Friday, 29 July 2011

Seven Randoms: Food Blogs That Inspire Me

Following on from last week’s post about food blogging, I thought I’d make the next ‘Seven Randoms’ food blogs and websites that inspire me. So, in no particular order…

1. The Pioneer Woman Cooks

2. Tasty Kitchen

3. HoneySage

4. Bakerella

5. Smitten Kitchen

6. Seemingly Greek

7. I am Baker

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Food Blogging: What I’ve Learnt So Far

I am by no means an expert when it comes to food blogging. However, it seems to be growing in popularity more and more, so I thought I’d share a couple of things I’ve learnt so far...

1. Photos are one of your best assets. Put in lots of photos – they add visual appeal to your blog, are great at illustrating what you’re trying to say but can’t find the words for, and provide something memorable for visitors who are only there for a quick visit and don’t have the time and/or inclination to read what you’ve written. Don’t be intimidated by the photos on other people’s blogs – your photo-taking skills will improve the more you try. Plus, digital photography means you can take loads of shots and then pick and choose the best ones for your blog. Don’t worry if you don’t have Photoshop – you could start by playing with the basics of light/dark and contrast in Windows Photo Gallery, which is really all I use. Here’s a quick look at the difference it can make (though I realise that the ‘after’ photo here is by no means brilliant):



Here’s a close-up…


2. Illustrate cooking/baking methods. This point is kind of related to the one above, but a bit more specific. Although photos of your finished product are definitely a must, photos of the method you used to get there are optional. However, readers seem to love method photos (even if/when some readers tease you about them) – it’s probably the one thing on my blog that more people compliment, and comment, on (to me, not on the blog itself) and that has been a big encouragement for me to keep taking method photos, even though they seriously add on to the amount of time it takes to cook/bake whatever it is I’m making and to write the blog post.

3. Use social networking. I’ve not really got into Twitter yet, and only joined it recently (on which note, if you’re on Twitter, I’d love to link up with you – you can find me here), but noticed a huge leap in the number of page views on my blog when I started posting links to it on Facebook. Do it, if only to boost your ego and make you feel like someone other than your immediate family reads your blog!

4. Network, blog-style. Comment on other peoples’ blogs, even if you don’t know the blog authors personally. It is a huge encouragement to them (as you’ll find it is to you when people comment on your blog) and a great way to interact with other bloggers and share ideas/insights/experiences. It also gets knowledge of your blog out into the wider web, meaning it might increase your readership (which, as with social networking, means you get an ego boost!). A blog-roll is also a great idea. They are normally located in one of the side-bar of blogs, and provide a place for you to share links to the blogs you enjoy reading – kind of like a personal recommendation. If your readers enjoy reading what you write, they might also enjoy reading what you read!

5. Consider using a blog-writing programme. I started off writing blog posts online, in Blogger, but have since discovered Windows Live Writer, which is a programme that came as part of the Windows operating system on my computer. I know some people are happy writing posts online, but I thought I’d share what works for me, in case it will help others. This is what Windows Live Writer looks like, with this post in progress:


One of the great things I love about using a blog writing programme is that you can write posts offline (which is great if you want to work on a post but either have no internet connection or have only a slow one at that moment). Another thing I love is how easy it is to include photos – you just copy and paste them straight in. Editing options for photos in Windows Live Writer include page justification (left, right, centre), changing picture size, and running various actions to achieve different effects (I don’t tend to use the effects much but they are fun to play around with). You can also write for/publish to a number of blogs in Windows Live Writer, and just choose which blog a particular post is for when you start writing. If using a blog writing programme sounds like the approach for you but you don’t want to use Windows Live Writer, I’m sure there are other programmes out there, and I think you can also write and publish blog posts in Word 2007 (though I’ve not tried).

6. Post regularly. People read blogs for entertainment, and they read food blogs for inspiration. If you have no new content on your blog, it won’t provide any entertainment or inspiration for your readers (read that, moving on…). Regularly doesn’t have to mean frequently, though it should be fairly frequent. I really admire people who post every day or every few days, but am not sure that I could manage that. I aim to post at least once a week (though not always food posts), and sometimes even manage more than that. Aim for a minimum number of posts within a set period of time, particularly when you’re just starting and getting into the habit of blogging, but make it realistic for your life and other commitments – for example once a week, once a fortnight, or once a month. Regular posting also has the added advantage that you’ll probably enjoy it more. That has definitely been my experience - as you’ll see from this blog’s archives, I had it for quite a while before I started posting regularly (which I started at the beginning of this year), and since doing so, I’ve enjoyed blogging so much more than I did before, and also seem to have more ideas for posts.

7. Enjoy it and don’t base your enjoyment on your audience numbers. This point is particularly relevant when you first start out blogging. Although the nature of blogging is such that blog authors usually expect an audience, there may well be many days when you have no page views other than your own. If you let the number of page views or comments determine how you feel about blogging or about yourself, you’ll probably feel pretty down. Blog first as a hobby and second for an audience – that way your enjoyment and enthusiasm won’t depend on uncertain responses to your blog or particular posts, and you’ll probably be more motivated to post regularly.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Cranberry and Macadamia Nut Biscuits/Cookies

I am a big fan of nuts – I think it might be hereditary as my Mum has a nut addiction worse than any other I’ve come across. This can be a good thing because you’re never stuck for a small gift for her when one is required. It can also be a bad thing because she’s been known to have to go out and buy the nuts for specific baking projects, like (read especially) Christmas cake, a number of times before she actually gets round to making whatever it is she has in mind before she (and the rest of the family) has polished off the nuts. I have a particular weakness for macadamias, and would be lying if I denied that a similar process to the one I’ve outlined for my Mum above took place prior to actually getting round to making this batch of biscuits (cookies for those across the Atlantic; I know biscuits means a whole different thing for you!), though on the plus side, I only had to go out and re-buy the nuts once (admittedly that isn’t counting all the nuts I bought for the few attempts it has taken to get these kind of how I want them)! I’ve seen 150 gram packs of cranberries and macadamias in lots of supermarkets, which is why I’ve listed that as an ingredient , rather than a measurement using cups and/or with the cranberries and macadamias listed separately – if can’t get it pre-packaged, just measure it out yourself, using approximately 75 grams of macadamias and 75 grams of dried cranberries. Don’t worry if you’re a gram or two (or ten) over. This makes around 16 biscuits. All the cup measurements below were made using a 250 ml mug.


What you’ll need:

1/2 cup butter (use real butter!!)

1 cup caster sugar

1 small to medium size egg

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

2 cups self-raising flour

Pinch salt

150 gram pack mixed dried cranberries and macadamia nuts

What to do:

1. Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 5 and grease some baking sheets (I appear to have lost my flat baking sheet so am reduced to a baking tray!).

2. Cream together the butter and sugar using an electric beater.





3. Crack the egg into the bowl, and add in the vanilla essence, and then mix together again using an electric beater.



4. Sift the flour and salt into the bowl and then fold into the butter/sugar/egg mixture. The mixture will be quite dry, but just keep going until it is all mixed together in clumps (like in the picture below the picture below!).



5. Add the dried cranberries and macadamia nuts to the bowl and stir into the butter/sugar/egg/flour mixture for a minute or two. Then (with clean hands) bring the mixture together using your hands.



6. Place the mixture on a clean, lightly floured surface and squish down until it is about 1 cm high, and then cut out biscuit shapes using a glass cutter with about a 6 cm diameter.



7. Put the cut-out biscuits on to the greased baking sheet, leaving quite a bit of extra space between biscuits (at least a few centimetres) and bake in the middle of the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until done, and then leave to cool (and harden a little bit) on a cooling rack before consuming, in greater quantities than you should (that last instruction is really just to make me feel better for doing so!).


Thursday, 14 July 2011

Lemon and Olive Chicken

This recipe is a true “some, some and some” recipe – I’m afraid I don’t have exact quantities and usually just judge it according to what feels like the right amount at the time. This dish is very easy (you just do the basic prep and then leave the oven to do its thing) and very delicious. It combines some of my favourite flavours: lemon, olives, oregano, mushrooms and garlic. Except when I made it today, because I forgot the garlic. Don’t be like me when you make it and do remember the garlic!


What you’ll need:

Chicken thighs (enough for whoever many people you’re planning to serve)

About one juicy lemon for every two portions

Quartered (or halved if they’re small) mushrooms


Very finely chopped garlic


Ground black pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

What to do:

1. Pre-heat the oven to about gas mark 6.

2. Cut the lemon in half. Then place the chicken in an oven-proof dish and squeeze the juice from the lemon all over the chicken pieces. When you’ve squeezed the lemon halves, cut them in half again – you’ll end up with some rather squished-looking lemon quarters.


IMG_8802 (This is not my proudest photographing-the-cooking-method moment!)

3. Scatter the mushrooms and olives over the chicken pieces and push into all the spaces between the chicken. If space is tight, just push everything down – I’ve done it with a much more crowded pan than today’s.


4. Spread the garlic over the chicken, mushrooms and olives and then generously scatter oregano and ground black pepper over the whole thing. Generously drizzle olive oil over everything and then pop the squeezed lemon quarters into any left-over spaces between the chicken, mushrooms and olives, facing downwards (or skin side up) so that any juice drips down into the pan.




5. Bake in the middle of the pre-heated oven. The amount of time this will take will depend on how many people you’re cooking for and how full the pan is, and may vary from about 40 minutes to an hour. One way to check whether the chicken is done, if you’re not sure, is to stab a couple of pieces in their thickest parts with a fork – if the juices run clear, it’s done. If it starts to get dry during cooking, add a little bit of boiling water to the pan.


6. Unfortunately, today’s meal was a bit of a making-do with what we had, which is why I served it with rice and vegetables. Ideally, I like this with garlic mashed potatoes or new potatoes and butter, and a yummy salad. Enjoy!


Thursday, 7 July 2011

Pressed, but not Crushed

I feel like it is not a very easy time at the moment in our household. J has exams coming up, and I’m right up against a deadline to finish the major part of the editing of my PhD thesis. Both of us have found our work set back by persistent low-level colds that only seemed to ease off last week. At the same time, we’re in a bit of a limbo of uncertainty regarding the future and where we’ll end up in the next few months (if anywhere different at all!), which will largely depend on where I get a job and what that job is. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many jobs around, and even fewer that really appeal to me. Generally, I’m feeling tired and we’re feeling stressed…

But, I don’t feel that way all the time, and I don’t want this to just be a one-woman pity-post – hence the “pressed, but not crushed” of this post title. There are a lot of Bible verses that are relevant to the time that we’re going through, but what I wanted to share right now is a verse that I seem to keep coming back to – almost the theme verse for the lessons I’m learning in this season of my life: 2 Corinthians 12:9. “But He (the Lord) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” I don’t particularly like times of stress, limbo and uncertainty, but I do know that God uses times like that to teach me lessons and help me become more Christ-like. If you’re going through a hard time right now, I hope that you also know God’s grace, which is sufficient to see you through.

Needless to say, I’ve not had much time to think about other blog posts, so this will also have to serve as an apology for my lack of posting activity. I’ve got at least one or two recipes in mind to tempt your taste buds with next week. ‘Til then, I hope you have a good weekend!

Friday, 1 July 2011

Homemade Pizza

I absolutely love pizza. It is definitely one of my favourite meals. I was in my teens when I first started making my own pizza, and over the years I’ve experimented with using pastry, scone dough and the traditional bread dough as the base; the bread base is definitely the best. Homemade pizza is really fun to make and can be a great thing to do when you have people over, especially if you get them involved in the pizza-topping process. I love pizza enough to be quite happy whether it’s shop-bought, take-away or homemade, though there are definitely advantages to homemade pizza. You know exactly what goes into it, you can choose your own toppings and even customise the toppings to suit each person’s tastes, you can pile on as much or as little topping and cheese as you want, and you can go tomato sauce- or cheese-less without anyone giving you funny looks as you order your pizza (that’s not just crazy talk - I do know at least one person who doesn’t like cheese, even on pizza). The process of making the dough isn’t as long or as complicated as you might think. Depending on how warm the place where you leave the dough to rise is, each rising should only take half an hour to an hour, so if you want pizza on a Saturday night, for example, start making the dough mid-afternoon and it should be ready for you to top and bake by five or six in the evening. The bread base recipe I use is adapted from The Australian Women’s Weekly Great Italian Food cookbook. All the cup measurements below were made using a 250 ml mug. Apologies for the quality of the final photos – it was late and we were hungry, so there wasn’t an awful lot of patience for the idea of playing around with food styling and light before we ate these pizzas. This makes enough dough for two 12-inch diameter pizza pans. My favourite topping combos are ham (well, just about anything with ham is good in my book), olives, mushrooms and artichokes, or spinach and ricotta. I’d love to hear your favourite topping combo in the comments below this post (especially as I’m always on the lookout for delicious new ideas when it comes to pizza toppings).



What you’ll need:

2 3/4 cups plain flour

Pinch salt

1 package fast-action yeast (each package usually contains 7 grams of yeast)

1 teaspoon olive oil (I use extra-virgin, though straight olive oil should be fine)

1 cup warm water (I make this right before adding it in a jug before measuring it into the cup, and usually mix roughly equal quantities of just-boiled water with cold tap water and then adjust the temperature by adding more hot or cold until it feels warm but not too hot – just below comfortable bath temperature!)

Tomato sauce to top the pizzas with (I usually mix together roughly equal quantities of tomato sauce and tomato paste, and then add more of either to taste; if it is too thick, add a tiny bit of water)

Freshly ground pepper and dried herbs of choice (I usually like oregano and/or basil)

Pizza toppings and cheese of choice (check out this web page, and scroll down to the bottom of the page, for a pretty extensive list of popular pizza toppings)

What to do:

1. Sift the flour into a bowl, and add and mix in the salt and yeast. Add the olive oil and water to the flour and mix together with a wooden spoon (or other stirring utensil). Towards the end you might just need to dive in with your hands to work all the flour into the dough.







2. Turn the dough onto a clean, lightly floured surface and knead for about five minutes. If you don’t know how to knead, the action you want is a bit like massaging, though don’t dwell too long on the thought of massaging the dough – that just sounds too weird. Try to keep the flour to a minimum as most of what you sprinkle the surface and your hands with will end up in the dough.


3. Put the kneaded (not massaged!) dough back into the bowl and cover with a clean, damp tea towel and put in a warm place to rise. As I mentioned above, this should take about half an hour to an hour, depending on how warm it is. By the end of this time, the dough should be about double the size it was before rising. I’m afraid you’ll have to imagine this step as I have no accompanying photo…

4. Tip the dough back out onto a clean, lightly floured surface and knead again for about five minutes. Brush each pizza pan with oil (I used extra virgin olive oil because that’s what I had, but other oils should be fine). Divide the dough in half, and then roll out each half and line each pizza pan with dough, trimming around the edges if necessary. If you’ve rolled the dough to thin and have holes in your pizza base, just fill them with spare bits of dough. I can’t seem to be consistent with how thick my pizza bases are, so sometimes end up with spare dough that I shape into a roll, loaf or plait and leave to rise with the pizza bases, and then bake into bread. Once you’ve lined the pizza pans with dough, cover each pan with a clean, damp tea towel and leave somewhere warm again to rise, for about half an hour to an hour. By the end of this time, the dough will look quite spongy as you can (hopefully) see in the photo below.




5. When the bases have risen, pre-heat the oven to gas mark six and position the shelves in either the middle or just above the middle of the oven, whilst you finish preparing the pizzas. To prepare the pizzas, spread some of the tomato sauce onto each base with the back of a spoon or a spatula (if you use a knife be extra careful, as sometimes they catch on the dough base and pierce it) and then sprinkle pepper and herbs over the tomato sauce. Top each pizza with your favourite toppings and cheese (though not too thick as that may stop the dough base from cooking properly), and then bake for about 25-30 minutes until cooked. Then eat and enjoy!