Wednesday, 12 November 2008

a busman's holiday*

A few weeks ago, my parents arrived at our house for a week’s stay. But unlike Aran’s parents, they didn’t find lavender sachets under their pillows, or beautiful chocolate pistachio cakes waiting for them. Instead they found sanding paper, a heatgun, paintbrushes and tins of paint.

Just in case you’re wondering, of course we don’t make all our houseguests work for their stay – my parents had offered to come and help us out for a week. So, while S and were sitting behind our computers at work, mom and dad were hard at work in our house, leaving us with beautifully painted ceilings and woodwork when they returned home a week later. We still haven’t finished renovating the entire house, but at least all the big jobs are done and a few more weekends of painting and decorating should be enough to get us nearly there, so we can finally put up christmas decorations and a proper tree for the first time in years. Thanks mom and dad for helping us!

Until a few hours before my parents arrived, our house was completely upside down. Luckily I managed to make our guest room look decent enough for them to actually stay there, but with our big sofa stored on its side in our kitchen, I wasn’t able to do any baking at all, so no fancy cakes or desserts for the parents this time. To keep up with all the DIY, they needed something more substantial anyway, so I made a big pot of soup to get them through the week (and of course we cooked them proper dinners every night as well). It’s one of my favourite winter soups: hearty, warming and filling. I originally found the recipe in a 2002 christmas supplement of LivingEtc. (as a way of using up left-over turkey) but have changed the recipe quite a bit over the years. My version takes a bit of prep work, but it’s absolutely worth it. And it will keep you going all day when doing DIY.

spiced chickpea soup

1 large onion, roughly chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
10g cumin seeds
10g coriander seeds
40g harissa
2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
500g dried chickpeas
1.5l chicken stock
2 chicken breast fillets

Soak the chickpeas overnight (8-10 hours) and then boil them for 2 hours. Dry roast he cumin and coriander seeds in a pan until they start popping and release their fragrance, then grind them roughly with a pestle and mortar. Boil the chicken fillets in water, when cool enough to handle, tear them by hand into small strips.

Fry onion and garlic in some olive oil. When the onion has softened, add cumin and coriander seeds and harissa and fry for a further 5 minutes. Then add chickpeas, tomatoes and stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Purée about half the soup in a blender, then add chicken and coriander. Enjoy.

And you could easily substitute dried chickpeas for canned ones and use cumin and coriander powder instead of seeds, to make it easier.

* I learned this expression from a neighbour only last month; when I told her my parents were visiting for a week to help us with the DIY, she said ‘oh, a busman’s holiday then’, meaning it wouldn’t be a holiday for them at all, but work.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

a few short summer breaks...

… and a very looooooong blogging break. When even my mum remarked that it had been a while since I updated my blog, I knew it was high time I did something about it. It’s been a busy summer at casa v&c, with lots of little trips and a steady stream of visitors. And not much time for baking.

After a busy July, in which we celebrated S’s birthday (though we didn’t make it there this year, the good people of Paris put on a parade and fireworks especially for the occasion again), bought a car (after 7 whole years without, doing grocery shopping is suddenly very exciting), escaped to our friends’ country cottage (for a weekend of long walks in the woods), and lots of other things, we packed our bags for a quick trip to Greece, where we were graciously hosted by our friend G in his hometown of Piraeus.

It was our first trip to Greece, somehow we had never made it there before, and we finally got to see all the ancient monuments in Athens we had learned about in school. We also discovered why Athens is empty in August: because it’s HOT. So after a few days of seeing all the monuments – and seeking refuge in museums during the afternoons (great tip: museums in Athens have airconditioning!) – we did what every straight thinking Athenian does and hopped on a boat to one of the islands. Where it was still hot, but a beach, a warm sea and a cool sea breeze are an unbeatable combination for a perfect day.

Our island of choice was Aegina, less than an hour by boat from Piraeus, and home to a wonderful sweet shop: Aiakeion. All sorts of goodies there, so we picked a few of each: almond paste with gum mastic, sugared pistacchio nuts (the product of Aegina apparently) and of course baklava. All extremely sweet, but because of their being bitesized, just perfect. And still not as sweet as all the Moroccan sweets we had in Marrakech. Then there were also the many late and leisurely dinners, with the ubiquitous ‘Greek salad’ of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and feta, meat patties, wonderful baked aubergines and lots of olives of course. Strangely enough fish is scarce and expensive. I thought I'd be eating fish all week, but no.

Back home with recharged batteries (no sunshine or real summer in London) we hosted my parents for a week and we made it into a proper British week, with fish and chips (with mushy peas of course), a lovely weekend at our friends’ countryside cottage and a proper Sunday roast at the pub. There was also a wonderful dinner at Rules, one of London’s best kept secrets. It’s the oldest English restaurant in London, they specialise in game and even have their own estate where they shoot all said game.

In September S and I made a few trips to Belgium, for a big family reunion weekend and a friend’s wedding. And we spent my birthday in the lovely and quaint seaside town of Rye in East Sussex. Rye has lots of (expensive) antique shops, a nature reserve by the sea perfect for long walks, and lots of good fish restaurants. Having a car sure is wonderful and allows us to get out of London once in a while. It also means that, when we have to buy or rent DIY stuff, we can now bring it home ourselves, rather than having to organise and pay for delivery of everything. And DIY is all we've been doing the rest of the summer; currently S is sanding the downstairs floorboards, making a lot of noise and dust in the process. All the things we had in the living room are now stacked up in the bedrooms (note to self: stop collecting stuff and do a big ruthless spring clean); the only place in our house which is still sort of usable is the kitchen. Which means in the next few days, I'll bring my baking things out of retirement and will get stuck in making autumn goodies. Something pumpkin-y perhaps...

Sunday, 13 July 2008


coconut tapioca soup with mango sorbet, passion fruit, cilantro syrup and coconut tuiles

* that's Meeta's Monthly Mingle Mango Mania

Seems like I embraced all the relaxing and doing nothing of our June holiday for a bit too long. Instead of baking and posting, we spent our weekends catching up with friends, enjoying the sun (something that very rarely happens here, so whenever we do have a sunny day, I try to make the most of it), and going to Belgium for a friend's wedding. We also had a lovely dinner party with our Japanese friends S and A; last time they cooked Japanese food for us so this time it was our turn to cook. We made them Gentse waterzooi – a sort of fish stew from Ghent. Which didn't look very pretty, but tasted rather good. Which was a good thing, because we had never made it before and it could have all gone horribly wrong. I had warned our friends though, that if it did, they would have the choice between an Indian or Chinese takeaway. Or halal pizza.

For dessert I also decided to experiment, with a multi-component concoction. But even if the whole thing failed, the sorbet bit couldn't go wrong so there would be something edible for dessert at least. And fail it almost did. I had set my mind on one of Claudia Fleming's composed desserts: coconut tapioca soup with sorbet and some garnishes – something sunny and tropical.

I had never used tapioca before, so I tried the soup bit of the dessert the week before. British tapioca must be different from American one, as I ended up not with a soup, but a very thick custard. Yummy, but not soupy enough. During the week, I looked up some other recipes and found one on Steamy Kitchen that sounded promising. So promising, I didn't try it out beforehand. Big mistake. Nothing wrong with Jaden's recipe, it's just that I didn't know how to cook tapioca and there were almost no cooking instructions on the packet. I started off making the tapioca soup first thing in the morning and had to make it three times before I finally got it right! Soaking the tapioca in water for an hour didn't work, I just ended up with a big mush. Boiling it separately in water didn't work either. What did work in the end (lucky me) was combining Claudia and Jaden's recipes: I cooked the tapioca in milk, which gave me a thick custard, and later added a milk-water-coconut milk mix to thin it into a proper soup. Phew, crisis averted.

For the mango sorbet, I used those incredibly sweet, small and pretty yellow mangoes which I finally found at my local market. Unlike those sour, unripe ones I used last time. They're not cheap, but worth every penny. And they come nicely decorated with ribbon and wrapped in some tissue paper. All I did was add a bit of sugar and some lime juice, bang the whole thing into the freezer and stir it every half hour or so.

The coriander syrup takes no time at all to make and the tuiles I wasn't too fussed about: if they worked: great, if not: tant pis. Luckily they did. They didn't look anywhere as elegant and thin as Michel Roux's version, but good enough to serve to our dinner guests. Who loved the whole dessert, seeing as how they asked for seconds and even thirds...

coconut tapioca soup
adapted from Claudia Fleming's Last Course and Jaden's Steamy Kitchen

1/4 cup tapioca
1/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 cup milk

Bring milk and sugar to the boil, add tapioca, reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tapioca pearls are soft (appx. 35 minutes).

1 1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 cup coconut milk

Bring water and sugar to a boil. When boiling, turn heat to low and stir in milk. When mixture returns to a boil, turn off the heat and stir in the coconut milk. Remove from heat, let cool to room temperature and chill in refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Before serving dessert, add this mixture to tapioca mix to thin as required.

mango sorbet
adapted from Tessa Kiros Apples for Jam

about 1.2 kg mango (as this sorbet basically is frozen mango, everything depends on the quality of the mangoes)
1/2 caster sugar
juice of 2 limes

Peel mangoes and cut into small chunks. Put in bowl with sugar and lime juice. Leave to macerate for a few hours. Purée everything and freeze.

coconut tuiles
adapted from Michel Roux Jr's Le Gavroche cookbook

1 egg
80g caster sugar
80g unsweetened desiccated coconut

Whisk eggs and sugar, until just mixed, add coconut and whisk until smooth. Spread out thin shapes on baking sheet (the back of a fork dipped in water works well for this) and bake at 160˚C until pale brown, about 12 minutes. Transfer to wire rack and leave to cool.

To assemble: ladle some soup into martini glass. Add a scoop of sorbet. Add passion fruit, some coriander syrup and finish with a tuile. Enjoy.

Thursday, 12 June 2008


Last week S and I escaped a grey and wet London for a warm and sunny Marrakech. We stayed in a delightful little riyad inside the old medina, right at the edge of all the souks and about five minutes walk from the central square, Jemmàa el Fna, or ‘la place’. I had read mixed reviews about Dar Mouassine, but it suited us just fine. If you like your every whim to be tended to then it’s not the place for you, but, if like us, you prefer a more relaxed atmosphere and do your own thing, I can highly recommend it.

our riyad, Dar Mouassine

I had heard about two restaurants, Le Tobsil and Dar Moha. Dar Moha used to be owned by Pierre Balmain and is now owned by a European-trained Moroccan chef who serves ‘Moroccan nouvelle cuisine’. At Le Tobsil, there is no menu, you just eat whatever is prepared that day and you pay a fixed price, which includes drinks.

the lively Jemmàa el Fna with orange juice,
spices & dried fruits, and barbeque stalls

We dined at Le Tobsil, but although we liked the live musicians and the food was absolutely delicious, we wouldn’t really recommend it. It is quite expensive (plus the bill cheekily mentions that service is not included), tailored exclusively for tourists and we both found it rather poncy. There wasn’t anything wrong with the restaurant at all, it’s just that tables strewn with rose petals, waiters decked out in a European’s interpretation of traditional Moroccan dress, and being brought the bill in a wooden box, which contained a little book with ‘the best restaurants in Morocco, isn’t really our thing.

After that, we decided to give Dar Moha a miss and just try some barbeque stalls and restaurants at ‘la place’. I wasn’t brave enough to try the out of the way hole in the wall places, but the places where we did eat had a mix of tourists and locals, so I figured we couldn’t go wrong. We tried various tagine and couscous dishes, barbequed meat and vegetables and of course some sweets. We also had an amazing lemon and olive chicken tagine, cooked by our riyad’s own cook Latifah. There seems to be a propensity for thoroughly boiled mushy vegetables, and the sweets were VERY sweet, but other than that we thoroughly enjoyed all the food we sampled.

rooftop view over Marrakech and the Koutoubia mosque (right)

Apart from sampling Moroccan cuisine and doing a bit of shopping (babouches, a leather pouffe, some bowls and spices), our big plan was to do nothing at all, and do it very slowly. Of course there are plenty of things to see if you want: a museum, palaces, tombs and gardens, but for us this holiday was all about relaxing. We did bring back the sun with us, but of course that didn’t last and now London is grey and wet again. Time to start planning our next holiday…

Sunday, 25 May 2008

SHF # 43: coconut lime cake with mango and mascarpone lime mousse

Like Helen, of the beautiful blog tartelette, I'm a big fan of anything citrus. So when she chose citrus as the theme of this month's Sugar High Friday, I couldn't have been happier. And I immediately got Harry Nilsson's coconut, one of my all-time favourite songs, stuck in my head. I first heard it when watching Practical Magic and I have actually watched the film again just for the song. It's sweet and silly and makes me laugh. I can thoroughly recommend this song, especially on a blegh and grey day. So, SHF. I wanted to make something pretty and tropical, and after going through some cookbooks, browsing a few blogs, and taking cue from the coconut song, I decided on a combo of coconut and lime with mango, in the shape of little cakes with fruit and mousse layer. Something I'd never tried before, but it didn't look all that difficult - baking a cake? I could do that half asleep. Chopping up some fruit? Easy peasy. And whipping up a mousse? five minutes' work.

For the cake base, I chose Delia's coconut lime cake. A bit risky, since I hadn't made this cake before, but I find that Delia usually delivers. And deliver she did. The cake didn't rise very high, but it turned out quite well - I knew I could trust our Delia. The mango, unfortunately, didn't deliver. Instead of the sweet juicy and orangey-yellow fruit I was imagining, I got a hard pale and rather sour mango. That will teach me for buying mangoes out of season I guess. I should have waited for those incredibly sweet small yellow Pakistani mangoes I will find at my local market in a month or so. But all was not lost, I added a few spoons of sugar and some vanilla bean paste, which made it ok. Not great, but more than edible.

For the mousse, I browsed Bea's and Helen's archives, but all the recipes I found had gelatine in them, and I have a very strong dislike for the stuff. A google search only returned gelatine-based mousses as well, so I took a risk, and luckily it worked. I used Helen's mascarpone lime mousse recipe, but left out the gelatine and the lime zest (another thing I don't like), without changing anything else. I figured, with the whipped egg whites and whipped cream, the mousse would set in the fridge. After all, my chocolate mousse and tiramisu set in the fridge, so no reason why this mousse wouldn't set either. And I was right, phew. It might not work in hot or humid climes though. I guess that's the one good thing about living in grey and temperate London.

Getting the whole thing assembled took a bit of fiddling, but wasn't too hard. Of course I started with grand plans: I had wanted to add a frozen cone with coconut yoghurt and mango purée, like this one, put a glaze on the cakes, and add a cilantro syrup. But in between all the weekend DIY, finally getting to meet our friends' new baby, and getting engaged (yes, after almost 12 years together S proposed), I didn't get around to executing all those grand plans. They will have to wait for another time. That evening, S and I cracked open a bottle of champagne and had a simple but lovely pasta dinner, followed by these cakes were our dessert. Surprisingly, S really liked it. Separately, the three components weren't great: the cake was a bit fibrey with all the desiccated coconut, the mango not ripe and the lime mousse not very sweet, but together they were just right. A sweet end to a wonderful day...

Sunday, 18 May 2008

milk jam

About a month ago, I discovered Aran’s beautiful blog, cannelle et vanille, when she left me a comment. I instantly fell in love with her beautiful creations and photographs and luckily, she hasn’t been blogging for very long, so it didn’t take ages to read through her archives – lucky me, otherwise I would have been reading through the night. One thing immediately caught my attention and that was her milk jam. I’d never heard of it before, but it sounded intriguing and lovely.

Especially because vain little me wanted to bleach my teeth and my dentist had instructed me to only eat ‘white food’ for the two weeks it would take. No coffee, red wine, tomatoes, red peppers, strawberries … Of course after about a week I got incredibly fed up with eating cauliflower, rice and apples – we have a saying in Flemish that goes ‘they came out of my ears’, which I think pictures my sentiment quite well – and I was desperate for some variation. The milk jam provided just that; luscious, creamy, buttery and milky. Delicious! If you haven’t made it yet, stop reading and go make it right now. The recipe is here.

I have mentioned before I’m not a fan of gelatine, so I left out the gelatine and reduced it a bit more to compensate, to about 250g. It set to a very spreadable paste in the fridge. For my second batch (did I mention how delicious this is?) I had to use half and half milk (S drank all the full-fat milk) and I added some nutmeg. Out of curiosity I reduced it to 300g, which also worked fine. And for my next batch, I’m thinking coconut milk. Or maybe sweet massala spices…

Sunday, 4 May 2008


It's a good thing I made that breaded cheese salad when I did, because yesterday evening, when I was looking for the breadcrumbs to top the cauliflower gratin I was preparing for dinner, they were nowhere to be found. Of course there was only one place they could have gone, I didn't even have to ask (but I did anyway, silly me).

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

here’s one I made earlier…

… because I was nowhere near my kitchen this weekend. Instead, I spent a lovely weekend in Belgium to celebrate my friend’s 30th birthday. She is Spanish and prepared some yummy food: tortilla, albondigas and much more. No pictures, too busy talking. The rest of the weekend I caught up with my family: chatting with mum, taking gran out for lunch and enjoying the wonderful sunshine and 25˚C weather. And stocking up on chocolate of course.

So all I’ve got right now is this salad: goats’ cheese, walnuts, apple (this time, I also use pear, dried cranberries or goji berries) and rocket with an olive oil-balsamic vinegar dressing.

S doesn’t like goats’ cheese at all, so I only make this occasionally, just for myself. And every time again I’m surprised how fast and easy this is. All you need to do is brush the cheese with egg, roll it in breadcrumbs and gently fry it in some olive oil, until the breadcrumbs are golden and the cheese a bit squishy in the middle. While the cheese is frying, dress the salad leaves, throw in some nuts, berries or whatever else takes your fancy. Plonk the cheese onto the salad, add a good twist of black pepper et voila…. an utterly delicious salad in about 10 minutes.

Thursday, 17 April 2008


Four years ago S and I went on holiday to Japan – my first real big trip and a very exciting thing for me. For the first four days or so, I kept on pinching S and shouting at him ‘We’re in Japan! We’re in Japan!’. He bore it patiently and we're still together, so he must really love me (or maybe he just stopped listening after the fourth time I yelled). Growing up I never lacked anything, but my parents didn’t have the money to travel far. We spent many a happy summer at the Belgian seaside, in the Belgian Ardennes, and even a few summers in France. But holidaying in exotic locations was something for rich people.

When I was at university, my student club organised a trip to Istanbul. I remember passing the poster on the notice board and thinking ‘oh that must be nice for the people who can do that sort of thing’. Then I had a second look at the poster and almost fell over backwards when I saw the price of the entire trip: BEF 6,000. That’s about £100 (or US$200), for a weeklong stay. Flights and hotel with breakfast included. Of course I signed up for this trip immediately. The realisation that I too could holiday in exotic locations and that it wasn’t just something for the other half was one of those defining moments for me, as I’d always dreamed about travelling to far-off places, but never thought those dreams could become reality.

Of course as a student I didn’t have the money to travel far and extensively, so when I started working and earning a living, travel was high up on my list of priorities. Top of that list was, and always had been, Japan. And it just so happened that it was at the very top of S’s list as well. So off to Japan we went. Our trip was perfectly timed with sakura season so a lot of hanami was to be done. We encountered a lot of people taking photographs of the cherry blossoms and even saw two sweet old ladies, sitting in the park and discussing the beauty of the flowers and how the petals wafted to the ground. And of course all the sweet shops were filled with special sweets for the occasion.

I’m a big fan of Japanese sweets and there is a shop close to where I work, so once in a wile I treat myself to a nice mochi. The sweets always seem so intricate and complex and impossible to recreate at home. But among the presents I received for my birthday last year was Harumi’s Japanese Cooking. Which had just the recipe I was looking for: little read bean-filled crepes. Delicate looking, appropriately pink and super easy to make. I feel a bit like a cheat, because it was so easy, but the results were absolutely delicious. Since I followed the recipe to the letter and didn't tinker with it, I won't repeat it here, but the crepe batter was a mix of water and flour with some sugar and oil, with a few drops of red food colouring added to it. The red bean paste I simply bought in my local Japanese supermarket.

With all the DIY I’ve been a bit out of the loop in recent months, and I haven’t kept track of all the food events, but after I had made these little crepes I discovered the theme of this month’s Sugar High Friday, hosted by La Petite Boulangette, is Asian sweet invasion. Perfect for my crepes.

Friday, 11 April 2008


* that’s the sound of March flying past. And come to think of it, a good chunk of April as well.

I’ve been a very bad blogger these last few months, shame on me. Another whole month has passed without any baking or experimenting. The only action in the kitchen was that of an entire colony of mice, running around in plain daylight and eating everything in sight. Greedy little buggers. They’ve gone now; old-fashioned mousetraps with a bit of peanut butter did just the trick. I’m sure there were more than the four we caught, but the rest probably got fed up and decided to move somewhere else.

Also, last month S and I survived – barely – two very traumatic trips to Ikea. We’re scarred for life now, the mere mention of something blue and yellow Scandinavian and flatpack furniture reduces us to gibbering wrecks. Seriously, what is it with that store? Their website says everything you need is in stock, but the shelves in the warehouse are completely empty. And the personnel at the information desks think it’s much more important to chat with their mates and yell abuse at their co-workers than, I don’t know, helping out clients maybe? We did eventually manage to get an entire wardrobe puzzled together, miraculously nothing was lost when we had it delivered, we lived to tell the tale and our bedroom looks much tidier now. But those nine hours of our lives, we’ll never get those back.

Oh, and that long bank holiday weekend in March I had so many plans for? Three guesses how that was spent. Yep, even more DIY, resulting in lovingly restored sash windows, looking absolutely yummy. Sash windows aren’t edible though.

So I figured it was high time I put on my apron and baked something, before I completely lose skills like whipping egg whites. Or switching on the oven. And my good friend Claudia was just the woman to provide me with inspiration. I had been meaning to make her lemon and lavender pound cake for ages – in fact, it was the recipe that immediately caught my eye the first time I ever browsed through her book – but somehow I always got distracted trying other things. Not this time though.

The recipe is that of a very simple and basic pound cake – quite different from the one I normally make though, so it was a good ‘exercise’ to compare techniques and results. This one is certainly easier and a bit less work, withouth much difference in taste. I adapted the recipe a little bit: I omitted the lemon zest because I really don’t like lemon zest and cut down the quantities of the lavender quite a bit as I thought using the full four tablespoons might be a bit overpowering. The resulting cake was wonderfully moist and lemony with just a hint of lavender. I was convinced S wouldn’t like it, because of the lavender, but he obligingly tasted a little piece. And then… his eyes lit up, he started licking his lips and rubbing his belly, said ‘yum!’ and cut himself another piece. Maybe that 'whoosh' was also the sound of pigs flying past...

lemon and lavender pound cake
adapted from Claudia Fleming's The Last Course

200g butter
5 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cup self-rising flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon dried lavender

for syrup: 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 cup water, 1/4 cup lemon juice

Melt butter with lavender, leave to infuse for 10 minutes, strain, discard lavender, and set aside to cool.
Beat eggs with sugar until thick and pale. Sift 1/3 of flour into egg mixture until thoroughly combined. Fold in rest of flour in 2 batches. Whisk one cup of batter with vanilla extract and melted butter, then add this to remaining batter. Bake cake at 150˚C for 45 minutes.

Make syrup (bring to simmer in saucepan and cook until sugar is dissolved). When cake is ready, poke all over with skewer and brush with half the syrup. Leave to cool for 10 minutes, invert cake and brush bottom and sides. Reinvert and brush with remaining syrup. Enjoy.

Friday, 22 February 2008


with the freakish winter we've been having, the flowers in my garden have all come out way too early

Where has February gone? It seems the new year started only yesterday, and suddenly two whole months have passed! As must be glaringly obvious from a complete absence of posts, not much baking has been going on in the vanille & chocolat household.

The one thing that has been going on, in large quantities, is DIY. Which usually starts on Saturday morning and ends Sunday evening, after we’ve washed all the dust out of our hair, soothed our aching muscles with a relaxing hot bath, and settled down in front of the telly with a nice cocktail (yes, those lemons sure served their purpose, if not the one originally intended).

American pancakes, baby knitting and my beautiful new ironing board cover

During the past few weeks, there was a wonderful and comforting Flemish dish: witlof (chicory) and ham rolls, in a cheesy béchamel sauce, topped with breadcrumbs and butter, baked in the oven. Prepared by S – yes, I am one lucky woman. There were also hearty breakfasts, to get enough energy for all the DIY. I’m totally in love with the American pancakes, bacon and maple syrup combo. I know this must seem a very mundane breakfast for you Americans out there, but I find it very exotic and if S would let me, I’d make it every weekend.

Weeknights, there has been lots of soup, housework, knitting (hadn’t done that for ages and my friend L having a baby was the perfect excuse to take it up again), and also the discovery of house renovation, crafty and decoration blogs. And etsy. All very addictive, but oh so inspiring!

details of two prints I fell in love with and just had to buy on etsy

This weekend we’re taking a break from all the DIY and are jetting off to Belgium for another one of these and some retail therapy. But I’ve got some new goodies and interesting recipes I can’t wait to try, plus there’s a few bank holidays coming up and the days are getting longer, so hopefully March should see something more than one sorry blog post saying I don’t have time to blog.

Have a nice weekend everyone!

Monday, 28 January 2008

lemon meringue pie – the Daring Bakers’ January challenge

Another month, another Daring Bakers challenge, and this month’s host – Jen, the Canadian Baker – chose lemon meringue pie. Now, I love me some lemon pie. I have a favourite, foolproof recipe, but it can’t hurt to try something a bit different once in a while. As usual, I left it to the last weekend to complete the challenge. S shopped for groceries, while I was stripping more paint off the woodwork.

With a pantry full of butter, sugar, eggs, lemon and cream, I fully intended to start baking. I even got as far as making the dough for the crust. And then… the call of the DIY became too strong to ignore. And so, by the end of the weekend, there was a lot of stripped wood, a ceiling without wallpaper on it, and not a lemon meringue pie in sight. Those lemons did come in handy though for our cocktail hour on Sunday evening…

Check out all the other Daring Bakers’ real pies here.

Monday, 21 January 2008

another weekend, another DIY project

Now that we’ve finished renovating the upstairs of our house – we have doors in our bedrooms! with doorknobs! and blinds! – S and I started all over again downstairs. Stripping awfully textured wallpaper off the ceiling (yes, the ceiling. Must be some kind of British thing), stripping a gazillion layers of paint off the woodwork, ripping out three layers of awful carpet, sanding wooden floors and completely overhauling the beautiful but neglected sash windows. I guess we could hire someone to do all the work for us, but it is very hard to find decently skilled craftspeople here without having to take out an extra mortgage to pay them. Plus I’m still upset about how the jobs we could not do ourselves were done by so-called professionals. And that was more than two years ago. Also I’m a bit of a control freak and I’d rather do everything myself, so I know it’s done properly. Which takes a lot of time. In addition to all the DIY I’ve also found myself in a spring-cleaning mood recently (must be the too warm weather we’re having here) itching to clean out cupboards, reorganise shelves etc.

So, loads to do at home and not much time for other things. But just enough time to bake something quick and easy: I had some left-over chocolate shortcrust pastry in the freezer, and a whole bunch of walnuts from my aunt’s garden. But no nutcracker. So what does one do in a DIY-filled, nutcracker-less home? Why, use a DIY tool as a nutcracker of course. I found a quick and easy Donna Hay recipe, et voilà, little butterscotch walnut tartlets.

S wasn’t a fan (but he doesn’t like walnut and he doesn’t like honey), so I brought some tartlets over to the neighbours, who were big fans. And told me I should open a pastry shop. And please could they be my test audience. I think they just want more sweets. Now, all I have to do is find a quick way of getting rid of the other stuff in my freezer, so I can start spring-cleaning there as well.

butterscotch tartlets
adapted from Donna Hay Magazine, issue 32

shortcrust pastry
30g unsalted butter
¼ cup double cream
¼ cup honey
1 cup walnuts

bake pastry in individual moulds (I used a muffin tin) and let cool on wire rack. Put butter, honey, cream and walnuts in a pan and heat gently until butter is melted. Up heat until caramelised (a few minutes) and pour filling in pastry shells. Top with some double cream and crushed instant coffee. Eat.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Happy New Year!

A bit late, I know, but in my family you can wish each other a happy new year during the entire month of January (I have a ginormous extended family, so it would usually take a while to tick everyone off). Also, getting a stomach bug is a wonderful way to lose all that holiday weight, but not such a fun way to start the new year. My stomach is back to its old good self now, but there hasn’t been much cooking in the V&C kitchen and hence not much to report either.

S and I spent most of the holidays with our families in Belgium – a wonderful week of eating, sleeping and not much else. And I was too busy chatting with everyone to think about updating my blog. We‘ve always celebrated with our little family on christmas’ eve; christmas day was reserved for a big lunch with my dad’s side of the family (fifty-odd people – told you I have a big family) and the last years is a perfect day for going to the cinema, or, even better, doing nothing at all.

The traditional christmas day lunch with turkey, cranberry, stuffing etc. is not really done in Belgium though (and we don’t have Santa Claus either – but we do have Sinterklaas, who comes on 6 December). We usually eat something nice and festive, and this year we all helped cooking. Mum did something nice with fish for starters, my brother made a lovely cream of mushroom soup, S made a beautiful gratin dauphinois and of course I was in charge of dessert.

I wanted to make something Sinterklaas-inspired, with speculoos, spices, and mandarines. And dad loves ice cream, so there had to be ice cream in it as well. And this is what I came up with: speculoos with cinnamon ice cream and mandarine caramel. Those fancy schmancy mandarine segments I didn’t do on purpose (I do have a life you know, and I don’t spend it dissecting mandarines into individual thingies); my original intention was to have large segments in the caramel and when I was trying to get the membrane off each segment, they just fell apart in these little thingies. And they looked kinda cute, so I used them like that. All the components for this dessert can be prepared in advance and are very easy to make; just be careful with the speculoos, because it burns easily.


500g self raising flour

250g butter

350g soft or dark brown sugar

1 egg

1/2 shot glass of cognac (or milk or water)
mixed spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg etc.)

Knead everything together into a smooth dough. Leave to rest in the fridge for at least one hour. Roll dough to a thickness of 1/2 in for crispy speculoos, or 2 in for soft speculoos and shape as desired. Bake at 170 - 200˚C, for about 5 to 10 minutes (burns easily).

For this dessert I baked thin crispy rectangles of speculoos which I trimmed again after baking (the scraps mixed with coffee made a delicious spread for sweet sandwiches), but this recipe makes massive quantities of dough and, as my mum loves the thick soft speculoos, I baked a massive slab of that with the leftovers. Which disappeared in no time.

cinnamon ice cream

Find any basic ice cream recipe and infuse milk or cream with cinnamon sticks when heating it. (sneaky, I know, but my old basic recipe doesn't really cut it. Not enough egg yolks I think)

mandarine caramel
adapted from Claudia Fleming's Last Course

1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup mandarine juice
1 tbsp butter
mandarine segments

combine water and sugar in saucepan and simmer until sugar dissolves (stir regularly). Raise heat and boil mixture until caramelised. Remove from heat and whisk in butter and fruit juice. Set over low heat and whisk until caramel is smooth. Let cool for at least 1 hour. Before serving, stir in mandarine segments (which I didn't have, so I just scattered my mandarine thingies over the plates).