Monday, December 31, 2007

Regarding softened butter

Every baker would have been confronted with this very toublling situation at one time or another.


Perhaps you were flipping through a magazine, or, like me, just before the thunder strike, watching television. Suddenly, without any warning, a gorgeous cake appears before said baker's eyes. It is a magnificent creation, raised and tall, [usually] deeply chocolate and covered in a luscious frosting you know is just perfect along with the fluffy interior of that darkly chocolate cake. Anyone else would probably have picked up their wallets and head out to the nearest bakery in the hopes of finding something just as satisfying, but not a baker. A baker is immediately gripped by the need to create her very own cake. And then tragedy strikes; the butter every baker has sitting in their fridge needs to be softened before any cake-baking can commence.

To non-bakers this might sound ridiculous, but any baker in the world would understand the dilemma. Cold butter straight from the fridge takes at least an hour to soften, and with that gorgeous vision of a cake clouding one's judgement, an hour is wayyy too long. And so, this baker has decided to take it upon herself to find a solution to this tragic problem, despite Martha Stewards' belief that there is no solution, much to my despair. You would think that if any one had a solution it would've been Martha, wouldn't you?

Today, I was gripped with the very same condition. Any reasonably experienced baker knows there are more than one way to incorporate fats into a product, not to mention the different kinds of fats available. Today, I attempted to get around the problem by using melted butter in the chocolate cake batter. Unfortunately, I have to report that it did not work out. The cake was dense and heavy, and though perfectly edible, was hardly delightful, even smothered in chocolate glaze.

Still, know that this baker will continue in her search for the remedy against softened butter.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Feast India

The WGA strike has thrown a serious wrench into my holiday plan -- namely to catch up on as much television as is humanly possible before I'm returned to tele cold turkey when school term starts. Dame you rich studios, stop being such misers and pay the dame writers what they deserve. This leaves me with plenty of time to cook, and today, my mom, her friend, Wendy and I decided to cook up an Indian feast, LENTIL DAHL AND MUTTON MURTABAK. This I'm sure sounds humble to many Indians, but is truly a monumental task for 3 Chinese ladies. It turned out much more successful than I had dared to hope, and it just reminds me again why I love Singapore so much. The diversity of culture is so rich and incredible, and I feel so lucky to be right smack in the middle of it all. So, here comes the recipe


Dahl [serves 5]:

3 cups [whatever sized cups; keep in mind dried lentils expand when hydrated] yellow lentils




Yellow Onions/Shallots [Red Onions]

Whatever other vegetables you fancy, such as lady's fingers, aubergine/egg plant, cabbage.

Cumin seeds

Coriander seeds

Chili flakes/chili powder

Tumeric powder

Murtabak [serves 5]:

330g plain flour + extra for kneading

1 tablespoon oil/ghee

2 teaspoon salt

240ml warm water

Large amount of vegetable oil

300g minced mutton

2 clove minced garlic

1 minced onion

Tumeric powder

3 eggs

Ok, most Singaporeans would be well familiar with dahl and murtabak, though I won't dare say all, and I'm guessing most outside of Asia would have little knowledge of what they are, so I might be a little lengthy with the explanation.

As can be seen in the picture, dahl is a vegetarian curry made with vegetables and grains and pulses, most commonly in Singapore, the yellow lentil. It is usually served beside roti prata, murtabak and other flat breads as a kind of dip or sauce, though it is also commonly eaten as a dish all by itself, with rice.

Murtabak is really roti prata with a meat and egg filling. In Singapore, as well as in Malaysia, Indian stalls everywhere serve these two dish. Roti prata, without the filling, can be eaten savory, with either some kind of meat curry or dahl, or eaten sweet, with granulated sugar. Murtabak, on the other hand, because of its savory meat filling, is always taken with curry or dahl.

Lets begin with the dahl. It is a dead simple curry to cook, time consuming but requiring little attention. Cook lentils in enough water to cover roughly 3 fingers above the grains. This is dependent, as usual, on what kind of a consistancy you like your curry to be in. I like mine thick, so I usually reduce the water a little, or scoop them out once the grains are tender. Cook the lentils until you can mash them easily between your fingers. Next, add salt, tumeric, and all the vegetables. How the vegetables are cut depends on how you like them. Chunks if you like to see them, cubes if you like a mushy curry, like me. Boil away.

The way the spices are incorporated is really fun, but get all the spices ready before you start, as they burn really quickly so that in the time you step away to get another spice those in the pan already would have charred and turn bitter. Heat a little oil in a pan, and once smoking, add all the seeds, namely mustard, cumin and coriander. The mustard seeds will start to pop, which is ok. Stir around for a short time, then dump in the rest of the powdered spices. Stir for just a moment, then upend all the contents into the pot with the lentils and the vegetables. They'll bubble merrily, but will simmer down after a while. Continue to simmer until it is of desired consistency, and that is your dahl done. It freezes really well, and if kept in individual servings, on days when cooking just for yourself, you have an instant meal a few minutes away.

The murtabak may seem an impossibility, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy, if a little different from how we usually make bread. Combine flour, salt and oil, mix well. Clear a well in the middle of the bowl and add half the water first. Mix in the flour with a fork, and add more accordingly. Be mindful not to add too much at once; once added they can't be removed. Stop once all the flour has more or less been incorporated; even if the dough appear to be slightly dry,it is still possible to work in the rest of the flour. If any more moisture is added it'll be too wet. Scrap everything out onto a surface and knead, covering with flour when needed. I have thus far never been able to achieve that stick-free dough Jamie Oliver make look so easy, but a slightly sticky dough here works just fine, so knead till most of the dough doesn't stick.

Divide the dough in half and roll each half into a rough log. Snatch off golf balls sized pieces of the dough and put them into a bowl. Cover the dough balls with oil. This is to make it possible to stretch the dough without the dazzling skill of the prata man. The sight of a prata man at work is really something, and after today, I have a new appreciation for their skillfullness! Let the dough stand for an hour. If you don't have enough oil or you don't want to waste so much, put them into a flat pan and fill a little with oil, then turn over the dough every once in a while.

While the dough is standing, fry up the filling, starting with the onions and garlic until tender, then the meat and finally the tumeric. Taste and season, then set aside.

Once the dough is ready, we can start to make the murtabak. I found the dough to be rather temperamental, and there are a few key things to note when making the murtabak [or prata, if you want it plain].
  1. Only press out the dough when the pan is ready for frying. This applies to every flat bread you fry. So the pan have to be clear before you proceed to press out another ball of dough. This is because once pressed out, if left on the surface for too long, the dough starts sticking to the surface and your thin dough will be impossible to remove. On the other hand, just after you press it out, the dough is wonderfully slick, and comes off the table easily.

  2. The dough can only be pressed once. I'm assuming its the oil that makes it especially malleable, because the first time you press out the dough it'll stretch thin and long, but if you crumpled it back together and attempt it again, the dough shrinks into itself and becomes rubbery, refusing to stretch. If this happens, return to oil bath and rework it later. Don't worry if there are holes, they'll be covered up with egg later, and they don't affect the taste at all.

Ok, so how exactly to press out the dough? Take a ball of dough and place it on a flat surface. With the heel of your hand, press down on the dough and push outwards. Do it all over the dough, until you have a paper-thin piece of dough. Pick up the pastry and place it in the pan. Drop 3-4 tablespoon of egg over one side of the pastry, top over with sufficient amount of the meat filling, and with a spatula, flip the empty pastry over the fillings. Let until the egg is set, then flip over. Cook both sides until golden brown, and we're done! The murtabak is ready to be served with a small bowl of the dahl.

Our dismal first attempt:

Subsequent much more successful effort:

And I like to eat mine like this =)

Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas meal...part four

Finally, we get to my favourite style of cooking, baking! And I suspect this is also many people's favourite course, dessert =P On a random note, desserts is stressed spelled backwards! So, what I had planned for my Christmas dessert is GIANT PROFITEROLE IN WARM CHOCOLATE RIVER. I'm making giant individual serving profiteroles instead of the more usual tiny ones because I simply can't be bothered to make multiple tiny ones. To be honest, cookie baking, especially drop cookies, is the bane of this baker's existence. I simply don't have the patience to make thirty forty tiny even drops of cookie batter.
Back to the profiteroles, the recipe I'll be giving is suppose to serve 10 when baked in its regular form. I halfed the recipe and got 4 giant choux puff out of it. The only problem with halfing this recipe is that because of its reduced volume, its really hard to use an electric mixer on it, and I found myself confronted with the task of whisking eggs into a stubborn batter by hand. Still, I'm happy to report that its completely do-able, if a little tiring, and really good for those upper arm muscles. I don't think I need to explain the warm chocolate river; basically I intended to drown my profiteroles in warm chocolate sauce, and that was what I did.
Choux pastry:
95ml water
50g unsalted butter
90g/3 oz plain flour, sifted if you bother, makes things just a little easier
3 eggs, lightly beaten

Custard filling:
375ml/12 fl oz milk
4 egg yolks
90g/3 oz caster sugar
30g/1 oz plain flour
1 tspoon vanilla essence
Chocolate sauce:
118ml hot water
60g cocoa powder
50g caster sugar
1 large tablespoon golden syrup/honey [makes the sauce glossy]
Handful of 70% dark chocolate couverture chocloate/any good quality chocolate
Small amount of milk

Ok, let's begin with the choux pastry. This is not an easy pastry to make, of the easy-to-collapse variety. It took me 3 previous attempt to get the dame thing to stay upright, and this time I made it, 1 out of 4 collapsed. Nevertheless, I still consider 3 out of 4 pretty satisfactory. These pastries are cunning too, luring the baker into a false sense of victory when they puff up in the oven, only to collapse once they cool.

Put the butter and water into a pot, and stir to melt. Don't worry about them separating, they are not suppose to mix. Bring it to a boil, remove from heat, dump in all the flour at once and stir like mad until it becomes a yellow batter. Return to stove and continue stirring the batter, until it shrinks into a somewhat cohesive ball. Don't worry if its not actually all together. As long as the batter is no longer sticky and the dough leaves the side of the pot you are ok.

Now comes the workout. Let the dough cool just a little so you don't get scrambled eggs when you add the eggs. The eggs have to be added slowly, 3 tablespoon at a time. Make sure you use large eggs, not the tiny ones. Eggs are instrumental in the rising, and this is one point not to screw around with. Equally important is the beating in. Don't be lazy and add it all in. So, if making a full batch, beat in 3 tablespoon of egg with an electric whisk each time. Otherwise, just beat it in with a wooden spoon. This pastry is more stubborn than usual when it comes to taking in the egg, but keep at it and it'll turn smooth in no time. Once all the eggs have been beaten in, the batter is done, and should look like this.

Pre-heat oven to a hot 210 degree celcius. The baking is a tad troublesome as well, but the satisfaction of a puffed, tall and golden puff is quite worth the while for me, though I must say by itself the pastry taste like crap. I happen to be going through custard mania now, which is why I chose to make this. Huge glop of sweet custard in the empty puff, delish. So, most recipes would say to sprinkle water on the tray and inside the oven to create steam to help with the puff's rising. I personally think it a waste of time, but I suppose it does help a little. I also find it weird to put batter onto a wet tray, which is why I don't do it.
Don't be fooled by the tiny amount of batter, they puff up an awful lot. So if you are making regular sized ones, don't put more than a level tablespoon of batter, and leave plenty of room for spreading. If like me, you are making huge ones, you'll only fit 2 puffs onto one tray.

Another important thing to note is NOT to open the oven door until the puffs are fully risen and has baked for around 10 - 15 minutes at least. Premature opening of the doors leads to a drop in temperature and pressure within the oven, which leads to flat puffs. Once the puffs are fully risen and browned, pry them off the foil and poke a hole at the bottom, then return to oven to dry out some more. One way of testing its done-ness is to tap it; it should sound hollow. Remove puffs after around 5 minutes, place on rack to air out and pray that it stays upright. Here's my final [standing!] product:

And next comes the custard. Bring milk to a boil, and while it is heating, whisk together the egg yolk, sugar and flour in a cooking pot. Once the milk boils [no need for it to boil vigorously, just as soon as bubbles start to appear], pour into egg mixture, whisking quickly. Return to stove, and KEEP STIRRING. Do not leave the custard one step, and I mean it. They burn faster than you can blink. Although, if it is burned only a little, don't despair, taste it and see if its obvious. Usually the custard can take a little burning before it becomes inedible, so if you don't mind little black specks in your custard you can still get away with it. Make sure to scrap every inch of the pot as you stir, as it is easy to miss a spot, and that untouched spot can quickly become a charred mess.

As soon as the custard thicken enough to coat your spoon or fork, take it off the heat. If left on too long custard becomes lumpy, but make sure to taste it before you stop cooking. You want to make sure all the floury taste has been cooked out of the batter, or it will taste, well, like flour, which is gross. Let the custard cool JUST A LITTLE before laying a piece of cling film right over the surface of the custard. As the custard cools the surface hardens into a layer of skin, which will make for lumpy custard if not removed, which is why you can't wait til the custard cools to put on the cling film. What the cling film does is make it easy to remove the hardened skin; it basically peels off together with the film. Chill in the fridge and your custard is ready to go.
*Recipe taken from The Essential Baking Cookbook, published by Murdoch Books*
And the pièce de résistance, the chocolate sauce. I know this must seem like an awful lot of work, with 3 component to a dish, but in actual fact each component take only a small amount of time, and this chocolate sauce in particular can be made in advance and kept in the fridge, served either cold or hot. The simplest way to do it is to dump everything into a pot, heat and stir. But I find it useful to begin with dissolving the cocoa powder into the hot water. Cocoa powder can be rather temperamental, throwing up difficult lumps even when sifted. In a smaller bowl, it is easier to catch the lumps and blend them in.

Also, 60g of cocoa powder is actually quite a lot, as they are rather intense in flavour. Mixing them up first, with all the other ingredients except the chocolate, will allow you to gauge how much more chocolate to add. Why waste good chocolate in an already sinful chocolate sauce? Conversely, if you can't get cocoa powder, just omit it and substitute with more chocolate, how much up to your budget and your taste buds. While I love dark chocolate passionately and can't understand milk chocolate lovers, I do know there are many out there. I have to confess this is a seriously deep and dark sauce, so if you are inclined towards milk chocolate, simply reduce the amount of water and substitute with milk, and use milk couverture instead of dark ones. At my insistance my sister spent a lot of time trying to capture the lusciousness of this sauce, and so I'll post a few more of them here.

*Recipe adapted from Food and Wine*

All that's left now is the assembly! Its dead easy and takes like 5 minutes. Remove the custard and discard the cling film. Take 1 puff and turn it over on the serving plate. If the hole is not big enough widen it. The smaller puffs would require a piping bag, but this huge puff comes with a huge hole, so just spoon it in.

Don't worry about the custard falling out once you invert it. Firstly the custard will squish out when you cut into it anyway, and secondly, it'll be drowned over by the chocolate sauce. Speaking of which, all's that's left now is to spoon the sauce over the puffs after heating them up briefly on the stove if you kept it in the fridge.

And finally, these beautiful puffs are ready to be served!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas meal...part three

And finally, we have the main course. Upon special request from my mom and sis, I made HALF AND HALF SHEPARD'S PIE. The half and half refers to the half pork and half mutton mixture I used for the meat filling. If I had my way I would have used only mutton, but my picky sis was worried the mutton would be too strong tasting. In a typical Chinese family in Singapore such as mine mutton does not often feature on the dinner table, I know not why. So, if you want to try mutton but is worried about the unfamiliar taste, mixing it with a more neutral meat is one way to get around it. Shepard's Pie is a traditional English dish, and traditionally made with mutton or lamb. Another common version is the one made with beef. This is the American version, often called a Cottage Pie. Beef's out for my family as my parents are Buddhists, hence the half and half. Serves 6.

Pie Filling:

1 stalk celery

1 carrot

1 yellow onion
2 clove garlic

250g minced mutton
250g minced pork
2 tablespoon tomato paste

Small amount stock/water

1 heap tablespoon plain/all-purpose flour

Whatever spices you like. I used sage.

Potato Crust:

Desired amount of potatoes; Depends on the size of your baking dish; a flatter dish with larger surface area would need more, a deeper dish with smaller surface would require less. I used 8 smallish potatoes.
1 tablespoon salted margarine/butter

Small amount of milk
Salt and pepper to season.

Firstly, fry up the meat. As they cook, liquid will come out of the meat. This needs to be drained as they can be quite gross. Once drained set aside.

Next chop up the celery, carrot, onion and garlic. Start off with the onion and garlic, frying them up in the same pot used to fry the meat [you'll be thankful for this when it comes time to do the dishes]. Once the onion gets soft follow up with the rest of the veggies.

Fry til the onion starts to turn brown, then dump the meat back in, along with the herbs or spice, fry a little more, around 5 mins. Next add the flour, tomato paste, and just a little stock first. It is much easier to add more liquid than to take excess liquid away, so always start by adding just a little, then top up. What we are trying to achieve here is a thick gravy that just coats the filling, so that the pie will be nice and moist, but not so much that it turns into a soup. So stir up the mixture and add stock as needed. Taste and season as needed.

Next, the potato crust. Peel potatoes and boil til a knife/fork pierce and slid out of it easily. Drain and let stand a few minutes in the mashing bowl for the steam to evaporate. Dump in margarine and a little milk and mash, adding more milk as needed. Mash according to your preference, either smooth or lumpy. For me, since it's going into a crust, I didn't bother too much with it and left it lumpy. Taste and season.

Now for the fun part, building the pie. There's a few different version of the Shepard's Pie, firstly the way I'll be doing it, topped only with the potato crust, secondly with a layer of potato under the filling and then topped with the potato crust, and lastly to use short crust pastry for a pie shell. I'm going for the simplest, but I'll definitely give the other methods a try another day. For now, press the meat filling into the bottom of your baking dish, then top with the mash. Spread right to the edge of the dish, making sure to cover everything. This is to increase surface touching the mash, as this creates a nice crunchy crust.

Once the meat filling is covered, use a fork to score as much ridges as possible across the surface of the crust. Again, this is to encourage crisping, as more surface is exposed to the heat when the potato crust is scored.

Pop into the oven and bake til you are satisfied with the colour of the crust, roughly 30 mins. All the ingredients are cooked already, so the only purpose here is to crisp and brown the crust and warm up the pie a little. Here's my finished product =P

Christmas meal...part two

On to the second course, salad, precisely, CLASSY MARINATED FETA SALAD. Why classy? Well, it doesn't really look classy, but the ingredients are just really classic salad veggies, hence classy. Also, I don't really know what else to call it. Salads are a recently discovered delight for me, fun to make and eat. I especially like making the vinaigrette. Its pretty amazing to see the clear vinegar turn milky as you dribble the oil in. As for serving size, it is pretty huge. This will probably serve 10, so get a smallish sized veg if you are cooking for a small group.



*concerning the veggies, I'm guessing any will do, but for this I'm using this combination*

1 cucumber

1 head of lettuce

1 packet of cherry tomatos/a couple regular tomatos

1 packet marinated feta in oil/ just any feta/just any salted cheese you like


As much pine nuts as you like/any nuts you like



Splash of vinegar

Oil from feta/olive oil

Standard procedure for the veggies, just chop up in the shape you like, slices, strips, chunks or cubes. My feta came in cubes, so I thought I'll cut the veggies in some other shape to contrast.

Drain the feta, retaining the oil, and tumble into the veggies. Next, roast up the pine nuts either in a pan or in the oven. For a small amount like this, I prefer the pan, as its faster and easier to control. For people who have not tried pine nuts, I would really recommend it, its seriously good. Don't add the nuts until just before serving, together with the croutons, or they'll get soggy.

For the vinaigrette, there are a few ways of making it. According to Cooking for Engineers, the proportions should be 2 part oil to 1 part vinegar. I took that as a guideline and eyeballed the quantities, and am happy to report that all was fine. Michael listed 3 ways of making the vinaigrette: whisking by hand or machine, blender or processor and the jar method. I would probably have gone with the jar method on any other day, but today I had the blender handy as I blended the soup, and so decided to go with the blender. Splash in the vinegar and turn on the blender. Dribble in the oil in a tiny stream with the blender on, and watch the vinaigrette emulsify and turn milky. There's no need to season the dressing here because the feta is plenty salty, but for another salad, you might want to taste and season as desired.

All that's left now is the assembly, and don't do this until right before you serve. Its a nice show to do right at the dining table. Drizzle desired amount of vinaigrette into the veg-feta mixture and toss. Sprinkle nut and crouton generously over the salad and serve, and that's our second course done!

Christmas meal... the extras

By the extras I'm referring to the croutons, mainly, as there were no sauces involved in this Christmas meal. On that topic, there will be no turkey as well, in case anyone's wondering. My family, namely my father, mother, sister and myself, don't have a snowball's chance in hell of finishing a whole turkey, even one of those smallish ones. Since we also do not relish weeks of left-over turkey meals, we generally skip it. So anyways, back to the croutons. I don't know about you guys, but I LOVE croutons. The few miserable pieces most restaurants grudgingly sprinkle over your soups and salads just don't cut it for me. I need A LOT of croutons, and I took this chance to make my own. It is ridiculously simple, except that it is also tedious and time consuming, but well worth the effort. I love croutons so much I made a crouton salad for myself. I'll include the recipe later for any other crouton maniac out there, but our star, the crouton, first.


As many slices of bread [any kind of bread] as you want, preferbly stale.

Good amount of oil, olive/vegetable/butter/whatever, as long as you can coat the bread cubes with it.

Seasonings such as powdered garlic or cajun spice mix if desired. Only requirement is that they have to be dried and powdered, so that they are light enough to stick to the bread cubes and dry enough not to wet the bread. Optional, the croutons are good enough on their own.

First, cube the bread slices. Some recipes call for the crust to be cut off, and I can only assume its so that the croutons look even. I find cutting off the crust to be a waste of food, time, effort and texture. The crust actually crisp up better than the meat, and tastes divine. So if you are bothered by the odd dark brown against the other faces of golden brown, off with the crusts. If not, leave them on.

Once cubed, tumble into frying pan and drizzle over with the oil, and the seasonings if using. How much oil to add is up to you. If you like them sinfully fragrant and oily, add more. Otherwise, add enough to coat. Stir around to coat everything. Turn on the stove and commence with the cooking. Stir frequently. These tasty cubes really need to be watched, as they can burn in a matter of seconds. Just stir them around constantly if you can, really not much point to nipping off for a break that can only last a minute.

Once done to the point of browness you desire, remove from pan into another tray or plate to cool. If left in the pan the croutons would continue to cook, and croutons that were perfect when you left them would be charred when you return for a snack.

And there's how to get nice crunchy croutons. Now for the crouton salad! Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture in my haste to gobble it up. I'll be sure to return with a picture if I make it again, but meanwhile here's the recipe:


As much croutons as you want

Small amount of vegetable, tomato is ideal

Your favourite salad dressing.

Its dead simple and a little misleading to call this a recipe. Basically chop up the tomato and whatever veggie you want to add, mix with the croutons and toss with your favourite salad dressing. Mine's a kind of Japanese sesame multi-purpose sauce. I don't have a favourite brand, all the brands I've tried so far are divine. The sauce is really amazing, you can use it in a ton of different ways, drizzled on a sandwich, tossed into a salad, as a dipping sauce for barbequed meat, as a marinate, etc. Best of all, as a cold dish drizzled over silken tofu. In a Japanese restaurant you'll get the exact same dish at 5 times its cost price, when its so simple you can make it in your sleep for a quick snack or even a simple lunch. This is the bottle in my fridge right now:

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Meal...part one

Though I'm not a Christian, we all know Christmas has evolved beyond its religious connotations, and so while I don't celebrate it, I do relish the chance to cook up a meal for my family. This being my first post, I'll attempt to do a little explaining before I launch into subject proper, namely, what I cooked for this Christmas. While I've toyed with the idea of setting up my very own food blog for a while, I never seem to work up enough motivation to actually do it. What made this time different was my sister's interest in documenting my food. It seemed a real waste to just let those pretty photos sit, and so, voila, here we are.

It is late now, and since I cannot vouch for my attention span, I'll post each course of the meal in an individual post, instead of lumping them together, lest I ran out of patience and this blog's short short life becomes frustrated by its very first posting. Without further ado, here comes the first course of my Christmas meal...


One thing about my cooking, I am no stickler for accurate measurements and weights. Beyond some basic ground rules for certain cooking, the rest is up to individual preference. Also, it is tiring and irritating to have to whip out the weighing machine for every little ingredient. However, I assure you [whoever is actually reading] that the recipes are completely do-able and easy to follow, and there will be no confusing '1 cup' measurements. Don't you always wonder, 'What cup? Your cup? My cup? Which cup?'


As much mixed beans as you want in your soup [keep in mind that they expand to roughly twice their dried size]. I used kidney beans, black eyed beans and lentils, basically what I had on hand. Roughly 3 handfuls. Soak at least 6 hours, preferbly overnight.

1 large yellow onion

1 smallish carrot

2 stalk of celary

As much honey baked ham as you like. Or bacon if you prefer, pan-fried first.

2 tablespoon tomato paste/chopped tomato

water/stock enough to cover ingredients.

1 bay leaf

Pinch of oregano

Salt and pepper

Firstly, it is really important to soak the beans for a good amount of time, as otherwise it would be impossible to get them soft enough later.

When you are ready to start your soup, drain and rinse the beans well, as the soaking liquid can be rather gross. Place the soaked beans in a large pot [this will be the soup pot], cover with water by at least 5 cm, and boil away. How long to boil depends on how soft you want your beans to be, keeping in mind that there's more simmering in store for the beans later. Boil them to death if you like your beans mushy, 10 - 15 mins if you still want to see them.

While the beans are boiling away, chop up the onion, carrot, celary and ham into cubes or whatever shape you fancy. Start the onions off in a pan with some oil first, around 10 mins, until they look tender. Add the rest of the veggies and stir away, until the onion starts to colour. Take off heat.

Once the beans are ready, drain them and dump in the veggies, the herbs and tomato paste. Put back onto stove and cover with enough liquid to come up to around 2 cm above the ingredients. Add more if you like it soupy, less if you like it creamy. Because the amount of ingredients vary, what I do is use part stock and part water. Packaged stock here comes in litre packets, so I get a packet, keep some for my Shepard's Pie [later], dump the rest into the soup, and top-up with water if it's too little. Alternatively, if you dislike the msg in instant stock and can't be bothered to cook your own, just use water. Let the soup come to a simmer, then let cook until desired tenderness. Takes around an hour until all the veg and beans are nice and soft

If you like your soup chunky, reduce the cooking time while the veg and beans still hold their shape and bite, and skip the next step. If you like your soup creamy, cook till really tender, let cool [or not, but be careful of exploding hot soup] then blend up around half of the soup, pour back in and heat up.

This soup is great for preparing ahead of time, so that one course is out of the way, and you can leave the blending to 10 mins before serving, when it is nice and cool. Taste and season, serve hot, with croutons, as all soups should be served.
* Recipe adapted from Carole Clements' Cookshelf Soups, 'Confetti Bean Soup' *