Chop It Like It's Hot

Rustic sun-dried tomato pretzels

To paraphrase Jack Geller, who knew that a tomato that looked like a prune could be so delicious? Tomatoes are generally pretty fly – fresh, in pasta sauce, whatever, they’re just good guys. Sun-dried tomatoes though, goddamn. I don’t know whether they’re actually dried under the sun or by a food production minion with a massive oven, but I’m not sure if I care. Succulent with olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes can do no wrong. Tossed with pasta, scattered on a pizza, mixed in salad, they’ll be there for you. (Clumsy Friends reference no. 2, complete).

I’ve had my fair share of sun-dried tomato bread in my time (and if you’ve not, you have my deepest sympathies), but I’d never tried them in pretzels. Italian flavours and pretzels get along pretty well, so I gave this a whirl. The result?

Sun-dried tomato pretzels

Rugged, rustic and delicious. A bit like a food equivalent to Dave Grohl (but without his hair and the cannibalistic status that would result from eating him). The rich dough perfectly complements the juicy tomatoes for a pretzel that’s ideal alongside soup or cheese. For a savoury winter side dish, there’s nothing better than these pretzels. Beauty.

Sundried tomato pretzels Chop It Like It's Hot

Rustic sun-dried tomato pretzels
Makes 8

Ingredients
2 tbsp baking powder
2 ¼ tsp instant yeast
1 tbsp granulated sugar
480g strong white flour
1 tsp table salt
50g sun-dried tomatoes, drained, dried and chopped
1 tbsp olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 220˚C/425˚F/Gas Mark 7. Line two large baking sheets.
2. Add the baking powder to 250ml boiling water. Stir until dissolved and leave to cool.
3. In a separate container, mix the yeast with 350ml warm water until mostly dissolved. Add the sugar and stir for one minute.
4. Add the flour to the yeast mixture, about 100g at a time. Stir until the dough becomes firm and stops being sticky.
5. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5 minutes. Sprinkle over the table salt and knead for another minute.
6. Cut the dough into eight equal pieces. Scatter a few pieces of sun-dried tomato onto the board. Using your hands, roll each piece into a strand about 60cm long, folding the sun-dried tomato in as you go. Twist the ends of the strand across one another and fold them downwards to create a pretzel shape. More info on how to fold pretzel dough can be found here.
7. Pour the baking powder and water mixture into a large, deep tin (I used a roasting tin) and place four of the pretzels into it. Soak for one minute. Carefully flip the pretzels over and soak for one more minute. Transfer the pretzels to one of the baking sheets and repeat with the other four.
8. Bake the pretzels for 10 minutes, remove from the oven and brush all over with olive oil. Return to the oven for another 3-5 minutes.

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Lime and coconut madeleines

I enjoy a lot of things that come out of France – the ballet, the language, Michel Roux Junior, and so on. They also whip up some damn good treats, like maracons and financiers, that are so utterly beautiful it’s impossible to imagine eating them. Until you put one in your mouth, get a hit of sugar and destroy it anyway.

While some patisserie products (I’m looking at you, macarons) are fiddly little buggers to make, others (like madeleines) simply need a bit of specialist equipment. Madeleines are cute, buttery French cakes baked in scalloped moulds, giving them their classic shape. Their basic recipe is easy enough, it’s just a case of needing the right shaped tin.

Let me take you off on a vaguely related tangent! A few months back, my friend Maddy moved in with me. On one of the first occasions we met, I entered her kitchen to find her painstakingly piping 3D green buttercream Christmas trees onto cupcakes before she promptly offered me a gin and tonic. At that moment, I knew we were kindred spirits.

So, she moved in, and brought with her a vast collection of booze and bakeware – including a mini madeleine tray. Which soon resulted in…

Lime and coconut madeleines

Soft, buttery cakes spiked with zesty lime and decadent coconut, sprinkled with powdered sugar to show up each delicate scalloped ridge. Try them warm from the oven, with a cup of tea or as a luxurious mid-morning bite – whatever you go for, these are lush.

Moral of the story: Madeleines are easy. (The cakes, not my housemate.)

Yum.

Lime and coconut madeleine

Lime and coconut madeleines
Makes around 36 mini madeleines

Ingredients
100g butter, plus extra for greasing
2 eggs
100g caster sugar
100g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 tsp baking powder
15g desiccated coconut
Zest of 1 lime

1. Preheat the oven to 190˚C/375˚F/Gas Mark 5. Melt the butter in a saucepan over a low heat and leave to cool a little.
2. Brush the madeleine moulds with butter then sift a little plain flour over until they are coated. Shake out any excess flour.
3. Whisk the eggs and sugar together until well combined. Sift in the flour and baking powder, then add the coconut and lime zest and mix together.
4. Stir in the melted butter and combine thoroughly.
5. Spoon the madeleine batter into the moulds and bake for 8-10 minutes. Remove from oven and leave to cool a little before turning out.

Lime and coconut

Lime and coconut madeleines close up

Salted caramel and dark chocolate flapjacks

Salted caramel has stuck around, hasn’t it? Every cook and their mum has been cracking it out for the last couple of years, whether in cakes, desserts, sauces or even with parsnips.

When it first popped up, I wasn’t that impressed. Having spent almost two and a half years of my short life frothing up lattes in Starbucks (writer’s licence there – lattes aren’t frothy), I was more than familiar with salted caramel after serving mountains of salted caramel pecan bars to the hungry shoppers of my hometown. Back in those days, punters were somewhat bemused about the concept in a manner similar to Peter Kay’s garlic bread conundrum: salt? Caramel? Salted caramel?

Now though, it’s everywhere – in Michelin-starred restaurants, in coffee chains and, most importantly, in copious amounts in my kitchen. Exhibit A…

Salted caramel and dark chocolate flapjacks

Yep. On my productive day off, I made a small mountain of salted caramel and dark chocolate flapjacks. Dense, golden oats topped with oozing salted caramel and bitter dark chocolate. Totally decadent. Totally delicious.

Also, totally too much for me and my two and a half housemates. Looks like after a short hiatus, I’ll be proudly regaining my title as the office feeder. Cracking.

Salted caramel and dark chocolate flapjacks

Salted caramel and dark chocolate flapjacks
Makes 16-20

Note: This recipe can easily be made gluten-free by using gluten-free oats in place of regular ones.

Ingredients
150g butter
100g honey
150g sugar
250g oats

For the toppings
180g butter
45g sugar
45g honey
300ml evapourated milk
1tsp salt
100g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 180˚C/350˚F/Gas Mark 4. Line and grease a small, deep baking tin.
2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Remove from the heat and stir in the honey, sugar and oats.
3. Pour the mixture into the baking tin and press down to form a smooth surface. Bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown on top. Leave the flapjack base in the tin to cool.
4. Place the butter, sugar, honey and evapourated milk in a large saucepan. Heat until the butter has melted, and then boil rapidly for 10-15 minutes until the mixture becomes golden brown, thick and fudge-like.
5. Stir the salt through the caramel and pour it over the flapjack base. Leave to set for 2-3 hours.
6. Break up dark chocolate and place in a glass bowl over a saucepan of hot water to melt. Pour the chocolate over the caramel. When set, cut the flapjacks into squares.

Salted caramel and dark chocolate flapjacks

Mushroom cheeseburgers with homemade BBQ sauce

It happened.

I went outside without a coat. It’s that time of year, people. Yep. The weather has turned from overcast but inoffensive to actually quite nice. Hell, I even bought some factor 50 last week (I’m ginger, okay?).

You know how all that goes – first you go out without a jacket, next you’re on the Pimm’s and before you know it you’re BBQing it up. Probably.

While I’m all about eating as many meats as I can in one sitting, as is expected at a barbecue, it’s nice to mix things up a bit. Last year (crikey, where does the time go?!), I put together these spicy bean barbecue wraps as a veggie-friendly BBQ alternative to the standard Quorn-based offerings. This time round, I’m getting on the mushrooms…

Mushroom cheeseburger with homemade bbq sauce

Okay, so I’m using the term ‘cheeseburger’ lightly here. I mean I melted cheese onto a mushroom and put it in a burger bun. That makes it a burger, right?

This is so, so easy to make. Grill up some large, flat mushrooms and top with gooey, melting cheese, then sandwich them together with griddled red onion slices in a crusty brown bun slathered with sweet, tangy barbecue sauce. Phwoar.

I never really buy BBQ sauce because I find that the commercial stuff tastes a bit weird, and I really don’t crave it often enough to justify having a bottle taking up valuable cupboard space. It’s mega easy to make your own, though – it’s a simple combination of tomato puree, vinegar and sugar, which you can tweak to suit your taste.

Go on – step away from the steak and give this a shot!

Mushroom cheeseburgers with homemade BBQ sauce
Serves 4

Ingredients
4 large flat mushrooms
120g grated cheese (I used mozzarella and cheddar)
2 red onions, peeled and sliced horizontally
4 crusty brown buns and shredded lettuce, to serve
For the sauce
2 tsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
100g tomato puree
1 tsp Dijon mustard
20ml maple syrup
15ml rice vinegar
15ml dark soy sauce
½ tsp smoked paprika

1. To make the sauce, heat the olive oil in a pan and fry the garlic over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes, until the flavour has begun to infuse. Spoon out the garlic pieces.
2. Add the tomato puree, mustard, maple syrup, rice vinegar, soy sauce and paprika, plus 50ml water. Simmer until thick, and then season to taste. (I recommend tasting the sauce with a piece of bread or similar – chugging BBQ sauce on its own ain’t the tastiest.)
3. Cook the mushrooms on a barbecue or under the grill for 10-15 minutes, until they soften and release their juices. Drain any liquid off them, then top with the grated cheese and leave to melt.
4. Griddle the red onion slices for 3-5 minutes each side. Heat the burger buns on the grill and spread with BBQ sauce. Fill with the mushroom cheeseburgers, red onions and shredded lettuce.

Dark chocolate and strawberry cake

I grew up with Delia. Not in the literal sense – we didn’t share baths as kids, and she didn’t hog the latest Harry Potter book or rage at me for taping over The Simpsons. But in terms of cooking, Delia was my girl. She led me through my first forays into baking, all through the medium of a battered, splattered Delia cookbook. I don’t remember the exact name of it, but there’s a photo of her on the front holding an egg and looking pleased about it. I never got that.

Pancakes, biscuits, brownies, whatever – Delia had my back. She did me well. But a decade or so later, the Great British Bake-Off has introduced me to the culinary goddess that is Mary Berry. While I’ve always admired her gentle-but-fair judging, snappy jackets and baking expertise, I’d never actually cooked any of her recipes. Given how much love I’ve got for the Berry (I was reduced to a maniacally-grinning starstruck wreck when I met her last year), it seemed only right that I cheat on Delia and give her a whirl.

Conveniently, one of my lovely co-workers was leaving, which meant one thing – cake. If there’s any occasion that warrants cake, it’s somebody leaving. Or somebody having a birthday. Or Cake Day. Or Tuesdays in general. Anyway, I cracked out Mary’s chocolate cake recipe, added a few touches and here’s what resulted…

Dark chocolate and strawberry cake

Not gonna lie, Mary knows her stuff. Instead of chucking in some cocoa powder with the flour as many recipes do, resulting in a dry, crumbly texture, she mixes it with boiling water to create a silky chocolate syrup. It creates a moist, rich sponge, with the perfect balance of light and dense.

Topped off with a decadent dark chocolate ganache, filled with sticky strawberry jam and decorated with delicate strawberry slices and freeze-dried strawberry pieces, this cake is the ultimate occasion treat. Nothing says ‘we’ll miss you’ like the epic combination of cake, chocolate and strawberries.

Dark chocolate and strawberry cake top

Dark chocolate and strawberry cake
Serves 12-16

Ingredients
For the cake:
50g cocoa powder
90ml boiling water
175g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
3 eggs, beaten
50ml single cream
100g butter, finely cubed
275g granulated sugar

For the toppings:
150g dark chocolate, finely chopped
90ml single cream
150g strawberry jam, plus 1 tbsp for glazing
4-5 strawberries, sliced
1 tbsp freeze-dried strawberry pieces

1. Preheat the oven to 180˚C/350˚F/Gas Mark 4. Line and grease two 21cm sandwich tins.
2. Mix the cocoa powder and water until they form a smooth, thick syrup.
3. Sift in the flour and baking powder, then add the beaten eggs and cream. Stir together until smooth.
4. Add the butter and sugar, and stir again until smooth.
5. Split the mixture between the sandwich tins and bake for 20-30 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the centre of each cake comes out clean. Leave to cool.
6. Place the dark chocolate into a large glass bowl. Heat the single cream to a simmer, then whisk it into the chocolate to form a smooth ganache. Leave to cool a little.
7. Spread the strawberry jam evenly over one of the cakes and sandwich the other cake on top.
8. Spread the ganache onto the top cake. Top with the sliced strawberries and freeze-dried strawberry pieces.
9. Microwave the remaining tablespoon of jam for a few seconds to soften it. Brush it over the strawberry slices to glaze.

Dark chocolate and strawberry cake close