Monday, 16 September 2019

Back to School & On the Go Degustabox

As the kids go back to school in September (or late August, depending on what part of the UK you live in), we have to adjust to earlier mornings, school routines, packed lunches and cooler temperatures.
Back to School & On the Go was the theme of the last Degustabox.

This monthly food and drink subscription box is an excellent way to discover products which have only just appeared in the shops or those which might have been around for while, but you haven't had a chance to try them yet.
Thanks to Degustabox, I have found new favourites to add to our shopping list, including some products which I probably wouldn't have tried otherwise.

Each time the box arrives, it's a total surprise. You get a good selection of foods and drinks.
If you haven't tried Degustabox subscription box yet and would like to have a go, I have a whopping £7 off discount from your first box (and you can unsubscribe any time) - just use a code 8EVI8 when you place an order.

What did we receive in the Back to School & On the Go Degustabox? Let's have a look.

Typically, whenever we open a new box, the chocolate is snatched up pronto.
KitKat Senses bars (£0.85) are available in two flavours: Salted Caramel and Hazelnut.
They offer an indulgent combination of chocolate and wafer, with the tasty sweet filling.
They're available in major retailers from September.

chocolate bars UK

ManiLife Mini Original Crunchy/Mini Deep Roast Smooth (£0.59) are included in the alcohol version of Degustabox, while the no-alcohol box offers Mighty Fine Dark Chocolate Dips (so, depending on what box you subscribe to, you will receive either/or).

ManiLife is made from the finest peanuts sourced from a single-estate in Argentina. They are naturally sweeter and with a fat profile more akin to olive oil, which is better for you too. Roasted to perfection, these mini pods make a moreish snack.

nutty snacks

Mighty Fine Skinny Coated Dark Chocolate Almond Dips (£1.39) are another tasty treat for the fans of nuts.
They are a good source of protein, high in fibre,and have a much thinner chocolate layer than an average coated nut.
Nutritional information: 199kcal and 4.3g sugar per 35g serving.
Suitable for vegetarians.

While my guys gobbled up the KitKats, I saved the little bag of almond dips for myself, and enjoyed every bit of it.

snacks of nuts in chocolate

Fruitpot JellySqueeze Jelly Pouches (£0.50) are a fun way of eating jelly on the go. They come in squeezy pouches, and are made with real fruit juice. There are three flavours to choose from - Strawberry, Orange and Apple & Blackcurrant.
 Strawberry flavour jelly was my son's favourite of the three pouches. He said he'd be happy to have them in his lunch box.
They contain no artificial colours, no preservatives, added sugar or artificial sweeteners.
Nutritional information: 75kcal and 19.6g sugar per pouch, suitable for vegans, coeliacs and vegetarians.

More snacks for younger children - Fruit Bowl Unicorn Fruit Flakes, Juicy Yogurt Raisins and Strawberry Yogurt Flakes (£0.49). They are made with concentrated fruit purees and fruit juices.
The calorie count differs from 58kcal per serving (Unicorn flakes) to 114kcal (Yogurt raisins).
Individually wrapped portions allow you to take them anywhere you go.

snacks for packed lunches

Attack a Snak Nachos (£1.50) is the latest addition to the range. We're familiar with the cheese and ham wraps from Attack a Snak very well, in fact my son sometimes takes it to school in his lunch box, so he was very curious to try the new flavour.
Nachos snack kit includes nacho chips, tangy salsa and creamy nacho cheese. Perhaps a bit messy to take to school in a lunch box, but great for the afternoon munchies, when you are feeling peckish.

cheese snacks with salsa

Strings & Things Cheeshapes (£1.50) is the recent addition to Cheestrings range. Cheeshapes Randoms are bags of real cheese pieces, shaped into completely random shapes and iconic faces.
That's another product, suitable for school lunches or after-school snacks.
You will receive a fully redeemable voucher for this product.

UFIT Chocolate Protein Drink (£2) is a high protein milkshake, with no added sugar, the only sugar present is naturally occurring from the milk.
UFIT was designed to cater for mainstream health conscious consumers that are looking for a healthy alternative.

protein drinks

NuttVia Hazelnut Spread 350g (£3.99) is a healthier alternative to Nutella.
It is 97% less sugar, compared to sugar-based market products, and is also palm oil free. It's made with NatVia, a naturally sourced sweetener. I haven't tried it before. I would like a higher cocoa content, and a slightly less sweet taste.
Average values: 79kcal per 15g (1tbsp).

alternative to Nutella

I used this chocolate spread to make a marbled cake.

what to make with chocolate spread

Heinz Beef Ravioli (£1.25) has been a family favourite for over 50 years. Ready from the tin to table in under 5 minutes, tinned pasta is one of the staples of the student's life.

tinned pasta

Blossom Hill Pale Rose (£6.50) is the Winner of Product of the Year 2019. Refreshingly dry, it is crisp drink with delicate floral aromas and notes of summer fruit. 
It's lovely as an ingredient in a lemonade spritz, or served over ice with sliced strawberries.

Rose wine under £10

And finally, a lovely selection of tea from Pure Leaf - Green Tea with Jasmine, Chai and Gunpowder Green Tea (£3.99 each). Pure Leaf's motto: "Everything we do begins and ends with the perfect cup of tea in mind". Their teas are blended using only the finest long leaves paired with natural ingredients such as herbs, flower petals and real fruit pieces to create unique teas.
Each tub contains 16 pyramid bags.

My favourite flavour of the three was Green tea with jasmine, with its delicate floral aroma and mildly sweet taste. A perfect refresher.

best green tea UK

Disclosure: I receive a monthly Degustabox for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are our own.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Easy Marbled Cake

what to do with cake mixes

Yesterday's Feast magazine was a five-ingredient special. It's a lovely idea to cope with the bare minimum, and I started making today's cake with an intention of keeping it to 5 ingredients. Reader, I failed. I wanted to use the chocolate hazelnut spread from NuttVia, but the cake batter still looked a bit pale, when I mixed it in, so I sifted in one heaped teaspoon of cocoa powder.
And since I "broke" the 5-ingredients' postulation, I thought I might as well add a tablespoon of the egg liqueur to the vanilla half of the cake batter.
If you want to keep it more austere, don't use the liqueur and swap the milk for water.

what to do with cake mixes

Funnily enough, as I was mixing the dough, Eddie came into the kitchen and asked what I was baking. I said: "The Marbled Cake". He heard it as a Marvel cake, and was quite disappointed, when the cake was out of the oven: "What is Marvel about it? Are you going to decorate it?"
Sorry, son, it's not a Marvel cake.

easy sponge cake made with cake mix

Easy Marbled Cake
1 pack of Betty Crocker Velvety Vanilla cake mix (425g)
110g butter, softened
3 medium eggs
180ml milk (semi-skimmed)
1tsp cocoa powder
60g chocolate hazelnut spread (I used NuttVia spread)
1tbsp Advocaat (optional)

In a medium sized mixing bowl beat the soft butter into the cake mix, and add the eggs, one at a time. Add milk, and mix well. Divide the cake batter into two parts.
Add two heaped tablespoons of hazelnut chocolate spread and sift in the cocoa powder as well.
If using the Advocaat liqueur, add it to the second bowl of cake batter.

easy quick cake

Using a spray oil, spread the oil evenly inside the bundt cake tin.
Add blobs of white cake batter and chocolate cake dough intermittently in the cake tin to create a marbled effect.

baking easy cakes

Place the cake tin in the oven preheated to 180C. Bake for 45+ minutes. Check readiness with a wooden toothpick.
Allow to cool before removing out of the tin, and dust with the icing sugar.

easy and quick cakes

It's a lovely cake to enjoy with a cup of tea or coffee. It's also very easy and quick to make, basically less than an hour from beginning to end.

Once he was over his disappointment of not seeing a Marvel cake, Eddie ate a piece and pronounced it tasty.

easy cake made with a cake mix

In this recipe I used NuttVia Hazelnut Spread which was one of the products in the latest Degustabox. It is 97% less sugar, compared to sugar-based market products, and is also palm oil free. It's made with NatVia, a naturally sourced sweetener. I haven't tried it before. I would like a higher cocoa content, and a slightly less sweet taste.
Average values: 79kcal per 15g (1tbsp).

Nutella-style spread with less sugar

what to do with chocolate spread

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Photo diary: weeks 36 and 37, project 365

Last weekend was super hectic, and I haven't had a chance to do a weekly post of photos, so today it's a double portion of our news.

Walking through the flood fields into town, the Sun was bright, stretching its rays like arms towards the Earth.

Last week I had to write two book reviews. One was for Nadine by John Steinberg, a story of the tragic French ballet dancer Nadine (if you fancy reading my review, see the link above).

We finally watched the Endgame on DVD, and enjoyed it very much. Eddie takes all the Marvel business seriously, and watches a lot of YouTube videos on the merits of different characters, actors' insights and gossip on filming the Avengers.

I have an antique carved wooden board for pryaniki (Russian spiced cookies). Ever since reading the proof copy of The girl who speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson, I wanted to bake some old-style Russian spiced cookies. As Thursday was the official publication day of the book, I baked the cookies the day in advance, so that I could make a post to celebrate the event.

how to make pryaniki

I'm a big fan of Sophie Anderson, and loved both of her books, which are inspired by the Russian folklore, but present a completely unique interpretation.
These are the pryaniki (spiced cookies) I baked the day before.

Russian folklore-inspired books

Walking through the fields, and admiring the red colour of hawthorn berries.

September berries

Eddie and I were planning to go to the book-signing event with Sophie Anderson at Oxford on Sunday. She saw my spiced cookies online, and I wanted to bake a new batch for her. I bought a bear cookie cutter in Lakeland, and did a template for a girl. The cookie dough was exactly the same as I used for the bird-shaped cookies. I also used cake pens which you can buy in Tesco. 
This was meant to be a surprise gift for Sophie.

Russian spiced cookies

Meeting Sophie Anderson was the highlight of my week. She is as charming, sweet and endearing in real life as she is on social media.
The event took place in Blackwell's book shop in Oxford. It was all about myths, retelling of myths and even creating a new one, involving the ideas from the audience. It was such a fun event, and Eddie and I enjoyed it very much.
We met Sophie's family too, including adorable baby Eartha.
Candy Gourlay, the author of Bone Talk, was the second speaker. It was wonderful to watch these two talented creative women who've elevated the banter to the next level.

children's books authors

Monday: Back to school, back to the prose of life. The day was rather dull and grey. I took the photo of the birds resting on the roof in the town centre, as if they were having an important meeting.

Witney town centre

We watched too many Marvel movies, and now see "Marvel" symbols and things around us, like this Hawk-Eye's bow and arrow in the sky.

I found this little gem of a book in the charity shop. This copy of Jo's Boys by Louisa M. Alcott was presented to a girl named Margaret Beckley for Arithmetic standard VI by South Oxford Girls' School Council in July 1926. What a splendid colourful dedication!
There were around ten vintage books, signed by Margaret. It's clearly a collection which has been donated to the shop by the family, who doesn't want these much loved books.

vintage books

We spotted this funny-shaped cloud on the way home from school.
As we watched the Black Panther the evening before, we thought it does look a bit like a panther.

old houses in Witney

St Mary's Church is my favourite "model". I take its image in all weathers and seasons, and its spire looks like the guardian of Witney.

It's so warm today, it feels like summer. I suppose, it is the Indian summer. My tomatoes in the greenhouse keep giving plenty of fruit, and I've picked a little bowl for dinner today. They're so sweet and smell lovely.

growing vegetables in greenhouse

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Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Cashew apricot slice

traybake, baking with nuts

I  can never resist the book shelves in the charity shops. Cook books hold a special place in my heart, especially of the vintage variety. Last year I was lucky to get a copy of The Big Book of Beautiful Biscuits (The Australian Women's Weekly, 1982 edition) for a princely sum of 20p. I have bookmarked quite a few recipes from the book, as they look so tasty.

One of the bookmarked recipes which I had an eye on for a long time is an apricot nut slice which uses peanuts and a mix of flours. I have adapted the recipe, changing the nuts, and adding ground nuts to the base to make it even nuttier. The base of this traybake is similar to shortbread. It's short and crumbly, and not too sweet. The topping is a mix of chopped and ground cashews, with cocoa, coconut and apricot jam. Basically, it's a recipe for fans of nuts.

easy traybakes, baking with nuts

Cashew apricot slice
50g cashews, ground
130g plain flour
1tbsp caster sugar
1 egg yolk
90g butter
for the topping:
55g apricot jam
1 egg white
60g caster sugar
30g coconut
1tbso cocoa, sifted
150g cashews (1/3 chopped, 2/3 blitzed)

Blitz the cashews and add to the mixing bowl with the flour. Add sugar, egg yolk and chopped cold butter. Make crumbs, using hands, then combine together to form a rather stiff dough.
Take a brownie tin and line with the foil or parchment paper, spray with the oil. Press the dough evenly in the tin, and bake at 180C for 10 minutes.

In a mixing bowl mix together the apricot jam with caster sugar, dissicated coconut, sift in the cocoa powder. Chop 1/3 of the cashews roughly and blitz the remaining nuts. Add to the jam mix.
Remove the tin from the oven, and spread the jam mix on top of the biscuit base evenly.
Place the tin back in the oven for another 20 minutes.

Allow to cool in the tin before cutting into slices.

easy traybake, baking with nuts

baking with nuts

It's a tasty traybake, which goes well with tea or coffee.

In this recipe I used Whole Cashew Nuts from Whole Foods Online. They have a wide selection of nuts, whole and chopped, in different sizes, from 125g bag to 22kg.
Cashews make a great all round snack, they are high in protein and healthy fats which could assist in controlling cholesterol levels. They also contain a host of vitamins and minerals, essential for daily boidly function.
Whole nuts from Whole Foods Online are raw, unsalted and unroasted. They have a crunchy exterior and a creamy texture.

They are such a versatile ingredient, great in baking or in ethic recipes, from curry to stir fry, from ramen to nachos, and many more.

What is your favourite recipe with cashew nuts?

Whole Foods Online products

Disclosure: I received a bag of cashews for using them as an ingredient in a recipe post.

easy traybakes

Friday, 6 September 2019

The Fourth Victim by John Mead

procedural police crime novels

Three deaths
Two grieving families
One murder investigation team
How many killers?

As a subgenre of a crime fiction/detective story the police procedural puts the emphasis on the investigation, conducted by the police department and its officers.

The Fourth Victim by John Mead gives a good insight into the police procedure.

We follow an elderly lady with the shopping trolley, as she walks through the park and sees a body lying amongst the trees. It is a young girl, who was killed minutes before her body is discovered.
Her Mum, in the meantime, is pacing the room, waiting for her daughter to return from jogging in the park. Instead of her daughter, she opens the door to the constables and Detective Inspector Merry.
And in a matter of seconds, her whole world collapses.

Detective Sergeant Julie Lukula is assigned to the case together with Merry. She doesn't dislike him as such, but doesn't think too high of him either. They are an odd team.
Looking at the death in the park, is it the mugging gone wrong?

But then the older case, very similar in many details, is being revealed. And a new murder, of another young girl, takes place.
Is it a work of a serial killer, or are several killers involved?

The most absorbing plotline is that of a young woman with DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder). Her inner world is split into different personalities, who are often unaware of what each of them are doing. She is a survivor of childhood abuse, and has learnt to live with the effects of her disorder.

Dr Alima Hassam is helping with the investigation. Leanne is her old patient, and she has met most of her personalities and can give an insight on the condition.

I have mixed feelings about this book. The procedural side of the story is riveting, and insightful, but there are such glaring breaches of boundaries committed by the police.

I couldn't warm up to the main protagonists who conduct the investigation. Merry is married, but keeps having extramarital affairs without second thought. He's not exactly an Adonis, but for some strange reason women jump at him.

Lukula's also sleeping around quite indiscriminately. And there are too many references to her sexuality. OK, we got it the first time.

Their casual sex is so joyless, that I thought why even bother at all? A fumble in the dark alley behind the pub sounds gruesome.

It's a rattling, unsettling, gripping thriller with a deepening sense of apprehension.

This review is part of the Book Birthday Blitz. Check out what the other bloggers think about this book at the following stops:

procedural crime novel

Many thanks to John Mead, The Book Guild Ltd and Rachel's Random Resources for my copy of the book!

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Pryaniki for Yanka (Russian spiced cookies)

Russian spiced cookies pryaniki

Ever since finishing The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson, I wanted to recreate one of the Russian recipes and foods mentioned in the book.
Inspired by the Russian folk tales about the human-bear child, flying ship, warrior princesses, evil dragons, Baba Yaga, and talking animals, Sophie writes with imagination and mastery.

This is a story about Yanka the Bear, who is big and strong. She lives with Mamochka, who has found Yanka outside the bear cave.
"I love living with Mamochka. She's the best mother I could have wished for, but I often wonder about the bear. I wonder if she remembers me. Maybe even misses me. I wonder about the bear almost as much as I wonder about my real parents. The ones who must have lost me - or left me - in the forest".
One day Yanka wakes up only to find out that she has got bear legs...

It's a magical tale of self-discovery, self-identity, our uniqueness and differentness, of what a family and friendship, and true love mean to us. It's a beautiful story, and a future classic.

Sophie Anderson did it again, she has created a story of perfect balance. She's a true tsarina of the reinvented Russian folk tales.

Sophie's descriptions of the Russian food always "taste" good.
"Mamochka pours Anatoly a cup of tea with lemon and passes him a basket of pryaniki - soft spiced cookies with a glaze as white as the snow outside".

The girl who speaks Bear

Pryaniki are the Russian honey and spice-based cookies. The word itself pryaniki is derived from pryanyi, i.e. spicy. They are often glazed, with a nice crunch on the outside, but typically soft inside, unlike the British gingerbread (It always amuses me when the judges on the GBBO complain that the gingerbread should snap, as if the soft gingerbread is an anomaly).

This is a festive food, rich and spicy. The authentic pryaniki are made with the rye flour. You might find lots of recipes online for the Russian spiced cookies, and many of them use the standard wheat flour, mixed sometimes with cocoa powder to add the colour. But do try making them with the rye flour, the taste is very special.

Russian recipes

Pryaniki medovye (honey spiced cookies)
220g honey
2tsp+ mixed spices (ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, star anise)
80g caster sugar + water
450g rye flour
80g butter, melted
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2tbsp lemon juice
1tsp baking powder
120g icing sugar + 1 egg white for icing

In a small pan heat up the honey with spices. Set aside.
Make caramel in a small frying pan, stirring caster sugar with a dash of water. The caramel should be liquid and not too thick. Once dark in colour, set the caramel aside.
Mix the honey with caramel in a deep mixing bowl, then add half of the rye flour and mix.
Melt the butter and add to the dough. Once it is cool to touch, beat in the egg and egg yolk, lemon juice, baking powder and add the remaining flour.
Mix the dough, using hands. If the dough is too stiff, squeeze a little bit more of lemon juice.

Roll the dough on a clean working surface to the thickness of 6-7mm.

To create authentic Russian pryaniki, I used a special wooden carved board. You can use either a carved board for shortbread, or a rolling pin with deisgns, and then cut out the shapes. Or just use cookie cutters, like stars.

If using a board with a carved design, place a piece of dough over the carved design (you need to oil the wood first), gently stamp the dough, and use the rolling pin over the dough, then carefully lift the stamped dough.
Cut out the shapes around the stamped image with a knife. This is how the uncooked pryanik looks.

Russian recipes

Place the cookies on a big tray, lined with parchment paper. Put the tray in the oven preheated to 180C. Bake for about 12-15 minutes. The cookies should be slightly browned, and will still be soft to touch. If you keep them longer in the oven, they will be crisp.

Russian cookies
Unglazed pryanik

Russian cookies

Once all the cookies are cool, prepare the glaze, using the icing sugar and the egg white. Mix them gently together, but don't overbeat, you don't want a meringue.

Using a brush, add the glaze over cookies. Let the glaze set. Ideally these cookies should rest for 24 hours, but in our case, they were flying off the cooling tray even before I managed to glaze them all.

Russian cookies

They will keep in the tin for a long time. In fact, in the "olden days" pryaniki would be made weeks in advance of all major holidays and feasts. They just need to be kept in a tin or box with a lid.

Russian cookies, raw honey

In this recipe I used a Raw Wild Flower Bulgarian Honey from Whole Foods. It's a delicious honey, rich in vitamins and minerals. "It is made from the nectar of a wide variety of wild, pollen-rich flowers, which is why it has a distinctive and unique herbal flavour".

Whole Foods Online range

A few days ago I applied to the Bloggers Required assignment to test some products from the Whole Foods Online range, and this delightful honey was one of the products I agreed to try in a recipe (watch this space for more recipes to come!).
As I wanted to make the Russian pryaniki, I thought this was the most wonderful coincidence.

Russian pryaniki

Happy publication day to The Girl Who Speaks Bear!

books based on Russian folklore