Crystal Cooks

So far so good. I have survived two months of my cooking challenge. Apart from the new recipes and the interesting meals there have been some unexpected elements to this challenge.

I was not expecting the sense of satisfaction. Not just at actually accomplishing a challenge I had set for myself, but also in rediscovering the delight of cooking from scratch, of filling the flat with the smell of freshly made food, of planning meals and enjoying the results.

I was also not expecting that the cooking entries would start to take over the blog.  Not only have these entries received more readers and comments, but I find myself wanting to write more than just a monthly update. So I have decided to move the detailed blogging about my cooking challenge to another blog, called Crystal Cooks

I will still post a brief overview of the challenge at the end of the month, but will use Crystal Cooks to reflect on insights and experiences as I spend more time in the kitchen, armed with a recipe book.


Cooking Challenge – January

 The recipe book I worked with in January was Mary and Martha’s Recipe Book, a collection of recipes compiled and sold to raise money to supply babies with clothing, nappies and other essentials. Although I did not buy the book, it was given to me as a Christmas present, so presumably some money went to a good cause. The secondary aim of this book was to provide mothers with quick and easy recipes. I am not a mother, but I do also have limited time to cook. So soon found many recipes that I wanted to try.

One of the advantages of these sorts of recipe books is that the recipes are submitted by real people, who have prepared them in ordinary kitchens. So you don’t need to be a professional chef with a team of minions to do the dirty work, to get them to work. Several of the recipes only required two or three ingredients, and most had safely short instructions. So much the better.

Mary and Martha’s Recipe Book became the first in my monthly challenges more by chance than design. I had been bored with always making the same chocolate cake, so had browsed through a few recipe books and decided to try the Three minute Madeira. (Three minutes of beating the cake, not three minutes to make it – but still pretty quick and very nice). So when I started on the challenge it made sense to work with the book I had already started on. I ended up with a nice mix of recipes – soup, chicken casserole, pudding, cake and icing. And five new recipes to add to my repertoire.

The cake was really nice. It was a rainbow cake, with white, pink and green batter swirled together to create a marble effect. I was a bit worried that it would all turn into a grey sludge, but it was very effective. It made a large cake, which claims to keep for up to a week. Very useful for making in advance or baking for big groups. I took it to work for my birthday tea and not one slice was left, so I will have to wait for the next bake to test its claims. The recipe suggested a caramel icing. As I was taking a caramel tart I thought that might be overkill, so substituted vanilla for the caramel essence. It was one of the nicest icings I have made, and will now become my standard.

 Next stop – a real meal. The section on chicken contained some wonderful looking recipes. One appealled by only listing three ingredients (chicken, onion soup, apricot juice), and only needing two lines of instructions. Mix sauce ingredients, pour over chicken, bake. Mere minutes to prepare, then it could be left to bake for an hour and a half while I got on with other things. The casserole was lovely, with a thick, yummy sauce. I was a bit dubious about the apricot, but the flavour was lovely. Even better, it made quite a lot. So for the next few days I could come home knowing I had supper just waiting to be heated up. This worked so well that I made it again the next week. Partly because I still had half a litre of apricot juice that I needed to do something with.

Then we got to pudding. Another definite winner. Sweetened whipped cream layered between nuttikrust biscuits. Quick, easy, and very sweet. I think next time (oh yes, there will definitely be a next time, probably several:) I will add less sugar. I haven’t used nuttikrust biscuits in baking before, but they gave the pudding an interesting flavour and texture.

My final recipe for the month, in honour of the film about French cooking which started it all off, was French Onion and Potato Soup. It would never have occurred to me to use potatoes in soup but it worked well. It was a thick, chunky soup, rather rich but really nice with a bit of grated cheese melted in and a fresh bread roll on the side. It required chopping two onions and I was reminded of the scene in Julie & Julia where Julia Childs chops vast amounts of onion. I have to admit that I am not fearless, so worked a little slower, and a lot more carefully. Two onions and two potatoes got chopped without incident. Again, I ended up with three portions left over which became my lunch for the next few days.

 All in all things went well with the first month of my cooking challenge. I made something new each week, everything I tried worked, and I now have five new recipes to add to my collection. I am now getting back into the habit of cooking meals which require a long preparation time on the weekend, so that I have a stash of meals for busy weeknights.

On the menu for February is One-Dish Winners by Christelle Erasmus. I used it quite a lot when I first bought it, mainly for pastas and salads. But there are many more dishes waiting to be tried. Watch this space to see how things go.

Julie & Julia … and me

I like recipe books. I have a whole shelf of them and can happily browse through them, admiring the pictures and planning all sorts of interesting dishes to make. But I have to admit that I seldom get further than planning. Most of my recipe books sit on the shelf, never seeing the inside of the kitchen. I tend to make the same dishes over and over again, or go with simple meals which don’t actually need recipes – salads, stir fry, grilled chicken, pasta and so on.

Every year I promise myself that I will cook properly, that I will try new recipes, that I will not buy another recipe book until I have actually used the last one I bought. And no, looking at the pictures does not count.

This year, I might actually get somewhere. Two things have prompted me to get back to cooking and baking. One was my birthday. I was trying to decide what to make for tea at work, when it dawned on me that the last few times I have taken tea, I have made chocolate cake and pineapple fridge tart. These are two of my standard recipes – quick, easy and yummy. But perhaps it was time for a change. So I made a madeira rainbow cake (new recipe) and a caramel tart (old recipe but not made for a while).

The next day I went to see the film Julie & Julia. And came home completely inspired to cook. For those who have not seen the film, the character Julie challenges herself to cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s book, Mastering French Cooking and to blog about it. The film switches between Julie’s project, and the story of Julia Childs learning to love (and master) French cooking. It is well worth seeing, but be warned, you are likely to come out feeling hungry.

Now I have no desire to master French cooking. It is far too fancy for me.   I am  too fussy to want to work through an entire recipe book. We all know there is no way I am going to cook lobster, or spinach for that matter. And too  lazy  busy to want to cook over 500 recipes in one year.

So I have set myself a gentler, more manageable challenge. ( And one less likely to see me double in size.) Each month I will pick one of my recipe books and aim to try four or five new recipes, roughly one a week. At the end of the month I will let my readers know how it went, and which book is next on the menu.