Mediterranean Loaf

Today, in honour of the recent ‘bread week’ showstoppers seen on The Great British Bake Off ( I have only just caught up due to my three week holiday- bad form for a hardcore fan), I created a stuffed picnic loaf.

For my ‘showstopper’ I decided on a twisted design inspired by talented contestant Richard. In my loaf I layered pepper red pesto, aubergine, yellow peppers and feta cheese topped with basil.

You’ll need patience if you wish to produce a similar loaf as my recipe took three rounds of proving as well as shaping and reshaping to create the perfect appearance.

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I hope you like the Mediterranean theme I’ve adopted and feel like having a go at some of the challenges Mary and Paul present in the coming weeks; I’m going to be attempting a round per week in my own kitchen!

Just Back

You may or may not have noticed (probably the latter) that I have been away from JUSTNICESTUFF for almost a month. Now that I’m home (after being up for a gruelling 38 hours of travel) I thought it only right to share with you where I’ve been and decide on my top 5 travel moments of the past few weeks.

Exactly where I have been covers a broad area of South America including Peru, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Having been hectically traveling non-stop for three weeks it seems almost impossible to select only 5 moments from the trip to recommend to others as ‘must sees and dos’ but I will try my best.

WALK THE INKA TRAIL TO MACHU PICHU

Yes, it’s an absolute MUST (providing you are fit and well). There is nothing more satisfying than arriving (after a slightly unpleasant 3am start) at the Sun Gate on the fourth morning of the trek to see a deserted Machu Pichu, entirely free from tourists, slowly emerge as the sun rises and the mist clears. Not only is camping and walking the trek a lot of fun (if a little hard work), but the scenery is truly stunning and historic sites along the route are places you cannot see or even access if you arrive to Machu Pichu by bus or train as so many tourists do. So toughen up, don your walking boots and pursue the Inka Trail- it’s a unique experience.

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SPOT THE BOOBIES

That’s right! Hit the Galapagos Islands just off Ecuador (we did it in a yacht but there are other options), sit back and let the wild sea birds flock to you as they undoubtedly will. The Galapagos Islands boast endemic species of birds you will not see anywhere else in the world- most notably the Red and Blue footed boobies. Both of these species have striking appearances and quite amusing natural behaviours. Best of all, on the islands, conservation is taken so seriously that these animals have never experienced humans as predators so, despite being entirely wild, allow people within feet of them which makes it altogether different from any other animal watching-experience in the world.

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TAKE THE ANDEAN EXPLORER TO CUSCO

The Andean Explorer has to be the only train which, after ten hours of traveling, you do not want to leave. And here’s why; free pisco sours, a delicious three course meal, insights into the tiny villages of Peru roads do not reach, winding views of the Andes, polished dark wood interiors, roses on every table, afternoon tea, a free bar, table service, friendly people, Peruvian dancers and panpipes… and if that list didn’t sell it to you, then perhaps you are too hard to please!

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VISIT LAKE TITICACA

Having met several travelers along the way in Peru and Ecuador, I was amazed at how many people didn’t go to Lake Titicaca and the floating reed islands which sit upon it… this is why I am including it as a recommended place to visit in my top 5. Lake Titicaca is the highest lake in the world, sitting at 3800m above sea level off a town called Puno. The lake joins Bolivia and Peru and is home to several thousand people who form a community who never leave the floating reed villages they have built there. The villages include schools, hospitals, houses, shops and boats, all formed by hand from the reeds which grow in the shallow waters. I’m not sure how to describe the strange charm of the village and their people, so I shall let my photos speak for themselves.

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SWIM WITH SEA LIONS

If you visit the Galapagos Islands, you will see sealions everywhere, however you must make sure you snorkel with them, as that is when they come alive. Much of the wildlife in Galapagos exists below the waves and playful sea lion pups make great company as you watch the tropical fish and hammerhead sharks. Much like the land animals and birds, sea lions in Galapagos are not at all threatened by humans and the babies in particular are keen to play with you. My favourite part of the Galapagos Island experience was snorkeling; one particular day I was accompanied by a sea lion pup ducking and diving around me, smelling my mask and brushing my legs with his fins for around 40 minutes; I can’t think of anywhere where a wild animal would gladly do this in a completely natural environment.

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I hope you’ve found this post entertaining- it might not be a cake but perhaps my travel photographs will interest you as much as a triple-chocolate-something-or-other would!

 

Slap Dash Nosh

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Picture this: you wake up, it’s 10:30 on a Saturday morning, you’ve had a rather… enjoyable… Friday night, and you’re feeling a little worse for wear… as you venture into the kitchen in search of something deliciously heavy and drenched in Tomato Ketchup, your Granny rings reminding you of the pie and dessert (to feed eight) you promised you’d make her for 1:30…

Well, that was the situation I found myself in just a few hours ago. It’s my fault, I forgot all about it, but it still wasn’t the most appealing of activities. Luckily I had bought the pie ingredients and having made it on countless occasions (it’s a simple chicken, leek and ham variety) whipped that up in about an hour with the help of my homemade emergency shortcrust pastry.

Feeling pretty pleased with myself and thinking my Granny would be none the wiser to my lack of preparation, I remembered the ambiguous ‘dessert’ she was after… This is where I hit a wall; no specific ingredients or plan to speak of and only two hours to remedy the issue.

Well, the chocolatey, creamy mess pictured above is what (hopefully) saved the day, and I want to share the recipe with you for any time you need a dessert that requires little effort. This pud is great as it calls for very few ingredients but is a real crowd pleaser (I made it more for the first reason and not for the latter).

For the meringue:

6 egg whites, 300g caster sugar, pinch salt

Whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form, then gradually add the sugar (still whisking) and allow the mix to become sooth and glossy with no granular bits.

Spoon onto two baking sheets and make two circles if you would like to create a two tier effect and bake in the oven for an hour at 150.

For the Raspberry cream:

1 punnet raspberries, 500ml cream, 100g icing sugar

Whisk the cream until lightly whipped and stir in the sugar and raspberries. I like to crush the raspberries slightly to create a pink speckled cream filling. If you haven’t got any raspberries just leave those out.

Assembling the pavlova:

Place one of the cooked meringues on a plate and pile fruit and the cream on it, smoothing it into a flat surface. Top with the other meringue and decorate with melted chocolate and more berries.

Although this dessert looks a little rough around the edges, I hope that taste wise, it will deliver (and that my angel grandchild status will remain intact).

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Guilt Free Baking

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Not everyone can afford to eat full fat, full sugar baked goods every day of the week, however that’s not to say we don’t crave a sweet hit once in a while… this is where my two new recipes come in. I have been experimenting with flavours and substitutions for a couple of weeks and have come to the conclusion that these are the best concoctions (so far)  if you’re after a healthier baked alternative. So, without further ado, here are the recipes.

First up are my skinny blueberry, banana and lemon muffins (pictured above). This recipe is great as it contains very low sugar levels- instead of tonnes of white caster sugar, apple sauce, bananas and blueberries add sweetness in a healthy and natural way. This muffin is also low in fat with only 2 tbsp oil per 12 muffins! Give these a try as they taste delicious (you wouldn’t guess they contained no butter or refined sugar) and are moist and fluffy.

Ingredients

180g self raising flour, 50g plain flour, 3tsp baking powder, pinch salt, tbsp cinnamon, tsp ginger, 2 tbsp brown sugar.

1 egg, 180 ml milk, zest of 3 lemons, 1 mashed banana, 3 tbsp natural honey, 4 tbsp apple sauce, 2tbsp vegetable oil, 2 handfuls of blueberries.

Method

1) Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

2) Whisk up the wet ingredients in a jug, then pour into the dry.

3) Mix lightly until just combined (overmixing will result in close, heavy muffins!)

4) Fold in the blueberries and spoon into muffin cases. Bake at 190 for 25 minutes, cool and enjoy!

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My second recipe is for these new and improved trail mix protein bars. They are full of healthy ingredients but also provide a great energy boost due to the high protein levels and slow releasing carbohydrates.

Ingredients

2 cups of rolled oats, 1 handful sunflower seeds, 1 handful pumpkin seeds, 1 handful dried cranberries, handful raisins, handful dried prunes (chopped), 1 1/2 cups of mixed chopped nuts (I use walnuts, hazelnuts and cashews), chia seeds (for topping).

5tbsp peanut butter, 3tbsp honey, 200ml water.

Method

1) In a pan, melt together the honey, peanut butter and water. Leave to cool for 10 minutes.

2) Combine all fruits, nuts and oats in a large bowl. Pour cooled liquid into the bowl and mix well to ensure no dryness remains in the rolled oats (if there is too little liquid, add a squirt more honey or a dash or water).

3) Line a baking tin with greaseproof paper and pack the ingredients tightly in, pushing down with the back of a spoon. Sprinkle generously with chia seeds.

4) Place in the freezer for at least 40 minutes then chop up and enjoy as a breakfast bar or snack. Store in the fridge.

Eastern Europe’s Best Bars

Recently, my boyfriend and I decided to go inter-railing around Europe as a budget (but brilliant) impromptu holiday. After visiting Berlin, Prague, Krakow, Budapest, Zagreb and Zadar I can confirm that each location boasts culture in droves, must see landmarks and unique entertainment available on a shoestring.

Despite going on countless tours and cultural visits (which we enjoyed immensely) I am going to share with you my top 3 places to drink instead of listing tourist attractions you can find at the click of a button; finding bars and restaurants with the right atmosphere away from the crowds of tourists can be difficult so I want to make your job a little easier…

1) Let’s start with Berlin, and a bar. Barbie Deinhoffs to be precise. Everyone is welcome at this place. Vibrant, fun and full of quirky locals, this bar carries an extensive cocktail menu ( all very generously measured!) and has bags of character. We shared some hilarious conversations with the bar tenders who speak English as well as German, Italian and more. The bar itself is small and teaming with strip lighting, strange lampshades, plane seats and hotch-potch furniture. So if you are after a relaxed and brilliantly camp place to have a drink, head to Kreuzburg- you will not be disappointed!

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2) After Berlin, we moved on to Prague which is where we discovered Blue Light, a cocktail bar with a difference. Situated in the old town away from the hen parties and lads of the main square side, this bar is tucked away down a side street in a cave-like structure. Locals flock to this place in their dozens and there is a lively atmosphere, particularly when customers start playing the piano which is left open in the corner. The distressed walls covered in music posters and black and white photographs are dimly lit by strings of old bulbs and candles in the nooks and crannies of the building, making the vibe relaxed and comfortable. Most importantly though, the cocktails are delicious, varied and cheap… so very cheap. This is definitely your place if you like a local spot and a bargain (and lets face it, who doesn’t!).

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3) Despite both Krakow and Croatia boasting great bars and restaurants, none stuck out as much as Szimpla Kert in Budapest… this is a bar like no other. No words can do this place justice as it is not just a single collection of drinks with some trendy seats, but a collection of Wineries, Cocktail artists, Breweries and snack bars thrown together in the ruins of several different buildings. Every room in this colossal watering hole is smothered in strings of lights, old car tyres, TVs, exposed pipes, toys, robots, wires, fairground rides, sofas, hoovers, wheels and anything else you can possibly think of. It is impossible to describe this place and do it justice, so you are just going to have to pay it a visit and thank me later!

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From One Extreme To Another

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My family, like any, have contrasting dietary views and phases which makes baking a single item to please opposing teams (healthy vs. all chocolate everything) near on impossible. At the moment my Dad happens to be on a ‘health kick’ whereas my brothers are in a classic eat-everything-in-sight-the-unhealthier-the-better  phase. As I am sure you can imagine, these food ideals don’t really correlate, so today I made a bake geared towards each ‘requirement’. Pictured above are some rocky road cupcakes I concocted with some store cupboard items; they are made up of a moist chocolate hazelnut sponge topped with chocolate butter cream and wedges of homemade rocky road… four have disappeared since my brother’s return from college… I can’t imagine where they’ve got to.

Below are my healthy nut granola bars. With some simple substitutions, I have taken a basic flapjack recipe and rejected the bad stuff. These contain flaxseed, chia seeds (SUPERfoods), almonds, cranberries, raisins, peanut butter, honey and rolled oats- in other words, they are packed with protein, healthy fats and vitamins.

So, on with the recipes!

For the Rocky Road cupcakes

1) Combine 80g unsalted butter with 280g caster sugar, 200g plain flour, 1 tbsp baking powder and 40g cocoa powder until they resemble bread crumbs.

2) Mix 2 eggs, 240ml milk, salt and pour into the dry mixture. Fold in 80g chopped hazelnuts and divide mix between cupcake cases.

3) Bake for 25 minutes at 180 (Fan). Leave to cool and make the butter cream by mixing 400g icing sugar with 100g cocoa powder and 140g butter together. Add some milk to create a smooth texture then pipe onto the sponges.

4) To make the rocky road topping, melt some chocolate (dark or milk will do) and throw in dried fruits, nuts and marshmallows. Set in the fridge and chop up into rustic shapes to create chocolate heaven!

And for the Granola Bars…

1) This is a throw in a bowl and mix like mad recipe- easy as pie! Just melt 5 tablespoons of peanut butter with a glug of milk, 3 tablespoons of apple sauce and some honey- be conservative with the honey, you can always add more later.

2) Pour that liquid mix into a big bowl and add 200g rolled oats, a handful of almonds, sunflower seeds, walnuts and hazelnuts, 2 table spoons of chia seeds and 80g cranberries and raisins. Combine the dry with the wet and press into a square baking tray. Sprinkle with flaxseeds and set in the freezer. Chop up and enjoy your guilt free snack!

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The Tea Cake Challenge

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Recently I’ve been stuck for baking challenges (what a difficult life I lead), but today I remembered a certain Great British Bake Off technical which left even the best bakers unstuck when, on a hot summer’s day, they were faced with melting and setting chocolate around handmade digestive biscuits and lightly whipped marshmallow; on remembering their struggle, I had my challenge for my day off work sorted.

Starting with the tempered chocolate, I feverishly begun the tea cake task, measuring the temperature exactly then leaving it to cool before lining silicone molds with two layers. Having left the chocolate to set, the digestives were the next element to tend to- as easy as they are to make, they are equally easy to overcook (luckily most of mine survived un-charred) which was an unexpected hurdle in the process . After coating the cooled biscuits in chocolate, I started on the marshmallow which is actually quite straight forward. Just throw syrup, egg whites, sugar and salt into a bowl and whisk for 10 minutes over a high heat and voila! After each section of the bake had been completed it was just a case of piecing the puzzle together. The marshmallow was piped into the chocolate shells and the biscuits sealed onto the bottoms with remaining chocolate.

I have to say, I am quite proud of my attempts… that said, I didn’t have a time limit, a heat wave and a great deal of pressure to contend with… just a hungry teenage brother urging me to finish.

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If you would like to try these challenging treats, here is the recipe!

For the biscuits

You will need: 50g wholemeal flour, 50g plain flour, pinch salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 25g caster sugar and a splash of milk.

Just combine these ingredients with your hands and push into a dough. Roll to about 6mm thick and cut into circles. Bake for 10 minutes at 190 (Fan).

For the chocolate shells

Just melt 400g dark chocolate and leave to thicken slightly. Coat the molds several times and leave to set, building up a hard outer layer for the tea cakes. Cover the biscuits in the chocolate too when they are cool.

Finally, for the marshmallow…

Put 3 egg whites, 150g caster sugar, 6tbsp golden syrup, pinch salt and a few drops of vanilla essence in a heat proof bowl.

Place over a pan of simmering water and whip with an electric whisk for 8 minutes until thick and glossy. Leave to cool and pipe into the set chocolate shells. Place the biscuits over the marshmallow and pipe a line of the remaining melted chocolate around the seam to seal any gaps.

Set for a final time (about 20 minutes) and hold your breath as you pop them out of the molds. Enjoy!

Do you remember the Shire, Mr Frodo?

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My boyfriend and I share an unhealthy obsession with Lord of the Rings, so it seemed the perfect theme to apply to his 20th birthday cake. I opted for a Hobbit Hole design and whilst I had plenty of ambitious ideas, I couldn’t help thinking (ever the optimist) that the end result was likely to resemble Mordor or, worse, a demolition site as opposed to a rolling grass mound complete with plant pots and carved wooden doors…

This said, I surprised myself with the result and the reception it received wasn’t too bad either (lets just say had this been Bilbo’s house, he would’ve been made homeless within an hour of its reveal). In other words, if you want guaranteed compliments, provide people with ganache, chocolate cake, buttercream, sugarpaste and nerdy cake aesthetics- it’s a winning combination.

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Top 5 Decorating Tips from Amateur to Amateur…

- Practice really does make perfect. I am improving every time I create a new cake. Have patience and persevere and you will see results eventually!

- Don’t limit yourself to using only sugarpaste icing. Whilst it works brilliantly for some details, it’s not always necessary ( I have used buttercream for the grass here and it’s very effective!).

- Have enough tools and ingredients at your disposal. There is nothing worse than getting half way through a bake and only having half the icing needed to cover a shape- the result usually resembles a patchwork quilt!

- Choose rustic designs before you attempt the seamless white wedding cake! There is more leeway with a design like this- any mistakes can be covered up if need be.

-Roll icing out between sheets of greaseproof paper. I have only just realised this is the best way! Icing sugar discolours the icing and your hands make it hot and sticky. The paper keeps it fresh and smooth.

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Posh Carrot Cake

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Yesterday was my Grandads Birthday so I decided to make a decidedly ‘grown up’ version of his favourite- carrot cake. Creating such an elaborate design doesn’t have to take hours and cost a small fortune though; for this creation I simply used a few store cupboard staples and transformed them! The sponge itself is my own carrot and walnut cake recipe to which I’ve added ginger and lemon to give it a kick. The icing is my usual cream cheese concoction- on top of this is where I’ve got a bit creative. After covering the entire cake with the cream cheese mixture, I finely chopped some walnuts and pressed them into the sides then formed some lines in the remaining icing with a palette knife.

Caster sugar was my weapon of choice for the top decoration. After melting it into spun sugar, I quickly whipped the liquid around the end of a pastry brush, waited for it to solidify and was left with sugary spirals which I think look quite effective. The central decorations are caramel dipped hazelnuts. Why don’t you experiment with sugar and jazz up one of  your favourite bakes!

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Chocolate Eclairs

 

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Having built up a wide cake baking repotoire over the past couple of years, today I decided it was time I challenged myself to something I am a little less familiar with- patisserie. As a chocolate-obsessed kind of eater, eclairs seemed like the perfect place to start. Eclairs are made up of a complicated crisp choux pastry filled with sweet vanilla cream and topped with milk chocolate; the difficulty in making these treats comes with forming a perfect pastry (but not over cooked) shell to hold the filling. Having said that, for a first attempt these look pretty close to what I envisaged, and taste wise… well, you can’t go far wrong with chocolate, pastry and cream!

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