Thursday, September 30, 2010

Baking From Scratch

Everyone is trying to eat healthier these days, especially those of us who blog about food. But everyone likes a treat once in a while, and although I am sure there are some brave souls who can be ruthless with themselves and not give in to the urge, most of us really like a piece of cake. But I’m still surprised by the number of people who use cake mixes.

Nothing against Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines, I’ve been on first name terms with them for years. I’ve been known to use Betty Crocker icing from time to time, and I honestly cannot duplicate the artificial and yet somehow wonderful taste of Jello Instant Pistachio pudding – a very occasional treat in our house. However if you are really trying to be healthy and save money, packaged mixes – particularly for cakes - are just not the way to go.

First of all they are full of preservatives, sodium, sugars and fat – and not the good kinds either. Then there is the spectre of ‘modified cornstarch’, colours, preservatives and lots of ingredients beginning with ‘E’ and ending in numbers. And in terms of economy, even when these babies are on sale, they are still charging way more than it would cost you to buy the ingredients you need to make a cake. After all, you still have to add shortening or oil, water and eggs.

When you think about it, aside from oil, butter or shortening, eggs and water or milk, what else is there in a cake? If you are thinking about a basic sponge or white cake, there’s just flour, leavening and flavouring. Want chocolate cake?  You just need to add some cocoa to that. And none of those ingredients take much longer than it takes to open a package to measure out. Even making something like carrot cake only means leaving enough time to grate a couple carrots and measure out some nuts. I mean, the cakes these mixes make taste good and all, but I’m pretty darn sure that carrot cake mixes don’t contain much real carrot. And as for those blueberries in the blueberry muffin mixes – don’t even get me started on those. 

So why do we use them? Well, most of us grew up in the era when packaged mixes were still a novelty, and I can vividly remember folks saying things like, “You don’t want to make a scratch cake, you want a mix. They are so much easier and they taste delicious.” And then there was the advertising. Our moms were bombarded with television ads aimed at “the modern woman” and ads for packaged mixes aimed at us kids – much like cereal and toy advertisements – made us pester our parents to buy them. Even today, we are still being told that cake mixes are easier, and much of a generation has grown up convinced that baking a cake from scratch is really, really hard. 

But the truth is, it isn’t. Seriously, it isn’t one bit harder than baking a cake from a mix. The only difference is you add flour and baking powder to the eggs, water and shortening, instead of an indeterminately coloured powder from a box. That’s it. Plus the bonus is, you can choose what kind of flour and shortening you use. So if you want to use hand milled, unbleached or organic flour you can. In many cases, you can even use almond flour to eliminate the gluten. You can control the amount of salt you add, and to a point, even the amount of sugar. (Although most cake recipes are almost like alchemy and you shouldn’t mess with the proportions, leaving out a couple of tablespoons of sugar – or even up to a quarter cup – will affect nothing but the sweetness of the cake.) When you bake from scratch, you are totally in control of what is going in your family’s mouths.

As I said, I very occasionally find myself pulling the red lid off a package of Betty Crocker frosting when I’m in a hurry – but I haven’t used a cake mix in years, and my family are much happier and healthier for it. Making a cake from scratch is one of the easiest things you can do to give your family a real treat without totally blowing it in the health department.

Need some inspiration? Click here for the recipe for my Real-ly Delicious Cake, a light and delicious white cake that tastes wonderful. Fancy something a bit more special? Try this Marble Cake. And if you want to make a Devil’s Food Cake that is better than any mix on the market, just follow the recipe below. It’s easy, honestly. And when you taste it, you’ll know why I‘m unlikely to ever buy a cake mix again!

The 21st Century Housewife’s Devil’s Food Cake

½ cup butter, softened (organic if possible)
1¾ cups sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla
3 large eggs, preferably free range and/or organic
2¼ cups good all-purpose (plain) flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1½ teaspoons baking soda
pinch of salt
1 cups milk (Again, organic if possible. You can use also raw milk or buttermilk here - it will give a slightly tangier and less sweet flavour to the cake, but it works well.)

Preheat the oven to 350 (170 or 160 if you have a fan oven).

Cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. (I do use an electric mixer for this – you need strong arms otherwise!!) Add the sugar and vanilla and cream together. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt together into a separate bowl. Add this mixture alternately with the milk (in about four additions) beating well after each addition. 

Divide the mixture evenly between two 8 inch round greased and floured (or lined) cake tins and place in the preheated oven. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until a piece of raw spaghetti inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. 

Frost as desired and enjoy. You can make a really easy frosting from 6 tablespoons of softened butter creamed with 3 cups of confectioner’s sugar. Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla or almond flavouring and enough milk to make a spreadable frosting (usually between 1 and 3 tablespoons) – but any frosting of your choice works really well.

The cake will keep up to three days. You can also freeze the layers (without frosting) for about a month.  Thaw completely before frosting. 

If you liked this and the other linked recipes, there’s lots more scratch cake recipes on this site, both in the blog and in the Recipe of the Week section.

Linking up (from my main blog) with:-

Simple Lives Thursday at GNOWFLINS

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ecover Stain Remover

Ecover recently sent me a bottle of their new stain remover to test. Ecover’s effective ecological laundry products are among the best on the market, and I use them in my own home, so I had high hopes for this great addition to their line. I wasn’t disappointed.

We get into our fair share of stains in our house. My work as a food writer and recipe developer mean lots of food based stains, gardening leads to heavy dirt and grass stains, and we all seem to attract ink stains like magnets - odd in this day of computers, but there you have it! Also, I was even able to test the stain remover on blood as immunisations for an upcoming business trip led to my husband getting blood on one of his best shirts.

Ecover Stain Remover did a sterling job on all these stains. Food, including tomato sauce and blueberry, dirt, grass, ink and blood all came out beautifully. I particularly liked the handy and convenient brush applicator which is also great for pre-treating shirt collars and cuffs before they go into the wash. Ecover Stain Remover is suitable for white and colourfast laundry and is made of plant based ingredients so it is kind to the environment as well as your clothes.

My verdict? This is one of the best stain removers I have used, and it doesn’t contain all the nasty ingredients so many conventional stain removers do. It’s the only stain remover I will buy from now on. 

The 21st Century Housewife was not paid for this post. I was sent a free bottle of stain remover to test. This is an unscripted review and contains my own personal opinion.

My Mom's Scalloped Potatoes

Everyone has a signature recipe - that one thing they make that no matter how lovingly or thoroughly shared the recipe is, they make better than anyone else you know. For my Mom, it was her scalloped potatoes. They were her go to recipe, the one thing she could utterly depend on to turn out - and the one thing everyone always loved.

Mom would often make this recipe with thick slices of ham, putting them right on top of the potatoes in the last hour or so of cooking time. It was one of my favourite dinners when I was a kid. Mom would often make it for visitors, especially her own Dad when he would visit us with his second wife, who was a difficult woman and always set us a bit on edge. Grandpa and ‘Aunt’ (“there is no way you are calling that woman Grandma”) Helen loved it, and Mom could depend on it to turn out every time, so it was one less thing to worry about. Ironically it was the last meal Mom cooked for her Dad before he died, and I vividly remember how Grandpa remarked on how much he enjoyed dinner that last time he visited us.

One of the first meals my Mom cooked for my husband involved her meltingly tender scalloped potatoes, and even my son remembers them, although by the time he was about ten, Mom was too ill to cook anymore.

Mom told me the recipe so many times, and in the early days of my own marriage we’d laugh over how I could never make it work. The trouble was, being me I struggled not to play with it, to accept its utter simplicity and just do what she said. I was sure there must be something else and because her simple recipe never seemed to work for me, I ended up developing endless variations with breadcrumbs, cheese and goodness knows what else. They tasted great, but they were definitely not as good as Mom’s. And then one day she was too ill to remember how she made it at all.

It’s one of the only recipes my Mom never wrote down, so my attempts to make it these last three years since she died have been sporadic, and I had almost given up. But one quiet evening in the kitchen not so long ago, I got out the casserole dish Mom always used - a classic yellow one with a lid that is older than I am - and as I put it on the counter, I swear I heard my Mom say, “It has a lid, April, use it.” And in the end, that was the key.  Covering the potatoes for the first hour of cooking transformed the dish, and giving it the time it needed to bake to tender perfection - and for the milk to absorb - was the one step I had missed every single time I had tried before.

The looks on my husband and son’s faces were enough to let me know that this time I had finally done it, and I very nearly cried when I tasted those potatoes myself. Mine will never be my Mom’s, because there was something about how she made them that will always be uniquely hers, but I got as close as I think it is possible for anyone save my Mom to do  - and for me, that is what bringing great family food memories to life is all about.

To serve four generously as a side dish, you need:-

3 to 4 large baking potatoes, peeled and very finely sliced
1 large (or 2 small) onions, peeled and very finely sliced
3 generous tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups milk

one casserole dish, about 8 or 9 inches square and at least 2 inches deep - with a lid, or use aluminum foil to cover.

Don’t be tempted to make this more difficult that it really is like I did. It really is this simple - and yes, with the long slow cooking, there is enough flour to thicken the sauce. (Not being bossy, just sayin’!)

Preheat the oven to 400 (200).

Place one third of the potatoes in the bottom of the dish. Add one third of the onions.

Sprinkle evenly with one generous tablespoon of flour. Add another layer of potatoes, another of onion, and sprinkle with one generous tablespoon of flour. Repeat these layers one more time. Now cover the last layer with a final layer of potatoes, overlapping them slightly. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.

Dot with the butter. Heat the milk in a pitcher in the microwave for two to three minutes, or in a pan on the stove, until bubbles just being to form around the edges. (Don’t let it boil.) Carefully pour the hot milk over the potatoes, cover the casserole with a lid or a layer of aluminum foil and put in the oven. Immediately turn the oven temperature back to 375 (190 or 180  for a fan oven).

Cook, with the lid on, for forty-five minutes before so much as peeking at it. At this point, remove the dish from the oven, take off the lid and gently press the potatoes down into the milk with a fork. (Don’t squash them too much, you don’t want them to break up.) Put the lid back on and return the casserole to the oven.

Cook for about fifteen to twenty minutes more, and then remove the lid from the casserole. You may want to reduce the heat just a little at this point if your oven is very fierce. Continue to cook for at least another thirty to forty minutes until the top begins to go beautifully golden and crunchy, and quite brown around the edges.

I kept the tiny amount of potatoes that were left over in the fridge overnight and they reheated beautifully for my lunch the next day.

Linking up with the wonderful:-
Hearth and Soul Blog Hop

Monday, September 27, 2010

Meatless Monday - The 21st Century Housewife's Vegetable Biryani

This is more an ode to biryani than a proper authentic version - I am no expert on Indian cuisine and any dishes I create are highly flavoured with my own experience and my family’s tastes. This dish, however, does have echoes of the vegetable biryani I have eaten in Indian restaurants and a wonderful warming and comforting flavour that is perfect for cool autumn nights.

My family and I do like spice, but in its milder, more subdued form, so if you are a spice lover, the quantities of in this dish may seem small. They can, of course, be increased, although I recommend increasing them proportionately (ie. use the same amount of cilantro as garam masala, and half as much cumin) as the flavours really do sing out beautifully in those proportions. Saffron can be expensive, so if you would prefer not to use it, feel free to leave it out. However if you do have some on hand it definitely enhances the flavours in this dish so is well worth including. It also adds a gorgeous hint of colour to the cauliflower and to the rice.

You can vary the vegetables in this dish according to what you have on hand, although cauliflower is almost always a part of a vegetable biryani so I encourage you to use it if at all possible. Make sure your vegetables are cut small, and that florets are kept small too, so that it does not take too long to cook. Again, this isn’t strictly authentic, as many biryani dishes are cooked long and slow, but I like the subtle crunch it gives this dish.

My method of adding some of the rice to the vegetable mixture at the end is definitely something you would not find in a true biyani, but I like the texture and appearance it gives to this dish. However if you prefer, just keep all the rice separate and serve the vegetables over top of it.

Lovely served with a basket of warmed nan breads on the side if you can get hold of them, this recipe will serve four to six people, depending on age and appetite.

2 cups of rice, basmati if possible
2 tablespoons olive oil, or other mild vegetarian cooking oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 cup cauliflower florets
1 cup broccoli florets
1 cup green beans
½ cup cashew nuts
¼ to ½ cup vegetable stock
(You can use hot water in a pinch, but stock is best - ready made or from a cube is fine.)
1 teaspoon curry powder (I use garam masala)
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried ground cilantro (known as coriander in the UK)
2 pinches of saffron
freshly chopped cilantro or parsley to garnish, if desired

Cook the rice in lots of boiling salted water according to package directions, adding a pinch of saffron to the cooking water if desired.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large frying pan and sauté the onion over medium heat until pale and translucent. Toss in the carrots, cauliflower and broccoli florets and stir fry for a few minutes.

Dissolve another pinch of saffron in a quarter cup of the vegetable stock (if you are using saffron). Add the quarter cup of the stock to the pan with the vegetables along with the curry powder, cumin and dried cilantro. Add the green beans. Pop the lid on and cook over low to medium heat for two or three minutes until the vegetables are tender but still crisp.

Remove the lid and add the cashews, stirring to warm through. Drain the rice well and add about a quarter of it to the vegetable mixture in the pan, stirring through lightly. Add a bit more stock if you feel it needs it.

Serve this mixture on a bed of the remaining rice.

Linking up with:-
My Sweet and Savory

Hey What's For Dinner Mom? 
Also with MMMmonday at Acting Balanced and

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Relaxing Weekend

My weekend started off really well because I had the pleasure of being featured on two of my favourite blogs - in Thoughts on Friday from the Middle of the Road on A Moderate Life and on Frugality and Crunchiness with Christy. I’m so grateful to both Alex and Christy for mentioning me and for their lovely comments.

This morning started off early, but well, with a lovely breakfast at a new local restaurant called Bill’s. It’s in a beautiful old listed building, and they’ve restored it really sensitively. Warmly welcoming, with a fantastic menu, and lots of wonderful things that you can buy to take home. In fact, they have lists and you can just tick off what you want and your server will do your shopping for you while you enjoy your meal! We had a fantastic breakfast there and I really can’t wait to go back.

My husband had the dish above, lovely fresh eggs and bacon, freshly toasted homemade bread, grilled tomatoes and fried mushrooms. Scrumptious! I had a bacon sandwich that was wonderful too.

This afternoon we even managed a short walk down by the river. We live just a few minutes’ walk from the Thames and a beautiful lock. We love to stand and watch the boats go through, eating an ice cream from the Lock Cafe.

You can walk for miles along the Thames Path, but today was just a short visit as my husband had lots of work to do and my ‘to do’ list wasn’t getting any shorter, but it really was lovely. I’m so grateful to live where we do - right on the edge of the countryside, but only a few minutes’ drive from a large town, and half an hour by train from London itself. For us, it is truly the best of all possible worlds.

Now there is a chicken roasting in the oven for dinner, and my husband and I are both at work in our home office. I can hear my son and his friend laughing upstairs. Even though we are busy, it’s lovely just to be together.  I am so grateful for days like today.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Catching Up

It's been a very busy week here, so here is an update from the main site. Just click on the links below the photographs for the recipes.

Delicious Autumn Soup
Yorkie Beef Pudding

Shrimp Primavera

I'm also really excited to have been mentioned by Alex at A Moderate Life in her weekly post Thoughts on Friday from the Middle of the Road and by Christy at Frugality and Crunchiness with Christy in her Hearth and Soul - LInk Love post. 

Have a great weekend everyone!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Big Thank You!

Living in the UK as I do, I very rarely enter giveaways, but when I saw the Divine Health September ebook giveaway on Alex’s A Moderate Life, I figured that was one I could probably enter. Being an ebook, it wasn’t like it had to be posted. Well, I am so glad I did enter, because I won! So now I have a fantastic ebook to read, full of great recipes and some really interesting articles. 

I’m so grateful to both Alex at A Moderate Life and Lydia at Divine Health for this lovely prize! Huge thanks to you both!

The Sustainable Fashion Show at London Fashion Week

Photo Christopher James
Used with permission
Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending a fashion show with a difference. Everything, from the work of the designers, right down to the show itself, was done with a serious amount of consideration for the environment. The show was held in partnership with START, an initiative by The Prince of Wales’ Charities Foundation to promote and celebrate sustainable living, at St James‘ Palace and Clarence House in London. 

After a champagne reception held by the British Fashion Council, we made our way into Friary Court, part of St James’ Palace, for the show. As a guest of Ecover, one of The Sustainable Fashion Show’s sponsors, I had a VIP seat for one of the most interesting catwalks of the season. Other guests in attendance included organic fashion icon Jo Wood, mayor of London Boris Johnson and fashion guru and presenter Brix Start-Smith.

Photo Christopher James
Used with permission

Designs from some of the biggest names in fashion were showcased and featured designers including Dame Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney, From Somewhere, People Tree, Junky Styling, Henrietta Ludgate and Christopher Raeburn.

The blue dress worn by the model below left was one of my favourite designs of the day - and check out the gorgeous boots worn by the model on the right. They are so on my shopping list for the autumn season!

Also featured were supermodel Erin O’Connor’s collection of ethical and organic t-shirts and bags ‘She Died of Beauty’. Co-designed with stylist Kate Halfpenny, the range is in classic black and white and features slogans like ‘She Died of Perfection’ and ‘She Died of Love’. Made of organic, ethically sourced cotton, it is manufactured solely using sustainable energy generated by wind and solar power. Classically elegant, with lots of personality, I am sure the collection will prove very popular this season.

I had a fabulous time at The Sustainable Fashion Show and send huge thanks to Ecover - the ecological cleaning company - for a lovely afternoon. In the words of Emma Bennetts from Ecover, “The show was such a fantastic celebration of sustainable fashion and illustrated how we can all make choices to live a more sustainable and eco-friendly life, even down to the clothes we choose to wear.”  I honesty couldn’t say it any better myself!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Catching Up

It's been a lovely week - including a fantastic day yesterday at The Sustainable Fashion Show at St James' Palace and Clarence House courtesy of the lovely folks at Ecover and The British Fashion Council - but it has been so busy I have not had time to copy all my blog posts over from my main site to here, so please do click on the links below to have a look at what has been happening on The 21st Century Housewife.

Cinnamon Dolce Latte Cake
To see the recipe I contributed to many of the Friday recipe link ups, please click here.

To see the post I have just written about my garden in Autumn, please click here.

We are off now for a weekend in the Buckinghamshire countryside at our friends' home,  including a (significant) birthday celebration for one of them! Have a great weekend everyone!  

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Start Garden Party

Start is a new initiative by HRH The Prince of Wales’ Prince’s Charities Foundation to help people live more sustainably. One of the ways they are doing this is with A Garden Party to Make a Difference which is being held from 8th to 19th September. Featuring fashion, food, entertainment, concerts, home and garden displays, celebrity gardeners , chefs and media personalities, the garden party showcases the latest in sustainable living with displays, shows, debates, presentations, a farmer’s market, fashion workshops and lots more. My family and I went along on Sunday and there certainly was lots to see and do, all set against the incredibly historic backdrop of Clarence House (official residence of HRH The Prince of Wales and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall and previously home of the late Queen Mother), St James Palace (dating back to Henry VIII), Marlborough House (headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat), Lancaster House (originally commissioned by the Grand Old Duke of York in 1825), Friary Court (from whose balcony the ascension of a monarch is proclaimed), the Queen’s Chapel and The Mall (the long boulevard leading from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace).

I was particularly taken by the pallet house in the photo above, which can be assembled using only hand tools within the space of about a week. It turns out that 84% of the world’s refugees could be housed with just one year’s supply of recycled American pallets. Okay, it wasn’t a palace, but in terms of basic shelter it was quite seriously cool. I also really loved the Gravel Garden in this photo. 

Designed by Beth Chatto, it is designed with plants that are drought resistant as well as beautiful, and the plants we saw on Sunday have never been watered by anything other than rain.

Not surprisingly, it was the gardens that interested me most. And the gardens designed by The One Pot Pledge were quite simply amazing. They conclusively proved that you really do not need a big garden to grow vegetables.

I loved the creative use of castaway furniture, cleaned paint cans and even rain gutters (eavestroughs) as growing places for fruit and vegetables. And if you do have a bit more space, check out this rather lovely vegetable garden. 

I first saw it when we went on a tour of Clarence House last year. In existence since 2004, this is HRH the Prince of Wales’ own vegetable garden, where he grows food for himself, his family and his guests. Totally organic, it includes carrots, parsnips, potatoes, lettuce, beetroot, cauliflowers, leeks and broad beans. The Prince of Wales also grows tomatoes, herbs and mulberries.

There are so many things to see and do, it is well worth going along to the Garden Party To Make A Difference in the next few days if you are in the London area, but if not you can always check out the Start website for some fantastic ideas and inspiration on how you can incorporate small changes into your life that will make a big difference to the world’s future. With inspiration like this, now more than ever, it really is time to Start.

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