Chicken jalfrezi

The false spring was there to make fools of us, just as I predicted. Since my last post we’ve had two big windy storms, big enough to take down branches, plus yesterday brought the heaviest hail shower that I’ve experienced for several years. But the lighter evenings do bring a sense of relief and the spring equinox is shortly upon us, time for a resurgence of energy and resolution.

Speaking of energy, Harry and I both succumbed to chest infections, which are now on the way out, but point to the importance of nutrition and rest. Last week I experimented with purple pancakes – these are American-style pancakes with blueberry compote stirred into the batter before cooking – which gave us a good dose of protein, calcium, carbs and (most importantly) fun.

Harry loves purple pancakes. Make a regular pancake batter and swirl into a few tablespoons of blueberry compote, then cook as normal.

There was also a trip to Ludlow, home of the world’s greatest butchers and greengrocer, to restock the freezer with proper sausages, bacon, a bunny or two plus a sensational leg of pork.

March in the Marches – the view across the river to Ludlow castle

An abundance of spring flowers at Ludlow market

Back home, the garden is changing from brown to yellow. The forsythia came into bloom last week, with its optimistic bright yellow flowers hanging from branches like fairy skirts. The primulas that we lifted from Granny’s garden before she passed are thriving – a softer yellow than the forsythia, they provide pleasing pops of colour that can be seen from the sun room.

More yellow, this time from the blooming forsythia in the back garden

Granny’s primroses are thriving

Meanwhile I have a space issue. Our Victorian house contains only 1 windowsill and 1 smallish cold-frame, meaning that spring-time seed sowing is an exercise in logistics. It’s a constant juggle of succession sowing and tray-turning to get things started. This year I have unfathomably got about 40 different varieties of flowers, herbs and veg that need sowing over the next month or two, and only a postage-stamp amount of room to keep them in (Matt promises that he will apply his hive-mind to this issue). Meanwhile I have also (equally unfathomably) amassed a collection of nearly 20 dahlias, all of which I potted up yesterday in the hail, and which are now snuggly resting in big trays in the sun room to begin their ascent to full-flowering August glory. My labelling is dubious at the best of times but I particularly enjoyed unwrapping the bag-for-life full of shrivelled tubers and a single pink Post-it noting “jewel colours for garden or allotment”. I have absolutely zero idea where these came from but I look forward to seeing how they progress.

Somehow I have amassed a collection of dahlias, all of which are dubiously labelled, now potted up after their winter snooze.

Cold frame already full with broad beans and delphinium seedlings

On to today’s recipe. Since the Frugality Challenge I have become very aware of using meat to its best potential, so that it lasts for loads of meals. The other week I bought a large whole chicken, took it down to its essential parts (2 breasts, 2 drumsticks, 2 wings, 2 thighs, carcuss) and froze each piece individually. This is far more economical way of shopping than buying lots of individual packs of thighs or breasts, plus the portions tend to be larger – and thus better value – when taken off a whole bird.

The legs were marinated with yoghurt, garlic and spices brought by my friend Claire from her recent trip to Morocco (thanks Claire), before being baked and served with flatbreads and salads.

The breasts were turned into this wonderful jalfrezi, from Jamie Oliver’s Super Food Family Classics book. I love that it’s very simple, very healthy and genuinely delicious, plus there’s no special ingredients needed, as it’s made with store-cupboard and fridge staples. This does involve whizzing up a curry paste but even that isn’t too much bother, and the chicken can be marinated in advance if that makes life easier. We ate it up with rice, home-made tarka dal, a chopped salad of cucumber, tomato, onion, mint and coriander, plus Matt’s vegetable pakora. Highly recommended.

Chicken Jalfrezi
from Jamie Oliver’s Super Food Family Classics. Serves 3-4 with side dishes.

For the paste: Toast 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds with 1 teaspoon each of coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds and black mustard seeds in a dry frying pan until toasted. Tip into the food processor with 2 cloves of garlic, a big knob of ginger, 1 teaspoon turmeric, a pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, 2 tablespoons tomato puree, 1 fresh red chili and a handful of fresh coriander. Whizz the lot to a puree, adding a splash of water if needed.

Slice 1 large or 2 small chicken breasts into large chunks, then place in a bowl with 2 tablespoons plain yoghurt, the curry paste and a pinch of salt. Massage the paste into the chicken then set aside to marinate.

Dice one red onion and two peppers (red, yellow, green, or a mixture) into large chunks. In a dry frying pan or casserole, stir-fry the vegetables until they start to char – this gives good flavour to the curry. Tip in the chicken and any excess marinade, then cook for 3-4 minutes until the chicken begins to turn opaque.

Tip half a tin of chopped tomatoes into the pan with a good splash of water, stir to combine, then leave to cook on a low heat for 10 minutes until the chicken is cooked through, the veg is softened and the sauce is thickened to your liking. Check the seasoning – add a squeeze of lemon if you like.

Serve with rice, daal, salad and raita.

 

Also this week:

Cooking & eating: Ludlow pie and chips; chocolate muffins; blue pancakes; cherry flapjacks; Moroccan-baked chicken; apple & blackberry galette; hot cross buns; roast pork shoulder with crispy crackling; phenomenal amounts of tea.

Outside: The conifers at the end of the garden were removed this morning, opening up massive amounts of light into the wilderness.

Reading: Mildly obsessed with Up: My lifetime’s journey up Everest, Ben Fogle’s account of climbing Mount Everest. Make mental note that life has become dull and so, whilst I have no desire to climb any mountain whatsoever, we should plan some adventures for 2019.

Vietnamese-style dressing

The warm temperatures of the last two weeks have brought the seedlings, bulbs and buds on no end. Let’s not be fooled too much – False Spring is a thing – but there’s definitely a sense of sap rising. We’ve been out for our first ice cream of the year, albeit in thick coats, and the daffodils in the back garden are singing in their bright yellow trumpets.

Never too early in the year for ice cream

Narcissi ‘rip van winkle’

The early seedlings are germinating impressively. This year I am being far more fastidious about thinning, and the tray is being rotated daily to prevent too much legginess. The broad beans that Harry planted back in January took weeks to get going, but once they did then whoooosh, they were off! Now several inches tall, I’ve moved the seedlings to the cold frame to harden off.

Germination going well, rotating the tray daily and using the heat-mat

Harry’s broad beans took AGES to germinate but now are thriving

Matt’s been away all week, therefore living on Pret and McDonalds (not that he’d admit to it), so come Saturday I was determined to get some vitamins into our addled bodies. Vitamins doesn’t need to mean boring though. Alongside stir-fried lemongrass chicken and broccoli I pulled together a crunchy, vibrant, searingly hot Vietnamese salad – it’s the kind of cooking that is so satisfying that you don’t realise that it’s healthy. This would usually have green papaya and Chinese leaf in it but I had neither, so subbed in a firm, not-quite-ripe mango, plus turnip for crunch. Turnip and mango sounds awful, right? Wrong – try it and be surprised. The joy of these salads is that you can use anything crunchy that you have to hand, though I do think that cucumber and shallot are essential.

Vietnamese-style salad

Julienne a bowlful of crunchy vegetables – use what you have to hand, but carrot, shallot, turnip, kohl rabi, Chinese leaf, cucumber, white cabbage, firm mango, yellow pepper and beansprouts all work. Toss in a handful of mint, basil and coriander (again, use what you have to hand) and some chopped, toasted peanuts for crunch, if desired.

The key to this is the dressing. Make it as hot as you dare! Whisk together 1 tbsp fish sauce, a good squeeze of lime, 1/2 tbsp Japanese rice vinegar, 1/2 tbsp caster sugar and very finely minced garlic and red birds eye chili (to taste). Pour onto the vegetables and leave to stand for a few minutes for the flavours to mingle before serving.

Also this week:

Cooking: Cherry brownies, blackcurrant bakewell tart, lemongrass & ginger chicken with broccoli, Welsh cakes, cherry almond loaf cake
Growing: Cleared out the front garden, taking out the fern and an unidentified variegated evergreen (a family joint effort, this).

First seeds of the year

It feels like the year is warming up. Both literally – I was outside in just a thick jumper earlier today – but also in terms of stuff. After the confines of January, so far this month we’ve been to the British Indoor Championship athletics at the NIA, had a lovely day trip to the Cotswolds, been out for a fancy Malvern lunch (with a baby! Imagine!) plus there’s new work projects to occupy the mind and hopefully help the bank balance a little. It’s a relief to feel like we’re living again. Plus of course there’s been baking.

The BEST cinnamon buns

Valentine’s fairy cakes

Encouraged by blue skies, I’ve made the first few exploratory trips to the allotment of 2019. The raspberries require cutting back and the blackcurrants pruning, both jobs that I do not relish but actually, amidst the growing bird song and with a faint whisper of sun on my back, were enjoyable enough.

The first few exploratory visits to the allotment of the year. Daffodils are nearly out.

This year’s seeds were delivered a few weeks ago and have sat waiting on the side for some attention. I want to shake things up a little, so there’s new varieties of cut flower to try, and old-favourite veg to have another go at. With 5 summers on the allotment under my belt I am now more confident with my planting but still willing to make a few mistakes in the name of experimentation. With that in mind I’m trying a new seed company this year – Chiltern – who don’t go in for glossy photography and are therefore cheaper than my usual Sarah Raven.

This year’s seeds are here, with some new varieties to shake things up a bit

Today I finally got around to sowing the early starters. There’s the standard leeks and tomatoes, plus newbies to the allotment party:  agastache mexicana (Mexican hyssop), baptisia australis (fake indigo), delphiniums, crimson-flowered broad beans and – deep breath – helichrysum bracteatum monstrosum, also known as straw flower, which I saw growing at Baddesley Clinton last autumn and thought it was wonderful in its kitsch-ness. I’ve taken scissors to the trusty black seed trays, splitting them into 4 blocks of 10 plugs, to make them more easy to move around: when you’re sowing in confined spaces, you have to make life easier for yourself.

The age-old plastic trays have come out again

Sun-room is starting to fill up

According to the worryingly-bossy seed packet, the baptisia australis require 6 weeks in the fridge and then another few weeks sunbathing at 20c, or some such. The delphiniums are equally as fussy. Really, who can actually provide these conditions? I decide to stop worrying and just give them a go: they’ll either grow or they won’t, and that’s all there is to it.

Delphiniums go into the cold frame

The bulk of the year’s planting won’t begin for another month or so, but it’s pleasing to feel that spring has begun.

Also this week:

Eating and cooking: Steamed syrup sponge, venison in red wine, chicken and chickpeas with tomato, paprika and cinnamon.

On the allotment: Pruned the soft fruit, cut back the raspberries, removed the brassica cage so the birds can have their fill

In the sun room: Started off tomatoes (gardener’s delight and costoluto fiorentino), leek musselburgh, broad bean crimson-flowered, cleome, delphinium (white king and blue spire), false indigo, Mexican hyssop, strawflower, ammi majus.

Reading: Re-visiting How to be a domestic goddess and feeling inspired to make fairy cakes again. Once again I see how Nigella’s early books were ahead of their time in their vision and flavour combinations.

Nordic baked pancakes

Bit nippy isn’t it? In the last fortnight I think I’ve been outside maybe twice. Once to look at snowdrops…

Snowdrops are peeping in the garden. I planted these in the green last spring so hopefully now they’ll start to spread and establish.

…and the other because Matt wanted to watch the Stourbridge Stagger 10k running race.

This picture gives no indication of how painfully cold it was in Stourbridge yesterday.

The rest of the time I’ve been finding indoor pursuits, including finally planting the broad beans that I meant to sow back in November, and lots and lots of cooking.

Harry planted his first seeds last week – broad bean Aquadulce Claudia

There’s been braised ox cheeks with ancho, a massive chocolate meringue cake, spicy lamb kebabs, tzatziki with flat breads and the first – glorious – rhubarb bellini of the year. Actually, the first for three years, as in 2018 the booze made me feel too poorly and in 2017 I was pregnant. I spent a fortune on the precious pink stems and, for once, I don’t regret a penny of it.

Harry is a fan of tzatziki

First rhubarb bellini in three years!

I know there are some who give up booze and carbs and dairy and joy for January, but I think you need to find whatever sustenance you can to get through these icy-cold days. This recipe for Norwegian baked pancakes is just the ticket. This baked pancake has a greater proportion of egg and milk to flour than our normal pancakes and so it cooks into something more like a custard than a pancake.

Norwegian baked pancake

Bakes to a rich dense custardy mass

I found the recipe in the Nordic Baking Book, which is a dense encyclopaedia of all things to do with Scandi baking. The author, Magnus Nilsson, is EXTREMELY particular about the way things are done (and quite rightly too as this is meant to be a documentary book). However at home we can have more leeway. If you prefer a more cakey pancake, just add a few more spoonfuls of flour. The original has no sugar in it – though you could add some if you like – making it an ideal accompaniment to morning bacon or maple syrup and berries. It will happily keep in the fridge for a few days after baking.

Thick Norwegian oven-baked Pancake – Tjockpankaken
From The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson

25g unsalted butter
125g plain flour
2 eggs
pinch of salt
500ml milk

Preheat the oven to 220c. Place a baking dish large enough to hold your mixture into the oven to warm – I used a 8inch round pie dish. Add the butter to the dish and return to the oven to melt.

Combine the flour, eggs, salt and half the milk in a bowl and whisk until no lumps remain. Add the rest of the milk. (This bit is just the same as for making Yorkshire Puddings).

Swirl the melted butter around your dish to coat. Add the batter and return to the oven to bake. Cook for 30 minutes until dark golden and completely set. Leave to stand for 5 minutes before serving.

 

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Beef cheeks braised with ancho and tomato, golden wholemeal soda bread, golden oat and raisin cookies, rabbit braised with root veg and pearl barley, chocolate dacquoise, chocolate meringue cake, rhubarb bellinis. Harry’s first trip to Original Patty Men.

Reading: Becoming by Michelle Obama – from the library rather than giving Amazon any more ££.

Also: Just trying to keep warm.

Jean’s apple plate pie

Matt comes from a family of home-bakers. I’ve written before about how Granny used to make hundreds and hundreds of mince pies at Christmas, selling them to friends and neighbours. Her skills extended to apple pie too – the apple trees in their garden (presumably planted by Grampy) produced a massive crop and so Granny would turn the windfalls into foil-wrapped bakes that she supplied to her loyal following of customers.

Granny and Grampy’s house – note the apple trees and rows of chrysanthemums at the back

Matt’s family playing next to those amazing apple trees. Granny is wearing the blue cardigan.

Granny passed away in 2017, and her house and the apple trees are now sold, but her apple legacy lives on. Matt’s Mum, Jean, carries on the tradition with her perfect, melt-in-the-mouth apple plate pie. She made one at Christmas which Harry practically inhaled, it was so good, and I couldn’t help but compare this masterclass of good, old-fashioned pastry work with my rather clunky attempts. Plate pies are uncommon now, with restaurants and bakeries seeming to prefer the deep-dish American-style pie. If I make an apple pie it’s always deep, and the all-butter pastry that I make is tasty but prone to shrinking and can easily teeter over the edge to toughness. Jean’s pastry (and my Mum’s, come to that), remains crumbly and light. “What’s the secret?”, I asked.

Jean’s perfect pie

Jean replied: “The answer is lard. And margarine.” Marg! I can not remember the last time I had a block of margarine in my fridge. But then I recalled that at school, I was taught to make shortcrust with the combination of lard and margarine, NEVER butter. I had to think that the older generation of bakers may be onto something. And so, in the spirit of honouring the wisdom of our fore-mothers, I decided to have a go at making the famous Apple Plate Pie.

Jean explained that she used the ratio of half-fat to flour in her pastry, and that the fat is 50% lard and 50% Stork. So for one pie, she would use 12oz of flour, 3oz lard and 3oz Stork. In modern language that’s 300g flour, 75g lard and 75g Stork. Incidentally she also texted that I should use self-raising flour, which I instantly forgot, so I used plain. Simply whizz the flour with the cold fat in a food processor until thoroughly combined. This step is important – I have always rubbed fat into flour using my fingers in some mis-guided attempt at authenticity, but it leads to uneven lumps of fat that make for flaky, rather than short, pastry. The food processor gives a far superior result.

Blitz plain flour with Stork margarine and lard, using the food processor

Jean never uses the food processor to mix the water, preferring to use the classic round-knife method. So turn the mixture out into a bowl, add a few tablespoons of cold water and cut in with a table knife. (If you’ve got one of those knives with the white, faux-ivory handle, so much the better.) Once the mixture looks claggy then use your hands to bring it to a dough. It comes together in seconds. Give the pastry a very subtle knead to ensure everything is combined, then flatten out and put to one side. Jean usually uses her pastry straight away but I prefer to chill mine while I make the filling.

Cut cold water in with a round-edged knife and mix to a dough, then flatten and chill

On to the filling. Bramley apples are the thing to use – although one of mine was rotten inside so I substituted a few Braeburns, which turned out just fine. Peel, core and then slice the apples into chunky slices – if you want a smoother filling, like Granny used to, just slice the apples more finely. Two big bramleys should be sufficient for one pie, or 1 bramley and 2 smaller eating apples.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling – chop a few bramley apples to coarse slices

Pile the fruit into a pan with a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon or two of water, then cook over a low heat until pulpy. Give it a taste and if it needs more sugar, add it now.

Cook the apples with sugar and water until pulpy

Remove the apples from the heat and chill for half an hour or so, until cool. I’ve learnt from previous disasters to never put hot fruit on cold pastry so trust me on this one – apples in the fridge. My apples cooked down into a dry-ish pulp but if they turn out very wet, use a slotted spoon to remove the bulk of the fruit from the water.

Chill the finished apple filling

Now we make the pie. Pre-heat the oven to 180c and find yourself an ovenproof plate, about 20cm/8inches in diameter. I use a pleasingly retro white enamel one. There’s no need to grease the plate. Slice the pastry in half, then roll out the first half into a circle large enough to cover your plate. Lay it on the plate and lightly mould down the sides and edges.

Roll out the pastry to cover the base of an 8-inch oven-proof plate

Spread the apple filling on top. Don’t over fill here – any leftover fruit can be used for something else. Keep the fruit level with the sides of the plate, no higher.

Spread your chilled filling on top

Roll out the remaining pastry and place on top. Use your thumbs to press the pastry edges together, then use a sharp knife to trim the edges. Finally, slit a small hole in the centre to allow the steam to escape. Neither Jean nor Granny ever glaze their pie, so I didn’t either.

Cover with remaining pastry, seal and cut a steam vent in the middle

Bake at 180c for about 40 minutes until golden and obviously cooked through. When done remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle with caster sugar, then leave to cool slightly. Any leftover pastry can be used to make tarts, turnovers, cheese straws, cinnamon straws….whatever you fancy.

Bake at 180c for about 40 minutes or until golden, then dust with caster sugar. Use any leftover pastry for tarts or pasties! (Apologies for bad light…the finished pie was not ready until night-time)

The verdict? Excellent attempt! This is the best pastry I’ve made in years. I’m not saying it’s up there with Granny or Jean’s version, but I’m pleased with my efforts. It’s very important to me to take a family tradition and introduce it to my son, even if I’m not a Foster. My mum also makes plate pies though hers tend to have redcurrants in them – for me, this simple, comforting pudding is the taste of Sundays, Desert Island Discs and Antiques Roadshow. Food is such an important part of how families, and memories, are made.

Apple Plate Pie

Makes 1 20cm / 8inch pie

300g plain flour
75g lard
75g margarine (I use Stork)
cold water
2 large bramley apples or 1 bramley and 2 eating apples such as braeburn
caster sugar

To make the pastry, blitz the flour, lard and margarine in a food processor until thoroughly combined. Tip into a bowl. Add a few tablespoons of cold water and draw together with a blunt-edged knife until claggy – add more water as required. Bring the mixture together with your hands. Knead lightly to combine then press into a disk, wrap and refrigerate.

To make the filling, peel, core and slice the apples into thin slices. Tip into a pan with 2 tablespoons of water and 1 tablespoon sugar. Cook on a medium heat until pulpy. Taste and add more sugar if required. Chill for at least 30 minutes, until cool.

Preheat the oven to 180c and have ready your oven-proof plate. Roll out half the pastry and use to line the base of the plate. Spread the filling on top, until level with the sides of the plate. Roll out remaining pastry and place on top, sealing the edges with your fingers. Trip the edges with a sharp knife. Cut a vent hole in the top. (Use any remaining pastry to make tarts, cheese straws etc).

Bake for 40 minutes until golden. Sprinkle with caster sugar when hot. Serve hot or warm with cream, custard or ice cream.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Pheasant braised in spiced orange juice, baked sausage ragu pasta, beef bourguignon pie, go-to chocolate muffins.

Reading: The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson, Today We Die A Little – the biography of Emile Zatopeck by Richard Askwith, a re-reading of The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard for some Cazalet family escapism.

Also: Back to work properly after the pre-Christmas lull. Ordering this year’s cut flower and veg seeds. Using the NHS for my continued hand, foot & mouth issue and Matt’s dodgy chest.

Frugality Challenge finale

How did the remainder of the Frugality Challenge work out? Well, it still worked out pretty expensive, but that’s December for you (as well as all the Christmas food, gifts and socialising, there’s the car MOT, road tax and TV licence to contend with).

By the end of the month I’d spent £339 on groceries – most of this was on Christmas goodies – but I have no doubt that the bills will shoot WAAAY down now that we’re into the proper austere winter months.

Being mindful of one’s spending habits can become addictive, and of course peering over one’s shoulder to see how other people organise their finances is an ageless joy that never tires. Over Christmas I enjoyed this article in The Guardian about a Millennial’s spending habits, which sums up accurately what it is to be a young working woman in the city (i.e. spendy), but was saddened to read about the backlash that the writer faced for daring to have a social life at the age of 28.

Give her ten years and she’ll be spending her evenings working out how to make the most of her leftovers, just like the rest of us. (Incidentally, the joy of Christmas for me lies in leftover creativity. This year the pork stuffing was simmered into a magnificent fennel-scented ragu, and leftover goose was baked with saffron, onions and rice to make a delicious biryani).

Will the frugality challenge continue into 2019? Elements of it will, certainly. I don’t think of it as being ‘frugal’ or ‘austere’ though, I just think of it as being sensible. Why waste your cash on stuff you don’t need, with all the environmental and social problems that that brings? We’re better off saving it for lovely long family days in Cornwall come the spring.

Normal Veg Patch service will resume next week.

Sticky toffee pudding with quince

The frugality challenge has been true to its name this week – a challenge. On Day 8 I took a trip to London and was reminded how, when you set one single foot out into the capital, money is hoovered out of your wallet. Consumerism rules for urbanites, from morning coffee to the after-work pick-me-up. Take as evidence this decorative bunch of sticks – literally a bunch of sticks – for sale in Regent St for the princely sum of £40.

£40 for some twigs. Christmas madness folks!

By day 10 I needed to do a proper shop. I did an Ocado order for the big/heavy stuff, like cat food and tins of tomatoes (£71, pretty normal), and then headed to Aldi for milk, butter, wipes and nappies, and to the local Halal shop for bananas and herbs. Altogether the ‘top up shop’ came to £25, which seemed alot, and I reflected that there was nothing profligate in this shopping bag; it’s not like I was filling up with Taitinger. Life has become expensive now we’re three, even when you shop at Aldi. I offset my grumpiness by making my own Christmas wreath, using ivy from the garden.

Wreath using ivy from the garden

The shopping highlight of the week was a trip to a local nursery for a potted Christmas tree, where I also stocked up on some potted daffodils, hyacinths and veg. £10 buys us loads and reminds me that independent rural food shopping is the best there is.

Total for the week: £144.50. It’s less than normal and we’re still eating really well but I see that mindful shopping is making me mardy about consumerism.

Let’s cheer things up with some good December comfort eating. Earlier in the week I made my lamb with quince recipe, using those quince that I bought from the Halal shop a few weeks back. I used the leftover fruit as a base for a sticky toffee pudding, giving a lovely bit of fruity interest amidst the dense sweetness of sponge and toffee sauce. If quince are not to hand, which is most of the time, this would also work with firm apples or pears. This recipe is a total keeper.

Sticky Toffee Pudding with quince
Serves about 8

First, find yourself a few quince. Poach them in simmering water until softened (about 15 minutes), drain, then allow to cool. Core and cut the fruit into wedges.

Slice some cooked quince into chunky wedges

Next make a simple caramel sauce. In a small saucepan, melt together 115g unsalted butter, 75g caster sugar, 40g dark muscavado sugar and 140ml double cream. Bring the lot to a simmer and reduce until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat to cool slightly. Preheat the oven to 180c.

Bubble together your caramel sauce

Find yourself an ovenproof baking dish (I use a lasagne dish) and butter it well. Pour in a drizzle of caramel sauce, lay the quince on top, then drizzle more sauce on top (leave some sauce back to serve with your pudding). Then put the dish in the fridge to firm up whilst you make your sponge.

Layer up sauce and quince in a buttered dish

For the sponge, take 100g stoned dates, chop them roughly, then place in a bowl with 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda and 275ml boiling water. In a separate bowl, beat together 50g unsalted butter with 80g caster sugar and 80g dark muscovado sugar. In yet another bowl, measure 175g flour with 1tsp baking powder1/2 tsp cinnamon and a small pinch of salt. Alternatively beat 2 eggs and the flour into the sugar-butter mixture. Stir in the dates and their water. Mix well.

Make your cake batter – it’s a wet one

Pour the sponge mixture on top of the sliced quince, then bake for about 40 minutes until firm and risen. Serve warm with the remaining toffee sauce and ice-cream. I prefer Mackay’s plain but you could go for vanilla.

Bake the lot together until risen and burnished. Serve with extra sauce and plain ice cream.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Amazing Danish pastries from Ole & Steen in Marylebone, doughnuts from St John’s in Covent Garden, lamb with quince, Tune’s egg curry with roasted cauliflower and roti, homemade mince pies, tons of stollen and panettone, the first brandy cream of the season.

Reading: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, which has the best food writing I have ever read. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get around to reading this classic.

Sprout Linguine

In light of the Brexit debacle, I have abandoned Radio 4 for the safety of Classic FM. Listen to the Today programme and you run the risk – as happened this morning – of waking up to the phrase “How will you fare in the post-Brexit world”? Well there’s only so much trauma I can take first thing in the morning, so over to The Home of Christmas Music it is. Though even there it’s not 100% safe, as there is the occasional horror of a classical guitar rendition of Hallelujah.

Actually, listening to a big of Grieg whilst Harry yells with excitement at spotting the squirrels outside is pretty fun. I’ve also taken delivery of a few new books to lift the spirits; the theme of this one fits in nicely with the Frugality Challenge.

How’s the Frugality Challenge been faring? Pretty well actually. Here’s Notes from Week 1:

Day 1: I concoct a sprout linguine for dinner. Matt says that this will confuse the clean eaters for they will think “how the f*** do I spiralise a sprout”? Recipe below. Money spent: £0

Day 2: Today is Harry’s swimming day. He fell off his frog float and went head-first into the pool; I fished him out immediately but he was inconsolable for ages. (I deserve so many gold stars for persevering with swimming). We spent the afternoon cooking, using things from the freezer and storecupboards: smoked mackerel pate; oxtail braised with ancho chili, cinnamon and star anise; spiced carrot cake with lemon icing and baked pumpkin to use up the 39p one I bought from Aldi for halloween. Money spent: £3 on bread from Peel & Stone.

Preparing the oxtail for its 5-hour braise

Day 3: Half fail, half win. We went out for lunch but Matt paid so that doesn’t count. Then I consider what to have for dinner. What I really want is Indian…..so Harry and I head to Waitrose. I resist the allure of the puddings and croissants but I do get some curries, knowing that if I could be arsed I could make them from scratch. Also get a chicken for the weekend, thinking that leftovers will last for days. Money spent: £19

Days 4&5: A weekend of friends and family. Also a trip to the German Market (hideous) offset by a visit to Eastside Projects (sublime). Money spent: £0

Current exhibition at Eastside Projects, Digbeth

Day 6: Monday morning is the only sensible time to risk Christmas shopping. The shops are empty and there is car parking; any other time is madness. I head to the new massive Sainsbury’s in Selly Oak and reflect that the bigger the shop, the least likely I am to spend money there (I can’t be the only person who finds supermarkets totally exhausting). Other people have laden trollies but I leave with just eggs and satsumas. The afternoon is spent at my desk. Money spent (not counting Christmas presents): £4

Day 7: A trip to Lidl for some Christmas items. Panettone, stollen and chocolate biscuits – the German discounters do them better than anyone. Money spent: £16.05

Grand total for week 1: £42.05 A big improvement, and we’ve still eaten really well, but could do better.

Today’s recipe is for Sprout linguine, which you’d be forgiven for thinking is a form of torture but is actually (genuinely) one of my favourite pasta dishes. It’s seasonal and comforting, creamy and garlicky.

Cook some linguine in the normal way. Whilst it’s cooking, shred a handful of sprouts and sweat over a medium heat in olive oil or butter for two or three minutes until softened; don’t let them burn. You could toss in some sliced watercress or other peppery-leaves at this point. Add some crushed garlic to the pan with a squeeze of lemon juice, a glug of cream and a grating of parmesan. Season.

When the pasta is done, drain and add to the pan with a dash of cooking liquor. Cook and toss for a minute or two more, so the sauce and pasta become one. Serve immediately, ideally under a blanket in front of the fire.

The Frugality Challenge

I am setting myself a frugality challenge for December: can I cook and eat well through the month without buying loads of new stuff? My grocery spend has crept up this year and I’m horrified to work out that since the summer, an average of £331 a month goes on trips to Waitrose, Aldi, farm shops and butchers. This does include things like nappies, cat food, washing liquid and so on but it’s still higher than it needs to be.

Living in a city encourages the spending of cash so much more than a rural existence. The message of BUY BUY DO MORE ACHIEVE MORE BUY BUY BUY is ubiquitous and it patterns our daily behaviour. The iPhone is full of messages to buy, I receive loads and loads of marketing emails daily wanting me to buy, the buses that trundle down my road carry adverts that I can see from my living room telling me to buy. When I’m getting cabin fever, it’s easy to drive to the supermarket in order to get out of the house and before I know it, that’s another £30 gone. (Note: this is a genuine thing. A friend who shall remain nameless spent thousands in her local supermarket when her two children were tiny.)

I am not a bad housekeeper – I cook from scratch most days, batch cook for the freezer, buy certain things in bulk and I prefer to make breads, stews and cakes for Harry rather than buying ready-made. I don’t buy much booze since pregnancy buggered up my liver. We don’t eat out much. I grow fruit and veg and flowers. I don’t like fast fashion. We’ve not been abroad for nearly two years. I rarely use a credit card and there’s no debt.

But the truth is that we need to rein it in. Here are some simple truths about parenthood, freelancing and finances:

  1. We are not entitled to the same amount of maternity pay as people on PAYE (despite the fact we work as hard if not harder)
  2. Self-employed men have no right at all to paid paternity leave
  3. There’s a gap of 27 months from when maternity pay ends to when free child nursery places start. During that time, we earn significantly less (because we’re looking after the babies) but our expenses go up (because babies cost money)*.
  4. Even if your babies are in nursery or at school, regular working hours just don’t fit with nursery or school hours. Something has to give and it’s usually the mother’s career – and therefore earnings – that is sacrificed**.

Obviously paying the mortgage is the priority and it’s the peripheries that need to be cut down. I relish this challenge – I love a bit of frugality and a sticking two fingers up to consumer culture. I was going to write that December is a crap time to do the Frugality Challenge but actually, perhaps this is the BEST time to do it. A Christmas that isn’t tainted by buying loads of tat and then being stressed by all the spending?  YES PLEASE.

The Frugality Challenge rules:

  1. Daily to ask, do I really need to buy this new thing or can I make up a great dish with something already in the fridge, freezer or cupboards?
  2. We’re still cooking proper food, not relying on cheap ready meals
  3. When I do buy I’m buying well – to paraphrase the Brexit nonsense, no bread is better than bad bread
  4. Rule 1 is repeated for all Christmas purchases – do I really need/want it or can I do better by thinking creatively?

So it begins.

Home-made Christmas pudding (though I would have made these anyway). A reminder to grow my own leaves instead of buying bags of rocket and watercress. A trip outside with the secateurs to bring the outside inside, instead of relying on hot-housed cut flowers from the shops. The frugal option so much nicer than the shop-bought.

Stir-up Sunday resulted in two puds – we’ll have one and Helen Annetts will have the other

Those bags of salad are rubbish so let’s get on with sowing windowsill leaves

Cut flowers are out, aromatic viburnum from the garden is in

Also this week:

Allotment: Matt tried and failed to have a bonfire, the pile having got too damp. Still harvesting cavolo nero and chard.
Cooking and Eating: Potato and savoy cabbage curry with daal, sprout linguine, soda bread (Harry’s new favourite), Tuscan bean soup.
Life: Headed out to Woolhope (Herefordshire) for a visit to their brilliant pub and to get some country air. Everyone’s had a stomach upset so there’s been a few 3am baby-sick calamities (days lived on 5 hours sleep are hideous). Planning and plotting a new product line for Plane Structure.

 

*This is the time when many people face genuine financial issues. I am deeply thankful that I was able to put savings aside before I got pregnant but still, I worry about money. Spare a thought for all those who are not as fortunate.

**Yes this makes me angry. It’s not the Dads’ fault though.  Working practices in the UK simply do not support the parents of young children, both men and women. I think Matt and I are actually two of the lucky ones as at least we can work flexibly.

Dutch appeltaart (work in progress)

There have been a few ventures out into the damp November countryside this week. Thinking ahead, I’ve caught my Christmas goose early to take advantage of early-bird (excuse the pun) prices. Mrs Goodman breeds the best free-range Christmas poultry, and if you collect direct from her Great Witley farm then you save ££. I forget how glorious the countryside is around this part of Worcestershire; even on a dim, damp late-autumn morning it was beautiful.

Fields in Great Witley on a damp November morning

Goodman’s Geese, home of the best Christmas poultry

This year’s goose is a little larger than anticipated…

Then Saturday took us to Baddesley Clinton, for some lunch and fresh air after a photoshoot in Coventry. The National Trust have reconfigured the vegetable garden there and I now have envy for straight edging, compacted gravel paths and lean-to greenhouses.

Matt inspects the glass house at Baddesley Clinton

To today’s recipe. I’ve only been to the Netherlands twice, but both times I’ve been blown away by the brilliance of appeltaart, or Dutch apple pie. This one I had at Amsterdam’s Rijks Museum – I know I should be more interested in the art at this great establishment but pffff, baking wins every time. Appeltaart is a deep dish apple pie with a buttery biscuit-like crust, filled with apple slices or chunks that cook together with sugar and spice to make a creamy-yet-textured filling. Appeltaart is always served in generous wedges, cold or at room temperature, with a dollop of whipped cream (slagroom, in Dutch). It’s earth shatteringly good and a thing of beauty.

The best apple pie, at Amsterdam’s Rijks Museum

I have wanted to have a go at making one for some time, but felt daunted at the challenge. All the recipes that I could find are either in Dutch (my languages aren’t great) or American, which requires translation from their mad cups measurement system into grams or ounces. Plus any baking this beautiful MUST be really hard…there was the certainty that I’d mess it up somehow. Then I found this brilliant blog post by a Canadian food writer with a step-by-step method to making appeltaart and I thought actually, perhaps I need to woman up and give it a go. I have translated Food Nouveu’s cup measurements into grams, and also reduced the quantity as I could not face eating apple pie for the next two months. The resulting recipe is good but still needs tweaking – let’s call it a work in progress.

Appeltaart is made with a crust that you press into the tin with your fingers, which is actually loads easier than rolling out shortcrust. In a food processor, pulse together butter, brown sugar, salt, eggs and flour until the mixture looks like play dough, then leave it to firm up in the fridge for half an hour or so.

Pulse the pastry ingredients in the food processor until they look like play dough

Then press the dough into your pie dish with your fingers. You need to make it even all the way around – it may help to wet your fingers so that they don’t stick to the dough. I used a pie dish with a removable base but a spring-form cake-tin would also work well.

Press the dough into a loose-bottomed pie dish with your fingers, trying to keep the crust even (more even than I did)

The filling is simple enough. Apples, obviously. You need to choose your fruit wisely, with a mixture of acidic cookers and firm eaters so that when they cook you get both softness and  texture. I used a mixture of bramleys and anonymous eating apples. Chop or slice them up and mix with orange zest, lemon zest, lemon juice, brown sugar, mixed spice (or cinnamon and ginger), cornflour, raisins and a slug of brandy.

Chop apples and mix with the citrus zest, juice, cornflour, sugar and spices

Pile the fruit into your crust evenly, then top with any remaining dough. I made my crust too thick so had very little dough left to make a topping, but if you have more you could make a lattice or even a full pie-top.

Pile the apples into the dish and dot with any remaining pastry, then bake

The appeltaart is baked for what feels like an eternity (about 1 1/4 hours) and then left to cool completely before serving with whipped cream. I kept forgetting to photograph the final result, hence this awful picture of the final slice of tart! The flavours were great but the execution needs work – I think I need a pie dish with a smaller diameter to make for a deeper pie, then I can go thinner on the crust. I might also be tempted to slice rather than dice the apples, so they cook more evenly. But that aside: this is a great apple pie and a useful recipe to have up one’s sleeve for when a trip to Amsterdam is impossible.

Mine is nowhere near as beautiful as the Rijks Museum version, but a valiant first effort

Appeltaart (work in progress)
Adapted from the Food Nouveu blog

Note: Allow several hours of cooling time before you can dish up your cooked pie. You need a 6 or 7inch springform tin or one with a removable bottom. (If you go larger you will need to increase the quantity of pastry and filling.)

For the pastry:
170g unsalted butter
20g light soft brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
280g plain flour
pinch of salt

For the filling:
1 large or 2 small bramley apples
4 small or 3 large eating apples
zest of half an orange
zest of half a lemon
juice of half a lemon
25g brown sugar
1 level teaspoon mixed spice, or use a mixture of cinnamon and ground ginger
1 tsp cornflour
1 tblsp brandy or apple juice
Small handful of raisins

First make the crust. In a food processor, pulse the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the egg and the flour in batches, scraping down the sides to make sure everything is combined. Add the salt and pulse again. The dough will first come together in a scraggy way but eventually becomes smooth and firm, like play dough. Transfer to a bowl and chill whilst you make your filling.

Make the filling: Slice or dice the apples and mix together with the citrus zest, juice, sugar, spice, cornflour, brandy and raisins.

Make the pie: Pre-heat the oven to 190c. Grease your tin well (you can choose to line the base with baking parchment if you prefer). Press about half of the crust mixture into the base of the tin, keeping it as even as possible. It may help to dampen your fingers for this. Then take lumps of the remaining dough to line the edges of the tin, ensuring there are no gaps or holes anywhere. Pile the apples into the dish, then dot any remaining crust mixture onto the apple surface.

Place the tin onto a baking sheet to catch any juices that leak out, then bake at 190c for 30 minutes. Turn the oven down to 170c and continue to bake until the apples are soft and the crust is crisp – about 1 1/4 hours cooking in total but it may be longer. You may need to cover the tart with foil to prevent the pastry from burning.

Cool for several hours before slicing – you can turn it out onto a wire rack but I kept mine in the tin. Serve in generous wedges with whipped cream. Keep any leftovers in the fridge.