g cold and diced, 80 g softened)
250 g plain flour
100g caster sugar
70 g soft light brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
80ml whole milk
3 large, crunchy apples, peeled, cored, quartered and sliced. 
  1. Preheat your oven to 170C or 325F, Gas mark3.  Then grease a 20cm (8in) spring-form cake tin (or the closest thing you have) with about 20 g of the softened butter.  Also add a dusting of flour (40g)
  2. First off, make your crumble topping.  Sift 70g of the flour with the cinnamon before adding 40g of the cold, diced butter.  Use your fingertips to rub the ingredients together until you’ve got a breadcrumb-like mixture.  Stir in the light brown sugar and then set to one side.
  3. Use an electric whisk to cream the remaining 60g of softened butter and the caster sugar until light and fluffy.  Add the egg and vanilla, mixing thoroughly.
  4. Sift together140g of flour,  baking powder and salt in a separate bowl.  Add about half of this mixture to the creamed butter and sugar, followed by half the milk.  Mix well with your electric whisk, then repeat with the remaining flour mixture and milk. 
  5. Pour the batter into the prepared tin.  Arrange the apple slices in concentric circles ontop of the batter, then sprinkle with the crumb topping to form an even layer. 
  6. Place in the oven and bake for 35-45 min, until it is golden brown on top and a skewer or knife inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. 

Set aside to cool before removing from the tin.  Can be enjoyed warm or cold, with crème fraiche, whipped cream, ice cream or custard.  Or all of the above.