Nian Gao – sticky rice cake for Chinese New Year (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan)

Happy Chinese New Year! Image: Kathryn Hawkins

I discovered this sweet treat for the first time last year. The texture is soft and gelatinous, a bit like Turkish Delight. It is teeth-janglingly sweet, so a little goes a long way, but the rich, treacly flavour is strangely addictive. I dare you to try it.

To achieve the right texture, you do need to use the right ingredients, so you may need to make a trip to a Chinese supermarket or research online suppliers. However, good news: there are only four ingredients, and one of those is water! You must use glutinous rice – a fine white powder, full of starch (and don’t worry, no gluten!) – I have tried this with ordinary rice flour and the texture was grainy and quite solid. The brown sugar you use is up to you; the depth of colour and flavour  of the finished cake will depend on how dark the sugar is. This year, I used coconut sugar and the result is, as you see above, very dark, glossy and treacly. The only other ingredient is coconut milk, and I use the canned variety.

Once cooked and cooled, Nian Gao is traditionally cut into slices, dipped in egg and pan-fried until lightly golden all over. It is served with red and gold decorations for luck. I’m not an egg lover, so I don’t do the frying part; I eat the cake about an hour after cooking, just as it is. Lovely.

Glutinous rice flour. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Other than the ingredients, you just need a couple of tins or dishes, lined with baking parchment, to cook the mixture in, and a steamer for cooking.

Lined 10cm diameter tins for Nian Gao. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Makes 2 x 10cm cakes (serves 3-4)

  • 100g brown sugar
  • 100ml water
  • 100ml canned coconut milk
  • 100g glutinous rice flour
  1. Line 2 x 10cm tins or dishes with circles of baking parchment – you will need to crease the paper to make it sit snuggly inside. Put the sugar and water in a small saucepan, and heat, stirring, until dissolved. Raise the heat and simmer for 5 minutes until lightly syrupy. Cool for 10 minutes then stir in the coconut milk.
  2. Bring a steamer to the boil, or you can use a saucepan of water fitted with a steaming compartment. Reduce the water to a simmer.
  3. Sift the rice flour into a bowl and make a well in the centre. Gradually pour and whisk in the sugary milk, until well blended, and the mixture resembles a smooth pancake batter.
  4. Divide the batter between the 2 tins or dishes, and arrange in the steamer. Cover loosely with a sheet of baking parchment and then put the lid on top. Leave to cook in the steam for 30 minutes until firm and glossy, like set, thick custard.

    Preparation and cooking Nian Gao. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

5. Remove the cakes from the steamer and leave to cool for 10 minutes, then take out of the tins and place on a wire rack to cool. If you’re going to present the cakes, you might like to leave them in the parchment and tie with red ribbon. A flake of gold leaf on top gives the perfect finishing touch.

This is how I like my Nian Gao, still slightly warm, cut up into small chunks, and served with fresh fruit. Happy Chinese New Year!

My favourite way to serve Nian Gao, with fresh mango. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Chocolate Haggis for a Burns Night supper (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan)

Chocolate haggis wrapped in marzipan. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

January 25th is a Scottish celebration day, commemorating the birth of Scotland’s National poet, Robert Burns. Not wanting to offend my non meat-eating friends, I thought better of posting anything about the traditional savoury supper served on this day, and instead turned my thoughts to something I devised a few years ago, the Chocolate haggis. Much more appealing to all, I think, and perhaps, a wee bit more fun.

My recipe is simply a twist on the classic biscuit or refrigerator cake. You can add any combination of biscuit, fruit and nuts that you fancy. I use Scottish heather honey for the sweetness and flavour, but golden syrup or maple syrup will work just as well for my vegan friends. If you eat butter, you can use this instead of coconut oil. It’s a very versatile mix. Adding a wee tot of whisky is for the celebration; it’s fine without, so I’ll leave that up to you! By the way, I love marzipan, but if it’s not for you, you can achieve a similar effect by using an ivory coloured fondant icing.

Makes 1 haggis – 12 generous slices

  • 125g free from plain chocolate
  • 75g coconut oil (or butter)
  • 2 tbsp golden or maple syrup (or heather honey)
  • 150g free from plain granola or coarse oatcakes, crushed
  • 150g free from shortbread or plain biscuits, crushed
  • 75g currants
  • 2 tbsp whisky (optional)
  • Icing sugar to dust
  • 250g natural marzipan

1. Break the chocolate into a heatproof bowl and add the coconut oil and syrup. Sit the bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water until melted. Remove from the water and cool for 10 minutes.

2. Mix the granola, shortbread and currants into the melted chocolate and stir in the whisky, if using. Leave in a cool place for about 45 minutes to firm up, but not set completely.

Chocolate haggis preparation. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

3. Line the work top with a large, double-thickness, square of cling film and pile the chocolate mixture into the centre. Mound it up it to form a fat oval shape about 12cm long. Wrap the cling film round the mix tightly and twist the ends to seal, making a fat sausage shape. Chill for at least 2 hours until very firm.

4. Lightly dust the work surface with icing sugar. Roll out the marzipan to a rectangle approx. 18 x 28cm, and neaten the edges. Unwrap the chocolate haggis and place in the centre of the marzipan. Fold the marzipan over the top to cover the chocolate haggis completely, and then pinch at either end to make the distinct haggis shape. Tie the ends with twine if liked.

Chocolate haggis, ready to slice. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

5. Cover loosely with cling film and leave at room temperature for about an hour before slicing to serve, accompanied with a wee dram or two. Slàinte!

Chocolate haggis, sliced and ready to serve. Image: Kathryn Hawkins
Happy Burns Night! Image: Kathryn Hawkins



My favourite mash (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan

The first snow of 2017. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

It’s been a cold week all over the UK; the first snow of the year settled in the garden a few days ago, transforming it into a “Winter Wonderland” overnight. As soon as a chill sets in, my thoughts immediately turn to comfort food.

I am a huge potato fan and this week seemed like the perfect excuse to make my favourite mash potato recipe. Perfectly cooked potatoes, a generous handful of chopped parley, lashings of good quality olive oil, a good pinch of sea salt and some fresh garlic. It’s a delicious that mash seems to go with everything.

Ingredients and equipment for olive oil and garlic mash. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

For the best result, you need to choose a potato that mashes well. My preference is King Edward, it’s got good flavour and a dry, floury texture when cooked. Cook the prepared potatoes until they are completely tender. Drain well and then give them a good thump with a potato masher. If you don’t mind a few lumps, leave it at that, but if I’ve got the time, I like to press the mash through a ricer for the smoothest, silkiest texture possible. It’s up to you how much garlic, parsley and seasoning you add, but do use a really tasty olive oil. A good quality extra virgin (cold pressed is even better) oil will not only add flavour and colour, but will add to the indulgence of the finished mash. Only warm the oil, never heat it beyond warm, otherwise the health and flavour benefits will be lost.

Olive oil, parsley and garlic mash. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Serves: 4

  • 900g main crop potatoes, such as King Edward or Maris Piper
  • Sea salt
  • 4 plump garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • Large handful of fresh curly parsley, washed, thick stalks removed, and finely chopped (I like to add about 25g chopped parsley to this quantity of potato)
  • 6 tbsp good quality, extra virgin cold pressed olive oil + extra for serving, if liked
  1. Thinly peel the potatoes. Cut into chunky pieces and rinse in cold water. Place in a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Add a pinch of salt, bring to the boil and cook until completely tender (12-15 minutes, depending on how thick you’ve cut them up). Drain well through a strainer, and leave to air dry for 5 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the sunflower oil in a small saucepan and very gently fry the garlic for 1-2 minutes until tender but not browned. Remove from the heat.
  3. Return the potatoes to the saucepan and mash well. If you’re not using a ricer, stir in the parsley and cover. If you are ricing the mash, press the potato into a warm bowl, stir in the parsley, and cover the whole bowl with foil.
  4. Stir the olive oil into the cooked garlic and place the saucepan over a very low heat for 2-3 minutes to gently warm the oil.
    Adding the flavourings to mashed potato. Images: Kathryn Hawkins


  5. Stir the warm oil into the parsley mash. Taste and season. Pile into a warm serving dish. Drizzle with more olive oil if liked, and serve immediately. Mmmm…mmmmm.

    The last spoonful of my favourite mash. Image: Kathryn Hawkins



Moroccan mint tea jellies (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan)

Fresh mint and Moroccan tea-set. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

Mint tea is something I enjoy everyday, usually in the afternoon as an uplifting brew and sometimes, after dinner as a “digestif”. The refreshing taste of mint makes it the perfect herbal choice for this time of year, after over-indulging on rich food, and for anyone looking to make healthier choices for the new year.

I’ve been to Morocco a couple of times and loved the experience. I brought back the tea-set above from my first trip almost 30 years ago. The country’s cuisine is one of my favourites. If you have mint tea made by the locals, it is served piping hot and mouth-tinglingly sweet, which seems utterly contradictory when the air temperature is so warm, but it seems to work and, the restorative powers of a glass or two are amazing.

Moroccan mint tea is made with green or Indian tea and loads of fresh mint. I prefer white tea as I find it has softer tannins. If you don’t want the caffeine hit, you can make the jellies using a couple of peppermint infusion sachets or bags, but do add the fresh mint as well for the extra fresh flavour. I have reduced the sugar to keep it healthy, but you don’t have to add it at all. The recipe can be also be made using traditional gelatine if preferred – 4 leaves would be sufficient.

Makes: 4 small glasses

  • 2 white, green or Indian tea bags
  • A good handful or a small bunch of fresh mint, washed and shaken dry
  • 1 sachet Vege-Gel (I use Dr Oetker)
  • 60ml sugar syrup – see below
  1. Put the tea bags in a heatproof jug with all but 4 sprigs of mint. Add freshly boiled water to the 350ml level on the jug and leave to steep for 5 minutes. Strain the tea into another jug without squeezing the tea bags, and leave to one side. Meanwhile, put a mint sprig into each of 4 x 125ml tea glasses or heatproof dishes.

    Mint tea jelly preparation. Images: Kathryn Hawkins
  2. Pour 200ml cold water into a bowl and sprinkle over the Vege-Gel. Stir well until dissolved. Transfer to a small saucepan and heat, stirring, until just boiling. Remove from the heat and stir in the mint tea and sugar syrup.
  3. Leave the tea jelly mixture to cool for 20-30 minutes before pouring into the glasses to cover the mint – this will help stop the mint sprigs discoloring. You need to work with the jelly mix whilst it is still warm – it sets quite quickly as it cools. Leave to cool completely, then chill for at least 1 hour before serving. If you are making a real tea-based jelly, it will turn slightly cloudy no matter what setting agent you use. Herbal tea bags will give a clearer set.
Moroccan mint tea jellies. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

To make your own sugar syrup: put 350g granulated sugar in a saucepan and over pour over 600ml water. Heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and bring to the boil, then simmer without stirring for 10 minutes. Leave to cool. This syrup stores well in a cool place – just pour into a bottle and seal. It is a useful base for adding to ice creams, sorbets, fruit salad syrups and of course, cocktails!

New year garden

In the garden, New Year’s Day 2017. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Happy New Year everyone! Hope you’ve all had a good holiday, and are looking forward to the year ahead. Let’s hope it’s a good one for us all. It’s been a sunny, blue-sky start to the year here in central Scotland – a very uplifting day.

I have had a good, relaxing festive break at home. The weather’s been quite kind and I’ve managed to get outside every now and then. We did have a little snow on Boxing Day, but it cleared by the end of the day, and didn’t cause any damage. On the whole, the garden’s looking a wee bit dull at the moment but there are signs of new life about if you look lard enough. Lots of bulbs are pushing their way through the soil, and the rhubarb plants are shooting up. I have put a large pot over the top of one clump, with the hope of getting some fine pink shoots next month.

First rhubarb shoot of the new season. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

For me, the late December holiday is a good time to do some cutting back and pruning, and if the weather permits, I undertake my annual attempt at getting the old apple tree back in shape, ready for the year ahead. I had a good crop of fruit last year; I am keeping everything crossed so that the tree does just as well in 2017.

Before and after, apple tree pruning. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

On the floral front, the Winter jasmine is lovely and vibrant and has a delightful sweet smell; there are also a couple of hebes in flower. One much-treasured little gem, is a perennial primrose which is in bloom for most of the year. I didn’t plant it, it appeared a couple of years ago in a shady, damp part of the garden. The delicate blooms and foliage add some welcome colour and interest through all the mulch and undergrowth that surrounds them.

Winter flowering jasmine. Images: Kathryn Hawkins
Light pink and purple flowering hebes. Images: Kathryn Hawkins
Perennial primrose. Image: Kathryn Hawkins