Get stuffed! (for beginners): Stuffed chicken wrapped in parma ham with cheesy potatoes and veg

So this is the first time I have cooked a proper homemade, keep-an-eye-on-the timings, no-microwave-involved (well, maybe a little) meal for a family. Ever. And the fact it is my family that will be on the receiving end of my culinary blood, sweat and tears makes this even more nerve-racking.

To explain, my stepfather is the undisputed master of blunt, obscure criticism (‘are you going to get changed before we go out?’), usually cuttingly delivered as he lounges on the sofa, one eye on the tv, beer can in hand, completely oblivious to the effect his unwitting remarks have. I have observed many a fiery argument between him and his daughter with this issue as the root cause. At least, being her only child, I can rely on my mother to say nice things regardless of how foul tasting, or burnt my well-intentioned meal turns out to be. Hopefully.

 

Ingredients (for 4 people)

200g low-fat cream cheese

Spinich

Chives, chopped finely

Cherry tomatoes

4 chicken breasts

4 medium jacket potatoes

8 slices of parma ham

Cheese (the amount depends on how cheesy you like your potatoes!)

Vegetables of your choice (I used broccoli, carrots and asparagus)

I largely made this recipe up from a few different ones I found courtesy of a google search and adapted it as I went along, so if you do attempt this, you may find you need to do the same! I’ll post the recipe then post details of how I found each step underneath.

1. Put jacket potatoes in oven (200˚c) for 50 minutes

(I found the potatoes still weren’t cooked after this amount of time, so I slung them in the microwave – shh… – for another couple of minutes afterwards, which did the trick)

2. Split chicken breasts down the middle, making a pocket, and spoon 120g of the cream cheese, mixed with chives, into it.

(This was bloody difficult. Far harder than I expected, especially actually cutting the chicken breasts. It was like cutting into rubber! Use a good, sharp knife, try not the puncture through the bottom, or opposite side of the chicken – like I did – and ‘spoon’ the cream cheese in with a knife…not a spoon. Thankfully, if you do go wrong, you can still be saved by the next step. I also thought putting some cherry tomatoes in the chicken would be good, but I couldn’t find any room to stuff mine in!)

3. Wrap each chicken breast in a slice of parma ham

(Now this is what the recipe officially recommends…but, especially if you’re a beginner, use 2 slices. This means you can trap the cream cheese more easily if it’s oozing everywhere! Also, be aware that parma ham is ridiculously thin, and mine broke apart continuously. In fact, it was at this point I exclaimed to my despairing mother ‘who the hell would find cooking relaxing?! I’m never doing it again!’)

4. Put chicken breasts in the oven for 35-40 minutes (make sure juices run clear)

(Relief. Now I just needed to make sure I didn’t poison the family)

5. Prepare the vegetables

(By this point I realised I had tons of vegetables and had to think of creative ways to include them on the plate. I ended up boiling the carrots and broccoli for around 8 minutes, and the asparagus for 4. Do this step just before you get the chicken out so the vegetables don’t get cold)

6. Take out chicken breasts and jacket potatoes

(Make sure everything’s cooked – my chicken was possibly a little dry because I’d been overcautious to ensure any risk of salmonella had been zapped – and my potatoes were quite undercooked. Hello microwave!)

7. Take out pulp of potato and mix with butter, cream cheese, chives, spinich and finely chopped cherry tomatoes. Grate some cheese on top, and return to oven for 5-10 minutes

(Literally, at this point, everything went wrong. The vegetables were cooking at different rates, some potatoes were still in the microwave, and I was desperately attempting to get everything mixed into the potato pulp whilst scorching my fingers and cursing under my breath. Eventually, and I hate to admit this, I had to call for assistance from my on-standby mother. However, this is the woman who purchases ready-made mashed potato from the supermarket so, even with the combined force of the two of us, I wasn’t expecting miracles)

8. Serve

(Thank God! It was over! I wanted to serve the chicken in a slightly more fancy way, so I placed the chicken on a bed of spinach, and arranged some cherry tomatoes around this. Then plonked the potatoes and vegetables on as fast as I could as I was starving).

So the final verdict – I’d say not a bad attempt, but certainly not a resounding success (I had to call in my mum for a start – shameful!) I found some of the filling had escaped from the chicken when in the oven (due to idiotic wrapping with the parma ham) so the chicken was slightly dry. I loved the potato concoction, this was my favourite part, although again it could have done with a bit more moisture, so possibly add some milk to the pulp when mixing (adding milk seems increasingly to be common guesswork in my recipes!) Overall, it was a nice meal, though I should point out the portion size was HUGE (not a problem in our family, we are human dustbins). But the biggest success – not one word of criticism from the notoriously critical stepfather. Not one! Unfortunately this didn’t last and, later that night my new haircut got a rather severe, classically oblivious bashing as we ate our pudding….

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The trials and tribulations of relationships…and banoffee pie.

I once made this with an ex-boyfriend of mine – the cake turned out to be far more successful than the relationship so, as a now-singleton, I thought I’d have another solo attempt at it. It is actually my favourite desert, and is particularly well-known in Britain…however, before I begin, I should add a disclaimer – this desert is in no way healthy and it WILL make you fat. But it’s amazing.

  • 250g/9oz digestive biscuits
  • 100g/4oz butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 400g/14oz caramel (you can buy a tin of this) *
  • 2 bananas, peeled and sliced
  • 300ml/½ pint whipping cream, whipped until soft peaks form (or just buy some whipped cream if you want to simplify this further)

* (You can used condensed milk – sometimes called ‘dulce de leche’ – in a tin instead of buying caramel, but you have to submerge it in water for 3 hours – if you don’t immerse it fully in the water apparently the tin will explode…seriously, who has the time or stress capacity to put themselves through that? If you’re not a banoffee pie purist, a tin of caramel will be fine).

  1. Put biscuits into a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. (This is the way the recipe recommends…however, I find it more fun and far more satisfying to put the biscuits in a plastic bag and mash and bash – those are obviously the official cooking terms – the biscuits into breadcrumbs with a rolling pin. You could even imagine said ex-boyfriends face whilst doing this…not that I advocate that, of course).
  2. Transfer to a mixing bowl and rub the butter into the biscuits (this takes a while, but an added bonus is that your hands feel amazingly soft afterwards!)
  3. Place the mixture into a lightly greased, loose-bottomed cake tin and press down into the base and up along the sides. Chill for 30 minutes.
  4. Spoon the caramel over the biscuit base, and then cover with a layer of sliced bananas.
  5. Put whipping cream into a bowl and whip with a blender (this part was a bit trial-and-error for me – I did this with a hand-held one and stopped when the cream became thicker and, well, creamier – took about 5 minutes of blending). Spoon the whipped cream on top of the cake.
  6. Slice into wedges and serve.

The beauty of this type of desert is, even if you go horrifically wrong and it looks like a mess, it will still taste fantastic. This was a very simple recipe to make (it involved no actual cooking for a start!) but gets you used to techniques such as ‘rubbing in’ and allows you to use your own judgement as to when ‘the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs’ or what ‘whipped’ cream actually looks like, so it is a perfect starter recipe.

Overall, and I may be biased here, but I found that the cake I made by myself was nicer and significantly more satisfying than the one I made with my ex (I didn’t cry into my cake once)…much like the relationship I have with myself now if you want to get all Freudian about it! But this is just a cake. A delicious one.  And one which I recommend EVERYONE should try at least once!

Next week, I’ll post how my attempt at making a main meal for the whole family goes – surely a recipe for disaster?! Put it this way, I have the takeaway menus on standby…

Basic skills in cooking – very basic skills…

So, as promised, I attempted my first culinary masterpiece today – a banana cake.  Okay okay, so this is not Gordan Ramsey-standard cooking, but everyone has to start somewhere! And let’s face it – it’s a skill level or two above mastering gauging the correct useage of water so as not to spoil a pot noodle…

Here’s the recipe I found for it in case some of you budding chefs (/some of my fellow catastrophic novices) out there want to try it:

125g butter

150g caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 egg

3 ripe bananas

190g self-raising flour

60 ml milk

1. Mash bananas (I’d advise investing in a masher rather than a fork like me…took bloody ages…)

2. Grease and line a cake tine

3. Melt butter, sugar and vanilla in a saucepan over medium heat

4. Remove from heat, add bananas and mix well

5. Add egg, mix well

6. Stir in flour and milk

7. Bake at 150˚c (fan oven) for 35 mins (use oven gloves when removing cake from oven…just kidding, even I knew that one!)

I have to say, aside from getting caked in flour and banana juice, (and having my mum keep a watchful eye over me – i think she was scared about me demolishing her kitchen) I actually found this surprisingly easy – I think baking is definitely the way to go if you’re fairly new to cooking! I did enjoy the cake, but thought it was maybe a tiny bit bland and a little on the dry side, so maybe add a some more milk (that’s a bit of a guess). For the majority of the population who are more experienced than me, I’d suggest adding a topping of some sort for a bit more flavour.

Overall – possibly not a resounding success but, amazingly, not a bad start to my cooking foray!

The life of an Amateur Graduate: Learning to survive in the real world and other essential life skills

Life of an amateur graduate – bit of a strange name for a blog isn’t it?

Like most new bloggers I suspect, I have just sat in front of my laptop for a good, ooh, half an hour or so trying desperately to come up with an interesting, witty name that might capture even just one person’s attention and make them take a precious few minutes out of their day to linger on this page. After failing to do so, I then thought I’d choose a title that simply reflects me. That took probably another 15 minutes on top of that. Have you noticed how difficult it is to sum yourself up in just a few words? Maybe it’s us Brits that struggle more with this! For me personally, job interviews that ask you to ‘describe yourself in 3 words’, or ‘tell us what qualities your friends say you have’ make my palms go clammy and my heart sink, and I’ll spout out something generic such as ‘fun, friendly, polite’ very unconvincingly (despite liking to think I do actually possess these qualities!) That question is usually the kiss of death for me.

So, back on point, I think the title of ‘amateur graduate’ sums me up fairly well. I graduated back in 2010 and, I have to say, although being a student was undoubtedly the best time of my life, it in no way prepares you for the real world. Yes, you work hard (usually), yes, the social aspect is great (I was unbearably shy before starting university and was slowly but surely brought out of my shell); but unless your future career path involves pulling all nighters with copious amounts of energy drink before a 9 a.m. exam, becoming addicted to Jeremy Kyle (despite your best efforts) or learning the rules to the ‘take me out’ drinking game, graduating from the student lifestyle can be a real eye opener! After growing up thinking that a shiny degree can take you any place you like, leaving university and entering the ‘real world’ in a recession is pretty daunting for most.

Saying this, I have to explain, despite being a hard worker and quite focused, I have been described on occasion as ‘ditzy’, and many of my friends have compared me to Bridget Jones (maybe I should tell my next interviewer that if the dreaded quesion arises!) so certain toils for me tend to be more pronounced! (A perfect example occurred just before writing this post as, while attempting to activate my ‘wordpress’ account, I inexplicably forgot my email password I have used every day for the past 3 years).

Therefore, this blog will document my experiences of cooking (I plan to cook one new recipe a week and, coming from someone who ruined a pot noodle, this is no mean feat), career struggles I’m sure myself and many other graduates are experiencing, and the hellish prospect (sorry mum) of moving home after university. I also will write more specific posts on my experience with taking roaccutane (anyone unlucky enough to suffer with bad skin will be familiar with this), reviews on health/beauty products, and generally write ideas as they come to me in the hope that some of you out there will find them interesting or helpful.

For anyone still reading – I admire your dedication! I’ll post again soon, so I hope you’ll check back in with me then 🙂