Thumbs up for…

decorations

With only nine sleeps until the big day, it’s feeling ever so Christmassy here at Banger Heights. The decorations are up, I’ve shed a tear watching my youngest in the school nativity play and I’m enjoying choir rehearsals for the staff carol service in Wells Cathedral later this week – although I might need to mime the bit when I’m supposed to hit a high G.

And so, this month’s Thumbs Up brings you some top recommendations for last-minute festive foodie gifts, nibbles, treats and ingredients…

Hotel Chocolat Collage

Hotel Chocolat – The Signature Christmas Collection

When you receive a box of chocolates from Hotel Chocolat you expect something special and this luxury Christmas collection did not disappoint. As well as looking visually stunning, the flavour combinations are surprising and masterful; flavours that mustn’t be rushed but savoured slowly. If it takes a few days for my husband and me to consume a box of chocolates, that’s a good sign. We can only stuff our faces with cheap chocolate! And at £25 this is a fairly expensive box of chocolates, but if you’ve got the budget I’d say it’s well worth it.

My personal favourites were the dark chocolate Christmas Stars with rich marzipan infused with orange liqueur, the Nutmeg and Almond Pralines, the Mulled Ports bringing together port, bitter orange and spices, and the delicately perfumey Pistachio Praline Crunch with its hint of rose. Just beautiful. More please!

heston blumenthall chocolate box

Heston from Waitrose – Chocolate Box

More delicious chocolates, this time from Heston Blumenthal’s range for Waitrose. Heston’s Chocolate Box is also full of exciting and unusual flavour combinations, but at £10 is a little more affordable. I adored the Thyme and Rosemary chocolates and the BFGs were rather fun too – transforming the classic 1970s gateaux into chocolate form.

Waitrose have hidden a special ticket in five of Heston’s Chocolate Boxes, and five lucky winners and their guests will be invited to join him for an unforgettable food experience. A sixth ticket is also up for grabs on the Waitrose Facebook page.

meaningful chocolate tree decorations

Meaningful Chocolate Tree Decorations

My children were rather taken with these chocolate tree decorations from the Meaningful Chocolate Company. The box contains five Fairtrade chocolates onto which you place five illustrated stickers, as well as a copy of the Christmas story. The idea is you read the story as you hang your decorations on the tree. A donation from every sale goes to the charity Traidcraft. A lovely concept and the chocolate is good too.

Wonderful Pisachios Almonds

Wonderful Pistachios and Wonderful Almonds

These Wonderful Pistachios and Wonderful Almonds are extremely good and perfect nibbles for festive get-togethers. In a range of delicious flavours, they are very, very moreish and pretty healthy too, as they are dry roasted without any extra oil. The salted almonds were just divine, while my husband and I practically inhaled the sweet chilli pistachios in a single sitting!

heston blumenthall mince pie

Heston from Waitrose – Spiced Shortcrust Mince Pies

There’s only one word for these bad boys – yum! I know we should really be making our own mince pies this Christmas, as they are stupidly easy, but if you want to spoil yourself, these pies from Heston Blumenthal’s range for Waitrose are very good. The pastry is deliciously light, short and crisp and the mincemeat is rich and beautifully spiced but not overly sweet like so many other shop-bought mince pies.

hellmans colmans Collage

Hellman’s Mayonnaise and Colman’s Sauces

Unilever Kitchen sent me a range of products to try – perfect accompaniments to the Christmas meal itself and for the best bits, the leftovers. I’m rather partial to Hellman’s mayonnaise, but I’ve never tried any of their other flavoured mayonnaises. To be honest, they’ve never really appealed but I’ve been pleasantly surprised with what I’ve tried so far.

The other day my children had their Christmas lunch at school, and so that my husband and I weren’t left out, I made us turkey sandwiches at home. I squeezed lots of the mayo with a ‘hint of lemon’ on mine (as well as a good dollop of Colman’s cranberry sauce), and it was absolutely scrummy. My husband tried the garlic mayonnaise on his sandwich, and devoured it in seconds. We also tried the garlic mayonnaise in jacket potatoes later that evening, which were very tasty, and I imagine it would be perfect with chips too. Since my first trip to Amsterdam as a kid I’ve had a thing for chips with garlic mayo.

As well as making a classic mint sauce, I can also recommend the Colman’s mint concentrate as a cooking ingredient. I rubbed it all over a shoulder of lamb before slow roasting it for an Ottolenghi-inspired dish at the weekend (recipe coming soon), which worked very well. I imagine the mint concentrate would be perfect in a dressing for a Greek salad too.

port and cheese

Aldi cheese and wine pairing

Aldi has recently teamed up with Master of Wine Sarah Jane Evans to create some Christmas drinks and cheese matches, perfect for entertaining this festive season. They sent me this Fletcher’s Fine Ruby Port NV to sample, along with a truckle of Wensleydale cheese. Sarah Jane Evans says: “Ruby Port is a great partner for Wensleydale with cranberries: the Port matches the colour of the fruit, and brings a round softness to the creamy crumbly cheese.”

Fletcher’s Fine Ruby Port is a fairly light, easy drinking port, which I’d say is perfect for dinner parties when you don’t want to end on anything too heavy. The Wensleydale has a soft, creamy tanginess with lovely fruity bursts. So each get a thumbs up from me individually. But in my opinion, I don’t think they actually go all that well together. I’d say the port would work much better with a mature Cheddar or a good salty blue cheese. And the Wensleydale needs a dry, crisp white wine. But that’s only me, and I’m no wine expert!

thai green Collage

Kent’s Kitchen – Thai Green Stir In Flavor Shots

Finally, if you’re looking for quick and easy ways to transform turkey leftovers, I recommend you have some of these Thai Green Flavour Shots in your store cupboard. Containing all natural ingredients, these little gel concentrates add an authentic flavour kick to your meat and vegetables; I’ve used them in a butternut squash and spinach curry, as well as a chicken Thai green curry. They can also be used with rice, salad, couscous, jacket potatoes or in wrap.

The Flavour Shots are available exclusively from Ocado. Other flavours are available, although I haven’t tried these out yet: BBQ, Hot & Spicy, Fajita, and Garlic & Coriander. If you’ve tried any of the others, do let me know what you think.

Disclosure: I was sent complimentary samples of Hotel Chocolat’s Signature Christmas Collection, Heston from Waitrose’s  Chocolate Box and Spiced Shortcrust Mince Pies, Wonderful Almonds, Wonderful Pistachios, Hellman’s mayonnaise and Colman’s sauces and the Aldi cheese and wine pairing for review purposes. No money exchanged hands and all opinions expressed are my own.

Dried fruit and nut balls

dried fruit and nut balls

Admittedly, these might look like something you’d hang out for the birds in winter but trust me, these dried fruit and nut balls are delicious. Ask my children – they love them in their packed lunches or after school as a quick and healthy snack.

They’re very easy to make and the recipe is extremely versatile – play around with the recipe and add your own favourite nuts and dried fruits. I’ve used dried apple in this version as I’d dried some of our own apples as one way of storing them. If you’ve never tried drying your own apples, you really should. The apples develop such a gorgeously intense flavour and they have a wonderfully satisfying texture, rather like chewing on a soft toffee but with none of the sugar-guilt. My girls can’t get enough of them.

Dried Apple Collage

If you fancy having a go, here’s what you do.

Peel and core your apples and cut into rings. Sprinkle with cinnamon or leave plain if you prefer. Spread out on a baking tray and put in a very, very low oven for a few hours. If you have an Aga you could put them in the bottom oven or do what we did and tie with string and hang in bundles over the top. They’re ready when they’ve gone all wrinkly and have gained that lovely chewy consistency.

We eat them as they are, chop them up and mix into plain yoghurt, or add them to homemade granola.

granola

But back to those dried fruit and nut balls. It’s simply a case of whizzing up all the ingredient in a food processor and then using your hands to shape the resulting mixture into balls or, if you prefer, bars. It’s a fairly messy business, which is probably why children quite like getting involved.

Dried fruit and nut balls

100g blanched almonds
100g walnuts
100g dried apple
100g dried fig
100g dried apricot
100g sultanas
20g dessicated coconut
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp apple juice

Put the nuts and dried fruit into a food processor and process until it you end up with a mushy, sticky mixture.

Add the oil and apple juice and whiz again briefly to combine.

Mould the mixture in your hands into small balls and store in an airtight container in the fridge (for a couple of weeks) or the freezer (for a couple of months).

I wrap individual balls in foil, like sweetie wrappers, when I put them in the girls’ lunchboxes.

dried fruit and nut balls

 

Since my children enjoy them in their lunchboxes, I’m including both these fruit and nut balls and the dried apple in November’s Family Foodies challenge, which as you probably know has lunchbox ideas as its theme.

family-foodies

Kiwi and blueberry surprise

I am handing over the Bangers & Mash reigns today to my good friend Trish Tucker-May, who runs an awesome juice bar company called Passion 4 Juice, which you may well have come across at one of this summer’s festivals.

I first met Trish a decade or so ago, when we were both pre-kids. I was in the throes of launching my own PR business and she was just setting up Passion 4 Juice. In fact she was one of my first clients. Trish was a real inspiration. I haven’t met many people with the same level of energy and zest for life as her, and it is quite infectious. So while I’ve never invited someone to do a guest post on here before, with Trish I know you will be in safe hands. And so without further ado, here is the lovely Trish and her extremely clever recipe for Kiwi and Blueberry Surprise

How to make a guilt free and tasty pudding

Hi, I am Trish Tucker-May, an Aussie from Forster. You can’t get much more Aussie than that!

I have a pretty crazy life that some people dream about and others may think is just way too hard and crazy. I spend half the year working at summer festivals in the UK and half the year at festivals in Australia. I love travelling and the great outdoors and am passionate about bringing fresh juice and good health to people.

In 2003 I founded Passion 4 Juice Ltd an award winning juice bar company. I have written a small book about redesigning your life to live your passion and I have also self-published a recipe book called ‘Juice and Smoothie Recipes From Around the World’.  Currently I am studying a Diploma in Nutritional Healing – and loving it! I am married to a professional clown and mum to 4-year-old Jack-Patrick (AKA Jackpot) and 2-year-old Roary.

Trish with Roary, Jackpot and Joe

I became a little concerned this week when I thought back over the last three suppers and realised that perhaps they weren’t as nutritious as they should be for my developing 2 and 4-year-old boys. Okay, lasagne is good wholesome food and so is spaghetti  bolognaise, especially when I sneak in a handful of peas,  grated carrots and whatever other veg I can put my hands on at the time.

I know these easy Italian favourites are perfect for my boys. But given my slight aversion (rather than intolerance) to wheat, dairy and meat, I was left craving something green, fresh, and raw.  It was while I was pondering this dilemma that I came up with a fantastic idea. What if I could make something that satisfied my boy’s desire for sweet gooey pudding while also giving myself a treat packed with nutritional goodness? The Kiwi and Blueberry Surprise was born.

Firstly I put 2½ cups of nuts in the blender.  I mixed what I had which was almonds, brazils and cashews – so that was 2½ cups in total, not of each nut.  I blended until all the ingredients crumbled. Next I added ¾ cup of pitted dates and a pinch of salt.  That was the base done.

Next came the slightly sneaky bit. My son Jackpot is very used to me sneaking all sorts of weird and wonderful ingredients into my super green smoothies in the morning so I had to be careful not to be too obvious or I would get the “Mum it’s a bit too green for me, no thanks” treatment.

I peeled and cut a courgette, placed it in the blender with an avocado, a handful of mung bean sprouts, a handful of cashews,  a splash of yoghurt , a cup of frozen passionfruit puree and a tablespoon of agave syrup. I love making raw food so I have all these ingredients to hand. If you don’t have agave syrup, honey will work just as well.

Blend until smooth and pour into the tin.

Next step is to decorate with whatever you have to hand. In this case I used kiwi and blueberries. The kiwi worked well so I called it Kiwi Blueberry Surprise.  It seemed to go well with the green colour. Now the kids didn’t think it was green because of some crazy green vegetables.

Did I successfully satisfy both camps? We ate over half immediately and the boys were delighted. I was truly satisfied with the knowledge of raw sprouts, courgette and avocado for pudding. The following day my husband was home after working away.  I served it with a question – “Bet you can’t guess what is in this?” He is accustomed to me making weird and wonderful creations out of fruit and veg so he had a head start. He got the avocado right but that was all.

I have since shared this idea with a few contacts on a Facebook juice group. They have taken the idea to inspiring new heights and added variations such as chocolate, strawberries, lemon juice, cacao powder, vanilla bean paste, a handful of cashews, flaked almonds, shredded coconut and cacao nibs. To be honest I think my first attempt needed a little extra something and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it – I think a squeeze of fresh lemon and an extra handful of cashews would have done the trick.

So if you are tempted to try this one at home, be daring and always taste as you go. Make sure it has just the right level of sweet, sour, salty or bitter to suit your taste buds. This is a truly guilt free tasty pudding that satisfies the entire family.

Kiwi and Blueberry Surprise

Base
Blend the following and press into a flan tin and store in the fridge while mixing the filling:

2½ cups mixed nuts, such as almonds, cashews, brazils
¾ cup dates
pinch of salt

Filling
Blend the following and pour onto base:

1 avocado
1 peeled raw courgette
1 handful of raw cashews
1 handful of mung bean sprouts
2 tbsp natural yoghurt
¾ cup frozen passionfruit puree
2 tbsp raw agave syrup or honey

optional extra ingredients to taste
cashews, lemon juice, shredded coconut, raw cacao

Decoration
Your choice of fresh fruit – I used sliced kiwi fruit and blueberries.

So what do you think? If you try this out on your family, we’d love to hear how it went down.

You can find Trish on Twitter and Facebook and her website is www.passion4juice.com.

Because trifle is for life, not just for Christmas

As I tucked into my bowl of trifle on Christmas Day, it occurred to me that we don’t eat trifle nearly as much as we should do.

It’s such a magnificently luxurious dessert, but one that is so easy to prepare. And so versatile too – you can be as creative as you dare trying out new combinations of fruits, alcohol, cake and toppings.

Trifle deserves to be dished up more often, rather than being reserved for the festive season.

So I offer you my most recent take on the glorious trifle, combining the sumptuous warming tones of Amaretto with the light fruitiness of white grapes and the crunch of toasted almonds.

You really ought to make your own custard but I had enough on my plate (quite literally) this Christmas. I reckon it’s perfectly acceptable to cheat and use a ready-made custard instead. Just make sure you use a good quality one, preferably with lots of vanilla.

I also made a non-alcoholic version of this for the children, replacing the Amaretto with apple juice.

So please do give this a try in the new year. I’ll be finding an excuse to make it again myself as soon as I can.

Amaretto and white grape trifle

8 large trifle sponges
Apricot jam
Half a glass of Amaretto
600 ml of fresh custard
500 g white seedless grapes, halved
600 ml whipping cream
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp icing sugar
100g almond flakes

Cut the trifle sponges in half, spread with the jam and sandwich back together. Arrange these in the bottom of a large, suitably pretty glass bowl; depending on the size of your bowl you may end up with two layers of sponge.

Sprinkle the Amaretto over the sponges. It’s hard to advise how much to use as this is very much down to personal taste. I love Amaretto and I love a boozy trifle, so I use lots. I generally pour some on, let it soak in, then add a bit more. I stand back and watch it soak in again, before adding some more. So use your own discretion here.

Place the grapes on top of the sponges and cover with a layer of custard.

Pour the cream into a large glass bowl and add the vanilla and sugar. Whip the cream with an electric whisk until it forms soft peaks. Carefully spoon the cream over the custard.

In a dry pan, lightly toast the almonds. Leave to cool for a few minutes before scattering liberally over the cream. Chill in the fridge for as long as you can resist before diving in!