Tasty Tasty Cookie Times

These cookies are awesome, the basic recipe is pretty versatile and they’re really easy to make. When baking with my friends, these cookies are the go-to thing as they’re difficult to get wrong and reliably produce good results. It’s surprisingly difficult to find a recipe for cookies which doesn’t make them too cakey or too crunchy, but these have the whole crispy/chewy/gooey thing going on. They came from here originally but I’ve changed it a bit.
Ingredients
• 350g unsifted plain flour
• 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
• 1 tsp salt
• 225g/8oz butter
• 175g/6¼oz caster sugar
• 175g/6¼oz soft brown sugar
• 1 tsp vanilla extract
• 2 eggs
• 350g/12¼oz dark chocolate
For variation add 120g each of dark, white and milk chocolate instead of 350g dark, and/or replace 10g flour with 40g cocoa powder, and/or 100g chopped nuts. All are good.
Method
1. Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas 5.
2. Chop the chocolate the same way as for the brownies – with a sharp knife, chop across the chocolate with the full blade, then turn the board and do the same the other way till you have cubes. Don’t use chocolate chips as they melt funny, and the lumps of chocolate are just nicer – you miss out on the fun of getting an awesome cookie which has more chocolate in it than dough.
3. In a bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, cocoa powder if you’re using it, and salt – it feels weird to not sift the flour first, but I think it stops the cookies from rising so much or something.
4. In another bowl, combine the butter, sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract until creamy – though it’s more labour intensive, using a hand whisk works better on this one. Beat in the eggs, then gradually beat in the flour mixture. Stir in the chocolate/any other fillings. The dough should be quite sticky, but it also ought to be able to hold together.
5. Split the pliable dough into two halves, rolling each out into sausage shapes, approximately 5cm/2in in diameter. Wrap them in cling film and transfer to the refrigerator until ready to use. This helps to get the nice cookie shapes, as the dough is more likely to stick to your fingers than the baking tray if you don’t cool it down in the fridge for an hour or so. If you’re in a rush though, it’s not compulsory.
6. When you are ready to bake the cookies, simply cut the log into slices 2cm/¾in thick and lay on a baking tray, widely spaced apart. Bake for 9-11 minutes.

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The Student’s Bookshelf Presents: ‘Dark Matter’

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver is a very good ghost story.  The characters and the relationships between them are both believable and interesting, the writing arresting and succinct, and despite conforming to most ghost story conventions it also manages largely to avoid cliché.  Paver maintains and builds tension really well, and the spooky bits have immediate hair-raising impact, but also stay with you; ‘flensing’ is my new least favourite word, and a certain sound described in the novel now fills me with horror.

Jack is a deeply unhappy man who is given the chance to fulfil a lifelong dream to travel to the Arctic, as the wireless operator for a group of surveyors. After a few hiccups, the expedition starts promisingly, despite the reluctance of locals to help them get to the site the group had selected.  However, as the sun rises less high in the sky every day and the total darkness of winter looms, a series of unfortunate events leads Jack to be left alone at the site for what could be months.  The days get shorter and shorter, and eventually disappear altogether, and what in the light were suspicions that the group were not alone becomes a conviction.

Dark Matter does follow the classic pattern of a ghost story.  Unless you’re entirely new to the genre, if you are after a twisty and surprising plot, this book is not going to give you what you want. In its defence, the situation in which she puts her protagonist is pretty original and utterly appalling – I will never look at the far north in the same way again.  That the scenario itself manages to be terrifying without veering from ghost story into a more general horror story is a credit to the writer. Furthermore, the stark simplicity of the plot has a grace which reflects the characters’ icy surroundings – an overly complicated storyline simply wouldn’t suit the setting.  It’s utterly gripping; I found myself genuinely dithering over whether to read it in bed because I wanted to race through to the end, or to leave it because when I finished reading I would be left alone in the dark.  If you find it, it really is worth a read.

 

The Student’s Bookshelf Presents: ‘The Way of Shadows’

In the perpetually invaded kingdom of Cenaria, ruled more effectively by the Sa’Kage – the criminal underworld run by nine crime lords – than by its petulant and foolish king, a small boy seeks to escape the slums by becoming apprenticed to the finest killer in the land, and thus Brent Weeks’ first novel, The Way of Shadows, shoots off at lightning speeds.  Durzo Blint, the most famous wetboy  (an assassin with magic awesome sprinkles) in the kingdom is conflicted, dark, and pretty funny for a legend.  After reluctantly accepting Azoth into his tutelage, he trains the boy, giving him a new identity and new skills.  But anyone who’s watched a film about people going into witness protection will know that fresh identities never stick, especially if you’ve managed to accrue enough emotional baggage as Azoth did in his first eleven years.  Plot twists ensue.  Add to this courtly intrigues; the constant threat of invasion; and Durzo flitting about the place being enigmatic and morally ambiguous and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty good novel.

The plot is twisty enough that the reader is kept guessing, but it doesn’t cheat us of the fun of calling it correctly by being impossibly complicated.  Equally, the characters are pretty convincing and fun to read, and Weeks is sufficiently horrible to them that I genuinely worried for their safety, but not so needlessly cruel that I lost all hope or interest in them.  A slight quibble was the gratuitous use of swearwords; though I’m by no means averse to the odd curse, I found such earthy language used so often in a clearly carefully constructed, decidedly unEarthly world distracting.  However, I know others who have read the book who found the speech and swearing reassuringly authentic where I found it immersion-breaking, so it’s an arguable matter.  In the book’s favour, it’s very well-written, especially for a fantasy novel, a genre where lots of authors seem to abandon quality of writing in favour of dragons (Terry Goodkind, I’m looking at you).  Furthermore, The Way of Shadows is the first part of a trilogy, and all three volumes have already been released! Happy days.  I’m genuinely looking forward to picking up Shadow’s Edge and seeing what has become of Azoth and his damaged, damaged friends.

Superawesome Brownies of Win

These fudgy triple chocolate brownies are pretty good, if I do say so myself.  They’re fairly easy to make, especially if you have an electric whisk/mixer.  If you don’t, you can still have tasty, tasty brownies but it’ll mean about three quarters of an hour of whisking the eggs by hand every time you want them.  The original recipe is here but I’ve changed it a touch.  Enjoy!

Preparation time: 30mins-1hr 30mins depending on mixer

Cooking time: 25 mins

Ingredients

  • 185g unsalted butter
  • 185g best dark chocolate plus 50g for chunks
  • 85g plain flour
  • 40g cocoa powder
  • 50g white chocolate
  • 50g milk chocolate
  • 3 large eggs
  • 275g golden caster sugar

Method

  1. Cut the butter into smallish cubes and tip into a medium bowl. Break the dark chocolate into small pieces and drop into the bowl. Fill a small saucepan about a quarter full with hot water, then sit the bowl on top so it rests on the rim of the pan, not touching the water. Put over a low heat until the butter and chocolate have melted, stirring occasionally to mix them. Now remove the bowl from the pan. Alternatively, cover the bowl loosely with cling film and put in the microwave for 2 minutes on High. Leave the melted mixture to cool to room temperature.
  2. While you wait for the chocolate to cool, position a shelf in the middle of your oven and turn the oven on to fan 160C/conventional180C/gas 4 (most ovens take 10-15 minutes to heat up). Using a shallow 20cm square tin, cut out a square of non-stick baking parchment to line the base. Now tip the flour and cocoa powder into a sieve held over a medium bowl, and tap and shake the sieve so they run through together and you get rid of any lumps.
  3. With a large sharp knife, chop the white, dark and milk chocolate into chunks on a board. The slabs of chocolate will be quite hard, so the safest way to do this is to hold the knife over the chocolate and press the tip down on the board, then bring the rest of the blade down across the chocolate. Keep on doing this, moving the knife across the chocolate to chop it into pieces, then turn the board round 90 degrees and again work across the chocolate so you end up with rough squares.
  4. Break the eggs into a large bowl and tip in the sugar. With an electric mixer on maximum speed, whisk the eggs and sugar until they look thick and creamy, like a milk shake. This can take 3-8 minutes, depending on how powerful your mixer is, so don’t lose heart. You’ll know it’s ready when the mixture becomes really pale and about double its original volume. Another check is to turn off the mixer, lift out the beaters and wiggle them from side to side. If the mixture that runs off the beaters leaves a trail on the surface of the mixture in the bowl for a second or two, you’re there.  If you don’t have an electric whisk, a really good hand whisking to get the consistency as close to the above as possible doesn’t hurt the end result.
  5. Pour the cooled chocolate mixture over the eggy mousse, then gently fold together with a rubber spatula. Plunge the spatula in at one side, take it underneath and bring it up the opposite side and in again at the middle. Continue going under and over in a figure of eight, moving the bowl round after each folding so you can get at it from all sides, until the two mixtures are one and the colour is a mottled dark brown. The idea is to marry them without knocking out the air, so be as gentle and slow as you like – you don’t want to undo all the work you did in step 4.
  6. Hold the sieve over the bowl of eggy chocolate mixture and resift the cocoa and flour mixture, shaking the sieve from side to side, to cover the top evenly. Gently fold in this powder using the same figure of eight action as before. The mixture will look dry and dusty at first, and a bit unpromising, but if you keep going very gently and patiently, it will end up looking gungy and fudgy. Stop just before you feel you should, as you don’t want to overdo this mixing. Finally, stir in the chocolate chunks until they’re dotted throughout. Now your mixing is done and the oven can take over.
  7. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin, scraping every bit out of the bowl with the spatula. Gently ease the mixture into the corners of the tin and paddle the spatula from side to side across the top to level it. Put in the oven and set your timer for 25 minutes. When the buzzer goes, open the oven, pull the shelf out a bit and gently shake the tin. If the brownie wobbles in the middle, it’s not quite done, so slide it back in and bake for another 5 minutes until the top has a shiny, papery crust and the sides are just beginning to come away from the tin. Take out of the oven.
  8. Leave the whole thing in the tin until completely cold, then, if you’re using the brownie tin, lift up the protruding rim slightly and slide the uncut brownie out on its base. If you’re using a normal tin, lift out the brownie with the foil. Cut into quarters, then cut each quarter into four squares and finally into triangles.  If you’re anything like me and my friends, though, just cutting chunks straight out of the tin is the way forward…These brownies are so addictive you’ll want to make a second batch before the first is finished, but if you want to make some to hide away for a special occasion, it’s useful to know that they’ll keep in an airtight container for a good two weeks and in the freezer for up to a month.

 

 

Becky’s Cheesy Tomato Chicken Bake

Last month I found would be alone in my flat in Cornwall on Easter Sunday, and decided it would be an ideal time to try and get some friends together for a meal.  Once I’d got six guests, I realised I had to come up with something to actually feed them with, using my oven which has one shelf and a dodgy thermostat, matching up their likes and dislikes so everyone could actually eat and enjoy the food I gave them.   So my friend, cook extraordinaire Becky, suggested this really simple, tasty dish.  I served it with broccoli and mashed potatoes, but I am assured it’s also good on a bed of pasta, or simply with bread and salad.

Preparation time: about 20 mins

Cooking time: 1 hour

Equipment:

A mixing bowl

At least one sharp knife

A big baking/casserole dish

Maybe a garlic crusher

Ingredients:

A chicken breast per person

Passata – roughly one carton per two chicken portions

Seasoning – Chilli, garlic, basil, salt, pepper, anything else you fancy

A ball of mozzarella

Lots of grated cheddar and parmesan/equivalent cheese

Onion, finely chopped – optional – if you do put an onion in you’ll need to cook it for a little bit longer.

Method

Preaheat oven to 200 degrees/gas mark 6ish.

Prepare the tomato sauce, by putting the passata in a big bowl, then add plenty of your seasoning.

Season the chicken (I rub it with tomato and garlic puree, pepper and dried herbs) and lie it in the dish.

Pour the sauce over the chicken, making sure the chicken is completely covered

Slice the mozzarella and lay it on top of the chicken, then scatter the parmesan and finally the cheddar over that.

Put it in the oven for an hour or so, or until the chicken is cooked through.

The Student’s Bookshelf Presents: ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’

Lissa Evans’ novel set in the Second World War is not what you’d expect for a historical novel of that period.  The soldiers, the nurses, the horrors of combat itself barely feature; even the Blitz functions essentially as a plot device rather than a focus in and of itself.  Instead, it focuses on the people of the war who don’t normally make it into the history books.  The Ministry of Information wants a film that would sell the war to the Americans; the story of twin sisters who stole their father’s fishing boat to rescue soldiers from Dunkirk seems to fit the bill.  Enter young, idealistic Catrin, run away from Wales with a glamorous lover, and hired to add a woman’s touch to the film; Ambrose Hilliard, an actor from the era of silent films who still expects lead roles; Edith, a thwarted thirty-something seamstress who finds herself on location; and Arthur, a quiet Dunkirk survivor better suited to catering than acting as military advisor for the film.  These four perspectives follow the film from its conception to performance, against the backdrop of the war.  Generous and gently comedic, the narrative gracefully captures a wartime London which rings true and offers a fresh perspective on the everyday war.

Each character is totally distinct – although it’s all told in the third person, each narrative thread is stylistically separate from the others, and the flow of the novel is retained by the strength of the connecting factor between them.   And all of them, from vain Ambrose to unassuming Arthur, get their time to shine.  Evans’ film background and loving research is evident in the technical details of filming on a budget in the wartime; not only does it make the story more convincing, but it adds yet more scope for comedy (Ambrose’s outrage when an advert he shot discouraging gossip was redubbed to promote growing your own vegetables) and it is also genuinely interesting.  It’s also anything but slow, however this perhaps counts against it at points; it is sometimes a bit too full of crisis when the characters often comment on the dullness of the war.

Their Finest Hour and a Half is definitely worth a read – funny, poignant and captivating, it’s a war story for people who aren’t really that bothered about history.

The Student’s Bookshelf Presents: ‘Shades of Grey’

If you’ve heard of Jasper Fforde, it’s probably been in relation to his wonderfully bizarre Thursday Next series.  Shades of Grey is his latest novel aimed at adults.  It is the first in a new series and is a much darker proposition than anything else Fforde has written so far.  A bit comedy, a bit thriller, a bit love story, the bare naked plot is at bottom a maybe a bit hackneyed – but originality of this novel is all in the world. And by gum, what a world.

Shades of Grey is set in a society where social standing is defined by the colour one can see; the lowest of the low are the totally colour blind Greys, then the Reds, right up ROY G. BIV to the lofty Violets.  This is far in the future, where Something Happened half a millennium ago and no one’s quite sure what.  However the present still echoes with a past which the sinister Head Office tries to deny. The roads are alive; colours can kill or cure; the laws appear to be based on a 1960s school rulebook; swans and ball lightning are major health hazards; and the production of spoons is illegal.  When the curious but naive Red, Edward Russett pulls a misguided prank in his hometown, his punishment is to move to the outskirts of civilisation to conduct a chair census.  There he meets a violent and captivating Grey named Jane, and is pulled into a tale of intrigue and corruption which begins with him reporting the last four days of his life from the digestive bulb of a giant carnivorous plant.

I cannot stress enough how clever this book is, in the sense that Fforde has had some awesome ideas and really wants to share them with you, rather than simply to dazzle the reader with his own intellect.  Despite the book’s rather dark undertones, Shades is very funny indeed, full of wordplay and bone-dry humour.  Furthermore, the world is so complex that far from feeling cheated that here comes yet another pointless series to joylessly plough through, I finished the novel dying to read the second (Painting by Numbers, to be released in 2013) to see if any of the mysteries of life in Shades are resolved.  Despite seeming perhaps rather ponderous – the whole book covers about six days of the protagonist’s life – they are such momentous days that this attention to detail is entirely justified.

This book is not for anyone who only enjoys ‘serious’ literature – Shades knows how to make fun of itself, and that is part of its charm.  However, neither is it just for pre-existing Fforde fans.  Aside from a single reference which made me ‘squee’ quietly to myself, the three worlds for which he has written are in no way similar or interlinked.  If you like witty, gripping and unconventional books, Shades is definitely for you.

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