AD gifted. One of my favourite things to do during the run up to Christmas is visit the Christmas markets in Manchester. Along with copious amounts of mulled wine, I always seek out the stall which sells speculaas biscuits. They’re full of festive spice and they’re just delicious.
Speculaas is a type of spiced biscuit traditionally baked on or just before St Nicholas’ Day and around Christmas in many European countries. Speculaas are thin, crunchy, slightly browned biscuits which usually have an image or figure stamped on the front side before baking. The most common design I’ve seen is the windmill, which is why I often call them windmill biscuits.
Vandotsch recently sent me a packet of Speculaas Baking Mix to bake with. The packet contained almost everything you needed to bake a batch of speculaas, just add butter! The instructions were really easy to follow, and they took just minutes to mix together. It’s important to have faith that the mix will turn into a decent dough once you start working with it. Do not be tempted to add water or milk or anything, this will just make the dough too sticky.
The Vandotsch Baking Mix contains all the lovely festive spices speculaas are known for. Packed with cinnamon, cloves and ginger, the biscuits are a real Christmas treat. I don’t have a windmill shaped cutter, so I used my Christmas tree cutter, which worked pretty well. I had some dough left over, so I rolled this up into balls, squashed them with the palm of my hand and made a few seriously delicious cookie sized biscuits, because they were thicker they were somehow even better.
The Baking Mix is suitable for vegetarians and vegans (if made with a non dairy substitute). It is also free from artificial flavourings, colours or preservatives. They are gluten free too.
The pre-made Baking Mix costs £5.59 and there are options to buy the mix with a traditional style cutter too. These would make a lovely gift for a keen baker like myself. Vandotsch have all kinds of speculaas spice and baking mixes on their website, so it’s worth having a look to see if anything tickles your fancy.
AD/Complimentary Meal. On Friday night I took my boy for a mother and son date night. We took the tram to Media City (Salford Quays) and went for a meal at Capocci’s Pop Up Restaurant which is located in the piazza near the BBC building.
Capocci’s is in what appears to be a converted shipping container. It’s under cover, but outdoors; so if you’re dining, please do take your big coat as Manchester is beginning to feel pretty autumnal already.
From breakfast to dinner, Capocci’s serve a range of traditional Italian recipes and the pop up is proving particularly popular with the locals. Capocci’s was pretty busy when we visited, with lots of people dining in, or ordering takeaway pizzas.
When we arrived, the boy was famished after a busy day at school, so we ordered our food straight away. He ordered from the kid’s menu, starting with pane all’aglio – caramelised garlic and mozzarella bread, followed by pollo Milanese – breaded chicken and pappardelle pomodoro. I ordered the burrata which came with a salad of grilled vegetables, followed by the pizza margherita classico.
Unfortunately there was a mix up with the order, so all the food came at once, which took a while to come out of the kitchen and my son was a bit beyond himself with hunger by the time it arrived. The waiter apologised for the mix up and offered us a complimentary dessert, more of which later.
Having so many dishes in front of us at once was quite over facing, and as a result the garlic bread mostly got left behind. It was nice bread, but without the cheese it definitely needed some oil or something to dip into.
The boy loved his chicken, it was beautifully cooked, with crispy breadcrumbs and lots of lovely fresh pasta. He left the tomatoes, but I snaffled those up. I was impressed to find such a grown up dish on the kid’s menu.
My burrata was absolutely delicious. Beautifully silky mozzarella with some of the loveliest grilled vegetables I’ve ever had. The dish was missing ingredients which were listed on the menu, which was a shame, but it was one of the tastiest things I’ve eaten in a long time.
My pizza was good. It had a lovely thin and crispy base and a thick layer of sauce and cheese. It was nicely priced at £7.95 and I can see why the pizzas would be a very popular takeaway option.
As we had been promised compensatory gelato, and gelato was the speciality of the house, we went ahead and ordered some for pudding. He ordered the coppa al cioccolato – chocolate and vanilla ice cream sundae with chocolate and caramel sauce, whipped cream and a chocolate flake. I ordered a scoop each of the raspberry and lemon sorbets. The gelato was very delicious, and well worth stopping by for if you want a sweet treat.
As we came to leave, our original waiter had left and not passed on the message about the mix up, so we were billed for our gelato; this rankled a bit as we wouldn’t have ordered it otherwise. I just settled the bill as it was quite late and I needed to get him home to bed.
The service was friendly and attentive; but the mix up over our order meant I had to manage a very grumpy and hungry boy for longer than I would have liked, and the rescinded offer of complimentary gelato wasn’t a great way to end the meal.
The food at Capocci’s was delicious. I would have liked to have seen more proper vegetarian options on the menu; but what I had was excellent and I would eat there again. It’s a really lovely spot to have a pop up restaurant, as the day turns to night, you get to enjoy one of my favourite views of Salford Quays – the lights from The Lowry and the Imperial War Museum glistening on the water. It’s a brilliant spot for a romantic dinner for two, or a family meal with the kids; plus it’s dog friendly!
Capocci’s Pop Up Restaurant is only in Manchester until 22nd September; so if you fancy it, it’s worth getting down to Media City pretty pronto! For more information and to take a look at their menu, visit their website.
We were given a (mostly) complimentary meal in exchange for this review. All images and opinions are our own.
AD/Gifted Product. Masterchef 2018 finalist and pilot, David Crichton, has launched an exciting new range of handmade luxury chocolates – including a vegan selection and a bright pink ruby chocolate bar. The Careless Collection is a contemporary new range of handmade luxury chocolate bars in distinct flavours and vibrant colours. Each recipe has been created in David’s development kitchen in Cheadle Hulme, offering unique flavour combinations for sophisticated palates. He sent me a box from The Careless Collection to try out.
His inspiration for the range came from the TV show when the contestants were tasked with creating a dish for an idol and he chose George Michael. Based on the song ‘Careless Whisper’ and the chocolate bar Wispa, he created two variations – one with a rich chocolate mousse and balsamic vinegar, and the other with salted butter caramel. He has since developed these two bars and added to the range.
The flavour combinations are something you might not have tried before, I know I certainly haven’t. Each box costs £12.50 and contains four bars. The box I received had a bar of each of the four flavours, which was a great way to introduce yourself to the range.
The Dark – Heirloom Ecuadorian Nacional 71% dark chocolate shell, filled with a salted butter caramel, olive oil and balsamic vinegar ganache. This is by far the richest bar in the collection, seriously good chocolate filled with an incredibly rich salted caramel butter. There are hints of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, but they are gentle and don’t overwhelm the chocolate. It is very rich and I love (really love) the slated caramel butter, I’d like a big jar of that and a spoon please.
The Milk – Single Origin Venezuelan 43.5% cocoa shell, filled with toasted coconut and lime. This smelled like a posh bounty bar, and tasted like a very posh bounty bar. The coconut inside was delicious and beautifully offset with the lime. It wasn’t too sweet either, which I sometimes find with coconut. This was one of my favourites.
The Ruby – Using a very unique, naturally occurring, ruby cocoa bean, the chocolate (which I’ve never tried before) really tastes of berries. The bar is filled with muscovado caramel, and a rich dark chocolate ganache flavoured with floral notes of rose and lychee. The rose was reminiscent of Turkish delight, but not at all overpowering. It was, I think my favourite, just because it was so unusual.
The White – 29% Cocoa butter white chocolate shell, with a unique blueberry, tonka bean and basil filling. The sweet white chocolate really brings out the cherry notes from the Tonka bean. The blueberry is subtle but it’s a delicious combination.
The Careless Collection is a truly artisan product, handmade and unique. They’re the kind of thing you’d bring out after dinner to share with friends; a real conversation starter and a great way to finish a meal. It’s worth noting that you don’t need to scoff the whole bar to yourself. I think they’re best cut up and shared with friends. Sharing is caring, after all.
For more information about The Careless Collection or to buy online, you can visit the website.
We were sent a box of chocolates for the purposes of this review. All images and opinions are our own.
AD/GIFTED The new range of Mini Eggs from Beech’s Fine Chocolates aren’t mini eggs as we know them, but small chocolate eggs which are excellent to scoff, or to decorate cakes with. With Easter rapidly approaching, I was sent some of their Mini Eggs to put to the test.
The Beech’s Fine Chocolates Mini Eggs are available in three different flavours; dark chocolate fondant mini eggs; dark chocolate mint crisp mini eggs and milk chocolate caramel crunch mini eggs. Each pack contains six egg halves and costs £2.99 each.
Regular readers will know that I’m a keen baker, and these Beech’s Fine Chocolates Mini Eggs absolutely cry out to be used to decorate cakes and sweet treats with at Easter. They are a half egg, so have a flat side which makes them ideal for topping cakes and bakes with. I made a chocolate peppermint crunch and used the dark chocolate mint crisp mini eggs as decorations and my finished bake looked great. Plus the mint flavour really worked with my bake.
I tasted them all (for the sake of thoroughness) and my absolute favourite were the milk chocolate caramel crunch mini eggs. I’m not sure if it was the milk chocolate or the crunchy caramel pieces inside which did it for me. Either way the combination really hits the spot. My husband is a massive mint chocolate fan, so he liked the mint crisp eggs the best.
Beech’s Fine Chocolates are made near Preston and many of their chocolates are vegan, vegetarian, gluten free and are palm oil free too. The fondant and mint crisp eggs are vegan, and the caramel crunch are vegetarian.
They’re a lovely grown up alternative to the traditional chocolate Easter eggs; they would make a nice treat to have after dinner with coffee. They’re not sickly sweet like some Easter eggs can be and they’re nicely priced; so would make a nice gift for a discerning chocolate lover this Easter.
For more information about Beech’s Fine Chocolates Mini Eggs, or to buy online, visit their website.
Disclosure: We were sent a selection of Beech’s Fine Chocolates for review purposes. All images and opinions are our own.
A few years ago Father Christmas kindly brought me a slow cooker. It sat unused for a few months because I didn’t think it would be that different to using my oven. How wrong was I? I’m now in love my slow cooker, I can throw a bunch of ingredients in, turn it on and then by teatime I’ve got a lovely meal to give my family.
My slow cooker is a very basic model, but that’s all I need. It turns cheap cuts of meat into fall-apart, tender meals my family love. It costs much less to run than my oven and everything I put in there turns into a delicious cuddle of a meal.
Plus, and for me this is huge, I’m a vegetarian and I’ve discovered that cooking bland and boring quorn mince in the slow cooker makes it really delicious. I make all kinds of (quorn) mince meals in mine, from bolognaise to chilli and shepherd pie. Each and every time it’s delicious and I’ve served it to confirmed carnivores without complaint.
With a few years of slow cooking experience under my belt, today I’m sharing my tips for slow cooker success.
Pre-heat your slow cooker – like a pre-heated oven, a pre-heated slow cooker will speed up the cooking process. I like to switch it on so it’s warming while I’m preparing my meal to go in the cooker.
Prep the night before – if you’re planning on switching your slow cooker on in the morning before heading out to work, you can save time by doing all the prep you need the night before, then switch it on to cook as you’re leaving the house. I’ve seen lots of very organised people who prep a lot of slow cooker meals, put them in bags and freeze them, ready to be put in the slow cooker. I wish I was that organised!
Brown your meat – I often make stews in my slow cooker. It really lends itself to cooking cheaper cuts of meat, like shin of beef or oxtail. Before I put them in the pot, I usually brown my meat in a frying pan first. The second part of this tip is roll your meat in seasoned flour before you brown it; this will help to thicken the sauce while it’s cooking.
Cook some of your veg first – root vegetables are fine to go in raw, but I like to fry off onions, celery and mushrooms first. They can go in raw, but I think they give a better flavour if you have cooked them first.
Beware too much liquid – the slow cooker is not too great at thickening sauces on its own. Add just enough liquid when you’re cooking, you can always add more if it needs it.
Boil the kettle – Use hot liquids if you can to speed up cooking. If the recipe calls for stock, make sure it’s hot. This will save the slow cooker the effort of heating it up and hot liquids will speed up the cooking process.
Root veg at the bottom – if your recipe calls for root veg, it’s best to put it in the pot first, it’ll take some time to cook through until it’s tender, and the best way to do this is at the bottom of the cooker where the liquid is.
Leave it alone – it can be tempting when you’re cooking something which smells delicious to keep lifting the lid and taking a look. Every time you lift the lid the cooker will lose heat, this will add to your cooking time. It’s best to leave it and to check it and stir it only towards the end of the cooking time.
Best cooked low and slow – in my experience, slow cooker meals are best if they’ve been cooked on the low setting for longer. It’s tempting to whack things on high to get it to cook quicker, which is fine; but if you can, low and slow is best. One hour on high = two hours low.
Add fresh herbs right at the end – if your recipe calls for fresh herbs, add these at the very end. Dried herbs stand up remarkably well in the slow cooker, but fresh herbs will lose their vibrancy.
Those are my tips for slow cooker success. Have you got any tips you can add? Please comment below.
If you enjoyed this, you might like to try these slow cooker recipes:
During the week I find myself throwing meals together quite quickly. I like to cook as much as I can from scratch, but this can be time-consuming. In a push it can be tempting to pick up a ready meal or a takeaway, but if you’re savvy you can cook food faster. Over the years I’ve picked up a few habits to get meals to the table a bit quicker.
Today I’m sharing some of the ways I cook food faster.
1. Most frozen vegetables can be steamed in 3-4 minutes in the microwave, just throw it in a microwave proof dish, add a splash of water and put the lid loosely on top.
2. Likewise, fresh vegetables can be quickly cooked in the microwave. My son loves baby sweetcorn, so I add a splash of water and microwave them (and all kinds of other veg) until they’re cooked.
3. If you’re making a sausage sandwich, slice them length-ways first, flatten them out and they’ll cook in half the time.
4. If you’re using the oven, as soon as you start to prep your meal, put your oven on high, you can adjust the temperature later, you just need to get it preheated asap.
5. While I’m waiting for the oven to heat up, depending on what I’m cooking, I might defrost things in the microwave first. So things like oven chips I might defrost for 5 minutes to speed up the cooking process.
6. Same with pans. Boil the kettle and/or get a pan on asap. Don’t overdo the amount of water – it will boil faster and be less likely to boil over.
7. Prick potatoes with a fork, the heat will them penetrate better so they cook quicker.
8. Jacket potatoes are an easy, fairly healthy meal. They’re best done in the oven, but you can shave at least half an hour off the oven cooking time by cooking them in the microwave until they’re just cooked through, then put them in the oven so the skin crisps up and the potato goes fluffy on the inside.
9. Portion control – you’ll cook faster if you only cook just enough instead of too much. Learn to take things off the heat when they’re just done, especially if you’re holding them before serving, the internal heat will keep them cooking a little bit longer.
10. Slow cooking seems like the opposite of fast cooking, but if you’re organised you can throw a meal together in the morning, have it cook all day and it’s ready and waiting when you get home.
What are your super speedy cooking tips? I’d love you to share them in the comments.
Over the years we’ve tried all kinds of veg box schemes. We’ve tried those recipe boxes and we’ve had a milkman, then no milkman because the local diary closed, now we have another milkman because another dairy opened. Getting food delivered to the door isn’t just convenient, with the Creamline Best of Local Box scheme, you can get brilliant locally produced food from independent producers delivered to your door.
I live in South Manchester and I was asked to give the Best of local Box a try. Where I can I do try to shop local, and I buy directly from a number of the Best of Local suppliers on a regular basis. I knew that the contents of the box would be of a really high standard, but would it be more expensive?
The Creamline website it really simple to use. Just browse and add to your basket the products you want delivered, choose your delivery day, pay and then wait for the knock on the door.
I had a good look and what was on offer, then meal planned around that. I was excited that there was a baker, something we don’t really have locally anymore; so I did go a bit wild when ordering bakery products.
Here’s my order for my first box…
The meat products are what I usually buy from the butchers who supply Creamline anyway. The meat were the most expensive part of my order; we ate some straight away and I put the rest in the freezer for another day. I always think it’s better to buy good quality meat and eat a little less of it, than cheap, low quality meat.
The bread, rolls and bakes were incredibly quality. I’m so used to bland supermarket bread that just some toast made with the bloomer was a real treat. If you order the Best of Local Box, them it’s well worth stocking up on this gorgeous bread. I can also highly (HIGHLY) recommend the millionaires flapjack, which was superb.
The fruit and veg come daily from Manchester’s Smithfield Market. It was as fresh as could be. The watermelon lasted for ages and made one boy very happy (watermelon is his favourite thing).
I really loved my Creamline Best of Local Box. I knew everything was made within a few miles of my home, by local people who really care about the quality of what they produce. It’s exactly the kind of thing I would order and will order in the future.
I think that sometimes when you order a food box, you’re not really sure where the food has come from and what kind of quality it will be. I already shop with a number of the shops who supply the Creamline Best of Local boxes; so it’s just a more convenient way for me to shop, without the bother of carrying it home. It’s delivered to my door, well packed, free of charge and by a cheery person.
The box is no more expensive that going from local shop to local shop. It’s great quality and I feel like I’m still doing my “shop local” bit to help my high street.
They’ve even got a discount code on their website right now if you want to try it out for yourself!
I’ve been a vegetarian since 1989, which is quite a long time. One of the questions I get asked the most is what do I miss? I miss my Nan’s beef chilli and her corned beef hash. I also miss my Nan but that’s a subject for another day perhaps. One of the things I did miss was sweets, because back then a lot of sweets contained gelatine.
Thankfully in the last 30 years things have moved on. Sure, pop to your local sweet shop and their shelves will be heaving with cheap jelly sweets, but Swizzels Matlow have produced a range of their trademark sweets which are suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
Their Drumstick Choos and lollies contain five double flavour combinations which include peaches and cream and strawberry and banana. Their Refreshers Choos (my favourite) include pineapple and apple and have that fizzy sherbet centre which I love. Both kinds of Choos are vegetarian and vegan and are available in Tesco, Asda and Morrisons.
Other vegan sweets made by Swizzels Matlow which are suitable for vegetarians and vegans include Love Hearts, Fizzers, Fruity Pops, Double Lollies, Parma Violets and Rainbow Drops.
Some of these are among my favourite sweets. I adore Parma Violets and have used them to make Parma Violet shortbread biscuits. I also really love Rainbow Drops, which is a slightly less well-known sweet, but one I really love. They’re something about them, maybe it’s because they’re like a naughty breakfast cereal, but I love them.
My husband isn’t a fan of chewy sweets (he fears for his teeth) but he can’t resist a packet of love hearts. My son who is 8 just likes sweets. He’s very good at sharing them, so it’s better if we choose veggie or vegan sweets.
Whatever sweets are your favourite, it’s reassuring to know that vegetarians and vegans in 2018 have considerably more choice in the sweet-shop than they did 30 years ago! Thanks Swizzels.
I was sent a selection of sweets in exchange for this blog post.
Christmas dinner is one of the foodie highlights of the year. For me, it’s not necessarily the food which makes it special, it’s sitting down with the family, sharing a meal and enjoying the occasion. Whilst the main course on Christmas Day is more or less fixed, the Christmas Day Starters are a movable feast.
It can be difficult to decide what to make for your Christmas Day starter, but ideally it should be something you can make ahead of time, or something you can quickly cook before serving.
Our family always has soup as a Christmas Day starter. This year I’ll be serving my luxurious cauliflower and chestnut soup which is a grand way to start off the festive feasting. Plus, it’s so easy to make ahead and freeze. All you need to do is warm it through and serve with some crusty bread. Happy families!
Christmas Day Starters
Pâté, meat or veggie – served with melba toast. It’s a Christmas Day classic!
Goats cheese caramelised onion tarts
Mini Yorkshire puddings with creamy smoked trout and horseradish pâté
Crab and avocado tian with lovely thin Melba toast and good butter
Soup – make your own or jazz up a tub of shop bought. It’s a simple starter and a crowd pleaser!
Stuffed mushrooms wrapped in Parma ham
Prawn cocktail – a 70’s classic which will never go out of fashion.
On Tuesday we visited the Grill in the Park restaurant at Worsley Park Marriott Hotel & Country Club for dinner. We’d been there last year for breakfast, so we were keen to see what dinner would be like. They’ve just undergone a complete refurb and unveiled their new menu, we were invited along to try the new menu for size.
We were looking forward to a nice quiet date night, some good food and a chance to relax without the demands of a small child. The Grill in the Park restaurant is really cosy, with booths and quiet, intimate corners to dine in. It’s just the place for a quiet dinner for two, a business dinner or for a group of friends.
It’s a grill, so steak is high on the agenda. You can smell the steak cooking as you walk in and that is a very good thing. I’m a vegetarian, but the smell of cooking steak is possibly the only think that could turn me.
Executive chef, Tom Gardner has been with Worsley Park since 2014 and has created the new menu giving a twist on the grill menu. The menu looks really well balanced, with more than just a token veggie dish. They’ve invested £16,000 on a new grill, so most dishes have some grilled elements.
To begin with I opted for the Baby Beetroot, Goats Cheese and Cress Salad (£8) and my companion had the an Seared Scallops with Celeriac Puree, roasted hazelnuts and apple and fennel salad (£14).
I can’t resist roasted beetroot and there were two different kinds on my plate. The salad was well dressed and the half log portion of goats cheese was very generous. The log had been grilled and it had a really delicious char on it, I did find the goats cheese quite hard and I was expecting a softer goats cheese, but I suspect this wouldn’t have grilled quite so well.
The scallops were a real hit. Three really plump and juicy scallops, well seasoned and nestled on top of some autumnal celeriac puree and alongside a small heap of sweet, crisp salad. It was a highlight.
Onward to the main course, I plumped for the vegetable fajitas (£12) with a side of sweet potato fries (£4). Whilst my better half couldn’t resist a grilled sirloin steak (£27) which comes with tomatoes, watercress, a flat mushroom and a sauce of your choice, he went for port and shallot. He also had a portion of steak cut chips (£4).
My vegetable fajitas arrived hot and sizzling in their dish, I’d asked for no mushrooms as I can’t eat them, so my sizzling dish was onions and peppers in a sweet sticky sauce. This came with two toasted wraps and sour cream, guacamole and salsa. This dish had all the potential to be really hearty and lovely, but I was a bit disappointed by it. The wraps were too crispy to roll into fajitas (I think the wraps should be warmed but not crispy) so I ended up using them as crispbreads and scooping the fillings on top.
I loved the onions and peppers, but I think the sauce was just a bit too sweet and after a while that began to cloy. It was so nearly there, if I order them next time I’ll ask for the wraps not to be toasted.
My husband’s grilled sirloin steak was a triumph. A thick, juicy steak with well cooked accompaniments. He always has his steak cooked medium-rare and it was perfectly pink with a lovely char. The sauce was rich and he cleaned his plate. The Grill in the Park do steaks very well.
We didn’t have room for pudding, but we forced ourselves. I went for Warm Pecan Pie with caramel ice cream (£5.50) and he had the Lemoncello & Raspberry Semifreddo with raspberry compote and summer berries (£5.50).
Pudding was most definitely a highlight. His semifreddo was creamy and light, the perfect end to a rich meal. My warm pecan pie was something I will think about often in the coming weeks. The pastry was so light, thin and crisp, it was a joy. The pecans were soft, sticky and flavoursome and it was just perfectly put together. Pecan pie is my new favourite thing.
We had a lovely meal in cosy, intimate surroundings. I found fault with a few things, but not enough for me not to return again. We tried some absolutely wonderful dishes that night; but it is worth visiting Grill in the Park for the pecan pie alone! Go on, try it.
The Grill in the Park is at the Worsley Park Marriott Hotel & Country Club, for more information visit their website
We were invited guests of the Grill in the Park at Worsley Park Marriott Hotel & Country Club and our meal and drinks were complimentary. All images and opinions are our own.