SPCA Cupcake Day – Vanilla Cupcakes

The 26th of August is a very special day in New Zealand – it is the day we bake our hearts out for a fantastic cause known as Cupcake Day and all proceeds from selling cupcakes go to the SPCA, visit http://www.spcacupcakeday.co.nz to see what it’s all about.

Last year a lovely lady asked me to bake a few cupcakes for her to sell at work and she raised an amazing amount of money. This was my contribution…

SPCA Kitty Cupcakes

SPCA Puppy Cupcakes

This is a very simple yet delicious cupcake batter recipe and turns out perfectly every time, so is one of my favourites for those occasions when I have limited time or ingredients on hand.

They are decorated with a combination of butter icing, fondant, spaghetti (for whiskers), chocolate and jelly beans (the dog’s noses).  I had great fun doing these, just sorry I didn’t get onto it in time this year.

Cupcake ingredients:
250 g unsalted butter, softened
330 g caster sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla extract
4 eggs
450 g self-raising flour
250 ml milk

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C and line 2 x 12 hole muffin tins with paper cases.
  2. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter, sugar, salt and vanilla until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
  3. Add half the sifted flour and half the milk.  Stir well to combine.
  4. Add the rest of the sifted flour and milk and stir to combine again – you don’t want to over beat the mixture.
  5. Spoon about 2 tablespoons of mixture into each case, taking care not to overfill them as the self-raising flour causes them to rise beautifully.
  6. Bake for 20 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre of a cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cool the cakes in the tin for a few minutes before transferring to wire racks.

Buttercream ingredients:
250 g unsalted butter
500g icing sugar (2 cups)
1 – 2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp cream
colouring and flavours of your choice

  1. Cream the butter until it is very pale in colour and looks light and fluffy.
  2. Sift the icing sugar and add to the butter one cup at a time, beating on a low speed so you don’t end up covered in the sugar.
  3. Add the vanilla extract along with any colouring or flavour.
  4. Add the cream (more or less as required until you have the beautiful fluffy consistency of butter cream icing).
  5. Decorate the cupcakes using different nozzles, piping bags, lollies and spaghetti (whiskers).

TIP: Depending on the amount of icing you’re wanting to use on each cupcake, it may be a good idea to double this recipe, dividing it into separate bowls so you can add the different colours/flavours.

They take a while to decorate, but everybody absolutely LOVES them.


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Chocolate Chunky Fudge

My little boy came home from school today asking if we could make chocolate fudge – I, of course, thought that was a great idea!  I am one of the world’s great chocolate lovers and can’t think when I’ve turned down or disliked a bit (or a lot) of chocolate in any way, shape or form.  So I dug out an old favourite recipe that is more of a slice really, but the name conjures up all sorts of images of gorgeous chunks of chocolate….hmmm.

This fudge is super easy and again, there is no messing about with sugar thermometers and I suppose there are die hards that will say this isn’t actually fudge, but humour me – it’s delicious.  And is a great recipe for kids to experiment with.

Chocolate Chunky FudgeTrue decadence may have you melting chocolate or a ganache type mixture over the top and letting that set, but I’ve just left it plain.  Also a great idea to package into small treat bags for the school gala or charity bazaar.

250 g marie biscuits
500 g icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 egg
3 Tbsp cocoa powder
250 g unsalted butter

Gently melt the butter over a low heat in a large saucepan, taking care not to let it boil.  Sift the icing sugar and cocoa powder into the melted butter and stir well.  Beat the egg and crush the biscuits, separately of course.  Add the egg and vanilla essence to the chocolate mixture and stir to combine.  Remove the pan from the heat, add the crushed biscuits and stir.  Pour the mixture into a greased or lined baking tray and set aside to cool.  Once at room temperature and set nicely, turn it out onto a board and cut into squares.

Tip: An easy way to crush the biscuits is to put them all into a large plastic bag that seals well.  Remove as much of the air from the bag as you can and seal it before bashing it with a rolling pin.  A great stress reliever and a fun way of getting the kids involved…works a treat.


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Basil, Tomato and Garlic Sauce

This week has been a bit of a crazy one, so I haven’t been able to bake ANYTHING and I’m starting to feel withdrawal symptoms!  I’ve even had to rely on my very versatile tomato sauce for dinner, which is one of my favourite standbys and is delicious on pizza bases, hot dogs, or even on it’s own with pasta.  It is also a very yummy alternative as a gravy for creamy mashed potatoes if you’re tired of the standard bangers and mash.  It takes less than 20 minutes to prepare and freezes well, so doubling or tripling this recipe is a great way to ensure you have it on hand if you’re stuck at the last minute wondering what to make for dinner.

I’ve also used it as a veggie dip when guests arrive unexpectedly and I have no other dips on hand, heaping it onto salty chips (crisps).  Lastly, it bubbles away gently in the oven smothering chicken breasts or thighs in it’s rich tomato depths, slowly morphing into a heart warming casserole.  It really is one of the easiest and quickest things to make and I far prefer this to relying on a jar of who-knows-what’s-really-inside ready made pasta sauce.

Versatile tomato sauce


splash of olive oil
1 onion, peeled and diced (brown, white or red, it doesn’t matter)
3 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
400g fresh beautiful tomatoes (or a can if you don’t have fresh on hand)
a handful of torn fresh basil leaves (or ½ tsp dried basil)
a couple of fresh oreganum sprigs (discard the stems) (or ½ tsp of the dried herb)
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp sugar
pinch salt

Heat the oil and gently fry the onion and garlic.

Add tomatoes.  If using fresh tomatoes and you’d like to remove the skins, cut a cross in the underside of each tomato and blanch the whole fruit in a bowl of hot water for about 30 seconds.  The skins will burst and curl and are easily removed and discarded, but I tend to leave them on.

Add herbs, tomato paste, sugar and salt and simmer for 10 – 15 minutes. Mash with a fork occasionally or puree in a food processor if you prefer a smoother consistency. Please let the sauce cool down before you blitz it as hot sauce often finds a way to burst out of a sealed food processor and make a huge mess. I know from experience :).

This recipe makes enough for 2 large pizzas.


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Best ever Chocolate Chip Cookies

Have you ever baked a batch of cookies, eagerly awaiting the oven timer to buzz, only to find the cookies have spread into horrible flat crisp-on-the-outside-but-doughy-on-the-inside discs?  There are a number of reasons for this and it is generally easily avoidable.  The most important thing is to make sure your ingredients are at room temperature before you begin.

A little bit of planning is involved, but it’s as simple as taking things like the butter and eggs, cream or cream cheese out of the fridge about an hour before you want to begin baking.  That way, the butter will cream easily or bind well with the other ingredients.  If you left out the planning step and the butter is too hard, please DON’T melt it.  Softening is OK, but once melted, the properties change completely and the recipe will not turn out the way you want it to.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Other reasons I’ve found (through personal experience) is that the cookie dough itself could have been overworked, meaning the warmth from your hands when working or rolling the batter/dough into balls has raised the temperature, or the bowl with the leftover batter/dough is left standing too close to the warm oven. Baking trays that are too hot, i.e. they’ve just come out of the oven having cooked the first batch beautifully, and you’re in a rush to get the next batch in also cause the butter to melt and cookies to spread. It sounds a bit mad because they are going into the very hot oven anyway, but believe me, it makes a difference!  If you don’t have millions of cookie trays, a great way to cool them down quickly between batches is to let them rest on a stone or granite bench top for a few seconds before adding the next lot of cookies…works a treat! But please don’t try this on wood or melamine surfaces!!

Anyway, back to the best ever Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe.  As with most things, I’ve tried a few different recipes and these seem to be fail proof. You can make them as big or small as you like but they hold their shape and are absolutely delicious.  A batch of these never last long in my home.  They can be stored for a few days in an air-tight container, but to be honest, I’m not sure they’ll last that long.

Note that I’ve specified butter for a reason – please don’t use vegetable fat or margarine – yuk, yuk, yuk!  These cookies deserve only the best so unsalted rich butter it must be :).

250 g unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sugar (I normally use castor sugar)*
¼ cup sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 ¾ cups flour, sifted
2 level tsp baking powder
1½ cups bittersweet chocolate chips (milk or white chocolate will work for younger munchkins, or a combination is divine, but I’d advise against anything with higher than 50% cocoa solids – it really is too bitter).

*A quick note about the type of sugar used, some people use brown sugar but I find this has it’s own flavour and tends to complicate things – you don’t get the delicious mixture of flavours that my taste buds crave when biting into a chocolate chip cookie, but it’s your preference so try a few different things and see what works for you.

  • Take butter out of the fridge about an hour before baking.
  • Preheat the oven to 170°C. Line 2 – 3 oven trays with baking paper.
  • Cream the butter and sugar with an electric beater until light and fluffy.
  • Add the condensed milk and beat again.
  • Mix in the vanilla and fold in the sifted flour and baking powder.
  • Mix in the chocolate chips.

I don’t normally show stage by stage photos, but I wanted you to see the texture of the dough – it resembles chunky bread crumbs and comes together when you squeeze/roll it into balls.
Crumbly cookie dough

  • Lightly flour your hands (so the dough doesn’t stick to your fingers) and roll generous balls of the mixture.
  • Place on the prepared oven trays, allowing room to spread (but they don’t spread very much). Depending on the size of the balls you roll, this recipe makes about 30 medium or 24 large cookies.
  • Use a fork dipped in flour to flatten the balls.

Unbaked chocolate chip cookies

  • Bake for 15 – 20  minutes until the biscuits are firm and starting to colour. Mine are perfect after 18 minutes so keep checking as all ovens are different.
  • Remove the trays from the oven and place the cookies on a wire rack to cool completely.

If you aren’t tempted to pop one into your mouth while the chocolate is still hot enough to be slightly squidgy I’ll eat my hat!


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Beef Meatball Ragout

I recently came across an article explaining the differences between Ragout and Ragu.  Not much really, the ingredients and the way they’re cooked seem pretty similar except the one originates from France (Ragout) while the other is from northern Italy (Ragu) and is most often served with pasta…surprised?  No, I wasn’t either.

Wikipedia explains: “The basic method of preparation involves slow cooking over a low heat. The main ingredients are many; ragouts may be prepared with or without meat, a wide variety of vegetables may be incorporated, and they may be more or less heavily spiced and seasoned. The Italian Ragu is a sauce used typically to dress pasta”.Beef Meatball Ragout

Given the cuts of meat that should be used that will soften gloriously over a few hours of gentle cooking, these types of stews are perfect for the slow cooker or crock pot, and while I enjoy the benefits and peace of mind knowing that a meal is gently bubbling away at home while I run around doing the daily routine, I don’t always see how a crock pot is as “quick and easy” as it is made out to be…you still need to chop everything and brown the meat.  I personally can’t stand it when the meat has that grey look about it and you can always taste the lack of caramelization when it hasn’t been browned properly first. If I’m really organised, I can get this done in the morning before the day begins, but on those days when I’m just glad to get out of the house remembering lunches, library books, keyboard homework, swimming togs, etc. on time, preparing a crock pot full of goodies doesn’t quite fit in.

That’s when this meatball recipe works a treat.  I’m a firm believer in making my own meatballs so I know exactly what’s gone into them and they’re not bulked up with various types of flour and contain all sorts of artificial additives, preservatives and flavours, but I recently discovered pure Angus Beef meatballs at my local supermarket.  Woohoo!

This meal takes less than 30 minutes from stove to table, so perfect to prepare quickly in the evening after work.

2 Tbsp olive oil
500g minced beef (or ready made meatballs)
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 large clove garlic
1 large carrot, thinly sliced
1 cup beef stock
400g can chopped or pureed tomatoes
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 large courgette, thinly sliced
2 – 3 handfuls fresh spinach leaves (preferably baby/small leaves)
salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Fry meatballs in olive oil over a medium heat, turning frequently to allow them to brown evenly. When almost done, remove from the pan.
  2. Add the garlic, carrots and onion to the pan and fry until the onion is translucent.
  3. Prepare the beef stock and add to the pan along with the tinned tomatoes and tomato puree. Return the meatballs to the pan and allow to simmer gently for a few minutes. Leave uncovered and stir occasionally, allowing the sauce to reduce and thicken.
  4. Add courgette slices about 10 minutes before the end, followed by the spinach leaves about 2 minutes before you’re ready to serve.  Just plonk the leaves on the top and cover with the saucepan lid.  I find this steams them beautifully so they keep their colour.
  5. Finally, season the dish and give it a quick stir before serving it up – if you’re feeling a tad Italian, serve with linguine or tagliatelle ;), but it also works well with rice or creamy-buttery mashed potato that soak up the gravy – oops! Ragout.


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