Outdoors-ing it

The flowers and veg plugs are ready to be planted out – and with these long warm days, outdoorsing it is the best way to live. A week or so back we headed out to a farm shop in the middle of nowhere to stock up on proper tomatoes, strawberries and bacon, then ventured down the riverside path, overgrown with cow parsley and scented with mayflower. Smelling freedom, Harry made a bid for a buttercup-filled meadow – toddler life as it should be.

Making a bid for freedom

Meanwhile at home he’s the lucky recipient of another new garden structure, a climbing-frame/slide created by his Dad whilst he had time on his hands. Harry’s not the only one who has taken advantage of Matt’s carpentry skills – he’s also knocked up a trug for my lettuce and rocket, so that I can wander out the back door and pick leaves for tea. So much more practical than having them at the allotment where they only get harvested once a week.

The new climbing frame
My new lettuce trug. Also at the front is my experimental watercress, which does surprisingly well in a container provided that it gets watered daily.

In mid-May the tulips finally faded, and in their place comes the vivid pink roses, foxgloves and delphinium. The return of Getrude Jekyll is like welcoming back an old friend.

Rose Gertrude Jekyll
They’re going over now, but 10 days ago the azalea and allium were a perfectly contrasting match

Don’t be fooled though – I’m really pleased with the April-May garden but as we go into June, when the tulips fade and the alliums go to seed, there are gaps and holes a-plenty. I am nursing trays and trays of annuals to put out in a few weeks, things like sunflower, cosmos, lace flower, but for the next few weeks the glorious roses stand alone in their beauty, bordered by the bedraggled leftovers from spring. Such is life.

On the allotment, that unexpected late frost did for the beans. I remembered to net against pigeons but it never crossed my mind to fleece against the nighttime chill. But then would it be a spring unless I had to have at least three separate attempts at growing a humble bean?

The late frost did for the beans

All else is coming along though, late as ever. This week I planted out a few early squash, chrysanthemums, strawflower and sunflowers, and the cosmos and zinnia aren’t far behind. We also re-sowed the parsnips that inevitably failed to materialise.

Planting out has begin

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, life has busied in the last week or so. The gradual easing of lockdown means that Matt has had a load of new commissions in, so we’re both working whilst trying to keep Harry gainfully occupied. He’ll be back at nursery for a few days next week. Tradesmen are back at it and so my office is finally getting the makeover that was started in March, which is great but does make for mess and disruption. I’m not really ready for all this, feeling keenly the rudeness of ‘normal’ life interrupting my domestic haven. There are some things about lockdown I fully intend to hang on to. The garden has become a creative outlet, playground, refuge. The once-a-week food shop is now so much more mindful, and I am using more farm shops than before (the meat and veg is better so why wouldn’t I?). I’m reading a book a week. Once the world stopped I found an abundance of time to think, time to listen, time to live, and isn’t life better for it?

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Planted out sunflowers, strawflower, chrysanthemums, first squash, salad rocket, other lettuces. Re-sowed parsnips. Harvesting lettuce, alliums, persicaria. Sowed new sunflowers, sweetcorn, zinnia, dill and marigolds.

Cooking and eating: Massive rib of beef for Matt’s birthday, Angel Delight for the hell of it (it wasn’t good, the recipe’s changed since the 1980s and the whole thing split in the fridge); a Victoria Sandwich birthday cake that I messed up by not putting the baking powder in; lamb kebabs with flat breads, asparagus and salads; strawberries; first bobby beans. An unexpected joy of lockdown is ordering a load of proper bread online from a small-scale baker then venturing forth to a trading estate in Stirchley / Stirchley High St / Moseley Bog (delete as appropriate) to collect the goodies a few days later.

Reading: The Bone People by Keri Hulme, with which I feel in the presence of greatness.

Almond (and chocolate) crescents

You know how you get Instagram food and then you have real life food? Instagram is usually style over substance but the home-made stuff, whilst not being pretty, is actually where we can find real heart-warming soul-bolstering cooking. It’s the same with cookbooks – the things we covet on paper somehow don’t carry the true essence of what is real. The expensive images can’t give the impression of the kitchen filled with the fug of bubbling chicken stock, or the furtive treat of stealing the first biscuit off the tray before anyone’s noticed. They can’t give the life-preserving feeling that you get from a slice of proper toast slathered in salty butter. Nor do they give room for the truth that some of the best cooking actually happens when we mess it up a bit.

On that note, I’ve been tinkering about my cinnamon bun recipe (yes, it is an obsession), thinking it would be fun to try something else that’s Scandi and calorie-laden, and my eye was drawn by these, Gifflar med kanel, or cinnamon crescents, from The Nordic Baking Book. Have you ever seen a thing of such dough-based beauty? Look at the swirl! Look at the shine! Look how NEAT they are!

What a Crescent is meant to look like…

So obviously I had a go and, inevitably, my version look utterly crap. Big and puffy, with all the filling oozed out, like I’ve made some cheesy sausage roll from my Mum’s 1970s M&S Picnic Cookbook. But do not be deceived, for this swirly ugly mass is a thing of caramelised unctuous gorgeous heaven.

…and the homemade version!

Instead of the cinnamon filling that is traditional, I used an almond version called remonce, the type used in Danish pastries and Mandelbullar (almond buns). The almond actually comes from marzipan, creamed with heart-stopping quantities of butter and sugar, so imagine this: Sweet dough baked golden in a puddle of marzipanny-buttery caramel. Then think of the illicit pleasure of peeling the leaked caramelised butter-almond off the paper in shards, shovelling them in your mouth before your 2 year old sees and wants them for himself.

Then imagine a chocolate version. Dear God.

Roll your dough out more thinly that you’d expect, and you might succeed in making crescents that are slightly better looking than mine. These freeze well so any that don’t get eaten can be stashed for future breakfasts, brunches or midnight feasts.

Almond crescents
Makes 32 crescents. Recipe adapted from various things in The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson.

For the dough:
320ml milk
150g unsalted butter
1 heaped teaspoon ground cardamon
15g dried yeast
1 egg
125g caster sugar
1 teaspoon fine salt
750g strong wheat flour

In a jug in the microwave, melt the butter into the milk then leave to cool slightly. In a large bowl, place the salt, the flour, the yeast and cardamon (in that order so that the yeast and salt don’t come into contact with each other) and mix thoroughly with a scraper. Whisk the egg into the milk mixture, then tip the lot into the flour and mix to combine. Once you have a sticky mass, tip onto the work surface and knead for a good 10 minutes until you have a soft, elastic dough. Or you can use a stand mixer if you have one. Don’t stint on the kneading, this dough needs it! Shape the dough into a ball, put back in the bowl and cover with a tea towel. Leave to prove for about 2 hours or so, until really risen and puffy. Meanwhile, make your filling:

Lys remonce – Danish pastry filling
125g unsalted butter, very soft
125g caster sugar
125g marzipan

Place the butter and sugar in a bowl, then grate the marzipan over using a box grater. Cream together thoroughly and set aside.

For the crescents:
Preheat the oven to 220c. Prepare three or four (depending on their size) baking sheets or roasting trays with baking parchment. Tip the dough out onto the work surface with the tenderness that you would treat a newborn baby. Gently shape it into a circle then divide into 4 pieces.

To make crescents, roll each piece into a circle using a rolling pin. They should be quite thin, about 1cm deep or thinner. Spread a quarter of the filling over the circle using an off-set spatula, then cut into 8 equal triangles. Roll each triangle up from the thick edge to the thin, then place on a baking sheet. Repeat and repeat until all the dough is used up. Leave to prove for another 30 minutes or so, until puffy.

If you want, at this stage you can egg wash the crescents, or simply leave them plain as I do. Bake for about 10 minutes until risen and golden. You may need to turn the trays around mid-way through baking to avoid burnt bits. Leave to cool before tucking in but take every opportunity to munch on the crunchy almondy caramelised bits that have leaked from your buns.

Variation: Almond & chocolate buns
To make a sinfully good chocolate version, break up some shards of 70% dark chocolate and scatter on top of the dough after you have spread it with the remonce filling. Either shape as crescents or make into traditional cinnamon or cardamon bun shapes, as I have done here. Bake as before.

The chocolate almond version. Ugly but mind-blowingly good.

Life in lockdown

On the whole, we’ve been having a thoroughly nice time in lockdown. I read yesterday that psychologists are worried that people have made such cosy cocoons for themselves that even when we’re finally allowed out, we’ll all be a bunch of agoraphobes who refuse to leave the sanctuary of home. I think there is truth in that and I also think that perhaps it is no bad thing, that there is time yet for stillness and an appetite for life focused on things other than endless consumption and growth.

We do go out every day, but usually only the hundred metres or so to the park. Last week children had left chalk graffiti on the path, an act of pure creativity without self-consciousness.

Kids’ graffiti in Lightwoods Park

I’ve been following my own creative urges – nothing amazing, just thirty minutes of free writing here, a bit of colouring there. I envy all those people I know who actually have skills to draw or paint (or write) well. There’s always cooking of course, and now that we have flour again I’m drawn back to the alchemy that is yeast cookery. Last week I had a go at crumpets; this week I can feel Danish pastries coming on.

Homemade crumpets

In our domestic bubble, aside from the cookery and colouring, there is always the cultivated world to turn for solace and creative endeavour. I am so pleased with my garden this May, the first time I’ve got it looking good. Some of it is considered, some of it is a happy accident. Tulips give tones of green, cream, pink and peach against the hot pink azalea, and in the last week the alliums have opened their lavender pom pom heads. The hottest pink roses are opening too, offset by the vigorous green growth of delphinium, aquilegia and foxglove. It will stay looking glorious for a few more weeks before the inevitable early July slump. To offset that I have a cold-frame full of seedlings – cosmos, nicotiana, more delphiniums, dahlia – readying themselves for their summer in the sun.

The tulips are still going strong, giving white, pink and peach tones to the greening-up garden

All this fecundity is in sharp contrast to the allotment, where nothing much is happening yet. Nothing cultivated I mean, for the grass and nettles are once again rampant. I popped down on Saturday for an hour alone-time, only to be met by a downpour. The shed provided cover and I perched on a spindle of hop twine for half an hour, accompanied by bird song, lilac, cow parsley and the sound of rain on the roof.

In a downpour, I take refuge in the allotment shed, with a view of lilac, cow parsley and nettles

The climbing beans, dwarf beans and sweet peas have now been in for a week or so, netted to protect against the inevitable bird attack. The rest of the soil remains fallow for now. I have learnt that things planted directly in our soil do not do well and it does no good to rush; the first five months of the year are a dormant period down there. No, much better to sow the seeds at home, develop strong plants and put them out only when they’re good and ready, which for the brassicas, salads, squash, corn and cut flowers may not be for another month yet.

Beans have been planted out and netted against the birds

I still visit the allotment though, partly to keep the grass down, but mostly to get my fix of May cut flowers. Alongside the alliums, which I planted several years ago, there is self-sown cow parsley, lilac and persicaria for the picking, making for a gloriously frothy vase.

Alliums, lilac, cow parsley and persicaria, all foraged from the allotment

Having worked from home for years, I find that lockdown life is just a slowed down, slightly more domestic version of normal life. I look after Harry, tend to my seeds, do my bits of work, cook, take care of the never-ending chores, read, sit, chat, play in the garden. There are Zoom meetings, Zoom parties, Zoom yoga, and we even managed a socially-distanced drink with our neighbours through the back gate. Once a week I go to the shops and collect bread from the baker in Stirchley. I completely avoid Facebook, the newspapers and much of the news as I find all the shouting to be wildly unhelpful. I yearn to write but don’t know where to begin (always that sense that we should be doing something useful or productive). There is always the worry of financial armageddon, of course, so as not to become overwhelmed I find I take life one week at a time.

It feels like the right conditions for good things, good ideas, to brew.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Roast chicken with fennel, chilli and oregano; peach and blackberry cobbler; homemade pesto to dress roasted aubergine and asparagus; tagliatelle with peas and bacon; raspberry lemon muffins; lemon ricotta hotcakes; cannellini beans braised with tomato; crumpets.

Allotment and garden: Planted more dwarf beans, climbing beans and squash. Planted out runner, French and borlotti beans, sweet peas, cornflowers. Hardening off many younger plants. Uncovered all the old strawberry patch ready to take the squash plants in a few weeks. Garden tulips holding on and the first roses are breaking bloom. Covered up the gooseberry and redcurrant against bird attack.

Harvesting: Cow parsley, lilac, alliums, persicaria, lettuce merveille de quat saison (veg trug), tarragon, marjoram.

Reading: The land where lemons grow by Helena Attlee. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

Copenhagen Cake

The hot weather over Easter meant that the outside world felt a million miles away. Tulips bloomed, baby leaves and pea shoots were ripe for picking, birds scouted for nesting sites. Harry scooted and I sat. Dear God we even cleaned out the sun room, chucked out a load of decade-old paint tins and moved the barbecue to the shed. Those were days of glory.

Since then we’ve had perpetual rain and dank, grey skies, work has reared its head again and I’ve had one too many Zoom meetings for my liking. But as ever, there is solace in the garden, in the allotment and in the kitchen. Every morning and evening I wander outside for a few minutes’ solitude where I can admire my tulips and tend to my seedlings. And look at Matt’s shed in all its glory!

Bar the window, the shed is finally in a useable state!

Before the rain hit Matt found time to put up all the support structures on the allotment – it’s his favourite job, obviously – and so I think the sweetpeas and climbing beans will be planted out within the next week or so. Whilst there I found another bonus crop – lilac and cow parsley – which, if you sear the stems in boiling water, will last for a week or so in the vase.

Supports are up for beans, sweetpeas and sunflowers
Cow parsley and lilac

But easily the most exciting thing to happen this week is the tracking down of actual real life BREAD FLOUR. It’s been weeks since I’ve seen this stuff. Flour is harder to come by than Class A drugs these days (I am told). Morrisons are flogging 1 kilo bags from their bakery, which they’ve packed themselves in their paper bags normally reserved for doughnuts and sausage rolls. Good for them for their entrepreneurial spirit. It means that we can finally stock ourselves up with cinnamon buns and pizza again, staple foods in this house.

Finally scored some bread flour in Morrisons, so it’s nearly cinnamon bun and pizza time again

The whole nation is baking now to get them through Lockdown. Wise people. This time last year we were in Copenhagen, for a blissful few days of pastries, bread, pastries, bread, coffee, cake, pastries and bread. First (and only) time we’d been aboard since having Harry. It was one of the best weeks of my life. But despite all those hand-made artisan cinnamon snails and rye breads, it was actually a basic vanilla sponge with pink glace icing bought from the supermarket that sticks in the memory. We called it Copenhagen Cake and refer back to it often, with longing. Plain yet buttery. Basic yet iced. Elegant yet brashly pink. Cheap and yet not THAT cheap, for we were in Copenhagen after all, where a pint costs a tenner. It was a thing of joy.

Copenhagen Cake, the original, May 2019

I’ve tried to replicate Copenhagen Cake at home a few times, referring to Scandinavian cook books and making my own food colouring from squashed raspberries. This time, with the help of The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson, I think I’ve nailed it. Copenhagen Cake isn’t really a ‘thing’, but if you match a Swedish-style plain sponge with a tangy raspberry water icing, it’s close enough to the original. The trick is to whisk the hell out of the eggs and sugar, and fold in the butter and flour with comparatively great tenderness. Then go large on the icing and sprinkles. Enjoy.

Copenhagen Cake, the home-made version, May 2020

Copenhagen Cake

125g unsalted butter
50ml milk
2 large eggs
175g caster sugar
160g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the icing:
a scant handful raspberries, fresh or frozen
icing sugar, about 5 tablespoons
water
sprinkles or dried raspberries, to decorate

Preheat the oven to 175c. Butter and line your cake tin – I used a 7inch spring-form round pan.

Melt the butter and milk together in the microwave or on the hob, then leave to cool slightly.

Using an electric whisk, whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla together until thick and at the ribbon stage – this will take at least five minutes, probably more.

Measure out the flour and baking powder into a bowl and have your sieve ready to go. You also need a large metal spoon.

Very gently pour the milk and butter mixture down the side of the bowl with the eggs in, then fold in with the spoon. Sieve the flour on top and fold to combine – be really gentle to ensure the air stays in the sponge, but make sure no lumps of flour remain.

Pour the batter into the tin, smooth the top then bake for about 30-40 minutes until risen and golden, and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to sit for ten minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.

To make the icing, squish the raspberries through a sieve to make a scant spoonful of bright pink juice. Add icing sugar and water, drop by drop, to make a spoonable icing.

When the cake is quite cold, spread your icing over the top and decorate with sprinkles or dried raspberries. Leave the icing for half an hour or so to set before cutting.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Asparagus, tomatoes, strawberries, baby salad leaves, duck eggs – heaven. Matt’s tagine. Apple crostata.
Allotment and garden: The garden tulips are out and glorious, such a happy addition. Picking lilac and cow parsley. Baby leaves from the veg trug. Hardening off some seedlings. Planted out 30 strawberry plants.
Life: Just staying at home. Week 7 now. I leave the house only to go to the park, allotment, supermarket and the farm shop. Matt goes to the workshop. Apart from too much Cbeebies, it’s been OK.

Bonus crops

Week 4 of lockdown and we’re just about keeping the show on the road, if that means finally staggering downstairs at 10am and giving into the pleas for Hey Duggee! at 10.01am. I have near-enough lost the power of independent intelligent thought; actually lockdown is not dissimilar to maternity leave in that regard (Anyone who is finding this period to be great for their creativity/productivity is clearly not living with a toddler.) I only really venture out of the house for a short walk around the park or to the allotment, and the very infrequent trips to the supermarket feel like both a treat and an ordeal (again, just like maternity leave). Going back to proper work, if and when it happens, will be one hell of a shock.

Harry is spending a great deal more time with his Dad than in normal life, and is developing a predictable interest in saws, hammers and screwdrivers; there’s plenty of ‘helping’ as Matt makes his shed. When Matt’s mum sent this picture of Matt with his Grampy taken back in the 1980s, it seems that history is now repeating itself.

Matt with Grampy, around 1986

Down on the allotment, the hopolisk rose again over the weekend, threaded with twine and ready to support the staggering growth of this year’s hops. Underneath them lie the broad beans, some put in as young plants and a few rows direct sown.

The hopolisk was raised over the Easter weekend, as is now traditional

March and April are meant to be the ‘hungry months’, with the winter veg running out of steam and new season’s crops not yet mature, and whilst this is true, I’ve been relishing what I think of as bonus crops these last few weeks. The forager – if they know where to go – can find carpets of wild garlic, even in the city, whilst in the veg trug the young pea plants are giving up their succulent shoots to add to salads and pastas. I’ll take this first harvest then leave the plants to mature to pods.

A carpet of wild garlic
Pea shoots in the veg trug

Meanwhile on the allotment, now’s the time that the self-sown herbs and green weeds come into their own. There are nettle shoots all over the place (lovely stir-fried or in a risotto) and oregano is sending up the first precious new growth of the year.

Self-sown oregano is now all over the allotment, a welcome intruder

As for the cultivated plants, the brassicas that I left in the ground over winter (chard, spinach beet, kale) are now sending up delicate new shoots – there’s a few pickings before they finally go to seed – and the leaves of the blackcurrant bushes need a couple of weeks before they reach their full fragrance and can be turned into the alchemy that is blackcurrant leaf sorbet: a true delicacy of mid-summer.

Blackcurrant blossom amid freshly unfurled leaves, waiting to be made into blackcurrant leaf sorbet

The happiest bonus crop of all are the little posies of narcissi and tulips, taken from bulbs that I planted years ago, and which astonishingly are still sending up vibrantly colourful stems.

Tulips, narcissi and a few leaves of freshly-sprouted chard

I’d say that these unexpected weeks at home are an unprecedented time to live differently, cook differently, get in touch with nature, blah blah blah. But the truth is that I’ve always allotmented and cooked in this way. Maybe it’s my peasant roots. To find honey in a weed is the great skill of the cook and the housekeeper, and to be in lockdown with a two year old means we have no choice but to live with a routine and keep one’s sh*t together, and that is what we shall do.

Also this week:
Sowing: All the seeds are now sown and doing well – a bonus of lockdown is getting all these jobs done.

Garden and allotment: Planted out broad beans and potatoes, direct sown parsnips, broad beans, peas. Hopolisk raised. Black plastic sheeting has been taken off the beds. In the garden, the shed is going up but still needs a window, though it’s taken a year to get to this point so I am not complaining. Hardening off the first seeds, the rest are in the sun room.

Cooking and eating: I’ve been lusting after modest food, inspired by Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed and her talk of Lenten fasting and Easter feasting – to whit, I made a dish of cannellini beans, soaked overnight and then simmered with onion, celery leaf, tomato and bay in a suitably rustic pot. Matt’s had similar urges but heads to India for inspiration – chick peas transformed into dahl with copious spices and coconut milk. The warm weather has transformed our cooking: we see the first of this year’s asparagus, always a joy, plus from the freezer and store cupboard there’s slow roasted lamb shoulder studded with anchovy and garlic; boulangere potatoes, chocolate easter cake (of course), Welsh cakes, spiced pumpkin muffins using last autumn’s squash, and leftover topside stir-fried with black beans and green peppers. Harry just wants to eat chocolate eggs.

Viennese fingers

Helen Stallard Communications is 15 years old today! That’s one and a half decades of solvent self-employment, also known as not having a proper job. The fates have been kind. I really do remember the date 1 April 2005 for it marked the day when I decided to be bold and take a really massive leap into the unknown rather than stick it out in a miserable commute that was too long, a job that seemed ultimately pointless and, most importantly, the ludicrousness of having to spend 8+ hours every day in an office regardless of how much work I actually needed to produce. The world of work, to me, seemed (and still mostly seems) off its rocker. So I “went freelance”, which is what people in the cultural sector say when they don’t really know what they’re going to do with themselves, but it turned out to be absolutely the best choice to me and since then I’ve worked with artists, composers, musicians, dancers, festivals, major events… There have been plenty of downs and uncertainty of course, but ultimately, flexibility and self-direction are the cornerstones to me of gainful employment. That plus the ability to work on worthwhile projects with interesting people. 15 years is quite an achievement and I don’t take it for granted.

I say this now because I wonder if the disruption to the workplace caused by Coronavirus will lead many people to reconsider how they organise their lives. Working from home doesn’t mean slovenliness…far from it, in my experience it leads to greater productivity. Working around caring for children or relatives doesn’t mean that you’re uncommitted, it shows that you have a full life and are adept at juggling responsibilities. Really, it’s about time that the world of work caught up.

I was due to mark today’s anniversary with a day out to London, a trip to the V&A and shopping at the fancy bakeries in Marylebone and Soho. Obviously that plan got scrapped and instead, I stayed home and made a batch of Viennese Fingers from my favourite 1970s cookbook, The Dairy Book of Home Cookery. My mum has this book and I’ve known it all my life, although the copy I use now actually belonged to Matt’s Granny. If you ignore such delights as Sole with Bananas and Potted Kipper Creams, and stick to the basics of cakes, puddings, batter puddings, scones and pastry, then you can’t go wrong.

The Dairy Book of Home Cooking, a classic that deserves its place in any cookbook collection
The Viennese Fingers have been re-named as Butter Whirls, but the basic principle is the same

Viennese fingers are one of my favourite ‘traditional’ bakery items; I still choose them when I go to Cooks Bakery in Upton On Severn. They are a basic butter biscuit dough, which is piped into either a finger or a whirl, depending on how you feel, then sandwiched with buttercream and topped with chocolate. Given that the principle ingredients are butter, sugar, flour and chocolate, this is great store-cupboard cookery, but still feels suitably celebratory. If it wasn’t for the lockdown I would never have dreamt of making these – but I’m glad I did.

Viennese Fingers
Adapted from the Dairy Book of Home Cooking

For the biscuits:
150g softened unsalted butter
50g icing sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
150g plain flour

For the butter icing:
50g softened unsalted butter
50g icing sugar

For the topping:
100g dark chocolate

Preheat the oven to 160c. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

Beat together the butter, sugar and vanilla until the mixture is incredibly soft and whipped. You may need to zap the lot in the microwave for a few seconds to reach the desired level of softness, but be careful not to let it melt completely. Stir in the flour to make a soft dough.

Using a piping bag with a meringue nozzle, pipe lengths onto the baking paper – mine are about 6cm long – or alternatively you could make whirls. (Ideally you need a star nozzle but I only have a plain one.) Place in the oven and bake until lightly golden brown – between 12-15 minutes, depending on your oven and the size of your biscuits. Check them often to be sure that they do not burn. Remove from oven and leave to sit for five minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool.

For the buttercream, beat the butter and sugar together until very pale and fluffy. For the topping, break the chocolate into chunks and melt in the microwave – I do this by turning the microwave on in 30 second bursts.

To finish the biscuits, match your fingers up so that each pair is roughly the same size. Spread buttercream onto the inside of one biscuit and press the other half on top into a sandwich, then either dip one half in chocolate or drizzle over the top. Place on greaseproof paper to firm.

Makes about 10, depending on how big your piping is!

Viennese Fingers

Also this week:
Garden and allotment: The ‘lockdown’ (does anyone else really LOATHE the lexicon of this pandemic?) means that work continues on the shed, which I am delighted by. Sowed beans, sweetcorn, watercress and delphiniums.

Eating and cooking: Not been shopping for days given the lockdown, which means that eggs and flour have become luxury items. I am still in storecupboard mode. We’ve made some dodgy but edible bread, plus hummus, chicken and ham pie and more muffins. Matt’s had a go at potato farls.

Also: Crafting, farms, trains and play doh with Harry.

Nettles and sorrel

I’m not sure I should admit this and do not wish to sound flippant, but now that last week’s hysteria has died down, I am thoroughly enjoying this enforced sabbatical. Pottering at home, pottering on the allotment, playing with Harry, cooking, reading…with no meetings or pressing deadlines…lovely. I am putting all financial implications of lost work out of my mind – right now I can do nothing about it, so why worry?

I have reclusive tendencies anyway but even Matt – who is always over-worked – said to me earlier that this is the most relaxed he’s been for about three years. It helps that we’re all well and that the past few days have been undeniably spring-like. We should not be deceived, for there is time enough still for cold and wet, but for now the garden and allotment are unrelenting in their awakening.

Forsythia brings welcome colour to both garden and allotment
Allotment-neighbour Martin’s crop of daffodils are simply fantastic

The need to be still and quiet, more mindful of our consumption and savvy in our housekeeping, appeals to me on many levels. Some of my favourite food writers – women such as Anna del Conte and Patience Gray – speak so eloquently of how to live well in times of hardship. They hark back to the old ways, to country ways, to knowing what the pantry, the garden, the vegetable patch and the hedgerow can provide. Not that we’re on our way to starvation anytime soon, but there is joy to be found in even the smallest degree of self-sufficiency. The biggest thing that has concerned me over the past week – far more than the potential loss of career or, even, illness – was that Boris would ban us from going to the allotment; when that fear was allayed, I knew that we would cope just fine with our current situation.

And so today, whilst Matt planted onions and manured the strawberry patch, Harry and I picked newly emerged sorrel leaves, tiny nettle shoots, self-sown marjoram and the leaves from last summer’s kale, spinach and chard, all of which I left in the ground and are now re-shooting. Once home, I tipped the bag of leaves into the sink and left them to soak for an hour or so to get rid of dust and creepy crawlies. Tomorrow I will wilt them down, stir them with a single egg, a scraping of cheese and finely chopped spring onion, wrap them in the filo pastry that’s been lurking in the freezer for months, and so they become a filling for spanakopita. I absolutely adore this kind of living and this type of cooking, and when I do it, I feel connected to generations of women past who have dealt with far greater hardships than we will ever know.

Yes, we will cope just fine.

Planting onions is a family affair
Nettle shoots for the wilderness area of the allotment
Last year’s kale is reshooting, and these leaves are full of goodness
Few things in life give me as much pleasure as a sink packed full of home-grown/foraged greens

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Pantry and freezer food is on the up, so it’s sausages with braised lentils, blackcurrant muffins (from last summer’s fruit) and bolognese. Now that McDonald’s is shut I can’t help but think this will be the healthiest Matt has ever been.

Reading and watching: Pride and Prejudice and various yoga books – nothing like Aunt Jane and the sutras to give a wise perspective on life. And the happy discovery that This Old House is now streaming again to the UK after an absence of several years, so we’re lost in evenings of home renovation in the Greater Boston area.

Sowing/Plotting/Planting: Potted up 15 dahlias (10 for the garden, 5 for the allotment as cut flowers). Most of the cut flowers and veg have been sown, including several kales, beet spinach, leeks, cosmos, strawflower, ammi, amaranthus, calendula and others I have forgotten. Planted onions and garlic. Dug and manured the strawberry patch.

Also: Finding a line between ‘school’ and play for Harry now that he’s home. Montessori resources are on order and in the meantime we’re doing lots of creative play, story time and outdoor messing around. And CBeebies of course.

Things to do in a crisis

After an extremely torrid five days where – I do not exaggerate – esteemed colleagues in the cultural sector are talking about their organisations and personal livelihoods being decimated, planning for 6 months closures and everything being cancelled for the foreseeable future, I am retreating to my preferred way of dealing with a crisis: seed sowing and forward planning.

We do not know what the future holds but I do know that panicking about it helps no-one. As a self-employed household, we have already had several contracts put into question by coronavirus, so now’s the time to be prudent and as self-sufficient as possible, and lend a helping hand to those who need it. Because it could be a whole lot worse (think of those Doctors, some of whom I was at university with, who are running the ICUs at the moment).

So here is my list of things to do in a “shit I’ve got no work on” crisis.

  1. Work out how much we need to live on vs confirmed income and budget accordingly.
  2. Finish building the shed and then insist Matt moves the concrete mixer so that I can tidy up the shrubs in the back garden
  3. Finish building the utility room
  4. Plan what colour to paint my office
  5. Potty train Harry (note, this will be harder than any day’s work I’ve ever done in my life)
  6. Plant all my seeds (already doing well with this)
  7. Dig out the brambles and grass from the allotment
  8. Plant out broad beans
  9. Dig out and replace the strawberries
  10. Replace the greenhouse
  11. Watch This Life and Ready Steady Cook on iplayer
  12. Study the sutras again (this is yoga, always the best medicine)
  13. Actually write that damned book

Because in this life, the most important things to learn in order to survive are how to grow things, how to make things and how to cook. Look out for your community (and well done to all those organisations who have promised freelancers that they will honour contracts and invoices) and let’s be sensible.

A new and timely addition to our art collection, from Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft
A bit of free time is give me space for this lot! 40+ different types of veg and flowers are now in the process of being sown.

Battle of the bramble

Slowly, slowly, we’re venturing out and turning our faces to the sun. These are tentative early glimpses, a foretelling of spring, but it’s there. The blackbird has started singing again, and the forsythia is bring her yellow showy-offy-ness to the back garden. At Wightwick Manor last weekend, the skeleton trees had their bases lit up by a mass of glowing daffodils.

The garden at Wightwick Manor on March 1st

Whilst we’re at Wightwick, I must make a note of their wonderful dried flower hanging rack, which brightens up the scullery (clearly the place that I was born to hang out). I love everything about this, from the uniformity of the hang (that’s art-speak) to the choice of colours to the fact that the flowers still look vibrant several months after picking.

Strawflower and limonium hung in bunches on a rack from the ceiling
The colours are still strong, several months after picking

This weekend we ventured to Snowdonia for some much-needed family time; the first for about 5 months I realised. Between us we work a lot of weekends, that’s just how it is, so consecutive days spent as a threesome are really rare. And whilst sun is never guaranteed in West Wales, it did show itself – briefly – and the birds sang a crescendo of joy. This is not an exaggeration! Living in the city I forget just how loud country birds can be, be they crows or pigeons or gulls or blackbirds or even, my favourite, the barn owl. I do not know this part of Wales and the landscape felt extraordinary to me, a place so alive with the feeling of the ancient past.

Sheep sheep everywhere
Have you even been to Snowdonia if the view isn’t like this?
Harry has to take a train or a bus or a tractor or a lorry with him, wherever he goes

Spring means life and birds and sun…but it also means jobs. Not that this is a bad thing. My limbs are desperate to be stretched and I value the creative fun that the allotment gives me after solitary hours at the desk. I’ve drafted up my planting plan for the year, with blocks of cut flowers in one bed and lines of greens and veg in the other.

The planting plan, 2020

But the thing that has really been on my mind are the brambles, specifically the ones that have infested the autumn raspberries. I took advice from lots of people and the general consensus was to dig them out, albeit carefully, trying to avoid the raspberries. This proved to be significantly easier said than done, given that the raspberries have been there for years and have made the place very much their own; there is no ordered line of planting or any of that, it’s a free-for-all. That, and the fact that these brambles have the longest tap root I have ever experienced. I yanked and I heaved and I pulled and I fell over several times and gradually, I made progress.

One of the invading brambles with a tap root as long as my forearm
A semi-victory over the invading forces

I am under no illusion that this is the job done; I think this exercise will need repeating throughout the next few years. And it also taught me that there is no way in hell that the brambles in The Wilderness by the shed and greenhouse can be dug out: as Matt tells me, some of the stems are wider than my wrist. It would take an excavator, or at least someone with a heck of a lot more strength than me to do it.

The raspberry patch now. It may not look like much but this is a major improvement.

As I was digging and falling over and swearing, I realised that it wasn’t just me who was out. Life is springing up again at the allotments. Martin was happily moving his brassica cages and we had a chat about Coronavirus. Lynn came over and I admired her fruit cage (it is a thing of beauty and I feel ashamed of our tardy efforts at tidiness) whilst her husband had a bonfire. I came home smelling of woodsmoke. It’s good to be back.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Green papaya salad with Thai green curry; barabrith; veal meatballs cooked in an Aga at our holiday let; new season rhubarb (some of it sweet, some of it like licking a battery)
Visiting: Harlech, Snowdon and the surrounding area, staying in a marvellous Georgian manor with a tennis court and mysterious old walls, barns and lanes that felt from a different place in time. Also Wightwick Manor where Harry insisted on eating a massive cake all to himself.
Reading: Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a dark tale about an affair between a woman and a man who turns out to be what was in the 1990s called a conman, but who would now described as a perpetrator of coercive control. Wonderful but unsettling.

Cinnamon buns

Amidst this biblical rain, I made it to the allotment last week to sort the raspberries out. Which I did, but it has left a bigger problem: what to do with the brambles. They are over-running this really productive area of the allotment. If I dig them out I’ll almost certainly lose some raspberries, but if I leave them, they will get worse. If anyone has any suggestions of dealing with rampant brambles, I am all ears.

The monster brambles and grass have taken over the raspberries

The sun did briefly shine yesterday. I know this because we were at Moseley Old Hall, the National Trust property a stone’s throw from Wolverhampton. I sat in the tea room contorting my body into the weirdest shape so that my face could be in the triangle of sun beaming in through the window. Afterwards Harry explored the woods and tree house, covering us all in mud, which is just as it should be.

The knot garden at Moseley Old Hall. What you can’t see is the meadow of native narcissi that are coming into life behind the garden.

Onto baking. I’ve been messing about with cinnamon bun recipes since Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess was published, which Google tells me was 1998. That is over 20 years of exploration into enriched dough cookery. I am low-level obsessed, and over the years have tried my hand at kuchen, chelseas, iced buns, brioche, bun cake, various Scandi versions of kanelsnegle – I went to Denmark purely to marvel over the miracle that is baked dough with butter, spice and sugar. I wouldn’t say that I am a brilliant baker, far from it, but I surely get points for loyalty.

I have concluded that the cinnamon bun can’t really be made from a recipe; so much is about the feel of the dough, that velveteen bouncy quality that you know when you touch it but can’t explain. Having been to Denmark, I would say that my cinnamon buns are not the ‘real thing’ – there they came covered with cream cheese icing, which I can’t quite fathom. Actually I never glaze my buns anymore, but do sprinkle them with sugar pearls that I managed to track down at Ocado. The Danes would never add fruit, which I do sometimes, as I enjoy the adding squishiness of blueberries or apple. But I bake not because I want to be ‘proper’, but because I want to feed my family good food. So here is my current favourite recipe, an amalgam of many magazine cut-outs, splattered cook books and 20 years of trying. No picture I’m afraid, as they never last long enough to be photographed.

Cinnamon Buns – my current perfect recipe

For the buns:
250g spelt flour
250g strong white flour
40g caster sugar
2tsp ground cardamom
14g dried yeast (I use Dove’s Farm)
5g salt
270g whole milk
50g unsalted butter
1 egg

For the filling:
180g unsalted butter
70g caster sugar
70g soft light brown sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
Handful fruit, e.g. chopped apple, blueberries, sultanas (optional)
white sugar pearl crystals, for sprinkling

First make the dough. Melt the butter into the milk – I use the microwave – then leave to cool slightly. If you dip your finger into the mixture it should feel neither hot nor cold, just wet. Place the salt, flours, sugar, cardamom and yeast in a big bowl, in that order – this keeps the salt and yeast separate. Use a bread scraper to mix it all together. Crack the egg and whisk into the milk, then pour the lot onto the flour mixture and, using your scraper, mix to a sticky mass. Turn it out onto the work surface and knead for a good five minutes, probably more. It needs to be smoothy and springy, like a baby’s bottom. Spelt flour is low gluten so this won’t become as stretchy as normal bread flour, however a good long knead is essential to a good finished bun, so don’t be lazy. Shape the dough into a ball then pop back into the bowl to prove, covering it with a tea towel. It will need at least an hour, possibly two, to prove.

Meanwhile make the filling – mix the butter, sugar and cinnamon together in a bowl until smooth. If you need to zap the butter in the microwave to get it soft, so be it.

Next, prepare the baking tray: I use a roasting tray which I line first with foil and then with baking paper. You could also cook your buns in muffin cases, which is more traditional.

When the dough is ready – a finger pressed into it will leave a lasting dent, plus it looks good and puffy – gently tip it out onto a very lightly floured work surface. Use your fingers to ease it into a rectangle, then roll out properly with a rolling pin. I make mine about 45cm x 35cm but it would never occur to me to measure it, it just looks ‘right’. Spread the butter mixture evenly over the dough, going all the way to the edges, then sprinkle on any fruit if you’re using it.

Now roll it up, starting with the long side furthest away from you. Try to keep it tight and even, then roll the whole thing back and forth a few times so it comes together in a neat swiss roll shape. Use a sharp knife (e.g. a bread knife) to slice into rounds: the size is up to you, but I usually get between 11-13 buns from my dough. (I intentionally make them slightly different sizes as Harry has different bun needs to myself and Matt. This is unorthodox, but is proper family cooking.)

Place the buns cut-side-up on the baking tray, leaving a few centimetres between each bun to allow room for spreading. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise again, this time for about 30 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 200c.

When the buns are puffy and yearning to be baked, sprinkle white sugar crystals over them. Place them in the middle or bottom of the oven for an initial ten minutes. Open the door, turn them around (for a more even bake), turn the oven down to 180c, then bake for another 15-20 minutes, depending how crunchy you like them.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Vietnamese duck braised in orange juice, served with jasmine rice, bok choi stir-fried with garlic and fish sauce, and a massive bowl of spring rolls and gyoza. Crabs and prawns from the Rag market. Accidentally spent £50 on noodles, the spring rolls & gyoza, rice paper rapers and so on at Wing Yip supermarket, which was massive fun.

Reading: Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, after a gap of about 10 years, and reminding myself of my yoga life before Harry.