Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Christmas baking - Mince Pies

Last year it was gingerbread biscuits. This year, I decided to tackle another Christmas classic - mince pies.

I have friends who think mince pies are disgusting - and maybe that's how you feel too - but for me, nothing says 'Christmas' more than a hot parcel of pastry and spiced fruits. However, mid-way through December I realised that I hadn't eaten any at all this year (well, apart from leftovers in January). Something had to change!

Making your own mince pies leaves a lot of room for variation. Make your own pastry, your own mincemeat... leave out the raisins if you like, add a shot of brandy... I'd never made them before but I'm a definite convert. I made my own pastry (using a 'brown sugar' recipe from an old magazine) but used shop-bought mincemeat and added orange zest, apple, cranberries and some nuts to put my own twist on it.

Have you made mince pies before? What's your recipe like?

Mince Pies (makes 12) 
250g shop-bought shortcrust pastry 
175g plain flour
37g (ish) brown sugar
30g lard, diced
30g butter, diced
1 small egg yolk

1/2 411g jar of good quality mincemeat
1/2 apple, grated
handful dried cranberries
zest of one orange
25g macademia nuts, chopped

1. Make the pastry by mixing the flour and brown sugar together. Rub in the butter and lard until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and a few teaspoons of water until the mixture comes together. Kneed lightly with your hands until smooth, then roll into a ball, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for half an hour.

2. Heat the oven to 180 degrees (fan). Mix the mincemeat with the grated apple, orange zest, nuts and cranberries.

3. Take the pastry out of the fridge and roll out until it is the thickness of a £1 coin. Taking a round cutter, cut out 12 circles and place into a bun tin. Spoon about 1 teaspoon of mincemeat mixture into each round, being careful not to overfill the cases as the mincemeat will expand.

4. Use the pastry offcuts to cut out stars or hearts. Top the cases with these shapes, brush with milk and sprinkle with demerera sugar. Bake for 20 - 25 minutes until golden. Leave to cool slightly before eating.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Life Lately - November

I've been a little behind with posts recently, I'll admit it. Hopefully over the Christmas holidays I'll be able to get some good material prepared for you! 

Anyway, for now, here's  a little glimpse of what I got up to in November. 

... attended a cookery course and made crème brûlée!

... visited the Christmas market in Belfast and tried a yummy tagine. 

... watched the heart-warming Joyeux Noël - my new favourite Christmas film. A must see!

... bought a gigantic Spanish dictionary from Waterstones. (Oh, I do lead a fun life...)

... played in the orchestra for the school production of 'Evita' - a roaring success and a really great experience.

... drank lots of tea (peppermint, green, chai and Earl Grey) in an attempt to stay warm. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Christmas market trip

You've heard about the Christmas markets in Vienna, Bath and Graz. But have you heard about the Christmas market in Belfast? 

It's been a regular event for the past few years, and I always try to fit in a trip at some point during the Christmas season. This year I decided to go early, so one day after school my friend and I caught the train into Victoria Station. We walked over to the City Hall, trying not to walk into busy city businessmen on our way, and squeezed ourselves through the gates into the market. 

I'm going to be truthful here and admit that these photos were all taken at the market last year by my sister. I've recently had to change my phone due to an unfortunate accident involving a pavement (sob) and the camera's not quite as good as I'd hoped. (What should I expect from a £40 phone?) Anyway, whilst some of the stalls have changed, the vast majority of them remain the same. This year there is an abundance of food stalls, which is great if you want to try lots of different foods, but not so good if you've eaten packed lunch a few hours before! 

The best time to go is definitely at night. Whilst the market will be packed out, you will be able to admire the Christmas lights in all their glory as they glow against the dark sky. I think that the food tastes better in the evening, too, when you're tired and cold and hungry for something warm. 

I'll let the pictures do the rest of the talking! 

It's not all about the food. There are stalls filled with candles, soaps, jewellery, scarves... 

Treats for sweet lovers.

 And if you're looking for a little refuge from the cold... 

This French patissier has been in Belfast every year without fail. I always make sure I visit his stall! 

 Italian nougat in huuuuge chunks. 

Local chocolate company Fosters' came up trumps with some chocolatey treats. 

Have you ever been to a Christmas market? Where would you recommend? 

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Ready, Steady, Cook

I just wanted to write a little post to tell you about a cookery course that I took one Saturday in November. 

It was a birthday present from my family, and to be honest it was one of the best birthday presents I've ever had - even if I did have to wait patiently for two months before I 'received' it!

I picked the 'Effortless Entertaining' course at James Street South in Belfast. The main restaurant has recently been refurbished, and the cookery school is upstairs on the second floor. It's a small room, with a dining table at one end and the kitchen at the other. 

I was in a class of eight people, which was a nice number as it meant that the atmosphere wasn't too hectic. We sat down for tea and coffee and told the table who we were and talked about the type of things we liked to cook. As the day went on I realised that most of the people taking the course were really into their food and so it was lovely to find some foodies like me!

We cooked under the watchful eye of Chef Brian. Born and brought up in Northern Ireland, he moved to France when he was seventeen (my age, eek!) to learn how to cook. He's worked in many famous restaurants under well known chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Michel Roux Junior. He was obviously very talented and it was a treat to be in such close contact with a professional chef. 

Over the four hours we cooked three dishes: a starter, main and dessert. 

For starter we made a carrot and beetroot salad with balsamic dressing, topped with pan fried scallops. This was such a simple recipe yet it tasted fantastic. I'd never tried scallops before so I had been looking forward to tasting them. It's safe to say that they're now another option for me when I see them on restaurant menus!

For main course we cooked a rack of lamb with roasted vegetables and an aubergine 'caviar', which involved rubbing an aubergine with garlic, herb and olive oil and baking it in the oven until soft. We then scooped it out of the skin and mixed it with some tomatoes that we'd skinned earlier. This dish tasted divine and it really encouraged me to work on my meat prepping skills as I mainly stick to cooking chicken. 
I think Brian took pity on me as he decided to help me plate my main course after seeing the mess that was my starter! Still, it was fascinating to see how the plates are prepared. Those vegetables that look as if they've just been thrown onto the plate? Nope, they've been carefully layered up to create a beautiful 'organic' shape. 

Having eaten mainly vegetables up until now, it was time to make dessert. We'd seen the menu in advance and this was the dish I was the most excited about because I'd been intending to make it for years but had never gotten round to it. It involved some raspberries, custard, sugar and a blowtorch. 
Crème Brûlée, of course!

This was really fun to make and probably the most technically challenging part of the whole course. That said, it didn't seem too difficult because Brian was on hand to guide our every move. We also made little buttery sable biscuits to eat with the brûlée. I've actually made this since the course, with a blowtorch I conveniently received for my birthday a few years ago. (Don't judge. It's a beautiful piece of kit - compact and easy to hold but it creates some fantastic results.) 

We were able to sit down and eat our dishes after we'd cooked them and our little group all oohed and aahed at the flavour combinations. I came away from the school clutching a classy black apron and numerous take away trays of leftover vegetables and biscuits. 

It really was a magical experience and I would highly recommend it. It's a little bit different from your average day out and you'll learn some new skills as well as increase your confidence in the kitchen. There's a course for everyone, too - curries to fish to desserts to Christmas food - so you've no excuse!

Find the courses here, or alternatively go to their restaurant for an evening out. 

Friday, 14 November 2014

Fruity Soda Bread

I have been a really terrible blogger. I tell you that CIC is a food blog, yet how much food has appeared on it recently? Next to none. 

I decided that it was time for change, so I bought some Smarties and prepared to make rainbow cookies for eating warm with milk. 

... Until I realised that I didn't have enough butter! (Isn't that just the most disheartening thing?)

After some quick thinking I came up with this fruity soda bread, inspired by a loaf I had at a cottage near Coleraine. It's the perfect bread recipe as it doesn't require any proving at all, yet it's a bit more special than your average loaf. I made it on Sunday morning and let it bake while I got ready for church, then took it out of the oven and left it to cool while I was away. You can also bake it in a rectangular tin if that's more your thing, though I like the rustic appearance of baking it in a round. 

It's a good solid loaf. There's a hint of bitterness from the bicarb which contrasts with the juicy sultanas and cranberries, and it's given a refreshing twist with a little bit of orange. Eat warm (or toasted) with butter and a milky cup of tea. 

Fruity Soda Bread
450g plain flour
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp salt
2tsp caster sugar
25g butter
About 350ml buttermilk or ordinary milk soured with some lemon juice
50g cranberries
50g sultanas
50g dried apricots,  chopped
Zest of 1 orange or 1/2 tsp of orange extract
1. Heat the oven to 220 / 200 Fan. Lightly flour a mediumm sized baking tray.
2. Sift the flour , bicarb and salt together into a bowl. Stir in the sugar. Cut the butter up into small pieces and rub in until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs.
2. Stir in the dried fruits and orange extract. Slowly add the buttermilk and combine until the mixture forms a wet dough.
3. Flour hands and a work surface. Tip the dough onto a work surface and lightly knead three or four times, then shape into a round.
4. Place on the baking tray, score an X across the top and sprinkle with flour. Bake for 35 minutes, until golden brown and it makes a hollow sound when tapped on the bottom. Cool on a wire rack before eating.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Autumn Reads

I thought I'd do a little round up of what I've been reading recently, just to share my thoughts with you! I've tried to make time for a chapter of a book every night; I find that it relaxes me before dropping off to sleep. However much I may love late-night Pinterest sessions, I do find that it takes me longer to get to sleep so I've tried to make my bedroom a technology free zone. It's hard but I can feel the benefits!

Anyway, let's get down to the books! 

Photo from here.

A Clash of Ice and Kings, by George R.R Martin. 
(I suppose I should warn you that GoT is going to be on pretty much every book list of mine for a while. #sorrynotsorry)
Seriously, though, these books are great. I wrote a longer review of the first book (here) but the second was just as good. Some of you may not be keen on fantasy but I love it and it provides the perfect opportunity for me to escape from the real world for a while!

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.
You've probably heard of this book by now and I'll admit that the only reason I bought it was because there was so much hype about it. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this Pulitzer Prize-winning book (it got the award for a reason!).  The narrative is sweet and innocent, and it's lovely to see the relationships between the characters develop. I haven't finished it yet but I am going to continue on. 

The Complaints, by Ian Rankin. 
I read this book whilst I was in France because I needed a paperback that wasn't too heavy to carry around in my hand luggage! I hadn't read anything of Ian Rankin's before, but for a girl who does like a good murder mystery this book ticked all the boxes. It was full of action and intrigue, with touches of humour and the occasional moment of peace to get to know the main character. The only criticism I have is that I found the actual plot slightly difficult to get hold of; I felt as if it ended quite quickly and I didn't quite understand how it had resolved! Still, maybe that's down to my teenage mind - maybe a later read will reveal a bit more. 

Longbourn, by Jo Baker.
I'd wanted to buy this book ever since reading about it in a magazine a few months ago. I love Jane Austen so I was excited to read this book, which is about the servants in Pride and Prejudice. It's well written and easy to read, and I found that I really enjoyed learning a bit more about what might have been happening in the Bennet household. It certainly made me look at the girls in a new light! It didn't take me very long to read and I'd recommend it for a little escapism. 

I love discovering new blogs.  I've definitely been influenced by blogs in the past (though not always in a good way!), but here are a few new discoveries of mine.

I Believe In Miracles
This is a blog written by my best friend, Erin. - No, this isn't just a promotion! - Erin has struggled recently, battling diabetes, major spinal surgery and depression. She's been hospitalised twice but is now back at home, trying to get on with her A-levels and experiencing some of the exciting opportunities the world has to offer. I find her perspectives on anxiety and individuality truly moving, and it's helped me to think more about people suffering from depression. It's something that affects many people we know, and it's so important that we understand how they're feeling and why they may be feeling that way so that we can help them. 
I'll let her do the rest of the talking!

Also a blog with a personal link. It's written by my friend's sister Beth, and it's just such a lovely blog, filled with her gorgeous photographs and little thoughts. (Also, I'm in love with her blog header!)

The Tea Drinking English Rose
I've been following Charlotte for a while now, but recently I've found myself going back to her blog more and more. She has such a unique style; she's honest and isn't afraid to tell you if she's had a bad week. I love reading what she's been up to and her blog always feels like an oasis of calm amongst other bloggers who are busy flying to Paris or Morocco or taking long weekends abroad. Don't get me wrong - I love reading about exotic travels, but sometimes it's nice to read about a blogger who seems a little more 'real'. 

Do you have any reading suggestions? 

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Be prepared.

I'm going to be really revolutionary here, and mention something I've never talked about this early before on CIC. 

I think you might know what it is. 

If not, I'll give you a bit of help. It's spelt C - H - R - I - S - T - M -

- Oh, you've got it now! 

Anyway, I was reading Charlotte's lovely little blog earlier this week and she really inspired me to make some of my own gifts this year. I've done it occasionally in the past, but last year there was a bit of a disaster with fudge.... I made three batches, and it still didn't turn out how I wanted it to! 

So, my Christmas gifts last year weren't great. 

I also have a slight problem in that most of my friends don't really want a pot of spiced plum jam, or a  jar of chutney. I would have no problem with jam at all - but then I'm not your average teenager! 

I've been trawling Pinterest for inexpensive homemade gift ideas, and here are a few that I've come up with. If you have any more suggestions or recommendations please let me know  - I would really love to hear them. 

The 'cake in a mug' concept has been rolling around the Internet for ages, but it looks like such a great idea. All that's needed is a quick trip to the pound shop for a few plain mugs and it's sorted! I may need to work on my handwriting a bit, though... 

Ever since reading about this last year, I have wanted to make my own lipgloss. I know that no handbag of mine is ever complete without some form of lip nourishment, and I'm sure many of you would agree with me! 

Continuing on with the theme of homemade beauty... how about a homemade body scrub

Button bookmarks, for the bookworm in your life. Perfect for all of those spare buttons! 

How cute are these hand warmers? Small and perfect for carrying in your pocket on the way to school. 

Teacup candles are very popular, but I love this spin on them

Alternatively I could skip making gifts altogether and just buy them from Etsy. It depends on how much time (and money) I have. I'll keep you posted!