Why I can’t stop grinning…

My cheeks are getting really rather sore now. There’s only so much grinning one woman can do. But every time my grin begins to subside, I remember the events of Friday night again and bam! I’m beaming again!

It rather took my by surprise. There I was at the MAD (Mum & Dad) Blog Awards ceremony in London, feeling just so thrilled because I was actually out on a Friday night and what’s more I was wearing the most beautiful dress I have ever owned in my life AND I’d just had my photo taken with the very gorgeous Myleene Klass. And then the name Bangers & Mash was read out as winner of the Best Food Blog category. I almost fell off my chair.

Of course I wanted to win. I’m one of the most competitive people I know. But I had done a really good job of convincing myself I had absolutely no chance as I was up against some very talented food bloggers.

And yet win I did and I am now the happiest mummy food blogger on earth. I owe a whopping big thank you to everyone that voted for Bangers & Mash to win and to everyone who has sent me the loveliest messages over the last couple of days via the blog, Twitter and Facebook.

But my favourite  message of all was the one I received when I got back home the next day, attached to a single red rose…

I hope to bring you some more photos from the awards ceremony in the next few days, but in the meantime you can pop over to Storify for some of the Twitter highlights…

Blackberry and cardamom pavlova

I’m spending much less time in the kitchen these days. At the beginning of September I started working in-house four days a week covering someone’s maternity leave, which means evening meals need to be quick and easy as I really don’t want to be slaving over a hot stove for hours when I get home.

So more leisurely, experimental cooking has been relegated to the weekends for now. It’s tricky though, as obviously weekends are also now my main family time. However, this beautiful blackberry and cardamom pavlova was the perfect way to bring family and cooking time together.

We all spent a splendid Sunday afternoon traipsing over the fields near our home in Somerset, hunting for blackberries and sloes (they’re still sat in the fridge waiting to be added to gin) and trying not to get stung as inevitably the plumpest, juiciest berries are always the ones obscured behind a clump of nettles. When Jess and Mia tired of picking blackberries, they ran around pretending to be galloping horses while Jason and I finished the job.

Normally the first thing I make with blackberries would be a blackberry and apple crumble. But since we only had a disappointing six apples off our tree this year I decided to try something new. I’ve been meaning to have a go at making meringue for ages – I know how embarrassing is that, a food blogger who’s never baked a meringue? Particularly because we have an Aga and as all Aga owners will tell you, they are perfect for baking meringues. So the idea of a blackberry pavlova came to mind.

I found a recipe for a blackberry cardamom pavlova from Adventures in Cooking and came up with my own a slightly simplified version. The combination of blackberries and cardamom is absolutely inspired. The spicy, perfumed flavour works incredibly well with the sticky, juicy fruit, cutting through the richness of the cream so the end result doesn’t end up being too heavy. Which of course means it’s absolutely fine to have a second helping.

I was so surprised at just how easy meringues are to make, especially with a little help from Aga Queen, Mary Berry. As with most baking, it’s more about setting aside enough time to do it properly, than about the recipe being all that complicated to make. I baked my meringue the evening before, so all I had to do on Sunday after we’d picked the blackberries was to whip up the cream and make the blackberry sauce.

Blackberry and cardamom pavlova

For the meringue:

3 egg whites
pinch of salt
175g caster sugar
1tsp corn flour
1tsp ground cardamom
½tsp vanilla extract

For the blackberry topping:

450g blackberries
120g sugar
2tbsp honey
juice and zest of half a lemon
½tsp ground cinnamon

For the blackberry and cardamom cream:

300ml whipping cream
60g icing sugar
½tsp ground cardamom
zest of half a lemon
1tbsp blackberry topping (above)
1tsp vanilla extract

Plus another handful of blackberries to garnish

If you don’t have an Aga, preheat the oven to 150ºC / gas mark 2.

In a large bowl, beat the egg whites and salt until stiff. Gradually whisk in the caster sugar a teaspoonful at a time, and finally whisk in the corn flour, ground cardamom and vanilla. Lay a sheet of silicone paper on a baking tray and spread the meringue mixture onto the sheet, forming a circular shape. Build up the sides of the circle to create a well in the middle to hold the cream and fruit later.

If you have an Aga, put the baking tray on the floor of the roasting oven for three to four minutes, until the meringue is ever so slightly coloured. Then move down to the floor of the simmering oven for about an hour until the meringue is firm on the outside but gooey in the middle.

If you’re using a conventional oven, bake for an hour and then turn the oven off. Open the door halfway and allow the meringue to cool to remove to room temperature before removing.

To make the blackberry topping, place the berries, sugar and honey in a saucepan over a medium heat and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Scoop out a large spoonful of blackberries and set aside for later. Continue to simmer gently for about 45 minutes, stirring regularly. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice, zest and cinnamon. Allow to cool before chilling in the fridge.

And then to make the blackberry and cardamom whipped cream, pour the cream into a large bowl and add the icing sugar and cardamom. Whip until it forms soft peaks. Gently fold in the spoonful of blackberry topping set aside earlier, along with the lemon zest and vanilla extract. Chill in the fridge until you are ready to assemble.

Place the meringue on a serving plate and pile the blackberry and cardamom whipped cream in the well. Cover this with the blackberry topping and arrange some fresh blackberries around the edge. Serve at once. Enjoy!

PS Tomorrow I’m off to the MAD Blog Awards ceremony in London. I’m a finalist in the MADs Best Food Blog category and I’m really rather excited. I don’t have a chance of winning as I’m up against some splendid food bloggers who’ve been doing this much longer than me, but I’m just so chuffed at making the finals. If you voted for me – then thank you! And I’ll let you know next week how I got on…

Basil and garlic focaccia

Whenever I bake bread I always find myself marvelling at just how easy it is to make something that tastes and looks so good for such remarkably little effort.

While it might take a little time and is therefore not the kind of foodstuff I fancy making after a long day at work, baking bread is definitely my idea of a perfect weekend activity. And home-baked bread makes for a perfect weekend lunch, served still slightly warm from the oven with a spread of tasty cheeses, cold meats, olives and salad.

Baking often makes me a little nervous as the end result is usually meant to look neat and tidy. But thankfully bread is different and focaccia in particular should look a little rustic and rough around the edges. Which is obviously another reason why this is my kind of bread.

You can top your focaccia with whatever you fancy really – a light scattering of your favourite herbs, cheese, olives, or maybe someone caramelised onions and sun-dried tomatoes. But here I use my all-time favourite: basil and garlic.

Basil and garlic focaccia

500g strong white bread flour
15g salt
15g sugar
10.5g dried yeast (one and a half 7g sachets)
300ml lukewarm water
Semolina
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Large bunch of basil, finely chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
Half a lemon
Salt and pepper

Put the flour, salt, sugar and yeast in a large bowl and mix together. Make a well in the middle and pour in the water. Gradually work the dry ingredients into the liquid to form a soft dough. If it’s still a little dry, add a drop more water; if it’s too sticky, add a little more flour.

Flour the work surface and tip out the dough onto it. Knead the dough for five to ten minutes until it is elastic and smooth. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rise in a warm, draught-free place for around an hour, until it has doubled in size.

Remove the dough from the bowl and give it a punch to knock the air out of it. Knead for another minute or so.

Split the dough into half. Roll each half into a rough circular shape about half an inch thick. Place the dough on a baking tray dusted with semolina.

In a small bowl, mix together the chopped basil, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Smear generously over the top of each piece of dough. Then push your fingers deep into the surface of the dough to make those little holes you always see on focaccia, allowing the flavours to get down deep inside the bread. Leave in a warm spot for another 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.

When the dough has risen again to just over an inch thick, bake in the oven for about 15 minutes until the top is a beautiful golden colour. Drizzle the bread with a little more olive oil and sprinkle sea salt over the top. Leave to cool slightly but try to eat while still warm if you can.

As my focaccia features lots of lovely fragrant basil, I’m linking up with September’s Herbs on Saturday blog challenge, hosted by Karen at Lavender & Lovage. I’m looking forward to working my way through the delicious looking recipes that have been submitted so far, including Recipe Junkie’s rosemary focaccia!

Granola – my favourite start to the day

Someone once told me that when you start making your own granola, you never go back to eating the shop bought stuff again. And how right they were. I made up my first batch at the start of the summer and I’ve been addicted ever since. Better still, your homemade version will probably contain a lot less sugar and fat.

OK so it’s essentially a sweeter take on muesli but it’s so much tastier. Plus when you make your own you can use all your favourite fruits and nuts. So you don’t like dates? No problem, replace them with apricots or prunes instead!

While my husband’s not a fan, the girls and I like to eat it in the morning with yoghurt and fresh fruit. They call it the crunchy stuff. Whatever you call it, it’s a lovely start to the day I reckon.

My recipe is based loosely on one I found in a Leon cookbook, although it changes every time I make it depending on what I happen to have in the store cupboard. This is how I made my latest stash…

Granola

200g rolled oats
125g sunflower seeds
75g honey
30ml sunflower oil
100g hazelnuts, chopped
100g flaked almonds
100g dried dates, chopped
125g sultanas
100g currants

Preheat oven to 190°C/gas mark 4.

Put the oats and sunflower seeds in a large bowl, pour in the honey and oil and mix together well so the oats and seeds are completely coated. Cover a large baking sheet with greaseproof paper and spread the oat mixture evenly across it. Bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes until the oats are golden.

Meanwhile dry fry the hazelnuts and almonds on the hob until they are ever so slightly browned and leave to one side to cool.

When the oats have cooled, pour into a bowl and combine with the hazelnuts, almonds, dates, sultanas and currants.

Store in a large airtight container – a kilner jar is perfect. The granola will keep for around a month.

The MAD Blog Awards ‘Create’ Carnival

The finalists in this year’s MAD Blog Awards are a pretty creative bunch. Just take a look through the fabulous posts submitted for this latest MAD Blog Carnival and I defy you not to end up itching to try out some of these delicious dishes or crafty creations for yourself…

Creative Makes

Finally I have a use for all those boxfuls of manky old broken bits of crayon thanks to the wonderful Actually Mummy. Aren’t these crayon hearts clever? But Actually Mummy doesn’t stop there; she has lots of great ideas on how to do Valentine’s when you’ve got kids.

My daughter Jessie is a budding artist and I can’t wait to try out this Klimt-inspired project with her from Red Ted Art. Maggie’s step-by-step guide is so useful, giving you lots of great ideas to develop with your kids without being overly prescriptive.

Hama beads are a firm favourite in our house and I know my two girls will love the ideas over at Little Sheep Learning for some new things to create, particularly those Angry Birds! And I can’t believe I’d never thought of using ice-cube trays before for sorting out the beads. My kids nick my muffin trays, which can be quite infuriating come baking day!

Every child I know is fascinated by shadows and how they are made, which is why this Shadow Puppets post from Science Sparks is going to be popular with kids everywhere. Create clever shadows and some pretty puppets to boot.

Dorky Mum has the perfect craft activity for anyone with too much time on their hands: the champagne cork chair. Come on, you know you want to make one. You do, you really do. And as there will undoubtedly be quite a few corks popping at the MAD Awards ceremony at the end of the month, it’s the perfect time for all the finalists to give it a go. Just remember to bring your little Lego man with you!

Papier mache is a very messy affair. And so of course for children everywhere that equates with great fun. I look forward to trying out these papier-mache animals from Susan K Mann; just so long as I’m in that go-with-the-flow kind of mood, rather than my usual don’t-you-dare-drop-any-glitter-on-the-floor kind of mood of course…

Kitchen Creations

Ice cream making is a truly family affair in Geek Mummy’s house and this video recipe is sure to put a smile on your face. I love the appearance of the cat in the background towards the end. And it’s also lovely to know that other people’s kitchens are as messy as mine!

How about this for a quick and easy treat from Becky at Family Budgeting? With just three ingredients, this easy shortbread is definitely the kind of recipe that appeals to me!

I love the look of this egg-free lemon shortbread with lemon frosting from Transatlantic Blonde. Perfect for little (and large) spoon-lickers everywhere. And just how cute is Blondie Boy?

When Emma over at A Bavarian Sojourn was little, her mum had to trick her into eating gooseberries. Can’t understand that myself as I’ve always loved them. But now she’s living in Bavaria she’s discovered a new-found taste for them and is making up for lost time. And so here she presents her very English recipe for gooseberry crumble – yum!

And finally here’s the Bangers & Mash take on cooking with kids

So there you have it. If there isn’t an idea or two here that gets your creative juices flowing, well I’ll eat my hat. A paper hat festooned with sequins and glitter and feathers and googly eyes and Moshi stickers, naturally.

Destination Kefalonia for Pastitsio and Horiatiki Salad

It is the last in my Around the World in Six Suppers, and for the final mystery destination we leap from the virtual to the real world. Yes indeed! We said – hang the staycation! We need a proper holiday!

Overlooking Myrtos Beach, made famous by Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

I know. So much for our good intentions to stay at home this summer and save some money. Our resolve seemed to weaken as the British weather deteriorated. And when our good friend Mikey suggested we come see him and his family on the Greek island of Kefalonia it was too hard to resist, particularly since he is a winemaker and promised us lots of good wine too.

For the last week of the school holidays, we therefore found ourselves on this beautiful Ionian island, most commonly known as the setting for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and home to a wonderful tradition of fine food that’s simple and unfussy.

Mikey first came to Kefalonia around five years ago to make wine for Gentilini, one of the largest vineyards on the island. He now lives here with his lovely wife Yvonne and their two gorgeous daughters.

Although we couldn’t really justify a trip abroad, I have to admit it is just what I needed. There’s something about soaking up properly hot sunshine and swimming in warm seas that allows me to truly relax and switch off. Kefalonia was absolutely perfect for this: never a cloud in sight, crystal-clear turquoise seas and temperatures rarely dipping below the mid-thirties. Every view was a picture postcard and as soon as we stepped off the plane, my family was grinning from ear to ear.

As we were only there a week, we weren’t tempted to try and do too much either. Mikey acted as the perfect guide to the island. Despite being insanely busy with the grape harvest and starting work at 6am each day, he succeeded in helping us find the best places to eat and drink.

From drinking mojitos on the beach at Megali Amos…

Drinking cocktails in the sea – life doesn’t get better than this

… and organising a fantastic Greek barbecue at the winery…

Petros, the barbecue king

No barbecue is complete without a sausage or two

… to a marvellous traditional meze overlooking the harbour at Kiani Atki…

The perfect spot to enjoy meze and watch the sunset with good friends at Kiani Atki in Argostoli

The octopus was simply sensational

… and devouring gyros at Ladokoola, Mikey’s favourite ‘chuck it all on the table’ restaurant.

They really do ‘chuck it on the table’ as Mikey described it

No surprise I came home a few pounds heavier!

But my favourite meal of the holiday was the one Mikey and Yvonne cooked us one evening at their home.

They invited us over for a very traditional meal of pastitsio, often talked of as Greece’s version of lasagne, served with horiatiki, the ubiquitous Greek salad. And of course, lots of good Greek wine, robola and rosé.

Mikey’s pastitsio and horiatiki salad

I’ve never eaten pastitsio before but it’s certainly a recipe I know I’ll be cooking again and again back at home. Our two girls gobbled theirs up without a peep while the grownups reminisced about the old days in Bristol.

The pastitsio recipe in the Kefalonian cookbook Mikey and Yvonne gave me as a gift calls for tagliatelle pasta but Mikey prefers to make his with penne, while Yvonne says she uses little macaroni. So it seems anything goes really; make use of whatever you happen to have in the cupboard. For an authentic pastitsio, you should use the local kefalotiri cheese but any hard sheep’s milk cheese should be fine, such as manchego.

According to Mikey, a proper horiatiki or Greek salad should be served at room temperature – not cold from the fridge – and made well in advance so that the salt has plenty of time to work its magic on the tomato and cucumber, extracting some of the water content and intensifying the flavours. It is served simply with good olive oil but no vinegar. And of course, you need plenty of really good black olives. Yvonne had made her own and they were like nothing I’d tasted before.

Yvonne’s homemade olives

Mikey prepared his horiatiki before taking us all down to the local beach for a wonderful evening swim as the sun began to set. If only we could always swim in the sea before supper…

Tossing up the horiatiki with plenty of salt and good olive oil

Horiatiki Salad

2 large beef tomatoes
½ cucumber
1 red onion
1 green pepper
large pinch of salt
handful of black olives
150g Feta cheese, cubed
large pinch of dried oregano
large glug of quality olive oil

Cut the tomatoes and cucumber into large chunks and throw into a large serving bowl. Slice the red onion and cut the pepper into thin strips, and add to the bowl. Sprinkle with a decent pinch of salt and mix it all really well. Add the olives, Feta and oregano and smother with a good peppery olive oil. Toss gently to make sure the oil covers everything well and leave for half an hour or so before serving.

Pastitsio. Note the large squeezy Marmite in the background, which we were under strict orders to bring over from Blighty.

Pastitsio

2tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
600g minced beef
100ml white wine
500ml tomato passata
1 tbsp tomato puree, dissolved in a little hot water
salt and pepper
pinch of cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
600g penne or other small pasta
handful of kefalotiri or other hard sheep’s milk cheese, grated

For the Béchamel Sauce

1 litre milk
6tbsp plain flour
salt and pepper
nutmeg
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp butter

Preheat oven to 190°C/gas mark 5.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and sauté the onion until soft. Add the minced beef and cook until browned. Pour in the wine and cook off until the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the passata and puree and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle in a little cinnamon and nutmeg. Taste and add more if required. Bring the sauce to the boil and gently simmer on a low heat until the sauce has thickened.

To make the béchamel sauce, pour the milk into a pan and heat gently. When the milk is warm, slowly add the flour, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Season with salt and pepper and a little nutmeg. Once the sauce has thickened, stir in the egg and then the butter. Check the seasoning again and remove from the heat.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the penne according to the packet instructions. Drain and rinse with warm water to prevent the pasta from sticking together.

Butter the bottom of a large ovenproof dish. Put half the pasta along the bottom of the dish and press down firmly. Pour the meat sauce over the pasta and smooth over. Cover with the rest of the pasta and again press down well. Pour the béchamel sauce over the top and sprinkle with the grated cheese.

Bake in the oven for around 40 minutes, until the top is golden and the cheese is bubbling. Leave to stand for quarter of an hour to let the béchamel sauce set slightly before serving with the horiatiki salad.

Kali orexi!