Sowing the HAs and HHAs

We have three seasons in one weekend, as spring becomes summer becomes winter and then back to spring. March and April are so elemental – any hint of new life is pounced upon with rejoicing (a bee! bud break! bird song!) but the wise know that winter’s cold fingers still have stretch in them. Last week we had sunshine and ice creams, but today there is snow. Still, with Easter, I can feel the sap rising.

Daffodils at Wightwick Manor
Easter baking

It’s a slow start to the spring produce season, perhaps due to lockdown, or maybe it’s Brexit. There is purple sprouting if you know where to look, and very early English strawberries, but the tomatoes are still rubbish (I’d hope for some decent European ones by now). My annual early April pilgrimage to asparagus country – Evesham – did pay dividends however, and as usual, the clutch of suggestive green stems set me back a small fortune.

The annual early April asparagus hunt came up trumps

I’ve spent the last month or so getting back into the horticultural swing of things. Not on the allotment – still too cold – but rather in my ‘potting shed’, the sun room at the back of our house. Over the four springs we have been here I have learnt to refine my system to make the most efficient use of space, heat and light. Instead of sowing everything at once I now move slowly, gradually, starting with the hardiest varieties and responding to what the temperamental spring throws at us.

When I first started the allotment the phrases ‘HA’ and ‘HHA’ on seed packets were just another thing to ignore, but having lost too many French beans to a surprise late frost on our exposed plot, I have finally learnt to pay attention. So I start the sowing season with the toughies such as broad beans and peas, and when they are ready to go into the cold-frame, I start the half-hardies off inside. Then when the hardy baby plants in the cold frame are ready to be planted out, the half-hardy seedlings goes under glass and we sow again with the real softies. And on it goes. At least – that is the plan.

No room for any more seed trays now, hence the new system of timed sowings

Over time I have narrowed down the number of veg I sow, keeping it to the types I can either successfully grow, that we will actually eat or I would feel emotionally bereft without. In contrast the list of flowers for cutting expands and expands. They are a true joy of life that I can no longer do without, and growing them answers my need for nurture, colour, creativity, groundedness, wonder – not to mention the myriad affordability and sustainability issues associated with bought cut flowers. The allotment sowing timetable could, then, be called the Cutting Patch timetable. Which come to think of it means I need to rename the blog too – Notes from the Cutting Patch perhaps. In the meantime, here’s this sowing year’s plan:

The 2021 allotment sowing timetable:

March: Hardy veg and cut-flowers, including sweetpeas, cornflowers, broad beans, peas, kales & chard (plus tomatoes which stay under glass). Once germinated I can put these in the cold frame to make room for….

Early to mid April: Half-hardy annuals, including cosmos, strawflower, zinnia, amaranthus, ammi, cleome, plus courgette. I find that if I start them sooner they get all leggy in the fruitless search for light. I’ll also plant out the first lot of broad beans and peas at this time, which frees up pots for a repeat sowing. Once established the seedlings will go into the coldframe which then creates room for…

Late April to May: Sunflowers, climbing and dwarf beans, cabbages, squash, kohl rabi – the sunlovers and slow-growers, for later summer and autumn pickings. Also the biennials, such as sweet william, sweet rocket and honesty, which will be planted out in the autumn ready for early flowers next spring.

It’s a relief to not start everything at once, like giving oneself permission to take a day off. And in the meantime, there are other projects that are taking up my energies, such as finally sorting out the very back bed of our west-facing garden. Over Easter some bedraggled shrubs were removed, and there’s some remedial work to be done to the fence and retaining wall before I get on with planting. It’s a shady patch, and I’m drawn to the ideas of ever-green ferns and jurassic plants that can be fuel to a young pre-schooler’s dinosaur-loving imagination. Watch this space.

The next project, sorting out the unloved back bed

Also this week:
Sowing and planting: Hardy and half-hardy annuals, as outlined above. Replanted the herbery with new hyssop, mint, thyme, chervil and oregano. Currently planting up summer pots for front and back garden. There are broad beans and peas ready for planting out but the snowy weather will delay matters for a week or so. Garden is filled with narcissus and tulips on the tip of opening, and the forsythia is a golden joy.
Harvesting: Mustard, lettuce and rocket from the veg trug. Not much else.
Cooking and eating: First asparagus of the year, costing a king’s ransom, though purple sprouting is cheap as chips now. Easter biscuits, Easter chocolate cake and hot cross buns, obviously. Lamb kebabs with flatbreads. First bottle of rose wine of the year.
Reading: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, and I see for the first time how similar the life captured in this book (1920s rural Cotswolds) is to that of the 1950s Mediterranean peasantry that Patience Gray describes in Honey from a Weed. We’re all the same people, albeit divided by 20 degree celsius.

Chelsea buns

When the world shut down, a year ago this week, I remember going into a retreat of my own making. Home and garden became a sanctuary; I avoided news and social media in an act of self-preservation and focused instead on sowing seeds, being with my family, finding stillness and contentment in the unfolding wonder of spring. Twelve months on I find myself having to do the same thing. Recent events are so deeply distressing, I feel raw. And angry. So do many of my friends.

I do what I can to have a positive impact on the world, both in my professional work and my personal life (for goodness sakes I have even been moved to join the Women’s Equality Party this week), but sometimes it can feel immovable. So this poem, by the writer and thinker L. R. Knost, feels appropriate:

Do not be hardened by the pain and cruelty of this world
Be strong enough to be gentle
To be soft and supple like running water
Gracefully bending around sudden turns
Lithely waving in strong winds
Freely flowing over sharp rocks
All the while quietly sculpting this hard world
Into ever deeper beauty
Gently eroding ridged rock into silken sound
Tenderly transforming human cruelty into human kindness
Remember true strength is found not in the stone 
But in the water that shapes the stone

Meanwhile there is slow progress with the seeds. The sweet peas and broad beans are shoving up their lime green shoots, and I have started sowing the hardy annuals – cornflower, toadflax, honeywort – and a few bush-type tomatoes for the veg trug. It’s all slow and steady, which suits the current mood. I am told by friends in Worcestershire that the blossom there is not only out but almost going over, whilst here, an hour north, the trees are bare. We still wait for daffodils in shady areas. A late spring can feel both a hindrance and a blessing – for although the long winter is hard, when the warmth finally arrives, its presence is doubly appreciated. I distract myself with line drawings of this year’s allotment plan, good intentions of blocks and rows that will inevitably become a jumble when we actually come to plant in May.

The first very rough planting plan for 2021

Onto buns. I was going to write that Lockdown has seen our household become mad about buns but actually, I don’t think the pandemic has anything to do with it….yeasted dough has been a slight obsession since youth. Every few weeks I will make a batch of something or other, Harry and I will snaffle a few, then the rest get bagged in the freezer ready for another day. Once frozen, individual buns can be put straight into our rickety counter-top oven at 150c for a few minutes until they are hot and crisp. Cinnamon buns are my usual, but they can also be simple round fruited buns, Scandi-type twists, apple buns…really I am not fussy.

I first attempted Chelsea buns years ago, only to experience crashing disappointment when they emerged from the oven as solid as rocks. This time around, encouraged by the wonderful fellow bun-obsessive writer Regula Ysewijn, I have success. But there are things to mention.

First, over the years I have realised that the judging criteria of a home-made bun has to be different from the shop bought ones: mine will inevitably be wonkier, stickier and probably a bit heavier (no steam injection ovens in these parts). No matter.

Second, I use the Bertinet method of mixing, working and proving dough. It’s not my place to repeat it all here, but you can look it up at www.thebertinetkitchen.com. In short, the dough begins far wetter than you think it should be. Work it by hand in the right way, and the mess miraculously transforms into dough as pert as a baby’s bottom. I suppose you could use a mixer, but I don’t have one, and in any case I actively enjoy the tactile squelchiness of getting my fingers into dough. Remember to remove any nail varnish first, though, as it will inevitably be ripped off by the dough, which is stickier than a swamp to begin with.

Thirdly, Chelsea buns should never (in my view) be messed about with. There has been a tradition of making Chelsea buns in this country since at least 1711, and as such this is no place for yuzu or chocolate or chilli any of that kind of thing. I want a classic Chelsea of the kind that I sold in Cooks Bakery in the 1990s: they should be square, tightly coiled, studded with more fruit than is perhaps wise, crunchy on top and soft beneath. The trick is to roll the dough as thinly as you can manage, and to ensure the filling is very soft before attempting to spread it on your dough. Finally, be sure to use the correct size tin so that the buns squash together as they rise.

Chelsea buns rolled and proving
Baked, golden and burnished, but also wonky. Such is life.

Chelsea buns
Adapted from Oats in the North Wheat from the South by Regula Ysewijn

Makes 12 buns, using a 39x27cm tin

For the buns:
500g strong white flour
5g fine salt
15g dried yeast
60g caster sugar
300ml milk
70g unsalted butter
1 egg

For the filling:
225g unsalted butter, very soft
145g caster sugar
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
175g currants or raisins

For the sugar syrup:
30g granulated sugar
3 tbsp water
caster sugar, for sprinkling

For the buns, gently warm the butter with the milk until it is melted. Cool a little – it should feel simply wet when you touch it, not hot or cold. Place the salt in the bottom of a large bowl, then put the flour and sugar on top, then yeast in last. Stir to combine using a plastic scraper. Whisk the egg into the milk, add to the flour, then combine using your scraper to a sticky mess. Tip the lot onto a work surface, then work with your hands until it comes together into a springy, worked dough – about 5 to 10 minutes. Do not add extra flour. This video explains the Bertinet technique of working dough. When it is ready, put the dough back into a bowl, cover with a tea towel, then leave to prove in a warm place for at least one hour, until puffed and roughly doubled in size.

In the meantime, prepare the filling by mixing together the butter, sugar and cinnamon until it is very soft and whipped.

When the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 200c and line a roasting tray or baking tin with greaseproof paper.

When the dough is ready, lightly flour your work surface. Gently encourage the dough out of its bowl, and ease it out onto the surface using your finger tips. Do not punch it; treat it firmly but gently. Roll out the dough to a rectangle that is about 2mm thick – basically, as thin as possible. It should be facing you horizontally, with the long edge facing you.

Smear the top half of the dough with a third of the filling, then fold the bottom half over the filling. Roll it again to flatten it out.

Smear the remaining filling over the dough, dot with the dried fruit, then roll up lengthways to make a long roll. Ease and firm it together with your hands so that it is roughly the same size all the way along.

Cut evenly into 12 slices, then place cut-size up in your tray. There should be a small space between each bun. Leave to prove for another 15 minutes or so.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown and fully cooked through.

Whilst the buns are baking, make a syrup by gently melting the sugar into the water then bubbling until this and sticky (do not stir else it will crystallise). When the buns are cooked, immediately brush with the syrup and sprinkle lightly with caster sugar.

Cool before eating. Best eaten on the day they are made, so freeze any leftovers then reheat in a warm oven before eating.

The joy is in ripping apart each sticky caramelised layer

Also this week:
Sowing: Starting the hardy annuals, so toadflax, honeywort, cerinthe, cornflowers, plus tomatoes.
Harvesting, cooking and eating: Last of the cavolo nero and pentland brig kale, salads from the veg trug. Cooking Viennese fingers; Italian sausage rolls spiked with chilli, fennel and oregano; egg fried rice with fat prawns bought in bulk from the Chinese supermarket.

The seed list, 2021

I’m still struggling to break through the chill factor. I see people walk past our window wearing cute little canvas trainers, cropped trousers, no socks, and I am staggered at their bravery. Do people just not feel the cold?! For whilst the days might be lengthening (there’s now a dim silvery light at our daily 6.25am wake-up, which is preferable to pitch black) the wind penetrates to the bone. After a trip to the park it takes a good thirty minutes to defrost. On Instagram I see people sowing their seeds, berating themselves for being late, but I think, hold on, slow it down, winter’s not through with us just yet.

In the kitchen, a few feta-stewn salads are making their way into the late winter/early spring repertoire, but for everyone of those I make there’s still at least three items of stodge. Chelsea buns, crisply caramelised around their swirly square tops, and rhubarb crumble cake are sustenance for the winter body and the Lockdown mind.

Chelsea buns
Rhubarb crumble cake

Meanwhile thoughts have turned to the garden and allotment. The buds on the hydrangea seem to fatten in time with the government’s promise of lockdown easing – we’re nearly there, nearly there, but not quite yet. Until the weather turns, we have to be patient. And instead, do some planning: What can fill that tricky area of dry shade at the back (I’m trying out some ferns)? What can we add to the front garden to make it look slightly more loved (answer, persicaria and erigeron daisies)? Have any of the perennials made it through? Already I see bronze fennel shoving its feathery fronds up through the mulch, and there’s hints of the nepeta returning, but of course it’s too early to say. I’m distracted by pictures of staggeringly expensive shallow bowls of muscari flogged by posh florists and buy up a pack of bulbs for a fiver, so that Harry and I can make our own.

Potting up muscari bulbs

One thing that I HAVE decided this March is that starting off annuals in October then over-wintering them is a total waste of effort and money. Last autumn I started broad beans, sweet peas, cosmos, delphinium, lace flower and ammi, leaving them in the cold frame or a window sill over the winter, and only the sweet peas have made it through. (To be fair to the broad beans, they would have been OK but the slugs got them.) The rest are a complete, abject failure. I think it was the lack of light in our overlooked terrace that got them, so until I have the glasshouse of my dreams, I won’t bother again.

The sum total of attempting to sow annuals in autumn. Lesson: don’t bother unless you have a light-filled greenhouse.

Yesterday we prepared the sun room for its spring-time temporary role as a propagation centre. Out went the bags of plaster and cement (hurray) and in came the dinky wobbly tables, the heat mat and the cobweb-matted pots and trays from the shed. I’ll hold off sowing most of my seeds for a few weeks yet but the broad beans and sweet peas should be OK if I begin a few trays now. It feels good to be starting again: to paraphrase Vita Sackville West, to plant something is an act of hope.

The sowing room is set up and ready for action

Planning is key. I prefer to sow undercover and then transplant to the allotment, but I am mindful that we’re seriously limited on space for pots and trays. As if to remind myself of what to do and when to do it, I’ve listed all the seeds that I have accumulated for this year’s planting, noting when they need to be started off, so that I can have some kind of sowing plan. Then at some point in the next week or so I’ll draw up a plan of where they will all be planted on the allotment. There’s lots of old stalwarts in here but also a few new additions for 2021: flower sprouts, a lovely ugly bumpy yellow courgette, toadflax, scabious and honeywort. For those who like such things I list the seed list for 2021 here:

Edibles                                 
Broad bean – Aquadulce
Basil – Bush
Basil – Thai
Lettuce – Alpine mix
Lettuce – Salad bowl
Lettuce – Oakleaf
Lettuce – Merveille de quatre saisons
Rocket – Apollo
Carrots – Touchon
Courgette – Rugosa Friulana
Courgette – Genovese
Kale – Pentland brig
Kale – Cavolo nero
Pea – Blauwschokker
Flower sprouts               
Tomato – Red cherry
Parsnip – Dugi Bijeli
Spinach -Perpetual
Watercress                      
Chard – bionda di lione
Chard – Bright lights
Borlotti – Lingua di Fuoco
Climbing french bean – Anna
Climbing french bean – Cosse violette
Climbing french bean – Cobra
Dwarf French bean – Rocquencourt
Dwarf French bean – Vanguard
Dwarf French bean – Tendercrop
Runner bean – Scarlet empire
Pumpkin – Jill be little
Squash – Hokkaido
Squash – Golden butternut
Chicory – Variagata di Castelfranco
Kohl rabi – Vienna blanco
Cabbage – Savoy
Plus already in the ground: Blueberry, raspberry, redcurrant, blackcurrant, strawberries, oregano, sage, rosemary.

Flowers for cutting                             
Sweet pea – Lady salisbury
Sweet pea – Mixed selection
Sweet pea – Elegant ladies
Sweet pea – Almost black
Dill                                    
Strawflower – Mixed
Strawflower – Salmon rose
Cornflower – Classic magic
Cornflower – Double blue
Cornflower – White
Cosmos – Dazzler
Cosmos – Purity
Cosmos – Velouette
Cosmos – Pied piper blush white
Amaranthus – Red army
Calendula – Nova
Calendula – Indian Prince 
Honeywort – Purpurascens
Scabiosa – Tall double mix
Toadflax – Licilia Violet
Delphinium – White king
Delphinium – Blue spire
Sunflower – Red sun
Sunflower – Oriental mix
Sunflower – Magic roundabout
Nigella – Persian jewels
Cleome – Colour fountain
Ammi visnaga – White
Zinnia – Early wonder
Digitalis – Suttons apricot
Sweet rocket                   
Verbena bonariensis    
Honesty                            
Echinacea                        
Sweet william                
Achillea – Cerise queen
Achillea – yellow

Plus already in the ground: Foxgloves (self-sown then transplanted into rows), dahlia (about 8-10 varieties), teasels, sweet william, lavender, allium, chrysanthemum.

So now we wait, hoping for the mercury to rise and lockdown to end. And in the meantime, there’s rhubarb cake to be had.

Also this week:
Allotment/Garden: Matt removed the big blackberry from the raspberry patch using all kinds of hacking equipment. Prepped the sun room for seed sowing. Started off broad beans and sweet peas.
Harvesting: PSB, pentland brig kale, cavolo nero, rosemary.
Cooking & eating: Rhubarb crumble cake with Herefordshire forced rhubarb found in Aldi; chelsea buns; I’ve got skilled at making dinners in the morning that can be easily finished or reheated in 5 minutes after Harry’s in bed….sausage and fennel pasta bake; stir fried pork noodles; chocolate pear pudding, that kind of thing.
Reading: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, such a relief to read an intelligent book that isn’t weighted with identity politics / genocide / disease / disaster after my reading materials for the last few months. Watching This Country on iPlayer, which is deliciously observant of real life in the sticks.

Blackberries and PSB

Almost, almost. A few times over the past week people have said ‘it feels almost spring-like’. The mercury is certainly rising now, after the Arctic temperatures at the start of the month. During the cold snap we had to isolate after a few Covid cases at nursery; with the hours feeling like days, there was nothing for it but to cook. Scones with raspberry and tayberry jam (I burnt the jam but it turned out to taste toffee-like rather than carbonated); 5-hour baked lamb; all types of pancake – the larder, and my cookbook collection, is my Lockdown friend.

The potted blueberry became an ice sculpture at the start of the month
Pancakes are food for the soul as well as body: this puffy Norwegian baked pancake came with blueberries and maple syrup
Scones with raspberry and tayberry jam. Clotted cream mandatory.
5-hour baked lamb shoulder collapses into shreds with the poke of a spoon. Serve with tzaziki, baked new potatoes, green beans dressed with feta and spiced aubergine relish.

But all this domestic lounging around can’t go on for ever. As the plants start to green up and the daffodils swell, I can feel energy rising. We’re on the cusp of time to be getting busy, and within the next month or so I’ll start off the early seeds. A TO DO list is back up on the kitchen wall, full of tasks that take seconds to write but weeks to actually make happen (‘renovate bathroom’, ’tile kitchen’). And on the allotment, this little patch of anarchy has been provoking me: raspberries, wild blackberries and grass, all jumbled together into an unholy mess.

The autumn raspberries have been colonised by brambles and grass

February is the time for cutting back autumn raspberries, and I trim ours right down to the base every year at this time. We inherited these plants. If I was starting from scratch I’d plant the canes in neat rows, but as it is, they are uneven, unruly and thriving; every year we have more fruit than I can be bothered to pick. However a few years back a wild blackberry set up home here, sending out runners which have grown into lethal traffids. These in turn make it impossible to keep the grass down, a perfect storm of irritation. Incidentally, a blackberry plant is nigh-on-impossible to pull out due to their lengthy tap root, but I am told the key is to bury down into the soil a few inches, find a new little pink shoot, and cut below that to help weaken the plant. This needs to be repeated for several years. So today I made a start, heaving and puffing in the February winds, but some are so big I’ll have to bring out an actual saw (a saw!) to sort the buggers out.

This bramble requires drastic action
Raspberries trimmed and mulched – the biggest blackberry still in place waiting to be hacked out with a saw.

My reward for today’s graft was an early picking of purple sprouting broccoli. These were bonus plants that I was gifted last summer by my in-laws, which I planted and then ignored. Taking out the central flower now encourages side shoots, just like with a sweet pea or cosmos, except these are a far more tasty treat. I’ll blanch the PSB stems then toss them in olive oil, chilli flakes, garlic and parmesan, the most perfect sauce for oriechette.

An early crop of PSB

One bonus of the cold weather is that the white fly that has lived in the brassica cage since August has finally been zapped, leaving pristine cavolo nero and pentland brig kale. A quick rinse in cold water and we’re ready to go – I can feel a minestrone coming on.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: 5 hour lamb with aubergine relish, then the leftovers turned into wraps with massive flatbreads and fresh parsley from the Halal shop; burnt tayberry, raspberry (and redcurrant) jam; scones; apple caramel upside down cake; pea and paneer curry. Still no booze (body says no) which I continue to be sad about.
Harvesting: Kale, cavolo nero, PSB
Also: Trains, cars, stories, painting, Cbeebies etc etc etc. Reading My Life On The Road by Gloria Steinem and Two Kitchens by Rachel Roddy. Watching It’s a Sin, which is possibly the best TV ever made but devastating.

Rock cakes

Week four of Lockdown 3 brought snow, sleet and several sleepless nights, a rich mix of gloom if ever there was one. Though I have to admit that the garden, frosted with ice, is a thing of beauty.

The forsythia edged with snow
An ice sheet formed on the blueberry bush

By the weekend I even succumbed to some classic kids’ cookery, made purely for my own enjoyment – I have never used mini eggs this early in the year before, but currently we have to do whatever gets us through the day.

I have never made these so early in the year before – but whatever gets you through the day…

But then, on Saturday, Harry slept through the night again – and then he did it again – and slowly I begin to feel less like a husk and more like a real, thinking, living, person. Not fully replete with vim but with life enough to think about baking something beige. And so I come to Regula Ysewijn‘s latest book, Oats in the North, Wheat from the South: A History of British Baking. It is, as the name suggests, a love letter to the great baking traditions of Britain, singing the joys of iced buns, lardy cake and simple plain toast.

The History of British Baking by Regula Ysewijn

I have written about Regula before and I have to state up front that a) she’s a wonder, b) I am deeply jealous (she gets paid to write about buns!) and c) I often think we could be good friends. This is a woman who waxes lyrical about giant pies from Yorkshire, who is deadly serious about the Kentish Huffkin and who insists that Chelsea buns should only ever be square (quite right). An Anglophile Belgian, she has a romantic view of our baking tradition that is fun for the Brit to read: as she rightly points out, our baking may be simple, but we are one of the few European nations to have a tradition of making cakes, buns and biscuits in our own kitchens, with our own hands; in France they wouldn’t dream of making their own patisserie, but buy it instead.

I was also pleased to see this statement at the start of her beautiful book and it makes me wonder why author’s notes like this are not more common?

Why are statements like this still so rare?

Whilst I do intend to have a go at the aforementioned lardy cakes, in my fragile state I thought it best to start with something quick. Regula has a double page spread devoted to Brighton Rock Cakes and their brother, the Fat Rascal. On close examination the recipes are precisely the same except that Rock Cakes are dusted with sugar and perhaps a cherry or two, and Fat Rascals given an egg wash.

Now, I used to live on Rock Cakes as a teenager, as I considered them the only thing in the school canteen worth the calories. The Fat Rascal, however, whilst I have heard of them, was never something that we ate. According to Regula they are an old Yorkshire tradition, but in recent years the famous Betty’s Tea Room in Harrogate have taken out a trademark which prevents other businesses from selling them. (Point of note: this is clearly outrageous and I struggle to believe that it is even legal. Would the Italians only allow one company to make spaghetti?!)

I then enquired my Professionally Yorkshire friend Helen to ask she knows anything about Fat Rascals and she replied in the negative, but does remember that Rock Buns (note – buns not cakes – this is Yorkshire afterall) were a regular event in her house. She duly WhatsApped me her Mum’s hand-written recipe, which calls for marg and mixed fruit. Helen’s Grandad Stokes was a baker and he didn’t sell Fat Rascals or Rock Cakes/Buns and now that I reflect on it, we didn’t have them at Cooks Bakery in Upton On Severn either. Perhaps they are home-cooking in the truest sense of the word.

Helen’s mum’s recipe for rock buns

Regula’s recipe for Rock Cakes uses plain flour rather than self-raising, and currants rather than mixed fruit. This is probably true to the oldest recipes; I think that sometime during the 1970s supermarkets began to sell bags of mixed fruit and that become the housewife’s choice, rather than individual packets of raisins, currants and the rest. My mum certainly never dreamed of having anything other than mixed fruit in her baking cupboard. Regula also adds a touch of mixed spice, which is new to me for this kind of simple bake, but a nice touch.

It occurs to me now that the Rock Cake is akin to the American scone, for they add eggs to their scone mix and sometimes also cream, making for a more cakey texture. I presume the early settlers took their recipes with them – but more research is needed. The movement of food cultures around the globe will never cease to be fascinating.

Rock buns fresh out of the oven – you can see that they are fat, and could be thought of as rascals
Dusting with pearl sugar lends a pleasant crunch

Rock Cakes
An amalgamation of Regula’s recipe, Mrs Annett’s recipe, and my own instinct. Makes 6.

225g self raising flour
100g caster sugar
1 tsp mixed spice
pinch of fine sea salt
75g unsalted butter, cold, diced
1 egg
up to 3 tbsp full fat milk
50g raisins or currants
pearl sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 200c. Line a tray with baking parchment.

Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and spice in a bowl. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs – you can use a food processor for this but I always use fingers to save on the washing up.

Beat the egg with 1 tbsp milk, then tip into the flour mixture. Use a blunt knife or dough scraper to mix the liquid to a loose shaggy dough – add more milk if necessary. Once the dough starts to come together, add the fruit. Very lightly knead then turn onto a floured surface.

Cut into 6 pieces using a knife, then gently ease them into a rounded shape – they don’t need to be perfect. Transfer to the baking tray, brush with milk and sprinkle on a little pearl sugar (or granulated sugar if that’s all you have).

Bake for about 15 minutes, checking after 10 to see that they are baking evenly. They are done with risen, golden and no longer moist on the top. Cool slightly before tucking in – these are best eaten on the day they’re made.

All things beige and beautiful – rock cakes are only lightly studded with fruit

Also this week:
Garden: Cut back the front garden hydrangea – it will either never recover, or will come back a monster. The ground has been covered with snow and hard with ice, but now we have gentle rain and a sleepy sun.
Eating and cooking: Anything beige due to sleep deprivation and the January blues. These are the days of toast that drips with butter. Chocolate easter nests (in January!). Also making the most of seasonal citrus: Forced rhubarb simmered with orange zest then turned into crumble. Roast chicken flavoured with seville oranges and thyme. Orange jelly.
Also: Spotted parakeets in both Warley Woods and Highbury Park. Listening to Lockdown Parenting Hell with Josh Widdecombe and Rob Beckett, for much needed relief.

Gingerbread biscuits

Well hello! It’s been a month or so since I last blogged, and that time has been spent in a state of winter quietude. The days of Christmas busy-ness and upset plans were followed by a household bout of coronavirus (thankfully mild), and given that the outside world has a tendency to noisiness – that’s a pandemic for you – I have been left with the inescapable need to simply be still. The natural world goes into rest and quiet renewal at this time; I follow this urge.

There are a few things to share from Christmas and New Year, such as this garland which used up the last of the summer 2020 harvest of flowers from allotment and hedgerow. I took bunches of strawflower, hydrangea, hops, cornflower, amaranthus and poppy heads, plus a few twigs of haws and hips, and tied them together with string to make a display approximately 4 feet long. It was by no means perfect – I had to stick in several extra bunches once in situ to cover up the string and fill it out – but I absolutely loved it: crafting of this nature is a physical process, created on the floor, on knees, surrounded by the strong scent of hops, the papery textures of dried petals and dangerous pricking thorns. There was something very fitting about having remnants of summer in the house for the darkest days of the year.

Dried flower garland in my living room, made with strawflower, hydrangea, hops, amaranth, cornflower, hawthorn, rosehips and poppy heads.
All tied together with string, which takes trial and error to look good!

The weather turned cold – there’s been a few flurries of snow in these parts and deep hard frosts, which will be good for the fruit trees who need time below 0c.

New Year has been chilly – there was snow on the ground on 2nd January
A hard frost accentuates delicate features on dormant plants, as in this hydrangea

Most pleasingly, the seeds for 2021 are here. I got in slightly earlier than normal with my order, mindful of the increased popularity of gardening amidst the pandemic, and I was right to as many things have already sold out. Is there a joy more content or complete than searching seed catalogues for this year’s collection of flowers and vegetables? In many ways it is better than the growing, for one lives entirely within a place of promise and hope, not yet scarred or deterred by failed harvests and slug damage. This year I plan to try a few new varieties, including kohlrabi, flower sprouts, honeywort and toadflax. I’ll report on these in due course.

This year’s new veg seeds from Seeds of Italy
Plus a few new varieties courtesy of Sarah Raven

On to today’s recipe. Harry and I have been reading The Gingerbread Man with alarming regularity (why are kids’ books so dark??) leading to a few baking sessions where we create – you’ve guessed it – gingerbread men. Or I should say gingerbread people, for our cutters are more of an amorphous human-shaped blob rather than gender-specific. We also have a cutter shaped like a moose, which is a personal favourite.

Cutting out gingerbread men (or moose) is child’s play

This is the best recipe for gingerbread that I have ever come across, cut out years (and I mean YEARS) ago from a magazine. No matter what a pre-schooler can throw at it, and how many times it is re-rolled, it refuses to get tough. The dough, when first made, is incredibly wet so it does need a few hours in the fridge to firm up before rolling out. You can of course adjust the amount of ginger depending on how spicy you want your biscuits, and there is the option to make them pretty with icing, but we prefer the slapped on approach. Gingerbread softens in the tin, so if you want to retain a bit of ‘bite’ to your biscuit then I’d err on the side of over-baking, not to the point of burnt, obviously, but certainly browned around the edges.

Harry can eat three of these in one sitting.

There is the option to decorate beautifully – or just slather your biscuits with water icing, melted chocolate and sprinkles

Gingerbread biscuits

125g unsalted butter
100g soft brown sugar
4 tablespoons golden syrup
325g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1-2 teaspoons ground ginger (use more or less according to your taste)
To decorate: water icing, melted chocolate and sprinkles

Melt together the butter, sugar and syrup, then leave to cool slightly. Mix together the dry ingredients, add the butter mixture, then stir to combine. You will create a very soft dough. Tip onto clingfilm, wrap it firmly then place in the fridge for an hour or two to firm up.

Pre-heat the oven to 170c. Line several baking trays with parchment.

Roll out the dough onto a lightly floured surface, to the thickness of about 1.5cm. Cut out your biscuits and place them on the baking trays – they do spread so keep them several centimetres apart. You’ll probably need to bake in batches.

Bake until golden around the edges. The time depends on the size of your biscuits but my gingerbread men take about 10 minutes, and the large moose biscuits take about 12. Leave to harden on the trays for five minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

Decorate with water icing, melted chocolate and sprinkles, if liked. These store for several days in a tin.

Also this week (month):
Harvesting: Mustard red frills, baby chard and rocket from the veg trug. First daffodils are in the supermarkets – I marvel at their cheapness, it somehow seems not right to be able to buy 8 stems for £1.
Eating and cooking: Did very well with the turkey leftovers this year: there was turkey hash, loads of sandwiches, 4 freezer boxes of soup, 2 pies, 3 boxes of chilli and 4 boxes of stock. Also made Jamie Oliver’s Jerk ham which was delicious, though my method needs improving as it does tend to dryness. Buying boxes of clementines and looking for the first seville oranges.
Reading: The book you wish your parents had read by Philippa Perry, who I like very much as a human being, but I think that’s enough psychotherapy for now, thank you very much. Also the new British baking book by Regula Ysewijn, which I will talk about at a later date, and a book about Qi Gong.

Explorations in salt beef

The Jobs list in December is guaranteed to turn one into the Grinch. There’s all the Christmas stuff; women take on the burden of organising it all, at our own behest, and annually I wonder why on earth do we do this to ourselves? And yet here I am, writing the cards, worrying about table settings and undelivered parcels and what to give the nursery teachers as a thank you gift. Then there’s the house jobs (lockdown with a three year old does not make for an ordered household. We’re in Tier 3 which essentially means No Non-Household Fun Allowed. There’s a lot of TV at present), and the allotment jobs (it still needs covering) and then all the work jobs to get done before the holidays (holidays! Pah!).

So I come to realise that at this time of year I have to make space for small, soul-sustaining things – else martyrdom and a minor breakdown will set in – one of which is manuring the allotment. The sweet joy of shifting a pallet of poo, ripping open bags, forking through the rich brown gold, to create a veg patch as pristine as an untouched canvas in time for winter.

Allotment and garden have been mulched with a thick blanket of manure

This year’s December door swag is a hastily constructed bouquet of greens and oranges, gathered by my Mum from her garden and then tied together for the door by me. I fully intended to adorn it further with dried hydrangea and strawflower heads but will probably never actually get around to doing so.

This year’s December door swag

The lockdown baking continues – of course – it’s such a normalised activity now that I barely notice it, but I do want to record Harry’s progress from bemused onlooker to active ‘helper’. Here we’re making brown sugar cinnamon rolls, using a scraper to spread scented butter over stretched dough.

Harry has progressed to helping with cinnamon buns

In my last post I mentioned that I felt some Project Cookery coming on. Reader, I am true to my word. Project Cookery is anything which requires a little effort: pickling, drying, layering, fermenting. It’s a good time of year to have a go at something new, given that we’re at home anyway so the small daily interventions that Projects require can be easily slotted into a daily routine.

Usually come December I’m having a go at making my own gravadlax or contemplating a gammon, and so it’s a natural progression to take the curing/salting mindset down a different road, to a different ingredient. The project, therefore, was decided: Salt Beef. Inspired by the River Cottage Meat Book, I tracked down a 2kg rolled brisket from my local butcher…and that’s where my troubles began.

It may be easy to make OK salt beef, but I have concluded that to make GOOD salt beef requires years of experience and more precise instructions than any recipe I have found. What follows, therefore, is not my definitive salt beef recipe, more a record of our family’s (for that is what it became) explorations.

Step 1: The Pickle
Stage 1 of making salt beef is to pickle the meat in a sweet-spiced brine solution for about a week. Easy enough. Except the myriad recipes I referred to confuse the matter. To roll or unroll the meat? Kosher (sea) salt or the bog standard stuff that comes in 1kg sacks from the Co-op? What receptacle does one keep a brisket plus 2+ litres of brine in for a week? In the fridge or not? Salt petre or not?

In the end we unrolled the meat, stabbed it several times with a skewer, then put it in my biggest plastic cake tin which, happily, could then hold 2 litres of brine and sit on the top shelf of the fridge. Some recipes called for a 5 litre mix which surely calls for a barrel and an out-house – fine if you live in Devon (I’m talking about you Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall) but not so great for folks in Smethwick.

I didn’t use salt-petre for the simple reason that I didn’t want the palaver of an online shop for an ingredient I will rarely ever use, especially if it’s just for aesthetic purposes. The spices I kept in keeping with the season: cinnamon, star anise, clove, juniper, bay.

Ingredients:
2 kg brisket, unrolled and stabbed with a skewer
2 litres cold water
75g sugar (I used half granulated, half brown)
200g salt (I used normal table salt)
2 bay leaves
dessertspoon each of black peppercorns, juniper berries, star anise, cloves
1 cinnamon stick

Place the brisket in a large tupperware box or other receptacle – it needs to be kept covered and not react to brine, so plastic or ceramic is best (not aluminium). Heat all the brine ingredients in a saucepan and simmer for five minutes, cool completely and then tip over the brisket. Cover and refrigerate for 6 days, turning once per day.

Soak the brisket in a sweet, spiced brine for one week

Step 2: The Soak
On day 6, I tipped away the brine and covered the meat in fresh water, to remove excess salt.

Step 3: The boil
This is the bit that I think we messed up. The idea is to poach the meat in a court bouillon until it is meltingly tender. The problem with brisket is that, in my view, it actually rarely achieves tenderness: some of this is beyond the cook’s control (much depends on how the animal has lived, died and been butchered) but most of it is due to cooking time. The recipes I looked at said to look the meat for between 2-4 hours – now, that’s a big leeway right there.

Anyway, the beef want into a stock pot with carrots, leek, onion and garlic (there should have been more bay leaves but we ran out) and was simmered for two hours. At this point it was declared done (we were hungry) and removed it from the heat; in hindsight, I have decided that it needed either MUCH LESS or MUCH MORE cooking.

The argument for much less time in the pot is that a shorter cook prevents the meat drying out too much; it is a myth that poached meats can not be over-cooked.

The argument for much more cooking is that it gives the touch connective tissue time to disappear into a soft gelatinous mass, a state that can only be achieved with a profoundly long cook.

The true perfect cooking time therefore remains an unknown but my advice for the aspiring salt beef cook is to have a thorough prod of that meat before declaring it done, really checking for tenderness, and to err on the view that when it comes to brisket, more cooking is better than less.

Ingredients:
The drained brisket
1 each: carrot, onion, leek, roughly chopped
A few garlic cloves, bashed
Bay leaves

Place the beef into a large stock pot with the veg and herbs, cover with cold water, then bring to a simmer. Cook until meltingly soft – probably 3-4 hours, but could perhaps only be 1. The timing of this dish remains a mystery.

When it’s done, remove the meat and serve. Note: do not put the stock liquid down the sink as it will be full of melted beef fat that can clog the drain. Leave it in a cold place overnight, scrape the hardened fat off, then the stock can be saved for other dishes or chucked, as you will.

Braise the beef with herbs and stock vegetables until tender

Step 3: What does one do with 2kg salt beef?!

Now here’s the rub. What on earth do you DO with that much salt beef?! The flavour is delicious, salty yes but also complex with clove and cinnamon. The problem is that it’s just a teensy weensy bit tough…oh OK, at times it was like shoe leather. Of course there is no gravy to counteract the dryness.

Meal 1: Serve hot, in thick slices, with boiled new potatoes and buttered carrots. The Irish way.

Meal 2: Serve warm, in thick slices, tucked into a toasted bagel with gherkins and a slather of hot mustard. The Brick Lane bagel-shop way.

Meal 3: We’re in the territory of leftovers now. Many recipes recommend a red flannel hash (salt beef, beetroot, potato, onion) but honestly, our beef is too tough for that, so I am turning it into a ragu, rich with wine and tomatoes, thinking that an extra two hours cooking won’t do it any harm.

Salt beef: serve sliced with potatoes and carrots, in a bagel with pickles and mustard, or try leftovers in a long-braised tomato-rich ragu

The verdict: It’s easy enough to make, and I love the flavour, but that piece of beef cost about £15 which in my view is an expensive bit of Project Cookery. I’m not convinced it’s worth it – but then maybe if we’d cooked it properly I could be swayed. Let’s see how that ragu turns out.

Also this week:
Allotment and garden: Moving the pallet of manure and mulching both allotment and garden (still need to get the plastic covers on). Broad beans and the annual cut flowers have germinated but are leggy weaklings.
Cooking and eating: Osso bucco, steamed syrup pudding, chocolate buttermilk muffins
Also: Christmas overload already; all the fun things we had planned have been cancelled due to Sandwell being in Tier 3. Starting again on the Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante.

Paneer and chickpea curry

Goodness this November is a drag. Without wanting to sound a total misery (which I’m not), but doesn’t it feel that the dreariness of February has arrived three months early? Lockdown, as a friend of mine eloquently put it, has taken the sheen off life. Have we ever valued the simple act of sharing a cup of tea with a neighbour, having real-life creative conversations with colleagues or a wander round the shops, so much as we do now? I realised yesterday that this is the first year in forever when – forgive me – there’s been no chance of getting a pig roast, whether it’s at a wedding, country fair, open day, you name it. All I can now think about is crackling. Make of that what you will.

It seems to me that there are two ways of dealing with the drudge. You can either forget the present and project yourself into the future – it’s no coincidence that several people near me have gone WAY EARLY with their Christmas decorations. Or you can immerse yourself in something completely different, a diversion ideally of a comforting and creative nature. And so this weekend I found myself leafing through the superlative River Cottage Meat Book, reminding myself of the joy of solid, classic, non-poncy, ingredient-led cookery.

River Cottage Cookbook with notes

I can feel some project cookery coming on. Back in Lockdown 1 we were all about house and garden, messing around with tulips and plug plants. Lockdown 2 is looking likely to be about lard. And suet. Plus butter, obviously. I still dream of cooking a whole ham (A WHOLE HAM!) but given that it would serve at least 20 people, it is perhaps not the best vehicle to relieve lockdown fatigue. Ditto the proper fore-rib of beef. I will probably take it easy with a spot of salt beef…and as thoughts turn to Christmas, maybe a pork pie or two. I’ll keep you posted of progress.

In the meantime, here is a far simpler dish, one to have a go at mid-week when a bit of gentle kitchen pottering is needed after a day of Zoom calls. It’s vegetarian, inexpensive, authentic and – most importantly – really tasty. I have got into the habit of keeping diced paneer in the freezer, and there’s always chickpeas, tomatoes and spices to hand. So consider it the perfect store cupboard curry – and what could be more 2020 than that?

Paneer and chickpea curry
Serves 4. Adapted from Waitrose Weekend recipe by Chetna Makan.

Sunflower oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black mustard seeds
2 onions
2 green chillies – the long thin ones – left whole. (If you like it hot, slice them up)
salt
2 fat cloves of garlic, bashed and chopped
a thumb of ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 chilli powder (or more/less to taste)
1 tsp ground tumeric
1 tsp garam masala
2 tomatoes, chopped
about 200ml water
400g can chickpeas
about 200g paneer, diced
1 tsp sugar

I use a karahi for this but you can also use a heavy-based sauté pan or casserole.

Heat the oil over a medium heat, add the cumin and mustard seeds until they sizzle, then tip in the onions, chillies and good pinch of salt. Gently fry for about 5 minutes, until quite soft and turning golden. Add the garlic and ginger, then the ground spices – fry them for a scant minute just to cook the spices – then add the tomatoes and sugar. Cook for 10 minutes or so until you have a thick, amalgamated sauce, loosening with water as needed.

Tip in the chickpeas and paneer, then cook for another 10 minutes to allow the flavours to come together. Taste and adjust the salt and sugar as required. Serve with rice, chutneys and maybe a piquant chopped salad of onion, cucumber and tomato.

Paneer and chickpea curry

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Chicken in white wine, with leftovers turned into a filthy chicken tartiflette. Gingerbread. Ordering the Christmas meats and, as every year, my plans of beef or something else interesting has been given up to tradition: turkey it is.

Garden and allotment: Clearing last of the annuals, cutting back perennials. Planted out hellebores. Started off broadbeans. Clearing the masses of leaves that have blown into both front and back garden. The cosmos etc started last month are a leggy mess so once again I ask, what point is there starting annuals in the autumn?

Also: Trying to dodge the ‘what am I doing with my life’ lockdown gloom with cookbooks, plus starting Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View. I have totally lost my ability to drink all alcohol other than traditional-method sparkling wine, coming out in instant allergic reaction at the mere sip of wine or beer. Spirits are a distant memory. Whilst I partly enjoy how pretentious my liver has become, this is a source of great sadness.

Autumn clearance

Like the summer flowering plants, I have lulled into dormancy. This lockdown feels more depressing than the first, for there is no novelty, and of course darkness falls at 4.30pm. Whilst in March and April we may have had time to notice sap rising, this enforced stillness in November makes us aware of the year decaying, drawing in its energy. The spring and summer spent outdoors has been replaced by hours inside, fingers cold, fire on. Not that this necessarily needs to be a bad thing of course: there’s time for learning a new craft, for proper cooking, and for reflection. A few weeks ago I had a go at macrame for the first time, a craft that I would highly recommend for the simple reason that it has the good manners to be beginner-proof: if you make a mistake, no matter, just undo it and have another go.

macrame wall hanging, the close-up
macrame wall hanging, the long view

I’ve also been rummaging through the bunches of dried flowers hanging in the sun room (aka the Drying Room), most of them refugees from this summer’s garden and allotment, though some were foraged from hedgerows back in September. A vase of cornflowers, hops and strawflower makes for an easy long-life display – and when I bore of it, I’ll put the dusty stems in the compost and simply make a new one.

This summer’s flowers, now dried, make an easy longlife vase…
…though the poppies have left their legacy in the drying room, as
tiny seedlings try to make a life in our rotten window sills.

I have avoided the back garden for a few weeks, and though it is littered with leaves and the summer perennials are battered by the wind, there is still colour. Globes of undeveloped white flowers adorn the rose, and these chrysanthemums have finally decided to put on a show after weeks of dormancy. They look ridiculous, 1m tall plants standing alone in the bed (for their intended companions of sunflower and fennel have long gone), flopping around in the gales, but I haven’t the heart to cut them back just yet. These are new plants, put in back in April, with zappy firework petals. The lack of sun in our overlooked garden does not suit them, so next year I’ll move them out to the allotment where they can bake in the sun and provide months of cut flowers.

One of the new chrysanthemums, to be moved from garden to allotment
Firework colours and late to flower

On the allotment, thoughts turn to preparing the soil for winter. I had my last basket of flowers back on 1st April, and the dahlias have now been touched with frost, and the chrysanthemums are battered with wind. ‘Tidying’ is a dirty word these days and whilst I agree that we should not strip the land of all its life over winter, I do think it’s wise to remove the decaying annuals and give the land a feed with mulch whilst it has a period of rest. Besides, I actually think that beautifully mulched soil has its own aesthetic appeal.

The last basket of the year, cut 1 November (though I’m still harvesting kale and herbs)

More importantly in allotment terms, this is the time of year to take the vigour out of the perennial weeds. This year the culprit is creeping buttercup, which snuck in unnoticed by me and has set up rather than extensive home for itself amongst the cut flower bed. I spend a few hours bent double (I think garden yoga could be a thing) picking through roots, knowing that my efforts will by no means remove our guest but may stop it exceeding its welcome.

Time for the autumn clearance to begin
A few hours later, ready for mulch and cover

Normally I remove the chrysanthemums in November and my put-upon Mother takes cuttings from them for the next season, but this year the allotment chrysanthemums are staying put; an experiment in over-wintering. I have gained confidence from the fate of my dahlias, which I have ignored for three years (leaving them in the ground to face winter snow, rain and flood) and are now so big as to be a nuisance. I take these three plants up, their tubers so big I can barely lift them, and they will rest in the shed until the spring when I decide their fate.

Three dahlias, untouched for three seasons, now so large I can barely lift the tubers

As autumn clearance goes it’s pretty light touch, which suits both my inclination and, I increasingly feel, the needs of the soil. In a few weeks the manure will go down, then black plastic to keep the wind-blown weed seeds away, and next year we start all over again.

Also this week:
Harvesting: Cavolo nero, last strawflower
Cooking and eating: A lot of cooking. Proper roast beef lunch, fuelled with a glorious Cremant de Bordeaux found, of all places, in the bin-end section of Homesense. Never underestimate the power of good sparkling white wine to take the edge of life. Also: ricotta doughnuts, pizza with Italian sausage, cranberry orange breakfast bread, Nigella’s self-saucing chocolate pudding.
Also: Setting A Suitable Boy aside as I am finding it indulgently long-winded and finding solace in EM Forster’s A Room With A View, a novel so staggeringly brilliant I have read it at least 5 time before and still finding new things to marvel at. Watching all the Toy Story films with Harry.

Marshmallows

The lawn is littered with yellow-brown leaves, the stems of fennel have faded to crispy bronze and the remaining sunflower heads are drooped and withered. The world feels saturated with colour. Afternoons are spent outside, kicking leaves and squelching in mud.

Autumnal outings

The fruit bowl is rammed with those green tomatoes from the other week – now turned red – plus seasonal apples, pears, figs and the first pomegranates. I’m on the alert for quince too and am going out of my way to drive past the halal shop every few days, checking out their veg display for the first signs of these autumnal treasures.

The newly-invented pear pancake

There is still a weekly vase of strawflower and chrysanthemum to gather, plus the kale and parsnips, but forays into the garden or allotment are few and require boots, gloves and a serious coat. Instead I’ve turned my attention indoors, with decorations of squash and pumpkin for halloween, and evenings learning macrame (which feels simultaneously a middle aged and incredibly hipster pursuit, not that I am drawn to either of these labels).

Autumn – and in particular this Lockdown Autumn – is a great time to get on with recreational cookery – the kind of cooking that is neither essential nor time-pressured, but exists purely for fun or to learn a new technique. The other day I had a few egg whites in the fridge leftover from a carbonara, and shuddered at the thought of meringue (no-one eats in). Then a brainwave struck: marshmallows!

Reader, they’re easier than you think. A marshmallow is simply an Italian meringue, set with gelatine. That’s it. They’re nutritionally pointless but massive fun, plus boiling sugar is involved so there’s a whisper of potential calamity, which is always enjoyable.

Take a syrup to hard-ball stage before mixing in melted gelatine

First, make a stock syrup and boil it up to hard ball stage, 125c. Meanwhile, soak sheet gelatine in cold water until it goes soft and squelchy, then dissolve it over a gentle heat. Once the syrup has come to temperature turn off the heat, add the gelatine then give it a stir to combine.

Whisk the bejesus out of two egg whites

Whisk two egg whites until it becomes firm and stiff, then gradually pour the syrup onto the egg whites, whisking all the time. Keep whisking for a good 5 minutes, perhaps longer, until you have a rich thick meringue that holds its shape. You can now add a flavouring if you like, such as vanilla or rose water, and maybe swirl in some colouring – I used pomegranate juice but for a stronger colour use red food dye or even a spot of beetroot juice.

Gradually add the syrup to the eggs with your chosen flavouring whilst whisking all the time – eventually you’ll get fluffy meringue

Tip the mixture into a tin that you’ve sifted cornflour and icing sugar onto, then leave to set for a few hours.

Marble through food colouring (or pomegranate juice)

Once set, sift a load more cornflour and icing sugar onto a board, tip the marshmallow into it then chop into chunks. Toss around in the icing sugar mixture, (to stop them sticking) and gobble them up.

Toss in cornflour and icing sugar to finish

These would be great for a lockdown family cookery session. Obviously take care as there’s boiling sugar involved, but there’s nothing like learning dangerous new skills to give youngsters confidence in the kitchen. Experiment with the colours and flavours…think peppermint, rose water, orange flower water, vanilla…and have fun.

Marshmallows
Recipe adapted from the River Cottage Family Cookbook. You need a large and small saucepan, sugar thermometer, rubber spatula or wooden spoon, food mixer or hand whisk, mixing bowls, brownie pan or square shallow cake tin (about 20cm) and sieve.

1 tbsp icing sugar
1 tbsp cornflour
vegetable oil for greasing
8 sheets gelatine
water
2 egg whites
500g granulated sugar
Flavouring and/or colour of your choice – I used 1 tsp rose water, but vanilla extract, peppermint essence, orange flower water would also be good. For colour, I used a squeeze of pomegranate juice. Beetroot juice or regular food colouring would give a more vibrant result.

Very lightly grease the bottom and sides of your brownie pan or cake tin. Mix together the cornflour and icing sugar, then sift a spoonful into the bottom and edges of the tin, and set aside.

Measure the sugar with 250ml water into a large saucepan, and heat gently to dissolve the sugar. Meanwhile, put the gelatine with 125ml water into a small saucepan and leave to stand until the gelatine becomes soft and squelchy. Heat the gelatine and water over a very gentle heat, stirring occasionally until dissolved.

Increase the heat on the sugar syrup and boil hard until you reach 125c, hard-ball stage. Keep an eye on it as it heats up very quickly, especially once it gets close to temperature. Turn the heat off, remove the thermometer, then add the gelatine mixture to the syrup. Give it a stir with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to combine; it will bubble up slightly.

Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl, using either the hand whisk or free-standing food mixer. Once they are stiff, gently pour in the syrup/gelatine mixture in a slow stream – it will become creamy, and then will thicken into a big meringue-y mass. Keep beating for another five minutes or so until the mixture is thick and supports its own shape when dolloped from the beaters. Now stir in your flavouring, and swirl in your colouring.

Pour the marshmallow mixture into the prepared pan and leave to set. This will take about 2 hours.

When you’re ready to cut it up, sieve the remaining cornflour/icing sugar mixture onto a board. Tip the marshmallow block onto it, then using a sharp knife, cut it into squares – it may help to lightly grease the knife. Toss each square in the cornflour/icing sugar to stop them sticking, and serve.

Also this week:
Garden and allotment: Harvesting chrysanthemum, cosmos, strawflower, kale, parsnips. Sowing sweet peas. Back garden still has roses, cosmos, salvia, chrysanthemum etc in bloom so still far to early to do any clearing jobs.
Cooking and eating: Chicken with fennel, lemon and chilli; chicken pie; blueberry porridge; chocolate brownies; several picnics as we can no longer meet people in cafes/indoors (Lockdown life)
Also: Evenings spent learning macrame as I make a wall-hanging for the house.