All I want for Christmas…

The Beach Boys once sang, ‘Christmas comes this time each year’, and if you ask me, it gets more tiresome every time. I’m not completely ‘bah humbug’,  but I’m feeling more flat than festive at the moment even though I started the month feeling pretty jolly about the holiday season. Then my hormones went haywire and my pep petered out. So far, I’ve managed to avoid the pitfalls of party season (I don’t have an office do and I have few friends in Swansea), so I’m waiting for the Christmas spirit to kick in by watching films under a blanket and buying presents online.

It’s really, really cold at the moment, and all I want this Christmas is to hibernate. Obviously, that involves food and drink, so I set about making my own Christmas cake, as there aren’t many vegan versions in the shops and the ones I’ve tried are synthetically sweet.

This one’s easy to make and should keep for a couple of weeks. As well as being vegan, it’s free from and nuts, which means that everyone can enjoy a slice.

With all that fruit, I don’t think there’s really any need to add marzipan and icing (plus, I’m lazy), but you can buy vegan versions if you’d like to top the cake. Although the alcohol in the brandy’s burned off in the baking, you can use 150ml of tea (try Chai or Earl Grey for a fruitier taste) instead, but be aware that it will only last for a few days if you do this.

Use whatever dried fruit you like and of course, you can bake with plain flour, if you like.

Merry Christmas!

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Christmas cake

Christmas cake

Ingredients

250g sultanas

250g raisins

125g glacé cherries, roughly chopped

100g, dried apricots, roughly chopped

100ml brandy

350g rice (or gluten free) flour

1 tsp baking powder

150g light brown sugar

50ml rapeseed, olive or vegetable oil, plus extra for greasing

250ml plant milk

The juice of 1 orange

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp allspice

 

First of all, place all the dried fruit in a large mixing bowl, pour over the brandy and orange juice and give it a good stir. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to soak overnight or for at least a couple of hours.

When you’re ready to make the cake, preheat the oven to 160C. Sift the flour, baking powder and spices over the soaked fruit and combine with a wooden spoon, then add the sugar and mix again. Add the oil and stir, then add the milk and stir again. You’ll need to use a bit of elbow grease to make sure that the flour is fully mixed in with the rest of the ingredients.

Line a 9-inch springform (loose-based) tin with greaseproof paper or use a little oil, then pour the cake batter into the tin and smooth out evenly. Place on the top shelf of the oven and bake for an hour, then, without opening the oven, turn the temperature down to 150C and bake for another 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and test with a skewer – if it comes out clean, it’s cooked. Transfer to a cooling rack and allow to cool.

Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

 

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Recipes for Bonfire Night

And so it’s November, the quiet spell before the festive fervour begins – and when it really starts to get cold.

It’s also World Vegan Month (Thursday was World Vegan Day) and a recent survey has revealed that one in eight Brits are vegan or vegetarian, while 21% of us follow a flexitarian diet. It seems that ditching the meat, dairy and eggs – or eating less of it – is now the norm.

Things have changed a lot in the three and a half years since I went vegan, back when it was assumed that switching to a plantbased way of eating meant sacrificing any form of flavour. Well, my tastebuds aren’t (and never have been) for turning and I’ve been trying to explain that to the naysayers for a long time. Now there are dairy-free Magnums, a sure sign that veganism has gone mainstream.

On Thursday, I went onto Prynhawn Da (you can watch me here – and there are subtitles if you don’t speak Welsh) to show the huge selection of vegan convenience foods that are now at supermarkets.  From pizza, burgers and fishless fingers, to Christmas cake, mince pies and Wensleydale with cranberry, it’s clear that eating vegan is easier than ever before. And while these goodies can be a little pricier, like the non-vegan versions, they should perhaps be seen as an occasional treat. After all, the bulk of a vegan diet (fruits, veggies, grains and pulses) are some of the cheapest things you can buy.

But while these are handy meals to bung in the oven or microwave when you’re tired or busy (the vegan life doesn’t have to consist of kale and cacoa), I’m actually really keen to cook at the moment. I’ve had a few weeks of not eating particularly well, thanks to working, commuting and generally being busy, so I’m looking forward to healthy, hearty soups and stews, and perhaps the odd cake, too.

It’s Bonfire Night on Monday, one of my favourite times of the year. It marks the turning point in the calendar, just after Halloween, when it’s just about acceptable to start thinking about Christmas.

This year, I’ll be staying in with baby Bobbie, our five-month-old kitten, who no doubt will be a bit afraid of the bangs and screeches, which are even louder than mine during a bad case of PMT.

It’s an evening for food to warm the cockles, so here are two easy recipes for you to try.

We had a load of pumpkins and apples left over from our Halloween party (which Bobbie and I just about survived – a gaggle of tweenage girls is terrifying whether you’re cat or human) so I’ve put them to good use in a simple but sustaining pumpkin soup and a sticky and sweet apple cake.

 

Pumpkin and red lentil soup with apple and sage

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Pumpkin and red lentil soup with apple and sage

Ingredients

1 medium pumpkin (or 400g) pumpkin or squash, peeled, roughly chopped and seeds and flesh removed

2 apples, cored and diced

2 small onions, finely diced

5-6 sage leaves

200g red lentils, rinsed and drained

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp allspice

1 red chilli, finely chopped

1.5 litres vegetable stock

A glug of rapeseed or olive oil

Salt and pepper

 

To garnish (optional)

Sage leaves

Pumpkin seeds

 

In a large pan, heat the oil over a medium temperature. Add the onion and sage leaves and fry for 2-3 minutes then add the pumpkin and apple and cook for another 5-6 minutes. Add the chilli and spices and fry for a minute, then add the lentils and the stock and season. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat, place a lid on the pan and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Turn off the heat and blend with a stick blender.

Serve in bowls with crusty bread. If you like, fry the pumpkin seeds and sage leaves in a little oil for a few minutes, or until crispy, and scatter over the soup.

 

Toffee apple traybake

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Toffee apple traybake

 

Ingredients

200g dates, roughly chopped

400ml milk

100ml rapeseed, vegetable or sunflower oil, plus extra for greasing

250g self-raising flour

100g light soft brown sugar

½ tsp baking powder

2 tbsp mixed spice

2 tsp vanilla extract

4 apples, grated

 

For the topping (optional)

1 apple, thinly sliced

A little brown sugar

 

Heat the oven to 180C. Grease and line a 20 x 30cm baking tray with baking parchment. Put the dates and 200ml of the milk in a small pan and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

Whizz the date mixture to a smooth purée in a food processor or blender, then scrape into a large mixing bowl. Tip in the oil, the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, mixed spice, vanilla extract and the rest of the milk,  and mix together well. Fold in the grated apple.

Pour the mixture into the tray and spread out evenly. Place the tray on the top shelf of the oven and bake for 45 minutes until a skewer poked into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tray then cut into slices.

If you’d like to add the topping, remove the cake from the oven after 35 minutes, arrange the apple slices on top and sprinkle over the brown sugar. Return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes.

All the leaves are brown…

Is it just me who feels a bit undone as the seasons change? We’re halfway through September and although the temperature’s dropped, we have much colder weather to come, and I’m dreading it. I’ve been feeling a bit low recently, and on some days I’m gloomier than Eeyore. Hormones and hiraeth are a heady combination.

It’s been over a year since I moved to Swansea, but I’m still in a long-distance relationship with Cardiff. I miss my daily walks through leafy Bute Park, the familiar faces, the smell of Brains Brewery and the gentle hustle and bustle that you can only get in a city the size of Cardiff. Where we live now, all the leaves are brown and the skies are grey.

People tell me that I’m lucky to be by the sea, but contrary to popular belief, not everyone lives in Mumbles, and unless you drive (and I don’t yet), the beaches aren’t quite on your doorstep. Thankfully, I’ve found some comfort in the words of Dylan Thomas, who as we all know, described Swansea as: “An ugly, lovely town … crawling, sprawling … by the side of a long and splendid curving shore. This sea-town was my world.”

It’s not my world yet, Dylan, but I’m working on it. I’m not slagging off Swansea, but it hasn’t found its way to my heart just yet.

At least I can cheer myself up with autumn’s abundance of fruit and vegetables. The kitchen is full of apples, squash, pumpkin, pears and plums, and partly inspired by The Great British Bake Off, I’ve been baking again. The prime-time favourite has survived the move to Channel 4 and watching it is still the televisual equivalent of a warm bath and a bedtime story – well, kind of. I’m rooting for Rahul, who is surely Britain’s nicest man, and looking forward to the much-anticipated vegan week.

I’m no star baker but I do like to experiment with my cakes. This approach can sometimes end in tears, but I’ve created a recipe that works a treat. While we’re on the cusp of courgette season, pears have been at the greengrocers for a few weeks, and the two work surprisingly well together. In this cake, the sweetness of the pears and the mild mellowness of the courgettes are lifted with a pinch of cardamom for a gentle kick of spice. I’ve used rice flour, which makes this a gluten-free bake, but any flour will work.

Perfect with a mug of tea and five minutes’ peace.

 

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Pear, courgette and cardamom loaf

Courgette and pear loaf

Makes 1 medium-sized loaf

 

Ingredients

200g rice flour

2 tsp baking powder

100g porridge oats

2 large ripe pears (300g), cored and cubed

2 small courgettes (200g), grated

100ml vegetable, olive, sunflower or coconut oil (plus a little bit extra for greasing the loaf tin)

200ml plant milk

100g brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1-2 tsp apple cider vinegar (optional)

Cardamom (seeds from 5-6 pods)

Preheat the oven to 200C. In a large bowl, sieve over the flour and baking powder and mix together. Add the other ingredients and stir thoroughly. Grease a 9×5-inch loaf pan, add the cake mixture and place on the middle shelf of the oven. Bake for 45-50 minutes or until golden brown and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean. Allow to cool, then serve in slices, perhaps with some coconut yogurt or vegan ice cream.

 

How to fail

Last week, I raged against the onslaught of autumn, but as the seasons change, my resolve has weakened. I’ve submitted to September and its chilly mornings and nights and my legs are once again clad in 60-denier tights.

I’ve always loved this time of year, but as I get older, I find it pretty bleak – after all, everything’s dying. And don’t hate me, Swansea, but you’re pretty grey at the best of times so it’s no wonder that I find the colder months so difficult. As the temperature drops, so does my mood.

And anyway, autumn, once the underdog of the seasons, is a bit basic bitch nowadays thanks to pumpkin spiced lattes and Instagram.

I’m definitely with Sathnam on this one.

I was once enamoured with mists and mellow fruitfulness, but I’m failing at fall this year.  I’ve been blackberry picking (a first for me as a born and bred city girl), but my attempt to turn them into a crumble left a lot to be desired. It turns out that even if you’ve written a cookery book, you can still mess up a basic pudding. To be fair, I was playing around with coconut flour (which is the wildest I get these days) which was bound to end in tears, but I was still pretty annoyed with myself.

That’s the thing: when our social media feeds are so well-curated, anything less than perfect just won’t do. But, perhaps failing once in a while is a good thing. That’s what I’ve learned from listening to How to Fail, Elizabeth Day’s hugely enjoyable – and thought-provoking podcast. If you haven’t listened, you should.

As much as I really wanted to share a recipe for blackberry crumble, it still needs some work, so here’s a tried and tested cake which I promise will work.

 

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Chocolate and tahini cake with frosting

 

Ingredients

For the cake

150g brown sugar

350g plain flour

50g cocoa powder

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tsp baking powder

400ml unsweetened soya milk

75ml rapeseed oil, plus extra for greasing

120ml aquafaba

3 tbsp tahini

 

For the frosting

200g dark chocolate

2-3 tbsp cocoa powder

60ml aquafaba

150g icing sugar

50ml plant milk

 

Heat the oven to 160C. Grease 2 x 20cm sandwich tins, then grease the bases with a little oil.

Sieve the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda into a large mixing bowl. Add sugar, cocoa powder, aquafaba and milk and stir. Add the oil and stir and then the tahini and stir again. Divide between the tins and bake for 25 mins or until fully risen and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean.

Cool in the tins for 5 mins, then turn the cakes onto a rack to cool completely. While you wait, start preparing the frosting. Melt the chocolate with a little of the milk, either over a bowl of water or in the microwave, then let it cool for a few mins. Sift the cocoa and the icing sugar into a large bowl and add the melted chocolate and the rest of the milk and stir. Whisk the aquafaba, fold into the mixture and keep mixing to make a thick frosting. Use this to sandwich and top the cake.

This will keep in an airtight container for 2-3 days.

 

 

Pinch, punch, first of the month

It might be the first of September, but like most of us sun-spoiled Brits, I’m hoping for an Indian summer. I adore the autumn, which for me, is the season of new starts, but I’m feeling rather ill-prepared for it this year.

I don’t feel ready to get back into the swing of things because I never got off in the first place. My freelancing has been more feast than fast recently, which is no bad thing, but it does mean that I didn’t get to enjoy as many long and lazy summer days as I’d have liked.

Perhaps I need follow the example of our Gallic neighbours. If you’ve ever been to Paris during August, you’ll know that everything shuts down. The French love their holidays, but in September, after a well-deserved break, it’s ‘à la rentrée’, and life returns to normal.

School starts next week and so does the beginning of a busy month for me, and many others. The nights are already drawing in and I’m not relishing the return of colder, darker days. I really don’t want to say sayonara to the summer so in typical rebellious fashion, I plan to stay bare-legged, go out without a coat and eat summer berries for as long as I possibly can.

Speaking of which, summer strawberries are still on the shelves, but only just, so in homage to the sunny season, here’s a sweet bake to brighten up those grey skies. You can find tahini in most larger supermarkets and world food shops, but peanut butter works well, too. When strawberries disappear, you can try it with autumn apples or blackberries.

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Strawberry and tahini loaf

Ingredients

1 punnet (about 400g) strawberries, hulled

200g plain or rice flour

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tsp baking powder

100g caster sugar

250ml plant milk

75ml rapeseed oil, plus extra for greasing

3 tbsp tahini

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla extract

Heat the oven to 200C. Take half the strawberries and chop into small pieces. Add to a pan with a little water and a tablespoon of caster sugar and warm over a low heat for 5 minutes. Leave to cool.

Sieve the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda into a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar and stir thoroughly. Add the milk and stir through and then the oil, and stir again. Now add the tahini, cinnamon and vanilla extract and stir again. Finally, add the strawberries, making sure to include the juice and stir through the mixture.

Pour into a greased loaf tin and place on the top shelf of the oven. Bake for 25 mins or until fully risen and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean.

When the cake has cooled, slice the remainder of the strawberries and layer over the top of the cake. This will keep for a day or two in an airtight container.

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Time out

It’s almost the end of April, described by T. S. Eliot as the cruellest month, and perhaps he had a point. In The Waste Land, Eliot’s talking mainly about lost love, but he’s also describing the weather. April’s a big tease. She’s cold and frosty one minute and beaming sunnily down on us the next. She coaxes us out of our coats with the warmest spring day in 60 years, and then puts a dampener on things, literally. Talk about blowing hot and cold. I know it happens every spring and I should be used to it by now but I’m always slightly disappointed by April.

Still, despite the forecast of yet another cold snap, there are lighter and brighter days ahead. This makes me happy and I feel so much freer when darkness doesn’t set in at 4pm on the dot. And after taking a little break from cooking after writing The Occasional Vegan, I’m back in the kitchen testing out recipes. Last weekend, I baked my first lemon drizzle cake, and  never one to stick to the rules, I threw in a bit of thyme to temper all that zesty citrus. A few years ago, during my short stint as a baking blogger, I made a very nice lemon and thyme cake using a Nigel Slater recipe. This time (thyme?), it needed to be vegan so I did some experimenting and ended up with a pretty sweet treat.

It turns out that thyme is relatively high in iron, something I learned when I took part in a radio programme about food trends. In the same discussion, another gardening ‘expert’ (I won’t name him but he’s a presenter on S4C) told me that mushrooms aren’t vegan because they’re half animal.  Right you are, mate. At least the other guy spoke some sense: there are 6.1mg of iron in 5g of thyme, which when you consider that the recommended daily allowance for adult women is 14.8g (it’s 8.7mg for men and women over 50, fact fans), is a pretty sizeable portion.

I had to be a bit sly with this one as my little darlings can be fussy at times (I love them, really), and as I predicted, they enjoyed the cake until they discovered the ‘green bits’.  Needless to say, they didn’t eat any more of it once I’d been caught out. If you’re not a fan of putting herbs in sweet things (and I guess that plenty of people aren’t), you can leave out the thyme and make a lovely lemony cake all the same.

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Lemon and thyme loaf

Lemon and thyme loaf

Ingredients

For the loaf

275g self-raising flour

200g caster sugar

1 tsp baking powder

50ml olive, rapeseed or vegetable oil, plus extra for greasing the tin

100ml plant milk

150ml cold water

The juice of 2 lemons

4–5 sprigs (or 2 tsps) of thyme, leaves only

 

For the icing

150g icing sugar

The juice of 1 lemon

Heat the oven to 200C/180C fan/gas mark 6. Sieve the flour and baking powder into a mixing bowl and then mix together with the sugar, lemon juice and thyme. Add the oil, milk and cold water, then mix until smooth.

Grease a 9×5-inch loaf and pour the mixture into the tin. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then remove the cake and transfer it to a wire rack to cool.

For the icing, sieve the icing sugar into a bowl. Mix in the lemon juice to make an icing thick enough to pour over the loaf. This will keep in an airtight container for a couple of days.