ANTW Advent Calendar, Day 16 : Mince Pies

The perfect treat to end the Christmas shopping or a bit of fuel to get you through the last weekend, there’s nothing better than a mince pie. They are ridiculously easy to make and even better when made with all butter puff pastry.

Christmas Tree Mince Pies

So here’s how I do mine :

Pack of Jus Roll All Butter Puff Pastry

Ready made mince meat – there are all kinds out there and they pretty much taste as good as the next one.

Beaten egg for brushing

Little bit of golden caster sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 180

Roll out your puff pastry – half a block will make about 12 mince pies depending on how thinly you roll.

Cut 12 circles and 12 christmas trees – or you can have stars or whatever you fancy.

Fit the circles in to the cup cake baking tray and spoon in about half a teaspoon of mince meat. This bit is up to how much you like mince meat, I don’t like too much in one mouthful. Put the tree shape on top and tuck in the corners. Brush each one with a bit of egg and sprinkle with a very little sugar.

Put in the oven for about 15 minutes or until golden brown.

The tops puff up all over the place but will settle down a bit when you take them out of the oven

Serve with whatever you like, whenever you like.

Happy Christmas

Absolutely Nothing To Cook : Toad In The Hole by Micki Myers

Can there by anything more evocative of an English autumn than pulling a red hot and steaming tray of toad-in-the-hole (toads-in-the-hole? toads-in-their-holes?) from the oven, and serving them with glossy green peas and a rich onion gravy?

The answer is no. If you said yes, you are wrong and must come to the front of the class and write “toad-in-the-hole is glorious” 100 times on the blackboard.

Toad-in-the-hole was invented in the golden age of British cooking when a harried mother of many children and a hungry husband found nothing much in her pantry except a nice fat fist of sausages and an onion. Some of the screaming bints wanted pancakes; others wanted the sausage. The husband just sat there poking at a hole in his trousers and blowing raspberries at the baby. So she decided to please everyone and combine the two: sausages baked in batter.

At least, that’s how I like to think of it. There has been much speculation over the years as to why this dish bears such a strange name, and I think I have discovered why. When I served it to my own hungry family the other day, I had just pulled the tray from the oven and set it on the stove in order to reach for a butter knife with which to pop each one out of its tin. I turned back to see the sausages bobbing up and down as if they were puppets — yet no-one was touching them. The steam trapped in the batter kept forcing them up and down, so that they popped their heads in and out of their big puffy Yorkshire pudding cases. They looked just exactly like toads appearing and disappearing from their holes! I’ve never actually seen toads doing this, but I’m fairly certain that if they did, it would look just like it.

If you’ve never made Toad-in-the-hole, you must: it’s dead easy. All you have to do is make sure the oven and fat is really piping hot before you pour the batter in.

Toads In Their Holes

(makes 12)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Prepare batter: sift 1.25 cups flour and a pinch of salt into a bowl and crack into it 3 eggs. Pour over this 1 cup of milk and whisk until smooth like heavy cream. Stir in a generous tablespoon of grainy mustard, pepper, and a big handful of snipped chives. Set aside.

Cut four big fat sausages into thirds.

Into each cup of a 12-cup muffin tin pour a scant teaspoon of vegetable oil and let this heat up in the oven. When the oil is hot, stand a piece of sausage on its end in each one, and return to the oven for 4 minutes.

Working quickly, spoon batter into the cups around each sausage and return to the oven for half an hour or so until each one is a huge golden puff. Be sure to leave them while they cook — DO NOT open the oven or they will not rise. Turn on the oven light to appreciate how fabulous they look while they cook.

Onion Gravy

In a heavy-based saucepan, gently sauté a finely diced red onion in a tablespoon of olive oil along with a teaspoon each of dark brown sugar and balsamic vinegar until the onions are a deep brown. Remove onions. melt a big pat of butter in the pan, add 1 tablespoon of flour and cook a bit. Add to this 1.25 cups of beef stock and a dash of Worcestershire sauce, and stir until thickened. Return the onions to the pan and gently simmer until ready to use. A nice shot of Madeira towards the end can’t hurt.


Cafe Salvation : Pimp Up Your Pies

We’re very excited to have the deliciously clever Helen Creese from Cafe Salvation contributing to ANTW. She will be sharing some of her most popular recipes from their wonderful menu and to start we have everyone’s favourite Winter warmer…..PIES!

“I may well regret saying this but at last, it’s cold enough to get some winter warmers on the menu!  The woodburners arrival in the café is imminent, so to keep us toastie in the run up to its installation, last week we cooked up our tasty Punjabi Pie.

This dish reminds me of my childhood.  My Dad is a fantastic cook and I spent most evenings as a kid whiling away an evening in the kitchen,  chatting to my Pops whilst subconsciously absorbing everything he was doing.  Pops is a fan of spice and loves to experiment with food, adapting recipes to better suit his tastes, and this dish is a prime example of that.

Based on our British Classic, Cottage Pie, the secret to Punjabi Pie lies in the spice mix added to the onion and garlic during the first stages of cooking.  For 500g of beef, start by frying one red onion and 2-3 cloves of garlic (depending on size of cloves and how much you enjoy the flavour).  Add one stick of chopped celery and one diced carrot.  When the onion and veg are soft, add a healthy palm-full (sorry, I don’t use measured devices, but if you cup your fingers to create a well in your palm, you’ll have the right amount) of ground cumin, coriander and half a palm-full of turmeric.  Stir until aromatic, then add your beef to the onion and spice mix.  Season well, add some tomato puree and fresh red chilli (quantity dependent on how hot you like it), and once the beef is browned, add a tin of chopped tomatoes.  Half-fill your tin with water and add this to your mixture.  Taste and alter your seasoning to suit.  Wack in the oven for 30-40 minutes and crack on with your mash topping.

Pops would use a mixture of potatoes and swede; I opted for pots and sweet potato (mainly because I like the colour and I eat with my eyes).  Boil both veg – about 3 good sized potatoes and one sweet potato for 500g beef – in salted water until soft, drain and mash with plenty of salt and pepper and a generous knob of butter.  We like to throw in some grated cheddar (again, it gives the mash a glorious golden colour as well as tasting yummy).  Take the beef mixture out of the oven and pop in to your serving dish, spread the mash over the top (make it nice and thick, there’s nothing worse than an anorexic pie topping), and sprinkle on a bit more grated cheddar.  Pop the dish back in the oven for about 25-30 mins (depending on your oven:  I use an Aga, so in a conventional oven I’d have it on 190 for 25-30 mins).  Once your topping is golden and smelling amazing, your pie is ready!

Why not Pimp Up your Pies?!  You can add a twist to most run-of-the-mill recipes, turning wet, weekday suppers in to dramatic delights, just with the addition of a few spices, fresh herbs, lemon or lime juice….it really can be that simple.  I’m looking forward to taking the Punjabi Pie in to another realm:  Sherpa’s Pie will involve lamb, fresh ginger, chilli, toasted cumin and coriander seeds, maybe some lentils and spinach…I’m undecided on my mash topping – any suggestions?

 Our lovely customers enjoyed their slices of Punjabi with some Glorious Green Beans (Granny Smith’s runners always have been, and always will be, the sweetest runner beans I’ve ever tasted) and a delicious dollop of spicy red lentils.  Hungry, anyone?”


Find Salvation here……
Our opening hours are:
Thursday: 0930 – 1500
Friday: 0930 – 1700
Saturday: 1000 – 1700
Lower Mitchell Barn, Nr Ledbury, Herefordshire HR8 1EG
T: 01531 636380

In appreciation of the simple things in life…….

In appreciation of the humble pomegranate….

Absolutely Nothing To Eat : Fabulous figs

Until quite recently, figs were one of those foods I didn’t really know much about and had for some reason decided I didn’t like – having never actually tried them. I think my dislike was something I’d carried from childhood and had more to do with those horrid fig biscuits than the fruit itself. I didn’t like those one bit and I still don’t. At least I think I don’t.

Then, one hot Summer’s day in France, whilst taking a walk, I slipped on a carpet of squashed figs which were completely covering the road. I remember very clearly thinking how much I loved that smell and – being somewhat affected – it reminded me of my favourite scented candle. Anyway, in amongst that slightly materialistic association, it made me curious about figs and I’m pleased to say I’ve loved them ever since. The real ones, not the candles. I’m a bit over the candles.  Although I do know someone, a man, who wears a figgy scent and it does create the most delicious perfume.

So, we’ve been enjoying French figs for the past few years but had never found really good ones in England until we discovered our – almost – very own fig tree, right here in Oxfordshire. And now that we have more figs than we really know what to do with, there are all kinds of plans to make all manner of things. Neither candles nor perfumes, but maybe jams and chutneys – who knows. For now we’re happy just eating them greedily.

I think the most delicious way to enjoy figs is hot. You can bake them with all sorts. I like them wrapped in prosciutto and stuffed with a little bit of roquefort cheese.

All you need to do is score the figs in to quarters, but not all the way through. Just enough to open them up. Stuff your cheese inside and then wrap closed with a piece of thin prosciutto ham. Drizzle with a little bit of olive oil and put in the oven until the cheese has melted and the ham has crisped up slightly. About 10 minutes depending on how hot your oven is. Serve with some salad leaves and perhaps a little olive oil and good balsamic and that’s it.

Or you can score them as above, put a dollop of honey in the middle, wrap them in the prosciutto and cook them in the same way.

Or you can miss out the ham altogether and just go with the honey or the cheese. All very delicious indeed.

So that’s my post about figs. Really it was all an excuse to show this photograph which I think is just about the prettiest fig picture I’ve ever seen.

Photograph by David Loftus

There’s something about Sommieres

The first time I visited Sommieres was the year we were married. Some friends told my husband about a bull fight happening in the town just 2 days after our wedding which we had to go to. It wasn’t your usual bull fight but one performed with midget matadors. We still have the poster framed in our downstairs cloakroom to remind me of one of the most bizarre evenings I’ve ever had. I won’t go in to to it too much, it was just plain weird.

3 years later, this time accompanied by our 1 year old, we went to Sommieres under much better circumstances, to visit their weekly flea market which is one of the best we’ve ever found. That year we bought a child’s 1950s deckchair, a beautiful platter and the best ceramic water jug I ever did see which I use all the time for drinks and flowers and even to display the odd potted Hydrangea. So today, 5 years on from the midgets, we went again and this time accompanied by our 3 year old and 1 year old and the promise of all kinds of treasure to be uncovered.

We didn’t do as well around the market this time but I did buy some lengths of embroidered fabric which might one day edge some curtains – when I live in a house with curtains and have time to edge them – and my husband found some beautiful silver serving spoons and a pair of 19th century meat sheers which he can use to dismember chickens and turkeys. I have no doubt they’ll be used every Christmas for years and years to come. No really.

But the highlight of the day came when we ventured in to the walled town centre in search of lunch. The main square was in full Saturday market swing with stalls over flowing with meats and smelly cheeses and fresh bread and rotisserie chickens. The hustle and bustle and absence of English voices was quite exciting. There were restaurants spilling out in to the square packed with people tucking in to platters of oysters and chunks of bread with cheese all being washed down with carafes of cold rose. We quickly realised everything they were eating had been bought from the market and the restaurants were happy to just serve drinks and allow the use of their trestles and benches. So now it was just to find an empty table and gather together some delicious things, which we eventually did, promising ourselves that next time we’d come early and organised and remember to bring a knife to cut the salami.

So today I have learned that you can’t always judge a town by its midget matadors and that my 3 year old is really rather good at sneaky photography with an iPhone.


Absolutely Nothing To Sniff At

You probably know this already. That’s because you’re probably very clever. Some clever things, however, only seem that way.

Take, for instance the bright idea that someone had about how to ensure that anyone, anywhere could buy a “ripe” peach no matter how far they lived from places peaches grow: just pick them before they ripen, and let them mature on their journey. Bingo! One way to do that is to refrigerate said peaches to retard said maturity. This is why when you reach out to touch the beautiful dusky, slightly downy fruit you recoil in shock because they feel like marbles: ice cold and just as hard.

Those unfortunate shoppers who buy fruit by sight alone might never have tasted a genuinely ripe peach. This is tragic. Don’t let this happen to you. Occasionally some slip through though. Here’s how to detect them as they hide, visually identical to their tasteless, mealy cousins.

First, very gently touch each one. You will immediately be able to feel which are rock hard, and which have just the tiniest give. Pick up that peach and sniff it. Best yet, close your eyes. If it smells bitter, it is unripe. If it smells like nothing at all, it is unready. If it smells instantly like a peach — a sweet, heady aroma that makes the hairs in your nostrils tingle — then it is a likely candidate and must be placed in your basket.

Once you get home, eat your peach. They do not like to wait around all perfect until you decide you’re ready. No sir. Take a sharp paring knife, your peach, and a bowl, and get to work.

Why the bowl?

Just you wait and see.


Absolutely Nothing To Milk

I don’t know about you but my franglais is rather limited to ordering beer and it seems when I say Bonjour I generally get a Bonsoir reply, and vice versa. So, when it comes to shopping in the French supermarche, I can just about work out the contents of a packet, through a few recognisable words and a cartoon picture. For example, a happy pig winking with a chef’s hat on = pork product and a black and white cow with a bell round its neck = dairy product and so on. When given the task of finding fresh milk – “just like in England” – for my two boys who demand gallons of it 10 times a day, I’m always perplexed with what exactly is fresh milk in France? There’s a variety which comes in plastic bottles with either green, red or blue tops which is definitely not fresh as it’s not in the chiller cabinet and then there are the cartons of some kind of milk product which has certainly been pasteurised and homogenised but also has a shelf life of about 20 years. Not so fresh. The only thing I can ever find in the chiller cabinet are the minute cartons of which I’m presuming is cream…..due to size, nothing else. Generally, whatever I buy is always the wrong thing, that was until now!

Located outside the entrance to the local Intermarche is a vending machine about the size of a photo booth and next to it a slightly smaller one which dispenses empty, plastic, one litre bottles. It was quite clear from the ginormous winking cow, that this was a milk product and to my joy, and a handful of euros, it was indeed the freshest of chilled milk.

Getting the bottle was pretty straightforward, 20 cents in the machine et voila. Then, I hovered for some time clutching my 1 euro piece in front of the cow vending machine and finally plucked up the courage to slot in the coin at which point I was greated with the audio of a cow mooing it’s heart out at full volume. Thankfully this is a familiar sound to the passers by so not too many heads turned and stared. Once the mooing had begun, a latched door popped open revealing a tap, spout sort of thing which, when the green button was pressed, dispensed me a litre of the coldest, freshest milk I’ve tasted in years.

Of course the first time I came home with the new milky treasure I was quizzed for some time by my constantly sceptical wife asking how I knew it was definitely safe to drink and in fact definitely milk. But once tasted and even after translating the label, she seemed almost convinced. So no it’s not pasteurised but it’s fresher and more delicious than any milk I’ve ever tasted and not a single tummy is complaining……yet.


Absolutely Nothing to Eat : The Best Burger in East London

I don’t have anything particularly against American food. Frankly some days there’s nothing better than a big fat juicy burger, fries and a milkshake. But you know, not every day. Not all the time. But maybe it’s just me, maybe this is what people want to eat ALL THE TIME. I only wonder as it’s struck me that around the small enclave of Hoxton Square it seems that it’s all you can eat ( I do appreciate that this is a rather localised, East London rant, what can I tell you, I never leave).

First up, we have the original Diner on Curtain Road. A Sunday afternoon essential for all strange hair-cutted locals and their hang-overs having a languid de-brief over the previous nights Russian bar activity. Or you could pick something similar up at BarMusicHall a mere skip and a jump away. OR you could go retro and hit the Square itself – hey knock yourself out with a fat burger at Bar and Kitchen or chicken burger at Ziggy’s on the corner. You want more Americana? Heck – don’t forget The Breakfast Club. Surely, that’s enough though eh? Surely that’s more than ENOUGH AMERICAN FOOD OUTLETS IN ONE SMALL SQUARE? Apparently not. Recently opened, a Byron burger. Then whack bam next to it on the opposite corner? The Red Dog Saloon. Offering all manner of pulled pork sandwiches and fries and who knows what else.

I don’t know whose idea this all was. Why we can’t have more of a happy mixture in the area (yes, yes I know there are like a million Thai and Vietnameses on Kingsland Road, but we LIKE them). I don’t know. I mean everyone loves a homogenised high street chain restaurant, non? If it’s good enough for Islington then surely we can suck it up? Everyone must just love eating American food ALL THE TIME. Or perhaps it is some sinister plot to rid the good people of Hoxton of their skinny jeans by making it impossible for them to fit them. We just don’t know.

But if you would like to eat something other than American food in the Hoxton area, may one recommend these establishments:

Fifteen: the original youth project from Mr Oliver. It’s still great. And you get to feel nicely smug about supporting the kidz.

The Princess: Lovely British gastropub, super charming staff and super yummy fare. Do rock up for a roast. It’s also a divine haven from the hen night hell of Old Street on a Saturday night.

Hoxton Apprentice: The only corner of the Square un-Yanked. Delicious and good for the community.

The Rivington Grill: The best fry up breakie in town.

Charlie Wrights International Wine Bar: I jest not. Rock up for the bargainous and delicious Thai food, then stay well into the small hours for a classic Hoxton night out with all kinds of local ‘sights.’ Double dare you.