L’arte d’arrangiarsi. Or making the most of least.



The first time I heard that phrase was when watching the two greedy Italians. I just love the interaction between Antonio and Gennario,  the scenery, not forgetting the food or the sounds. At times I really miss living in Bella Italia, the markets, the restaurants. Oh, the weather too. Just now I’m sitting listening to the tail end of a storm, my weekly delivery of groceries became a click and collect. Luckily, for me, Stephen was at work. At least the power is back on, I spoke too soon, the lights are flickering on and off.

L’arte d’arrangiarsi, as a concept,  I was already very familiar with. My mum was a teenager in war torn Britain, being raised in a rural community did help, there was no real shortage of eggs, milk and butter, even so rationing meant that nothing could be wasted.  One of the most useful things that anyone, responsible for feeding a family, can pass on is the art of making something out of nearly nothing.


I find it fascinating, to take very little and turn it into something utterly mouthwatering. To do this you have to be able to cook, it helps if you actually like cooking. Which if you have read any of my blogs, or know me you may have guessed I rather like cooking. Everyone can cook though. One thing that really bugs me is the ‘chefification’ of food. I know it isn’t an actual word: it’s towers of food, squiggles and  smudges on plates, jenga stacks of chips and don’t get started on the noughts and crosses board arrangement of asparagus on a rissoto. Mama mia! The delicious asparagus should be flavouring the rice not decorating it. It really saddens me  people say they can’t cook; what they’re really saying is that they can’t make dishes that can pass for fine dining. That’s not what cooking is about.


Brenda being put to good use. A 400g haggis made into a ragu that will serve at least 8 people.

How many students, despite having passed through several years of doing Home Ec are clueless about how to cater for themselves? Why? Whoever designed the curriculum, i.e. the government, hasn’t a clue about what students really, really need. The day that Joseph gave up on cookery at school was when he had to poach pears and make a raspberry coulis . His personal tutor had told him the course would help him to cope with catering for himself. Several years later he still hasn’t poached another pear. He can make a really good ragu, is adept at making fresh pasta, has a wide  selection of Asian dishes he is confident at making and can make a selection of traybakes. I digress.


L’arte d’arrangiarsi, or making the most of what you’ve got it now is consciously at the heart of my cooking. It is turning a large onion, a couple of carrots and some celery into an Umbrian minestrone; with the addition of some brown lentils and leftover gravy from Sunday’s pulled pork. It’s never ever throwing chicken bones out before making a stock. It is using a left over portion of a roasted butternut squash to make a curry to go along with some  plain basmati rice and a garlic loaded riata.

Above all it is not wasting anything. I had to throw an aubergine out yesterday and I can’t tell you how much that hurt, especially as they seem to make infrequent visits to the supermarket shelves in lerwick. We are moving to live near Glasgow and the idea of having access to things like an Italian delicatessen, a Chinese quarter, a variety of Asian shops and perhaps even being able to get a veg box delivered to where I live, is just too much. It doesn’t take much to please me.


Before you go shopping take a last look around your store cupboards and fridge; do you really need to go shopping today or even tomorrow? Or can you use that last head of broccoli to make a pasta sauce, along with some olive oil, garlic and chilli powder or flakes? Have you got something put by in the freezer you should use up? Do you have half a cabbage wilting away Have you tried Madhur Jaffrey’s cabbage and red lentil dal? It’s delicious. Once the fridge looks really bare then it’s t ime to go shopping.

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Flying the coup

I’m glad to say that normal service will be(is) resuming. Going back to work in May was harder than I thought it would be and two weeks later I was back in the nest rather bruised and dented. I’ve now had a wee while to recover and with Samuel about to leave, is Glasgow ready for him I wonder? I thought it was time to make sure that he could cook a meal fit for McCormack family fayre. Sorry, I just can’t resist the chance to add a little alliteration.


First sauté lots of onions and then add your spices/garlic- always seems to be the first instruction.


Pizza dough: made by Sam, n.b. no smarties added!

Sunday was the first time I had cooked a meal for weeks, which may also help to explain a lack of posts about what I’ve been doing in the kitchen. All the meals over the last three weeks, perhaps longer, have been chosen, prepared and cooked by Joseph and Samuel. The only thing we’ve done is pay for the ingredients! Oh and I have been a speaking recipe book. Stephen has had the dubious pleasure of tidying up after the kitchen has been reduced to something that looked more like a war zone.  I just wonder how often prawn toast made with 450g of king prawns will feature in Samuel’s meal plans? Not too often I suspect. Perhaps a few less dishes will also be used; unless his kitchen is an unusually well stocked for a halls of residence kitchen. He is now in a halls of residence in Glasgow and is getting a reputation as, ‘The Chef’. Result.


Chicken with ginger, garlic, soy and spring onions. One of Sam's first solo meals.


Joseph and I playing with some dough at Shetland Food Show

Since the weans, who both now tower above me, have been old enough to wield a wooden spoon they have been involved in preparing food. Samuel’s first bread making exploits are truly the stuff of family legends. Joseph is just amazed that anyone else actually ate it. The smarties in the bread were the least of his concerns; the number of times the dough hit the floor was a little more bothersome. Spinning dough is an art that not many six year olds manage to master, enough said!

I digress. What have been my aims, apart from making sure he can actually cook a meal? Obviously I wanted to make sure that he could use his limited resources wisely, so he doesn’t end up wasting either money or ingredients. Hopefully he will check his store cupboard before he restocks them it; those wilted veggies lurking all lonely and unloved could become a tempting meal. The lunch we had yesterday was the result of spotting a pair of aubergines that were no longer plump and shiny. They became Melanzane Parmigianino, an aubergine bake with tomato sauce and parmesan, cheddar or Wensleydale depending what I discover in the fridge . The alternatives were – an aubergine pasta sauce or  a Keralan curry sauce from ‘A Girl Called Jack’. Talking about food, as well as preparing it, has been part of this process too. I also wanted both Joseph and Samuel to see that cooking can be fun and that delicious meals can be made quickly and simply.


Omelette, one of Sam's staples.

I know I’ve enjoyed sharing the kitchen with them and taking on a more advisory role. We’ve had some splendid meals too. This week we had a surplus of cannelloni beans that had made there first appearance in a green pepper and bean goulash, courtesy of Rose Eliot’s Complete Vegetarian. There was also some meat left on the skeleton of a chicken that had been lurking in the fridge with malicious intent. If it wasn’t used up very soon it would have to be binned. A Capital offence in this household. In the salad drawer a pepper was looking limp and lonely. After a brief discussion,  some  surfing the net and browsing through our collection of cookery books we decided to make enchiladas. Having no wraps in the house we would have to rustle some up, simples. To make life easier I just made up a standard white bread pizza dough and after the first rising just divided it into 60g balls. These were rolled out nice and thinly and quickly cooked in a lightly greased moderately hot skillet or heavy frying pan. Once you get a few brown spots on each side they’re done.

What I hope they have learnt is the skill of doing ‘roll – overs’ and stretching the more expensive ingredients to make follow on meals . With just small tweaks truly the phoenix of one dish can rise from the ashes of an old one. 

My initial starter was 500g of cannelloni beans which I placed in a pan with twice as much water so they had tons of room to expand, which I boiled for five minutes and then turned the water off and left for one hour. You can change the water, I don’t bother, then boil the beans for 10 minutes and simmer until tender usually about another 35 minutes drain and rinse.

For the goulash you will need
500g onions, peeled and sliced
2 tbsp oil, if a meat eater I’d use dripping or large for added unami
1 clove garlic, minced
2 peppers, deseeded and cut into chunky strips
2 × 450g tinned tomatoes
500g cooked beans. Or 2 × 450g tons cannelloni beans
1 heaped table spoon of smoked paprika

Sour cream to serve, I added a tablespoon of chopped dill to it and 1 tbsp of olive oil.

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan, add the onion and cook until softened.
Add the garlic, don’t let it burn so we’re talking about one minute.
Add the peppers, cook until softened 4 or 5 mins, add the paprika.
Bung the tomatoes into your pan, simmer uncovered for fifteen minutes.

Serve with rice or a baked potato, drizzle the sour cream over your goulash with a crisp green side salad dressed with a tangy lemon dressing

The next day we served the left over goulash with a little leftover roasted chicken which I fried with an onion, a red pepper and some ‘Slap yer Mamma’ – an authentic cajan spice mix.
I made same wraps using a basic white bread dough recipe allowing 60g of dough


Wraps, using mainly wholemeal flour today.

Next I made a simple tomato sauce by heating 3tbsp of oil adding copped clove of garlic and a finely chopped red chilli, cook briefly before adding  500ml passata and salt to taste. Cook for about 5 mins. Simple.

Oil a shallow casserole dish, take a wrap and place a few table spoons of your bean, pepper and chicken mixture in a wrap. Roll it up and place in your dish.
For a lunch allow one enchilada per person, dinner two.
Continue filling and rolling your wraps until you have used them all up.
Next pour your simple tomato sauce over your wraps. I sprinkled some i.e. lots of cheddar cheese over them all at this point.
Bake at 175°c fan oven or  195°c in a standard oven until piping hot, about 15-20 mins.

I like to serve a salad with them and sour cream.

Now you should still have heaps of beans left.

I used half of them to make a lamb and bean casserole which I served with creamy polenta.

The last batch became Boston(ish) baked beans. I use my simple tomato sauce but add a couple of table spoons of molasses to it. One spoon is probably enough for most folks though.
Add your cooked beans and simmer for a few mins. These I served for brunch on sourdough toast,  a poached egg with a salsa made from diced tomatoes, diced chilly, parsley, finely sliced shallot and a little olive oil.


Sam's favourite toy; his Nespresso coffe maker.

The possibilities are countless. I think both Joseph and Samuel have got the idea of using a base ingredient and making it into several different dishes.


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Life living on the edge – of a large rock we call home.

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‘Every Day Is Like Sunday’


Hoswick bay at the crack of dawn one Sunday.

Sundays, in my imagination anyway, are lazy days to be taken at a leisurely pace. Starting with a mug or two of freshly ground, freshly brewed coffee. Gentle music helping to create a relaxed atmosphere, the dogs curled up on the couch. Breakfast will follow, preferably prepared by someone else. Alas we can all dream. The reality is often rather different. In truth Sundays can be just as hectic as any Saturday; Samuel works in Niela’s knitwear studio every Sunday. Joseph on the other hand frequently has band practice on a Sunday afternoon. Now he works every other Sunday and breakfasts at 4:30am! Trying to find time for those leisurely long family breakfasts will have to remain an idea that is pleepsing on the back burner for awhile longer.

However; I’m not one to be defeated by the practicalities of the hurly burly that is family life. Our day begins early, usually around 6am at the weekends. Why? Doesn’t the duvet’s alluring attraction prove too much? In the week we, well Stephen and I, get up at five every morning. Times change. This used to be so that chickens could be fed, dog walked, washing machine fed with a never ending supply of clothes, the  dishwasher unloaded and reloaded all before breakfast. Sadly the last of our thirteen assorted hens has met its maker. Our pair of brindle terrors are generally walked later in the day. Our internal alarms seem permanently set for the wee small hours. To make the most of this: we get settled on the settee; mull over mugs of fresh coffee; listen to some gentle music and slowly wake up. It’s just the relaxing family breakfast that’s missing from this rural idyll. Due to the fact that young Heath is a whirlwind on four paws at the best of times we usually try to snatch a quiet hour before we let them disturb our peace.


Heath the canine tornado snapped in a quieter moment.

Sunday breakfast just can’t be toast, even if its homemade sourdough. Or even homemade muesli, it just can’t. Even if we don’t often manage to sit down all together I like to make something that seem more  special than our usual breakfast staples of either something on toast or porridge with a fruit compote. When we had thirteen laying hens, eggs had to be included. Even I, an obsessive cook and baker, couldn’t manage to use that many eggs every week. Now, hen less the tradition continues. I like to make something that adapts itself easily to being served in several sittings or is very quick to prepare. This week I decided to make ‘Bombay Eggs’ using Meera Sodha’s marvellous book ‘Made in India’. This is the recipe that has been tickling my imagination. It consists of a spicy tomato and spinach sauce with eggs gently poaching in their vegetable nests. There are various similar versions of this; the two best known are probably Huevos Rancheros and chachukka, I’m going to have to check the spelling.

To make this delectable delight you begin by roasting cumin seeds in a large frying pan that has a lid, you’ll need that later. I usually use about two teaspoons of coriander  and one of cumin seeds. Sometimes the proportions vary, depending on the state of my store cupboard and whether the boat’s come in. Once they’re is a lovely aroma in the air and they have turned a couple of shades darker carefully tip the spices into a grinder or use a pestle and mortar and gently crush them. I love the smell of freshly roasted spices. Now heat four tablespoons of oil, I’ve now switched to rapeseed oil, tip your spices back into the pan fry for about one minute and add the onions and cook until they are floppy and are beginning to turn golden at the edges. Don’t rush; this will take about eight minutes.


The spices and onions softened in the pan

Next add your crushed garlic and ginger. If I’m feeling lazy I use a couple of heaped table spoons garlic and ginger paste, it’s not the same but I like the pungent hit you get when the paste meets the heat. I think its the acetic acid. Otherwise use four large cloves of garlic, finely chopped, and a small thumb length of ginger about four cms. Cook for two or three minutes before adding two 450g tins of chopped tomatoes. Meera Sodha says 1kg of chopped fresh tomatoes. Early on a Sunday morning that seems a bit too much chopping for me. So tinned toms will do. Maybe fresh ones would have not involved a trip to casualty, but that’s another story entirely.


Just look at the vivid colour of those tomatoes!

Leave the tomatoes and onions pleepsing away for fifteen minutes. Such a wonderful word for gently simmering. By now they should be thick and the sauce should still be vividly red. Add a tablespoon or so of tomato purée and salt to taste, my default measure is usually one tsp, add a tsp of sugar, about half a tsp of chilli powder, I usually use chilli flakes and up the cumin seeds and a good couple of pinches of turmeric. If you don’t want to stain your fingers its about a quarter of a tsp.


Piano, piano! Slowly add a 300g bag of spinach.

You will need to add the spinach gradually, letting each hand full wilt before you add the rest. Once it has all wilted you can add the eggs. If anyone is eating later I just take a portion of the sauce out of the pan and reheat it in a smaller pan before adding the eggs.

Now if your not happy about cracking the eggs directly into the pan, crack them into little preparation dishes or ramekins and carefully slide the eggs into the pan. Usually its two eggs per person. Put the lid on and cook on a very gentle heat for ten minutes. The yolks should still be runny and the whites cooked.

Garnish with lots of freshly chopped coriander leaves, a generous sprinkling of black pepper and serve with toast or any Indian bread of your choice. Homemade soft nans are a McCormack favourite.

Sometimes if I’m in a hurry I use hard boiled eggs then it is so easy to feed the minions later in the day. Sam will normally rush in for a quick lunch. He usually gives me a ring and by the time he has; locked up the studio, walked a couple of hundred metres, a plate of eggs in a spicy sauce is on the table,  the nans have been warmed up in the microwave and one smug mum looks on. Sometimes, if I’m really pushed for time, I make up a simple tomatoes sauce just by sautéing a couple of cloves of garlic in the oil add the tomatoes and a few mins later some good quality balti paste, then the spinach. While this is reducing, hard boil your eggs or just plop your fresh eggs into little nests you’ve made in the sauce. Pop the lid on and in less than fifteen minutes you have a lovely light lunch or a brilliant breakfast. Just don’t tell anyone about this short cut. Needs must at times.


Its even nicer with eggs poached in the sauce though.

Things have moved on since I started this post. Mental health issues have plagued me. Ironically I have had plenty of time to write these posts. However, it just didn’t happen now I’m feeling much more on top of things so look out for a few more posts. Samuel is a student living in a shared student flat. Joseph is working in a local bakery and getting up at five seems like a unheard of luxury and we will be upping sticks and moving of this remote rock we’ve called home for 11 years.


Home is where the heart is. Or, more likely, where the dogs are.

I just had to sneak in a photo of Filska and Heath.

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Me and a big girl named Brenda.

Brenda has been by side for more years than I can remember. She has never let me down, she’s plain and honest and I would hate to be without ever trusty Brenda. I know that the day I got married my mum was doubly sad; not only had I left home, but I took Brenda with me.  Who actually is Brenda? What role does she play in our lives.

Let me begin in the beginning. I’m not sure how old dear Brenda is. One day I was looking through a book of facsimiles published by the Ministry of Food, circa 1941, and I spied a picture of Brenda. I was astounded. I knew she wasn’t exactly in her prime; my maths failed me. She can’t be that old, she is still working. I showed the photo to Joseph and Stephen, they were both as shocked as I had been. ‘She can’t be that old.’ Stephen sounded concerned.
Joseph was worried  ‘shouldn’t we… Is it safe to…?’ He was concerned for our safety. I had to think hard. Was it time to retire lovely Brenda? I just can’t. She is working as hard as ever. Just this weekend she proved to be invaluable, as always, when I made a huge batch of haggis ragu. More of that later.
Now I think it’s time to reveal the true identity of this marvellous workhorse we have lovingly named Brenda. She was given to my mum by an elderly friend. Now that her own family had grown up and flown the nest, she had no use for a pressure cooker, without the weights which had been lost years ago. Mum was delighted with the gift and we named this pan after its previous owner; so meet Brenda the ancient, Presto, pressure cooker. Yes her handles may be a little loose and I’ve no idea what she’s made of but every time I use her I smile when I think of the real Brenda, who was funny, unreliable, always in debt, generous, sometimes care worn like many who had lost their youth to a war. Once she saw how useful ‘Brenda’ had become I think she regretted ever giving her away. However, she went to a good home and the real Brenda shared many meals, days out and friendship with my cookery mad mother; have you ever tried making a cheese cake icing with cottage cheese? Just don’t go there. It was one of Mum’s hare brained ideas that just didn’t work on any level.


'Brenda'. Joseph made the sourdough which is cooling in the background.

I digress. As we were buying the chicken for Sunday’s dinner, in Scalloway Meat Company, Stephen spied a haggis that took his fancy. In the car home I hatched up a “cunning plan” to turn this fine haggis into a Scottish style ragu this would mean that the humble haggis would probably form the basis for at least three meals for four adults. This is where beautiful, big Brenda fits in. Just what is a Scottish ragu? Basically it is a bolognese sauce using haggis instead of mince. At New Year, we always make a cottage pie using haggis. It all started when Joseph and Samuel were younger and the thought of eating offal didn’t inspire them  or appeal to them. Not being content to let prejudice overcome flavour I thought if I made up a ‘Scottish lasagne’ they would eat that. It worked! Now Joseph says he prefers cottage pie made with haggis. Result!!!


Haggis pasta bake, with some planned leftovers for lunches.

Returning to work after a break is always difficult which is why I decided to do a batch cook at the weekend; making a haggis cottage pie, a haggis chilli with rice and a haggis and pasta bake. This was inspired by Nigella’s Venetian lasagne and a recipe I’d recently seen @ Elizabeth’s kitchen diary. I took the idea of layering a meat ragu with  pasta tossed in a cheese sauce, instead of the spiced lamb Elizabeth uses, which is delicious by the way, I made use of my haggis ragu. As well as being very economical this ragu is very flavoursome.
Once you have made up your batch of ragu it is a doddle to make up this pasta bake. This is a two part recipe :- the ragu and how to assemble the pasta bake. I used a 750g haggis but I’ll give the quantities for the more usual 450g one.

For the haggis ragu

2 medium onions, finely diced
2 large carrots, peeled and finely diced
2 sticks celery, finely diced
2 tbsp sunflower oil
2,  450g tins chopped tomatoes
450g haggis, casing removed and coarsely chopped
Salt to taste


Haggis ragu not the most picturesque sight

Heat the oil, on a moderate heat, in a large pan add the onions, carrots and celery and cook for 5 mins, stirring from time to time.
Add the tinned tomatoes, stir and cook for a few more minutes until all the veg have softened. This could be up to fifteen minutes.
Add the chopped haggis, continue to break up the haggis in the pan. When you are happy with the texture of your sauce cover your pan and cook on a low heat for 45 minutes.
Test for salt and season to taste. You probably won’t need any peppers as haggises are usually well seasoned.
Now your ragu is ready to use.
It can be served with potatoes and vegetables, it makes a superb cottage pie base. I use it just as I would a beef ragu, with pasta, in a lasagne or in jacket potatoes or with polenta.

The haggis pasta bake
Half quantity of the above sauce
500ml cheese sauce- I make it in the microwave
120g ball mozzarella, ripped into small pieces
500g pasta shapes, fusili works well
100g freshly grated parmesan

Butter your shallow oven proof dish and preheat the oven 190°c (170°c for fan ovens)


Greasing the smaller dishes for lunch time

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Tip the pasta in, when the water comes back to a rolling boil follow the timings on the pasta packet. 9- 12 mins


Add the pasta to the boiling water.

Drain and run under cold water to stop the pasta cooking any further.

Make your cheese sauce
Mix 75g cornflour, in a microwave proof jug,  with a little milk until it is a smooth paste. Make up to 500ml with milk, or a milk and yogurt, or milk and single cream depending on how decadent you feel. Stir to combine.


Sauce ready to be cooked.

Place in the microwave for a minute, stir and cook for another minute, stir. It should be starting to thicken now. Cook in blobs of 20-30 seconds until the sauce has thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Add half the cheese.


Combine the pasta with half the cheese sauce in a large bowl until the pasta is well coated.
Place half of the pasta in your dish and scatter half the mozzarella over it.


The mozzarella draining

Cover this with your meat sauce, in this case haggis ragu.


Smooth the sauce out over half the pasta

Cover this with the remaining cheese pasta. Pour the rest of the cheese sauce over. Scatter the mozzarella over it and the other half of the parmesan.


Freshly grated parmesan.

Bake for 30 mins until golden.

Serve with a crisp green salad and some crusty bread.


A nice sourdough to mop up your sauce and salad dressing.

Brenda is used on a regular basis and I hope when I’m the same age as big, beautiful Brenda I’m still cooking up a storm!


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Scouting around for a good guide for brownies!

Oops! Just couldn’t resist getting some Brownie puns in.


Really Gooey Brownies

Another disaster neatly averted. After a fifteen week absence from work my days of lounging around at home are coming to an end. Really, I should be doing something practical such as stocking up the freezer. Boring! After years of being sensible, enough is enough I decided to follow Marie-Antionette’s advice and “let them eat cake”. I know the general consensus is that she was referring to either brioche or pain de mie; whereas brownies are what I feel like whipping up.


Assembling all the ingredients.

I can’t remember when brownies first entered my cake radar. I had a friend who moved to America who mentioned them in her, at first, frequent letters. What she described was a chocolate tray bake surely? No, no, no! I now know what brownies really are and in the cakey and gooey debate I’m with the gooey lobby.


Lots of yummy bits of chocolate.

I digress. Where is the disaster that’s been averted? It all started with an innocent question ‘I feel like making some cake, Niela would you like me to make you some?’ Niela’s spinning wheel abruptly came to a halt and her eyes had that mischievous sparkle that often appears when either ‘gin’, ‘cake’ or something ‘wooly’ is mentioned. After some deliberation we decided that a lemon drizzle cake would go down nicely, but only half a batch. After all we are both ‘watching our weight’. Then Niela had a thought, ‘t’other half prefers chocolate cake.’ Well I like to please everyone especially if it involves making more cake. After more serious debate we fixed on brownies, easy. That is unless you know my passion for baking. We then had to discuss whether to include chocolate chips. ‘Yes’ with that look that says it all; i.e. they aren’t brownies without chocolate chips. Next problem: do you want it iced? Sorry ‘frosted’ I keep forgetting across the pond they ‘frost’, rather than ‘ice’. With some more serious discussion we fixed on half a tray of plain brownies and half a tray with a melted minty chocolate topping. As you can see we are really watching our weight. Those of you of a more mathematical inclination will have noticed that ‘only half a batch’  has now expanded, like my elasticated waistband, to one and a half trays each.


Putting the wafer thin mints on the hot brownie

I go home with a spring in my step. Cake! Lots of cake. Its easy to see why I’m no longer svelte. At the end of the working day, Stephen usually phones to see if I need any extra groceries. I’m sure his eyes must have lit up when I asked for six bars of plain chocolate and two boxes of chocolate mints. It could only mean one thing; After Eight Brownies. Except I use Tesco’s own chocolate mints, they’re thicker and make a better icing in my honest opinion. Ingredients assembled. ‘Let’s bake’.


A minty topped tray of brownies.

All went well, or at least seemed to, until I put the mixture into the lined tin. It just didn’t look enough and I’d run out of cocoa. I decided to make another batch to add to this batch using more melted chocolate instead of cocoa. While the chocolate was melting I decided to taste the gloop – in my largest baking tray. Something was not right. It felt grainy, the mixture wasn’t smooth and unctuous. (I’ve watched too many episodes of Masterchef with Michael Roux Jr.) I then looked at the unopened tubs of butter. Whoops! At this point I’m so glad it was just me and the pooches in the kitchen. The next job was very messy. Very, very messy. I’m afraid the dogs may have sampled some of the chocolate gloop that ended on the floor. All the cake mixture had to be scraped out of the lined tin back into the bowl. If you recall there is another batch being made to add to this one. This was going to be a really hefty batch of brownies at this rate. Most of the mixture went into the bowl. I managed to avoid spilling any on my new camera. Yes some lots  ended up on the floor, work surfaces and me. Seriously, have you ever tried to scrape cake mixture out of a parchment lined baking tray? The paper flapped about, the mixture dripped and splashed. I flapped and fumed, I did manage to salvage most of it. All was not lost, I mixed the chocolate brownie mixes together and I can safely say we all will be eating cake, lots of cake this weekend. I can also safely say that there will be a few (albeit happy) people in Hoswick  who wish,  like Mr. Creosote, they’d said ‘no’ when the phrase;  ‘finally… a wafer thin mint’,  topped brownie, was uttered.


Less than 24 hours later, nearly all gone!

Now enough of the blethering, I digress – again. I searched through my collection of cookery books.  I settled on Mary Berry’s Baking Bible, and a favourite recipe from BBC’s Good Food online recipe bank. The beauty of Mary’s recipe is that it’s just a weigh, mix, pour it into the prepared tin and then bake it. The results are very good, when I’m doing a big batch bake this is the recipe I tend to use. However the Good Food recipe I use does make an even more lush version. This was a tough one. In the end I used the more extravagant ingredients from Oralndo Murrin’s recipe and the Berry baking method. As my mum would say ‘laziness is nowt unless its well carried out’ .

Now let’s get serious.

For a single batch
You will need:-

Greased and lined with baking paper,  20cm square brownie tin.

185g butter
185g plain chocolate, not cooking chocolate melted either in a heatproof bowl or in the microwave (check every 30 seconds)
85g plain flour
45g cocoa
100g chocolate,  chips or chopped into small nibble sized bits
3 large eggs (whisked, if you want a lighter feel to these chocolate beauties, with the sugar)
275g caster sugar, or light brown for a fudge brownie.
1 box ‘wafer thin mints’  either ‘after 8’s’ or similar.

Now the hard bit – I lie
Preheat oven 180°C 160° fan oven, gas mark 4

In a large bowl mix all the ingredients together until well mixed. I usually use an ancient hand held mixer to do this. Pour into the prepared tin.
Bake for 20- 25 mins for gooey and 35-45 for cakey brownies.
For gooey when you test it, by inserting a thin skewer, the skewer should come out fairly clean and the top should have only just lost its wobbliness. For cakey, the cake tester should be clean, unless you hit some molten chocolate.

For mint topped brownies place the mints, at regular intervals, on top of the hot cake. As they melt spread the molten mints evenly over the cake. Allow to cool and cut into as many squares as you feel like. It should make 12ish.

If you want to go for the more involved method. (Only to be attempted if you have someone else who is prepared to do the washing up. I find even with a dishwasher everything needs a good rinse before it sets on the bowl. However; young or even older, children can be persuaded to lick scrape the bowls clean.)

In a small bowl, simply melt the butter and chocolate together, allow to cool
Into a medium bowl – Sieve the cocoa and flour together.
In a large bowl Whisk the eggs and sugar together, until at least doubled in volume.
Carefully pour the buttery chocolate into the whisked eggs and sugar. If you pour the mixture down the sides of the bowl this will be gentler and you want to save all your air bubbles.
Fold in the flour and cocoa.
Gently stir your chocolate chips into your mixture.
Pour into your prepared cake tray
Bake for 20-25 mins for gooey and 35-45 for cakey brownies
For mint topped brownies cover the hot cake with the chocolates, as they melt spread to make an even topping/ icing /frosting.

The brownies in the photos, once I’ve persuaded Sam to transfer them from my camera to my tablet,  were made by the weigh, mix, spread, bake and eat method, using Mary Berry’s all in one recipe. For the big tray, 37 x 22cm, in the photo I made up a double size batch. For the smaller tray, 32 x 22,  I used 1 and a half times the ingredients.  I really am talking about a lot of brownies here.

Enjoy but don’t tell your doctor where you found the recipe, they might know my Dr. I didn’t eat many, really. Then I’ve never been very good at maths!

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In Search of the Perfect Pizza


Pizza ready to be sliced and eaten.

Every Friday was, and now is once again, Pizza Night. Almost every Friday night of the almost  ten years we lived in Bella Italia was Pizza night. Or that’s what is, rightly or wrongly, fixed into my memory. I suspect the year after Sam was born, two full months, prematurely things may have been a little less organised. Early every Friday evening, well by Italian standards, we’d pack the ‘pizza bag’;  no not for ferrying the goodies  back home, rather as my boys were only young at that time, it was full of paper, pens, whatever electronic device that was on the go- PSPs, Nintendo DS, Gameboys of various hues. (I can’t tell you how useful these little gaming machines were on that long car journey from Milan to Glasgow, via Northampton) Friday night pizzas  were one of the highlights of our week.


The dough after a couple of 'rests'.

All good things must come to an end as  those individuals of a pessimistic inclination will tell you. Stephen’s ten year contract with the European Schools was up, our time in Italy was quickly coming to an end. Soon a large, very large, removal truck negotiated our narrow drive. Box after box was loaded into the van. Every box was numbered and the contents listed. One of the last things to be packed was the computer, as I desperately struggled to list the contents of the final boxes as they were packed. Precious possessions to be placed in store until we could find a home of our own in Shetland. Little realising it would be a full year until outgrown toys and clothes were reunited with their owners.


Stretching the dough.

A new phase on our lives had begun, it soon became evident that if we wanted an Italian style pizza we would have to make them at home. “No problem”, to quote Sam’s catch phrase. We tried all manner of things to get that thin and crispy base that still managed to be crisp, chewy and still felt like bread. We tried pre –  baking them. They were thin and certainly crispy, but they could not be described as ‘bready’ no more like loaded pitta crisps. Back to the drawing board. Luckily, I don’t know what drew me to it, I discovered the Pizza Pilgrims. I had one of those light bulb moments. Pan- fried pizzas made with a scone type base work well for a quick pizza type hit. Why not try the same method with a dough based pizza?


Folding the dough.

Ad nauseum, I went on and on about their method. Stephen was now becoming ecstatically delighted. I had  almost convinced him to build a pizza oven in the garden. Almost. I think he can’t have been listening to me when he’d agreed, then showing him some plans online must have struck an alarm bell somewhere. He did have a point; in Shetland,  where the rain is often horizontal, what chance did a pizza oven have of being used more than once a year. I think Stephen realised he’d be the one who’d be in charge of the oven. He is after all  something of a pyromaniac, more about that another day. Those who haven’t glanced at the Pizza Pilgrims book or at the brilliant pizza book ‘Franco Manca’ have a look, this revolutionary method is so so easy. You simply cook the base of the pizza in a heavy based frying pan, top it while the base cooks  then whack it under a ferociously hot grill. Simples.


Topping the base with passata.

Now once again pizza night is one of the meals we most look forward to every week. It’s a meal that has a great buzz about it. Preparations begin much earlier in the day, usually before midday. For this recipe we use  very little yeast and just let it take its time. Joseph usually makes the dough. Once I’ve worked how to upload the photos from my new Sam’s old camera it’s his hands that are dexterously folding and shaping the dough. You can make a dough and use it straight away, I have done in an emergency before and it will still be a lot better than a takeaway pizza. We just like the rituals of pizza night.


Adding pancetta. No time to hesitate

Around seven o’clock it’s all hands on deck. The surface dusted with flour. Cast iron baking stone heating up, the grill turned to its highest setting. Mozzarellas drained and halved. Passata opened, a small amount poured into a dish. Utensils out i.e. rolling pins, heavy oven sheet, spatula and oven gloves. Pizza boxes made, yep we’ve got the pizza bug really bad! Any other toppings. Last week’s pizza was a sausage and rocket one; I think its my favourite. The sausage is fried, allowed to cool, casing removed and then sliced.

The assembly line then kicks into gear; Joseph deftly and alarmingly accurately rolls out perfect discs of dough. I then transfer it on to the hot pizza stone, wait for the surface to bubble, once it has I put no more than two tablespoons of passata on the base and swirl it around. Meanwhile, as the next base is being rolled out, I add the rest of the toppings to the pizza. It always amazed us how little was on a pizza in Italy, it is definitely a case of ‘less is more’ in terms of flavour. This pizza is then put under the very hot grill and is watched by who ever is going to eat it. By the time that one is cooked the next one is ready to go under the grill. I’ve tried doing it all on my own but it doesn’t work so well. The kitchen gets too hot and the dough waiting to be rolled out becomes too relaxed and stretches all over the place when you attempt to lift it onto the pizza stone. With all four of us working together it really doesn’t take long, it can get a bit frantic at times but it’s great fun.


Topped with pancetta and brie ready to go under the grill.

Do give this way of cooking pizzas a go. They’re as close to an authentic Italian pizza as you can get. We could almost be sitting at our favourite pizzeria in Italy, well almost.

The dough will make four 10″ pizzas.

(The pictures are of last week’s pancetta and brie pizza)

500g strong white flour.
2-7g of instant yeast. (Use smaller amount if you plan to make the dough in the morning and the larger amount if you make the dough a couple of hours before you want to eat.)
15g of salt. You can use less, but you’ll need to season your tomatoes.
325g water, lukewarm (22-27°C)

Place the flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl and combine.
Pour in the water and work the dough together using your fingertips.
Lightly dust your working surface with flour and tip your dough onto it.
Knead the dough lightly to make sure everything is all mixed together. Let it rest for a few minutes 10 – 15
Rinse your bowl and lightly oil it.
Place the dough back in your bowl cover with a damp cloth or cling film.
Leave for an other 15 mins and then carefully stretch the dough and then fold it back up. Turn the dough a quarter turn, stretch and fold again , do two more quarter turns and stretch and fold.
After the fourth turn, stretch and fold shape the dough onto a ball and put the dough back in the bowl. Leave for 15 mins and then repeat the stretching, folding and turning. Shape into a ball
Return the dough to its bowl, cover the bowl once more.
If you have used the small amount of yeast leave the bowl somewhere cool for 8-12 hours
If you’ve used the larger amount of yeast, leave somewhere warm for an hour.
The dough should have doubled in size
Lightly dust your work surface with flour, carefully ease your dough onto the work surface.
Divide your dough into four equal pieces, shape into balls, place in either one very large, lightly oiled, plastic box or two smaller ones.
Leave until doubled. Depend on the heat of your room it could be between 30-60 minutes.

Now the fun begins!
Get everything you will need ready, toppings, baking sheet, spatula.

4 balls of pizza dough-  see above
Flour for dusting

Passata, 8 tablespoons
2 x 120g balls mozzarella, drained and torn into pieces
Basil, a small bunch

Pre heat your grill, place the rack in its highest position
Place an oiled heavy frying pan, or cast iron baking stone/ griddle on the hob on a medium high heat.

Dust your work surface with flour and roll the first ball of dough into a disc just smaller than your pan.
Pick your pizza base up and plop it into the hot pan. I use a small rolling pin to lift it. Spread it flat.
As soon the top begins to bubble spread 2 tbsp of passata onto the base with the back of your spoon. Put 4 or 5 basil leaves on top and distribute a quarter (60g)of the mozzarella on top.
Cook the pizza for 3-4 mins, keep checking the base, use a spatula to lift it up to see how it’s browning.
Transfer onto a baking sheet and place under the grill for 3-4 mins.
You can put the pizza in the pan under the grill, if it has a heatproof handle. Cook for 3-4 mins.
Once ready garnish with a few more, small, basil leaves and serve either sliced or whole.

Other favourite toppings (in addition to the basic passata and mozzarella)
Sausage and rocket, precook and slice the sausage . Scatter rocket over the cooked pizza.
Salami and gorganzola
Sliced chorizo and goat’s cheese
Anchovy, olive and caper
Griddled asparagus and  mozzarella, drizzled with melted butter when cooked. OMIT THE TOMATO.

Remember have a light hand with your toppings. One pack of pancetta, 120-150g, does four pizzas.

Ciao ciao.


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