Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Saturday Snacking at Swirly Whirlys

At the weekend the hubby and I managed to get a very rare entire day together and we spent it visiting various small Cheshire towns including taking in the Tarporley Country Market.  We met some lovely traders who all produce their goods locally and sampled amazing cheeses by Mrs Bourne's Cheshire Cheese as well as some unique golden brie from Tiresford Guernsey Gold.

After a good look round the beautiful town we moved on to Nantwich where our stomachs led us to seek out a cafe for a mid afternoon snack.  There are many tea rooms in Nantwich, both independents and well known chains but one in particular caught our eye.  Swirly Whirlys Coffee Shop and Creperie has an inviting exterior and with the magic word 'crepe' calling us over we didn't need asking twice.  Inside turned out to be even nicer with a lovely quirky feel, clean, bright decoration, gifts and homewares scattered around for sale and (most brilliantly of all) copies of the Beano comic placed under the glass table tops.

Eating here turned out to be a brilliant decision as not only is this cafe run for an exceptionally good cause with proceeds going to St Luke's Hospice, there's no compromise on the quality of the food and drink on offer either.  As we arrived a little late in the day they were all out of scones so I couldn't have the chosen cream tea but the carrot cake I opted for instead was absolutely delicious.  It was moist and crumbly with just the right amount of icing and the wedge was a good size, not stingy and not overwhelming.

Hubby is a huge fan of crepes and chose one with banana, toffee sauce and clotted cream on the side.  He was very impressed with the size of it.  So often cafes seem to get your hopes up with their descriptions of large crepes loaded with toppings then let you down with something weedy and stingy but this definitely wasn't the case here.  The large crepe was folded with banana inside and extra on the side, a good dollop of delicious clotted cream and plenty of sauce on top.  Happy hubby.

We shared a large pot of tea served in a proper teapot and with proper cups and saucers.  Service was with a smile and everyone was warm and friendly so you really do get the impression that they're making a lot of effort here.  The people who work here care about what they're doing and the atmosphere is great.  Given the charitable nature of this coffee shop I think customers come in ready to be pleased too and for me it all works really well.

Upstairs there are many more gifts and trinkets for sale, both new and nearly new, but we didn't manage to venture up there this time.  I can see me visiting Swirly Whirlys many times in the future so next time I will make a point of going upstairs and I'll also try to take some photos to show you just how gorgeous it all is.  In the meantime if you're ever in the area I highly recommend you check it out for yourself.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Vanilla Ice Cream - Michel Roux Desserts Challenge Recipes 1 and 2

For my very first recipe in my personal challenge to bake my way through the Michel Roux Desserts cookbook I randomly selected vanilla ice cream.  I've never made ice cream before and there was no particular reason for starting here other than I had some egg yolks that had been separated from their whites and some double cream in the fridge, both of which needed a good home.  Happily making the ice cream meant ticking two recipes off in one as you start by making crème anglaise, another first for me.  Ready?  Off we go.

milk sugar vanilla pod
I began by placing my milk, sugar and vanilla pod in a pan on a medium heat to slowly bring it to the boil.  For the umpteenth time I dreamed of a nice, flexible gas hob instead of the cruddy electric one I'm stuck with in this flat.  I already boiled a pan of milk over last week and didn't fancy a repeat.  With one mistrustful eye on my pan of milk mixture I began to work on my eggs.

I put the yolks in a large glass bowl with the rest of the sugar and began to whisk by hand.  This in itself is a novelty as I almost exclusively use a handheld mixer but I wanted it to be authentic and all the proper chefs use a metal whisk*

*in my head they do, whether this is true or not I don't know

eggs sugar whisking
The recipe says to whisk until the mixture goes pale and has a ribbon like consistency.  I was really pleased when it got noticeably paler and kept going, swapping hands occasionally to give my underused arm muscles a rest.  See baking properly makes you fit as well!  I kept lifting the whisk out to see if the eggs were looking ribbon like yet and couldn't make my mind up but as my milk wasn't boiling yet I kept going a bit longer.

egg ribbons

Eventually I felt happy that I had ribbons and also that the eggs had gone a little paler again and turned my attention back to the milk.  It wasn't boiling yet so I daringly turned the heat up a notch and stirred it constantly to distribute the heat evenly and make sure it wouldn't suddenly boil.  It started to bubble very gently at the edges and the vanilla seeds had broken free of the pod giving that lovely speckly appearance that only real vanilla produces.  Heaven already.

milk sugar vanilla
When it was on the cusp of proper boiling I whipped the pan off the hob and poured the milk mixture into the eggs, whisking constantly.  I made sure it was all well combined with the whisk and then returned it to the pan.  In the meantime I'd turned the heat on the hob down to low and now I continued to cook my crème anglaise, stirring it all the time with a wooden spoon and making sure that it didn't boil.

The recipe said to do this until the crème anglaise thickened a little but didn't give an indication of how long this would take.  I felt that my crème anglaise had thickened a bit pretty much immediately but I was sure it was supposed to be cooked longer than this and become a bit thicker still so I kept going.  After about 6 or 7 minutes I thought it was done so I removed it from the heat and poured it into a glass bowl to cool.  I placed this bowl in another bowl with ice in it to speed up the cooling process and stirred it periodically as instructed to stop a skin from forming.  By this point my kitchen smelt like a little corner of heaven.  Is there anything more divine than the aroma of vanilla?  It's a good job I didn't have a crumble or pie anywhere near or we might have got no further and crème anglaise would have simply disappeared as it was.

cooling creme anglaise

Once the crème anglaise was cool I removed the vanilla pod, added the double cream and stirred it well through.  The recipe calls for an ice cream maker but I don't own one so I had to resort to the freezing and whisking method.  I put the mixture in a plastic tub and froze it for half an hour before whisking it with a fork.  I repeated this after another hour and then again after a further hour before leaving it for a final proper freeze overnight.

vanilla ice cream

Each time I whisked the ice cream I took great pleasure in licking the fork afterwards (don't worry I used a clean one each time) getting the tiniest taster of the amazing flavour I had managed to create.  I really was so impressed at the succulent richness of the ice cream and it was obvious that the high quality vanilla pod I used was shining through in all its glory.  Even before it was frozen I was planning dinner parties in my head where I could show off my amazing home made ice cream and receive the wondrous adulation of my most food critical friends.  Yes, yes I know.  Get over yourself Amy, you're only following someone else's recipe, the credit really belongs to Michel Roux.

frozen vanilla ice cream

So what of the finished product?  Well it is BEAUTIFUL.  This ice cream is rich and decadent - the sort where you only want one or two scoops and you savour it slowly, enjoying the smooth, creamy texture and the deep, rich flavour.  To throw large quantities down your throat in a rush would be insulting to the quality and depth of it, it deserves to be appreciated fully.  It's important to use a really good vanilla pod for this and not just an extract or essence.  The flavour would be lacking and a bit of a waste of your efforts considering it does take quite some time to make.  It's been said time and time again in baking that it's important to use high quality ingredients and this is even more true when there are so few of them.

homemade vanilla ice cream
I think it would be fair to say that the texture is likely to be better using an ice cream maker instead of freezing and whisking repeatedly.  Now that I have had such encouraging results from my first attempt my head is full of ice cream ideas and I would definitely consider buying a proper maker when I have more storage space.  It simply isn't possible right now.  I won't let this stop me in the meantime though, the alternative method is certainly good enough to get delectable results and I'm absolutely delighted with my first two recipes of the challenge.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

A Personal Challenge - Baking My Way Through An Entire Book

choux pastry caramel
When the amount of time available for baking is limited by a full time job, a long commute and the everyday tasks of running a house (and a husband!) it can sometimes feel that I end up making the same things over and over.  Delicious they may be but it's hardly developing me into a better baker or expanding my repertoire.  In the past when I've had more free time I have definitely been more experimental and I've been thinking of ways I can push this a bit more again.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Macarons - For the Very First Time

French macarons
Its hard to ignore the immense popularity of macarons these days and it felt about time that I tried my hand at making some. Initial reading up on recipes and tips didn't exactly fill me with confidence however. Macarons it seems have a reputation for being tricky and unpredictable.

I came across an American blog written by Stella Parks, a lady who bakes macarons 18 times a week so I figured she'd have a pretty good idea what she was on about.  I wanted to follow just one person's instructions rather than mashing a few together and then wondering which bit worked and which didn't.  Stella had also gone to the trouble of testing a good number of the things that get blamed for bad macaronage and exploded a number of myths, instead encouraging us all to face up to bad technique when its staring us in the face.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Afternoon Tea at The Lanesborough Hotel, London

peanut butter square
You may have noticed it's been extremely quiet in the Normal Kitchen lately and it's high time I put that right.  I've been pretty busy it seems although I have no idea what I've been doing that's prevented me from baking and blogging.  Stepping on the scales did somewhat knock the baking enthusiasm that's true but really that just means I need to stop hogging my creations and share them around a bit more.  Any volunteers?

This weekend I had my creative baking enthusiasm well and truly watered as I went for afternoon tea at The Lanesborough hotel with the lovely Katherine.  This is only the second time I've been for afternoon tea, the first one being at Kettner's, but it really is something I could happily get used to.  It was an extremely hot day but my cinnamon star tea was much lighter and more refreshing than you might expect from this wintery sounding flavour.  Katherine opted for rose of the orient and pronounced it dreamy, aromatic and light.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Gooey Flapjacks With a Dark Chocolate Drizzle

Don't you just love recipes that are uber simple to make but taste like you must have slaved over them for hours?  Flapjacks definitely fall into this category for me, they're so quick, don't need lots of unusual ingredients and taste like a little piece of heaven.

On Saturday afternoon I was planning what food to take on a day at Brands Hatch on Sunday and thought it would be nice to have a little treat in the lunch bag.  A quick flick through a recipe book for inspiration and flapjacks hit me as the perfect solution as they're quick to make, I already had the ingredients and they would be easy to transport.  An hour later they were all done, did I mention they are quick?

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Learning to Sew - You Can Do This in the Kitchen As Well!

As well as baking I'm a big fan of many other crafts and creative pastimes including drawing, embroidery, paper cutting, photography and now sewing.  Like most people I sewed at school but haven't really done any since; then a couple of months ago something happened which gave me the determination to see how much of that learning I've retained.

Last summer I bought two dresses which were both too long but simply too gorgeous to pass up.  After some searching for an alteration place that would pin the dresses with me wearing them I eventually took them to be hemmed for the hefty sum of £20 a piece.  It was a complete disaster.  Both dresses came back totally uneven, far shorter than expected, with poor workmanship and basically completely unwearable.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Going All Bananarama - Caribbean Spiced Banana Cake

When you're baking and blogging about baking you tend to spend some time reading other people's blogs and chatting together about your quest for crumbly cake perfection.  In the last couple of months since starting this blog I have already been lucky enough to stumble across some incredibly talented and lovely people.  I have a large number of recipes that I want to make already so when I'm reading other people's blogs I'm usually just enjoying being part of this circle and having contact with others with a shared interest, rather than looking for inspiration of things to make.

Every now and again though I come across a recipe that I just have to try and that was the case when I found this recipe for Caribbean Banana Cake on Pip & Little Blue's blog.  I adore banana cake and the addition of spice and rum to the mix sounded heavenly to me.  Like a holiday in a loaf tin!

Monday, 27 May 2013

Chocolate Mud Cupcakes

chocolate mud cupcakes One of my husband's favourite cakes is the simple chocolate cupcake, you know the ones your Mum bought when you were a kid with the hard chocolate tops?  Last time I made them for him I simply melted chocolate on to the top and let it set for an extra solid topping but I'm not sure that's quite how they should be.  He requested that I make them again this weekend and I like to keep my husband happy so that's what I did, although this time I decided to go for a slightly softer topping attempt using a thick chocolate ganache.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Toffee Vodka and Eurovision Hen Weekend

It's been a little quiet in the Normal Kitchen lately as I've been so busy with other things there's just been no time for baking. I realise this is tantamount to impossibility as surely baking is very important and if there isn't time for it then you simply make time for it!  But baking should always be pleasurable and if you're shoe horning it in after a long day at work then I think it needs to act as a stress reliever and not feel like you're doing it for the sake of it.  So aside from the day job what have I been up to over the last couple of weeks?

Well last weekend I went on a good friend's hen do and had the most awesome time.  It was all very relaxed as we were lucky enough to be staying in a beautiful barn in the West Sussex countryside, complete with hot tub, hammock and more alcohol than a branch of Majestic Wine.  We did the most hilarious life drawing classes (something I've wanted to try for a while) and had our very own Eurovision party which basically involved yelling at the telly a lot and waving flags around whilst finding any old reason to make other people have a drink.  OVERSIZED NOVELTY!!!!!!  Everyone drink.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Keeping it Sweet With Banoffee Cheesecake

We spent this weekend visiting some very good friends and it's traditional that I indulge my love of baking and bring the dessert.  I usually make something I've never tried before and this time I decided to try James Martin's Banoffee Cheesecake which combines two of my favourite foods - bananas and caramel.  Another part of the appeal of this is that cheesecakes don't take as long to make as some dishes and I didn't want to spend hours on end in the kitchen instead of spending time with my friends and my husband.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Spreading the Normal Kitchen Love

I've taken a little time out from the kitchen to go all social media crazy this week and you can now keep up to date with kitchen shenanigans on Facebook and Twitter.

Please head on over to the Normal Kitchen Facebook page and 'Like' the page to join in the baking conversation there.  You can see photos, post comments and generally conflab with other baking lovers.

If you're a Tweeter you can follow my baking ramblings by finding @normalkitchen on Twitter or else click on the 'Follow' option at the top of this page where I've posted a handy Tweet and link.

I'd love to hear about some of your own kitchen experiences so if you'd like to share them you can comment on posts on this blog or else use the Facebook and Twitter pages to send messages or photos.

Happy baking everyone x

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Classic Recipes: Tarte Tatin

This weekend we visited my parents and I decided that I would like to try a classic recipe that I'd never made before to contribute dessert for us all.  It was also a good opportunity to take advantage of my Mum's gas hob, far preferable to the cheapo electric jobby that's installed in our rented flat.  I browsed the web for recipe inspiration and settled on the French classic, Tarte Tatin.  I love apples and it's a good time of year for them so it seemed a good choice.

I decided to use Mary Berry's recipe from the Great British Bake Off; if it is good enough for the contestants of the show then it is definitely good enough for me.  It also meant I got the opportunity to watch Mary herself making it courtesy of You Tube before I began which would hopefully increase my chances of producing good results.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

A Night of Food Chat With Gizzi Erskine at the WI

Gizzi Erskine Skinny Weeks and Weekend Feasts
Last night I attended my first ever meeting of the Women's Institute to hear the delectable Gizzi Erskine talk about her new book, Skinny Weeks and Weekend Feasts.  Having trained at Leith's School of Food and Wine Gizzi certainly knows a thing or two about food but for me the thing that's most engaging about her is her obvious enthusiasm for creating dishes that she really wants to eat.  With an eye on nutrition, balance and a refreshing refusal to view carbs as the devil's food, Gizzi's approach is all about flavour and pleasurable food.

Gizzi has travelled extensively and influences from the Far East in particular are peppered throughout her recipes.  This is definitely my sort of food and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing her talk about her experiences of Thai, Malaysian and Korean cuisines.  I have made the Lamb and Butternut Squash Tagine from Channel 4's Cook Yourself Thin several times, a show which Gizzi presented and threw her firmly in the spotlight.  Now I'm looking forward to trying more of her recipes and finding things that taste far more sinful than they are.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Homemade Madagascan Vanilla Extract

Being a normal person with a normal person's kitchen I'm a huge fan of foolproof recipes that give amazing results and it really doesn't get much simpler than this recipe for homemade vanilla extract.

Featuring in a large number of recipes vanilla extract is an essential ingredient for most baker's store cupboards, but it's definitely one of those things where you get what you pay for and good quality vanilla extract comes with a pretty hefty price tag.  The good news is that you can easily make your own for a far more sensible outlay.  Personally I have never tried a shop bought version that can match home made for taste and as soon as my bought ones are used up I doubt they'll ever darken my kitchen again.

vanilla extract


1 bottle of good quality (unflavoured) vodka
12 - 15 whole vanilla pods


  1. Drop the vanilla pods, whole, into the bottle of vodka making sure that they are completely covered by the alcohol.  You might need to remove a bit of vodka from the bottle first to make sure there is space for the vanilla as the vodka is displaced.  (Oh dear now you've got spare vodka with no home, that's a shame)
  2. Put in the back of the cupboard and forget about it for at least a month by which time the vanilla will have spread itself around giving the most amazing vanilla extract, ready to use in all your culinary masterpieces.

How easy is that?

This extract will last you for years

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Millionaire's Chocolates - A Twist on an Old Favourite

I'm really excited today.  Not only am I baking and writing my first proper blog post but I'm making something that is my own idea and creation.  The idea has been building all week and finally today I'm putting it into practise.

The inspiration is Millionaire's Shortbread, or caramel squares, whichever you prefer to call them.  These are a firm favourite in our house but we usually buy them and stock up from a particular shop in the Lake District that does them brilliantly.  I've only made them once before and it didn't go that well.  I halved the shortbread mixture but failed to reduce the cooking time, my caramel was too runny, and the first lot of chocolate topping I made got water in it and split.  Disaster overall.

I have a pyramid shaped chocolate mould and I thought it would be fun to use it to make chocolates that include all the essential elements of Millionaire's Shortbread.  A chocolate shell with broken pieces of shortbread inside and caramel filling the gaps.  For an extra touch and a more interesting appearance I decided to smash honeycomb into small pieces and make a little crust on the chocolate.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Past Efforts

To get things off to a start (and as I haven't done any baking in the few hours since I had the idea for this blog) here are a few photos of baking that I have done in the past.  I'll probably try and do some of these again and when I do I'll take pictures of the process not just the end result.  In the meantime here's a taste of what's to come.