Wednesday 21 December 2016

Adventures in Marshmallow Making - AKA What Not To Do

A few years ago whilst having Sunday lunch at a pub my husband enjoyed a dessert of chocolate fondant topped with homemade marshmallow.  Pretty much ever since then he's been asking me to make marshmallow for him and as quick off the mark as ever I have finally got around to giving it a go.

I'm not going to keep you in suspense here though; things did not turn out well.  My experience is a classic example of why you should always read a recipe through right to the end before you start doing anything else.  Learn from my mistake kids - I really ought to learn to follow my own advice.

Things started well enough with some egg white whisking and some sugar syrup boiling.  Simultaneously!  Eyes on the sugar syrup and a hand mixer taking care of the egg whizzing.  I was pondering at this point that I still don't have a stand mixer after all these years of baking and wondering if I'll ever give in and get one.  For most of the cakes, brownies and biscuits that I make I've never really felt the need but as soon as you start working with meringue and other eggy based recipes freestanding mixers start to make more sense as you can be whizzing away for a fair amount of time.  If you're trying to boil sugar syrup to hard crack at the same time then you're just asking for trouble.  Obviously I like trouble.

Anyhoo, where were we?

Ah yes.  Marshmallows.  So once your sugar syrup reaches hard crack (use a sugar thermometer, I think it's essential in this recipe, you can't guess) the next step is to pour your gelatin mixture into it.  The first alarm bell started ringing about now.  I'd already added my gelatin powder to some water as instructed but I was surprised just how thick it was.  The use of the word 'pour' definitely wasn't going to apply to my gelatin.  It looked scarily like wallpaper paste in fact and had a lot of lumps in it that just wouldn't go no matter how vigorously I stirred it.

I decided to persevere thinking that maybe the lumps would sort themselves out when there was more liquid from the sugar syrup.  I added, I stirred, I stirred a lot more and.....erm..... well take a look.

Yeah, that's not nice is it.  It was at this point that I took a look through the recipe again trying to work out where things had gone wrong.  And it was now that I noticed the comment at the end - if you're using vegetarian gelatin be sure to follow the instructions on the packet.  Bugger.

It's a long time since I used gelatin and I've never used the vegetarian version before.  The only reason I did this time was because the recipe called for powdered gelatin.  The only powdered one available in my usual branch of Sainsburys was their own brand vegetarian one.  I naively assumed this would do the same job.

On inspecting the box it sounded like one packet of gelatin would be enough for setting 1 litre of liquid.  I'd used four packets and my total liquid was less than that!  No wonder it looked so awful.  The only way forward seemed to be to sieve the mixture which would get rid of the lumps and reduce the gelatin at the same time.  I did this and finished off the making stage then poured my marshmallow into my prepared tin.

It looked awesome and on scraping the bowl I found it tasted awesome too so I was feeling a bit better.  I estimated that if I'd filtered out half the gelatin in the form of lumps then I only had double the amount of the recommended gelatin so perhaps it would be OK.

Now here's the really fucked up part.  MY MARSHMALLOW HAS NOT SET!!!!

Whichever way you look at this, that is absolutely ridiculous.  All through making this I was totally on board with the fact that I'd messed up and that I could learn from it for next time.  But you know what I've really learned after a quick Google about using gelatin in general and reading a review of Sainsbury's vegetarian gelatin?  This is a shit product and I'm not the only one who had massive lumps when attempting to use it.

Marshmallows will be attempted again because the large bowl of fluff that I've made does taste really good.  It's just not very transportable.  Next time though I'm all about Dr Oetker and Sainsbury's can bugger right off.

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Christmas Baking Ideas to Impress

At this time of year most of us are thoroughly enjoying / getting totally stressed out by planning for Christmas and getting together with friends and family.  The bakers amongst us may well be planning something special to wow people with and those that don't normally bake might be tempted to have a go during the season of permissible overindulgence.

I'm constantly stumbling across new ideas that I'd like to try and I thought it would be nice to collate some of them in one place.  Hopefully it will also show some of you things you haven't seen before that are fun and tempting to make.

There's a real mixture of difficulty so if you're looking for inspiration there should be something to suit your skill and ambition.  If you have made any of these or do so in the future please share your thoughts in the comments so we can all admire your results.

Britt Whyatt's Rice Krispie Christmas Puddings

The video of how to make these adorable Christmas puddings has been all over social media this year and it's easy to see why they're so popular.  One of the easier bakes, they're no less impressive for it, and definitely one where you can get the kids involved if you like.

You can either make your own holly leaves or buy them ready done so this really is a straightforward make.  They'll also keep really well so you can have a tin of these at the ready for any visitors popping in.

Normal Kitchen verdict: easy but effective - ideal for those who are short of time

Heston Blumenthal's Christmas Cookie Tree

This edible tree would surely make a wonderful centrepiece on any Christmas table.  The star stencil is provided for you to print so that you can easily make the right sizes for all the different layers, and the only limit on decoration would be your own imagination.

The comments seem to indicate the recipe makes too much biscuit dough so you could either change the quantities or use the leftovers for extra biscuits.  It would also be extremely easy to swap out the recipe for a favourite one of your own if you prefer.  Just make sure your biscuits are rigid enough to hold their shape once assembled or your tree could end up being rather sad and droopy.

Normal Kitchen verdict: a stunning centrepiece that you can achieve at home

Tea Cake and Create's Bauble Biscuits

Packs of cookie cutters in festive shapes are easy to pick up in the supermarket so grab a selection for these gorgeous marbled cookies.  Whilst these aren't that difficult at first glance I can't help but think that it's the meticulous and tidy execution that Marina has achieved that make them look so attractive.

You could make all sorts of flavours for these biscuits and icing and even fit them into your festive colour scheme.

Normal Kitchen verdict: Take your time and use a steady hand for maximum impact

Santa Coming Down the Chimney Cupcakes

Just when you think it's all about cookies and biscuits these chimney cupcakes come along and take things in a different direction.  Use whichever chocolate cake or brownie recipe you prefer and bake these directly in the tin without using paper cases for smooth sides.

Whilst strawberries are totally out of season here in the Northern hemisphere they really do add a lovely splash of colour to these gorgeous cakes and frankly after all that chocolate you may well be glad of a touch of fruity refreshment!

Normal Kitchen verdict: Perfect for your party table

Mary Berry's Gingerbread House

Christmas baking simply wouldn't be the same without a good dose of Mary Berry and this gingerbread house is the perfect example of festive kitchen goals for me.  Those stained 'glass' windows, that snowy roof, the inviting open door.  Sigh.

A printable template is provided and if you've ever watched the Bake Off Masterclass programs you'll have seen Queen Mary making this and handing out plenty of tips for success.

Normal Kitchen verdict: Christmas personified

Lauren Caris's Rice Krispie Christmas Trees

Another recipe using rice krispies these trees would be ideal for giving kids a chance to show off their individuality and go wild with edible decorations.  That said I do think Lauren's version looks particularly elegant and grown up.

A few of these in different heights would be a lovely tabletop forest so they could double up as decorations as well as festive snacks!  If you're feeling especially inspired why not make these to go around your gingerbread house?

Normal Kitchen verdict: Create a forest full!

Beck's Bakes Skiing Gingerbread Men

Whilst Beck's Bakes Facebook page doesn't provide you with instructions for these skiing gingerbread men it would be super easy to find a great recipe and take inspiration from her fabulous creations.

Those candy cane skis are genius and for extra impact you can create a display with a white sheet.  Team them with rice krispie trees and pretend you're in Whistler.

Normal Kitchen verdict: Perfect for all ages

Moje Wypieki's Cranberry Macarons

More ambitious or experienced bakers might be tempted by these supremely festive macarons.  A little decoration transforms a brilliant red cranberry macaron into an adorable Santa outfit - surely this is what patisserie perfection looks like.

For an extra challenge the recipe itself is in Polish but these little delights were far too incredible to not include and there's always Google Translate.  If you've never tried macarons before or would like some extra tips (in English ha ha) I can't recommend Stella Parks at the Brave Tart enough.  I had real success following her tips and recipes so you can always take Moje Wypieki's wonderful idea and combine with the Brave Tart's recipes to give these a go.

Normal Kitchen verdict: A Christmas challenge for those who want to take things to the next level

Melted Snowman Cookies

There are lots of versions of these cute biscuits all over the internet but I'm a particular fan of the look of these Lakeland ones.  Their meltiness is just so sweet and the faces on the snowmen are adorable.

Get the kids involved and go colourful and bright for extra Christmas cheer.

Normal Kitchen verdict: Ideal for children's get togethers

Monday 31 October 2016

Drip Cakes - Versions 1, 2 and 3

You guys, I am totally obsessed with drip cakes at the moment.  One of my favourite things to do is avidly watch cake decorating videos on Instagram and I cannot get enough of watching drip cakes get put together.

If you haven't come across a drip cake just yet (they're getting more common but I think they're not everywhere just yet, except perhaps in Australia) then prepare to get gushing.  In my opinion the best drip cakes are tall, flamboyant, have a drip in a contrast to the icing and are unashamedly OTT.

Friday 8 January 2016

I Know What You Need - ANOTHER New Craft, Yeah!

It's a funny thing, motivation.  Some people seem to have no issue conjuring up tons of it and driving themselves to new achievements on a regular basis.  For me it's always been something I've struggled with.  At school I wanted to achieve decent grades (of course!) but finding the motivation to sit down and study was like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.  Nowadays I really like the idea of being able to run 5k without stopping (I am far from a natural runner) and I've read about the couch potato to 5k program numerous times.  No action on it though.

Knitting is something I've had no desire to learn, no motivation to do and most certainly no action to achieve.  My Mum knits and my Grandma used to knit for a living, working for a designer creating beautiful, intricate pieces that would then most often be beaded by someone else and sold for huge sums of money.  If knitting is in the genes then there's a good chance I'm predisposed for it!  But I sew, I make cards, I paper cut and of course I bake.  I don't need or want more hobbies right now.

I'm sure you know there's a but!  And I'm getting to it in my usual long winded way.  About a year ago I came across an amazing looking infinity scarf and I wanted it soooo bad.  Trouble was, I couldn't buy it, it was a knitting pattern and I'd have to make it.  I can't for the life of me remember how I stumbled on this.  Perhaps I was searching for one to buy and this popped up, I really don't know.

Anyway the thing was all of a sudden I found myself really motivated to knit it.  So I learned!  Thanks You Tube and my Mum!  I made the scarf in only two weeks and buoyed by the success of it started looking around for other things that were similarly motivational.  I found another scarf pattern this time in a feather and fan design, thought it was stunning and elegant and got the stuff together to make it.

Look at the pretty waves!
This one took quite a bit longer but I did get there in the end and proudly showed it off to anyone that would listen.  My friend Sandra initially took the piss out of it for being relatively short (scarves are looooooong to knit!) but then she tried it on and all of a sudden she's cajoling me into making one for her too!  Well that took a while (man I am sloooooow) but now it's finally finished as well so I've two feather and fan scarves to show you.

This is one of those lovely items that looks far more complicated to make than it actually is and I would totally recommend it to a beginner knitter.  You have to knit, purl, knit two together and do yarn over which let's face it isn't actually a stitch, it's just putting yarn in position.  Yes, that's all you need to create this beautiful effect!

The wavy edge happens automatically out of the straight rows you knit
In case you're wondering why there are no photos of the infinity scarf - well it's in knitting hospital (at my Mum's).  I stupidly left it on the sofa one day and while I was out of the room it was accosted by my dog.  She really loves a good chew!  Anyway Mum is seeing if it can be saved as clearly my skills only extend as far as knitting rather basic things, not fixing anything with issues.

Pattern - Feather and fan scarf
Yarn - Caron Simply Soft in Passion and Plum Wine.  1 ball per scarf.

Plum Wine version for Sandra
Passion version for me

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Festive Shortbread - A Wonderful Homemade Gift

At Christmas whilst browsing the seasonal aisle of the supermarket I am always looking for excuses to buy the beautiful tins of festive shortbread.  I adore shortbread but for some reason I seem to forget this for about 11 months of the year, then go into a shortbread frenzy come Christmas.  Another thing I seem to easily forget is just how easy shortbread is to make and really if I'm going to eat it I ought to make the effort to bake it myself.

Shop bought shortbread is absolutely delicious, but homemade is in a completely different league.  If you've never made it yourself this is an ideal place to dip a toe in to home baking and if you can bear to part with it you can turn it into a lovely gift.  I put a slightly festive spin on my shortbread by pressing a Christmas tree into each biscuit using a sugarcraft cutter and I'm so happy with how it came out.

To get a similar effect roll your shortbread dough out to about 5mm thickness and use a large scone cutter to get your biscuits cut out.  Press a festive shape into the top of each biscuit before transferring the biscuits to a baking tray and popping them in the oven.  They won't spread too much so the imprint remains quite strong and distinct.  If you haven't got a suitable sugarcraft cutter just use a knife to draw a shape.  Totally unique that way and it gives you free reign on the design!

If you decide to make some festive shortbread please do share your pictures with me on twitter.  I'd love to see them.  Normal Kitchen on Twitter

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Soda Bread With Cheese and Balsamic Onions

If my twitter feed is anything to go by roughly half the country could be found baking bread in the days immediately following the broadcast of week 3 of the Great British Bake Off.  Now in our house there is a pretty clear delineation between the things I am responsible for making – cakes, biscuits, chilli, the bed – and the things Mr Normal Kitchen takes charge of – seafood risotto, cottage pie and bread.

I’ve made bread several times in the past but since meeting Mr NK this has definitely become something I leave in his domain.  He loves doing it and has gradually perfected his technique with his usual grim, unswaying determination.  I sort of miss making it a bit though because I’d like to grow my skills here in the same way as any other baking I do.  After watching Bake Off this week I was again reminded that I have bread experimentation bursting to get out so I decided I was just going to do it.  Mr NK was just going to have to deal with it!

I’ve never made a soda bread before and this seemed a great place to start.  It’s quick, I already have all the ingredients ready to go, it’s new to me AND….. Mr NK has never made one!  I pondered for a bit on what flavours to add and decided on one of my favourite combinations – balsamic onions and cheese.  This was loosely what Alvin did, although with a different cheese (I just used cheddar as there’s always some in the fridge) and without the prosciutto.  His got high praise from the big scary bear (Paul Hollywood) so I decided to follow his recipe.

 The recipe comes together very quickly, especially once you’ve got the balsamic onions prep out of the way.  I also made my own buttermilk with milk and lemon juice as I haven’t found it very easy to source in the past and this substitute seems to work perfectly well.

I was pretty speedy adding the buttermilk as the dough seemed quite dry and I should have been a little more patient here.  I found bringing it together with a knife and with my hands gave very different results in terms of how things would combine and therefore the texture of the dough.  I recommend just getting stuck in with your hands and making a decision on adding the final bit of liquid after this.  I didn’t wait and got a very, very sticky dough.  A bit of flour on the work surface made it ok to handle but I’m pretty sure it was slightly wetter than it should have been.

That said, it came out beautifully so maybe this was just right!  We started slicing into it when it was still pretty warm from the oven and ate it soaked in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  It was heavenly.  The flavours were very subtle in mine though so I’d definitely add more next time.  Probably some garlic and perhaps fresh basil.  A stronger cheese like Alvin’s.  Oooh the options are so motivating.

The texture of the bread was wonderful.  Very moist and I did actually wonder briefly if it was underbaked.  I think this was just the effect of the cheese as the dough appeared to be cooked through and I got that nice hollow sound when I knock knocked on the bottom of the loaf.  Next time I need to make sure that when I slash the top of the loaf I cut deeper and down the sides.  This will help ensure it’s completely baked in the middle and give it more space to expand.  Mine is fine but there’s room for improvement here.

I’d call my first foray into soda bread a success and definitely something I plan to do again soon.  Hurray for finally baking bread J

Tuesday 21 April 2015

The 'Birthday' Top - Liberty Version of New Look 6891

Time for some more sewing shenanigans today.  I've just finished another (massive!) project that I'm dying to share with you but I don't have any photos yet so you'll have to make do with another one from the archives.  Right after I finished my first New Look 6891 I knew that I wanted to make another.  I was so pleased with how much more polished it looked than my skirt but knew that there was still much to improve on and I felt that using the same pattern again would help me focus on my finish rather than getting to grips with a new pattern.

This lawn does like to have a good crease

I also dreamt of making something in a more luxurious fabric and had been eying up pretty much all of the Liberty range.  I tend to be a fairly cautious person so the idea of using such an expensive fabric on a garment I hadn’t made before wouldn’t sit naturally with me.  Now I felt I could give it a whirl with my floaty New Look top.  So on my birthday last year, sulking a little bit because I was away with work, I took myself off to Liberty after work and spent a happy hour choosing between all the gorgeous fabrics.

Having finally settled on the stunning Kaylie Sunshine tana lawn I headed home with my precious 2m beautifully wrapped and nestling in the signature purple Liberty bag.  (You can buy Liberty fabric elsewhere for less money but sometimes you just want that full experience of such an incredible shop and to touch all those beautiful rolls of fabric.  Plus it was my BIRTHDAY!  And no one to share it with, sob.  HA!)

I do like the way this fabric gathers

I made a few changes to my previous version, omitting the tie at the neck but keeping the front as a single piece without the keyhole.  The self binding just goes all the way around.  I figured this fabric was plenty girly enough for me without adding a bow as well.  I’m not into twee styles and this would have been crossing a line for me!  I used the same sleeves (the pattern has several options) despite my dislike of them in the first version; none of the others were very appealing and I hoped that with this lighter fabric they would drape better.

The armhole gathers are much better than my last version

Well they did gather a little better but they still don’t drape the way I’d like and I have to admit that the more I have worn this top the more I have grown to find them really offensive.  They stick out like some sort of superhero shoulder pads and seem to have a ridiculous amount of bulk when worn under a cardigan.  I have to fold the damn things inside the sleeve!  I also find the length a bit weird and out of balance with the poof.  I have lived with them up until now because I really haven’t had enough experience to know how to alter them but as I’m learning more I have my beady eye on the stupid puffy things and one day they are getting REPLACED.  I love this top and I want to really enjoy wearing it, the only sticking point is the sleeves.  I’ve got loads of fabric left over so I plan to rip these ones off and put on something not gathered, not puffy and way more classy.


Otherwise this wasn’t a complicated make and I did the same French side seams as before and also managed to finish the back and shoulder seams with some seam binding.  We’re moving forwards people!  Admittedly I didn’t do a great job of it, especially at the end of the seams but whatever, it’s better than ignoring the need to finish seams altogether :D

I could have done a better job with the seam binding French seams at the side and a simple turned hem

For the armholes I zig zagged the edges as I wasn’t clear on the best way to manage all that gathered fabric.  I can give this a better go when I replace the sleeves though.

I wore this top quite a bit in the warmer weather last summer.  It’s incredibly cool and light and I find it quite easy to pair with other things in my wardrobe.  I have no plans to use this pattern again in the near future though as, much as I like my completed makes, I feel like there are better things out there for me to try and turn into a TNT.  I haven’t mastered the balance between getting enough room in the bust and bringing things back in at the waist, the neckline is a smidge lower than I would like and omg those sleeves.  (Did I mention I hate the sleeves?)

Overall though very happy and ready for my next challenge :)

Tuesday 7 April 2015

Mr Normal Kitchen's Ultimate Chocolate Brownies

Mr Normal Kitchen is a chocoholic of the first order.  In fact I would go so far as to say that I have never met anyone with quite such an obsession.  He's also a very big fan of salted caramel and hazelnuts and pondering a different baked treat I could make I decided to concoct something that incorporated all of his favourite sweet things.  Oh yes I went there.  Meet salted caramel hazelnut chocolate brownies.

I've tried lots of subtly different ways of making brownies over the years but there's one recipe that stands head and shoulders above the rest.  It gives the perfect balance between the slightly crusty top and the gooey inner that you should be aiming for.  Reliably, every time.  Armed with this, a bag of hazelnuts and the unbeatable Nigella Lawson recipe for salted caramel sauce I made a brownie that has been pronounced the best thing I have ever made for my lovely husband.  It's hard to convey what high praise this is.  He is not an easy man to please.

If you're not a nutter you could leave the hazelnuts out and still get an awesome result.  Alternatively I think they'd be great with macadamia nuts instead.  Go wild and do let me know if you try them.

salted caramel hazelnut chocolate brownies Ingredients:

Chocolate brownies
3 1/2oz unsalted butter
6oz caster sugar
2 3/4oz dark muscovado sugar
4 1/2oz dark chocolate
1 tablespoon golden syrup
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 1/2oz plain flour
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Salted caramel sauce
3oz unsalted butter
2oz soft light brown sugar
2oz caster sugar
2oz golden syrup
125ml double cream
1 teaspoon fleur de sel or sea salt flakes if you can't find it

1 1/2oz hazelnuts

salted caramel hazelnut chocolate brownies1. For the salted caramel sauce melt the butter, sugars and syrup in a medium pan over a medium heat.  Let this simmer for 3 minutes swirling the mixture around from time to time.

2. Add the cream and the fleur de sel (you may prefer to use only half, up to you) and swirl it all around again.  Stir and cook for another minute then remove from the heat and set aside.

3. Now to make the brownies.  Lightly grease and line a 20cm square brownie tin.  (The lining makes it so easy to lift the brownies out for cutting so I advise not to skimp on this element.)

4. Put the butter, sugars, dark chocolate and golden syrup in a large pan and melt gently over a low heat, stirring regularly until all of the ingredients are combined and the sugar grains have melted.  The mixture should be smooth.  Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

5. In a large glass bowl beat together the eggs with the vanilla extract (I use my homemade version, naturally).  Add the cooled chocolate mixture and stir vigorously until everything is combined.

6. Add the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder to the chocolate mixture and fold in gently until you have a smooth, thick mixture.

7. If your hazelnuts are whole then now is the time to take something heavy to them.  Put the hazelnuts in a sandwich bag (one of those slide to seal ones is ideal) and give them a good whack to break them up.  On this occasion I used a cocktail muddler :)  Now add them to your brownie mixture and give it all a good stir.

8. Spoon 1/3 of your brownie mixture into the bottom of your brownie tin and spread it around.  Add a 1/4 of your salted caramel sauce, drizzling it over the brownie and giving it a swirl around if you fancy.

9.  Add another 1/3 of the brownie mixture followed by a 1/4 of the salted caramel, and repeat again so all your brownie mixture is used.  The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that you have some sauce left.  Whoo hoo, here's your cooks perks!  You really don't need all of the salted caramel for this recipe so use the leftovers to drizzle over ice cream, dip churros in or just eat it with a spoon.  No judgement here.

10. Back to your brownies!  They're ready to bake now so put them in a pre-heated oven at 180°C fan for 25 - 30 minutes.  When they're done the edges will start to come away from your baking paper lining and they'll be crusty on top with a gorgeous gooey middle.  Be really careful not to touch the caramel when you get them out, it will be bubbling and burn.

11. Leave to cool completely in the tin before cutting into 16 pieces.  Enjoy with no guilt because you and they are awesome.