Quince and apple crumble

These late mornings and early events are terrible for the circadian rhythm. Hard to wake up…certain it’s time to go to bed at 7pm. Last night picking Harry up from nursery in the pitch black at 5pm, the local owl was twit-ting for a mate. It was good to hear: in our old flat, just around the corner from the nursery, owls were a regular winter sound. I stood transfixed listening, Harry the same, then we spent several happy minutes twit-twooing at each other.

There are grounding, seasonal tasks for November. The annual trip to Ludlow to stock up on game for the freezer; the stirring up of the Christmas cake and pudding; the gathering of hydrangea heads for drying…and the lorry-load of poo.

Low autumn light over Ludlow
Macerating dried fruits in Amontillado sherry and orange juice ready for the Christmas cake
Note the cake tin double wrapped in newspaper ready for its three hour bake

A pallet of poo is actually 60 x 50l bags of matured ‘farmyard’ manure, for mulching. That’s 60 (heavy) bags that need moving from the lorry, down the road, through the gate, down the path, to the allotment. Then shifting from pile to plot. I’m fortunate that it cost us not a penny, as this poo was my Christmas present from my garden-supplier Dad and we’re OK with a bit of graft; my brother, with his posh garden in the Cotswolds, has been quoted £5k (£5000!!!) for a good mulch. There is money to be made in poo.

Dad brought me a pallet of poo!
A few filthy, freezing cold hours later, we have two manured plots
I needed a shower afterwards

One more November activity is cooking with quince, something that only began when I moved to Bearwood and I realised they could be bought (in season) for pence at the halal shop. What a glorious thing a quince is, with its fuzzy velveteen coating, its can’t-quite-place-it scent, its slight otherness. not quite a pear, not an apple, but a glamorous cousin. There’s no need to make boring old quince jelly that will sit uneaten in the cupboard for months: treat the quince as you would any orchard fruit, in cakes, crumbles, pies and for a sweet note in savoury cooking.

A note of warning that quince are hard, and have unpredictable cooking times. I take Claudia Roden’s advice and quarter them, leaving them with skin and core, before simmering in acidulated water until just tender. This can take 20 minutes or it can take 5 so keep an eye on them. When the quince are soft, drain and cool, before removing skin and pips and dicing into chunks. A squeeze of lemon in the water will prevent the fruit browning too much, though it does take on a beautiful hue of rose parchment.

It’s best to briefly simmer the quince in water with lemon before peeling and dicing
The cooked flesh is delicately perfumed and the colour of parchment

For a simple crumble, mix the stewed quince with sweetened apple puree – for my three quince I cooked down three bramley apples with water and a few tablespoons of white sugar. Tip the lot into a suitable dish and either top with crumble mix to bake straight away or freeze the fruit to use another day.

Mix the quince with sweetened apple puree and either turn into a crumble immediately or freeze for another day

I tend to bulk-make crumble topping then leave it in the freezer so a pudding is ready to go when needed. In a food processor, blitz 230g butter with 460g plain flour, then stir in 200g caster sugar and 30g demara sugar. It’s sometimes nice to add flaked almonds or chopped hazelnuts or pecans. Sprinkle a generous layer of crumble over the fruit and lightly press down, then freeze the leftovers in for speedy future desserts.

A final note: Crumbles need baking at quite a high temperature, 180c to 190c – anything less leads to soggy rather than crumbly crumble. Baking times depend on your dish of course, this one took 40 minutes. Leave to stand for a good 15 minutes before eating, to allow the fruit to settle.

Simple but slightly out of the ordinary: quince and apple crumble

Also this week:

Cooking, shopping and eating: Pie and chips in Ludlow; veal pot roast using Ludlow veal; Italian pastries from the tiny fairy-light filled deli. Chanterelles cooked with butter, parsley and garlic. Game pie. Came home with venison haunch and burgers, Italian sausages, mutton, stewing steak, stems of winterberries, purple sprouting…God love Ludlow.

Allotment, garden and house: Mulched allotment and garden with 57 bags of manure, holding three back to use on the strawberries. Ordered new replacement sash windows for office and kitchen; perhaps a new blog about how to rescue your Victorian terrace whilst on a budget is in the offing.

Reading: Bake Off Creme de la Creme, to learn daring baking skills.

Pear and honey tea bread

I went out with actual adult human beings last week. Out! After dark! Our Weekender farewell dinner was great fun but – despite not drinking – I was rewarded at the weekend with a two day migraine. It’s all the body’s way of saying Love, time to step away from the chips and the Instagram and the email and have a few weeks of quiet / pottering / wholegrains.

You know that festival season is done and dusted when the Big Wheel moves into Centenary Square

Remember the mystery squash from the allotment? I picked it before it was ripe but happy to report that it has come into fullness just in time for Halloween.

Mystery squash turned into a handsome massive pumpkin

There’s glorious light at present. After Saturday’s endless drizzle (not that I noticed, being comatose in bed) Sunday gave us low, golden, warm rays. Woodland at the moment has the sweet smell of fermenting leaves and at Baggeridge Country Park the hills are abundant with hips and haws. Their fat redness is a vivid, lipstick-like come-hither gesture in contrast to the brown bareness of hedgerows and stems.

Low autumnal light at Baggeridge Country Park

We’ve been in Herbert Road for three years now yet every time autumn comes around it’s a genuine shock to see condensation dripping down the windows and find my fingers numb. Make no mistake, this is a COLD house. It won’t be long before I’m sleeping in my moth-eaten ancient cashmere jumpers. I’m trying to avoid having the heating on during the day (saving the planet and all that) so I’ve shifted out from the back office – with a window that won’t shut and no insulation to speak of it’s not fit for human habitation – and into the dining room. Working here causes many issues of distraction. There’s the view out to the garden, now golden and swept with leaves. And then there’s the kitchen, with things to cook.

This tea bread is adapted from the Vintage Tea Party book by Angel Adore (from Channel 4’s Escape to the Chateau). She uses plums and walnuts in her recipe, but as plum season is long gone I’ve subbed in diced firm plums. It has a subtle spice hint from the nutmeg, reminiscent of classic fruit cake or gingerbread, but is lighter. This is best served warm from the oven and is good for breakfast. Go easy on the bicarb though, as too much ruins the delicate flavour balance.

Pear and honey tea bread

Pear and Honey Tea Bread
Adapted from the Vintage Tea Party by Angel Adore

200g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
grating of fresh nutmeg
1/2 tsp fine salt
175ml low-fat yoghurt or buttermilk
125ml runny honey
2 tbsp sunflower oil
1 egg
1 fim pear
pearl or demerara sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 170c. Grease and line a 450g/1lb loaf tin.

Prep your pear: quarter and core, then finely dice. Place the flour, baking powder, bicarb, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon in a bowl and stir to combine. Measure the yoghurt, egg, honey and oil in a jug and whisk to combine. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry, then fold in the pear. Tip the lot into the loaf tin and smooth the top. Sprinkle pearl or demerara sugar on top for decoration. Bake for about 50 minutes until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Serve fresh and warm.

Plum torte

Despite the fact that this weekend was the hottest August bank holiday on record, I’m sticking my neck out to say that it’s not summer anymore. This afternoon on the allotment – although it was still warm – the sun was low enough in the sky to cast softened light and the air had the voluptuousness to it that comes as we teeter into autumn. Leaves look slightly tired; sunflowers set seed. Apples ripen. Without fail at this time of year I wonder what happened to my summer (answer, I am usually working flat out all through it) and whilst that’s true enough this year, we have tried our best to seize the season. This Sunday even saw a barbecue (Morroccan lamb shoulder with griddled courgettes, tabbouleh, tzatziki and flatbreads from the halal shop).

Produce is showing the shift in season. My allotment is at least a month behind my mother’s veg patch, so we’re only now getting going with the runner beans and the bulk of the cut flowers. My folks keep us going with baskets of green peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and sweetcorn. In the farm shops, the first apples are in and there are boxes of greengages, plums and damsons to be had.

Season’s change at Clives: crates of early apples plus damsons and plums

The white dahlias are phenomenal this year

I’m particularly pleased with today’s cut flower pickings – the orange chrysanthemums provide a great foil to the golden sunflower and dahlia, picked out with purple verbena bonariensis, achillea and cosmos. The little pincushion-headed flower is a self-seeded weed that I consider pretty-enough to make it to the vase.

The pinks of June and July have given way to fiery yellows, purples and oranges

What has slipped a bit is the cooking. In the hot weather we eat a lot of salads (interesting ones, obvs) plus Matt’s been cooking loads more lately whilst I’ve had my head buried in a laptop. And although he’s a great cook, one thing I definitely beat him at is the time-honoured (female) skill of opening the fridge door, seeing what needs eating, then doing something with it. Like my japple pudding – the ends of a jam pot covered with sponge then topped with sliced apples that were on the wrinkly side.

Japple pudding: jam topped with sponge topped with sliced apple

This plum torte comes from a similar need. I had a load of black plums from Aldi that were on the edge of going over, plus some nectarines, and I wanted to make a pudding. The Tuscan Plum Torte recipe in Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook provided a base recipe – instead of just plums I added in the nectarines, and also a bit of lemon for a citrus edge. The Italians have a fine tradition of cake that isn’t too rich but is actually more biscuity-bread like, and often eaten for breakfast. This one is easy enough, just go easy on the caramel – I took mine too dark and it made for a sponge that tasted of treacle rather than syrup.

First, simply whizz together self-raising flour, unsalted butter, caster sugar, zest of 1 lemon and a squeeze of juice in the food processor until well combined. Add in 3 eggs, one at a time, and whizz until smooth.

Whizz butter, flour, sugar, eggs and lemon in the food processor

Meanwhile, in the pan that you plan to bake your torte in, melt together sugar and water until completely dissolved, then simmer until you have a pale caramel (I took this too dark for my taste).

Melt sugar with water to make a light caramel (this is slightly too dark)

Add in sliced plums, nectarines or peaches. When you do this the caramel will bubble alarmingly and go several shades darker, be warned. Although mine looks burnt it actually isn’t, but the flavour was slightly too far on the treacly-side for my liking.

Add in plums and nectarines; be aware that your caramel will turn several shades darker when you do this

Then smooth the batter on top of the fruit, and bake for about 45 minutes until risen. Leave to stand for a few minutes before turning out and be warned – caramel is HOT HOT HOT. Nice on its own, with cream or plain ice cream.

After baking, turn the torte out onto a large plate. This isn’t burnt I promise; I simply used black plums!

Tuscan Plum Torte
Adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

For the caramel:
275g granulated sugar
150ml water

For the topping:
Up to 900g stone fruit – plums, nectarines, peaches
175g caster sugar
150g unsalted butter, softened
200g self-raising flour
3 eggs
Zest and juice from 1 lemon

Pre-heat the oven to 170c and have ready a 25cm sauté pan that is oven-proof.

Whizz together the caster sugar, butter, flour, lemon zest and juice in a food processor until combined. Add in the eggs one at a time and whizz until smooth.

For the caramel, melt together the sugar and water in your sauté pan until totally dissolved. Bring to a simmer and cook until a pale caramel is achieve. Meanwhile stone and slice your fruit.

Place the sliced fruit onto the caramel – it will bubble and turn several shades darker, so be careful that you don’t burn yourself. Spread the batter on top of the caramel and smooth to the edges. Bake for about 45 minutes until risen and cooked through. Leave to stand in the pan for 5 minutes before turning out.

Also this week:

Harvesting: First runner and climbing beans, courgettes, first raspberries, last blueberries, chard, spinach beet, courgette, chrysanthemums, dahlia, sunflower, cosmos, achillea, verbena bonariensis, strawflower. Hops have set flower.

Cooking and eating: Japple pudding, only barbecue of the summer (lamb shoulder), a lot of home-made curry. First purchase of a half-case of wine since before pregnancy.

Out and About: Chatsworth; Cotswold Farm Park; Matt’s building the shed.

Southern red beans with ham

It’s still touch and go on the allotment. The brassicas and perennials are doing just fine, but the cut flower annuals are the worst they’ve ever been. Even the sunflowers seem stunted. I am uncertain what the problem is….perhaps the evenings have been too chill, perhaps the weather too dry, perhaps the seedlings were too weak to be planted out. I don’t feel that I’ve done anything differently from previous years though…it’s a mystery.

Most of the cut flowers are far from thriving

In the meantime, I’ve been working on my cinnamon bun recipe. I am sure posts with follow, but with The Nordic Baking Book by my side, and inspired by those amazing Copenhagen bakeries, this was last weekend’s efforts.

Been experimenting with my cinnamon bun recipe

I have got into the habit of keeping a stash of cinnamon buns in the freezer for emergency breakfasts / snacks / comfort. And speaking of freezer food, this Red beans and ham dish is a new addition to the bulk cooking repertoire. The recipe comes from Jamie Oliver’s American cookbook, inspired by the frugal cuisine of Louisiana and the Southern states. Frugal it may be, and simple, and nutritious (all those beans…) but the most important thing is that it’s incredibly delicious. If you think that you don’t like kidney beans, try this and have your perspective changed.

The first thing to do is get hold of a hefty piece (around 2kg) of smoked gammon or a ham hock. The hock will shred more easily plus you’ll get all the bonus flavour from the bone in your stew, but a piece of gammon is easier to find. Either way, it really must be smoked. Then the day before you wish to cook, soak 500g dried kidney beans in fresh water for several hours.

When you’re ready to cook, plonk your hock or gammon in a large stock pot, cover with fresh cold water, bring to a simmer, then drain the water away completely. This helps remove excess salt from the meat. Replace the meat to the pot with the soaked beans2 tins of tomatoes, 4 sticks of diced celery, 2 diced onions, 1 bulb of garlic with its neck sliced off to reveal the flesh within, 1 tablespoon dried oregano, a few bay leaves, a few sprigs of fresh thyme, 1 tablespoon sweet paprika, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne for a subtle kick and a good grind of black pepper. No salt, due to the saltiness of the pork. Top it up with about 1 litre water, so the meat is covered.

Place on the hob and bring to a fast simmer for 5 minutes, then leave to putter on a low heat (lid on) for about two hours, until the beans are soft. Give it a prod every now and then, topping up with water if it looks dry.

Simmer ham and beans with tomato, stock veg and spices for a few hours

Once the beans are cooked, remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly. Fish out the garlic skin and any herb stalks that you find. The meat needs shredding so remove the hock or gammon from the pot, remove the bone and any excess skin and fat, then shred into large chunks and set aside whilst you finish the beans.

Place a few ladles of beans into a bowl and use a potato masher to break them down. This makes a thick, creamy mixture that will help to thicken the beans. Replace to the pot with the ham and give it all a good mix; If the beans are too watery, cook with the lid off for a few minutes to reduce. Season to taste – a little cider vinegar may be just the trick.

Serve with rice, a dollop of sour cream and something fresh and crunchy – lightly dressed salad leaves or a chopped guacamole. This recipe makes 8 generous portions so it’s great for a crowd, but any leftovers will freeze excellently.

A few hours later, pull the pork into the spicy red beans for a frugal but incredibly delicious dinner

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Cinnamon rolls; Matt’s beignets with cinnamon and chocolate sauce; cream tea at Emma Bridgewater in Stoke.

Harvesting: Sweet William, foxgloves, cow parsley, first homegrown salad leaves.

In praise of horta

As we edge towards midsummer there is a general lightness, in all senses. Light mornings and light evenings. Lighter food. Light, frothy flowers in the back garden. A lightness of spirit (longer, warmer days translate to having more energy, for me anyway). It’s my absolute favourite time of the year, with days filled with discovery and adventure.

The border in our back garden is coming into fullness. This is only its second season – and it’s still rife with gaps and errors – but I love watching for daily micro changes as the roses bloom, delphinium hover on the edge of flowering and foxgloves provide food for hungry bees. The allotment, as usual, is a mixture of disaster and fecundity: the climbing beans have been all but destroyed by the birds, and the cut flower annuals are as tiny now as when they were planted a month ago. The perennials, on the other hand, are thriving, with Sweet William the latest arrival to the June cutting party.

Roses on the edge of bloom

All the flower annuals are now planted out, though most are stumpy and far from thriving

Sweet William now in flower

I added a few stems of wild, self-sown cow parsley and foxgloves to today’s cut flower harvest of allium, sweet rocket, persicaria, flowering sage and the Sweet William; I’m particularly pleased with this pink, purple and pale cream arrangement.

June pickings: allium, sweet william, sweet rocket, foxgloves, flowering sage and cow parsley

Same arrangement in the vase

When it comes to home-grown veg, it’s still a sparse time of year, and it will remain so for ages, given the stumpiness of my seedlings. And this is where the joy of GREENS comes in. I don’t mean the massive, leafy cabbages or lettuces that we’ll get in a few weeks time, but rather the small, palm-sized leaves that thrive in early summer. There is a tradition in parts of the Mediterranean to collect wild greens – called horta – which are then eaten raw, or very slightly cooked, to supplement the lean, home-grown diet. In warmer climates this can go on year round, but here in England we only really start to see lush green growth in late April. Patience Gray discussed horta in great detail in Honey from a Weed, and makes wild claims that a plateful of herbs has an ‘oiliness’ to it that can keep the eater going for hours. Whilst that may be disputable, there is an undeniable vigour to freshly picked young greens that can not be replicated by any supermarket packet.

I do not collect wild greens (though I could – the allotment is FULL of nettles, and they would be grand) but I do look forward to this time of year, when the fridge has a constantly re-filled bag of fresh greens in it. Currently on the go is cima di rapa, which I grew in the veg trug from a sowing about 6 weeks ago, rocket from the allotment, and young spinach, radish tops and beetroot tops that I thieved from mum’s vegetable garden (her pickings always come a month earlier than mine).

Cima di rapa

All these young, gentle greens need is a quick wash, then to be wilted in a hot pan with a lick of butter or olive oil, perhaps a few thin slivers of garlic or chili, and a bit of salt. They take mere seconds to cook. Have them as an accompaniment to something else or – my preference – turn them into the star of the show. Horta on toast with a poached egg is my June brunch of choice, and orecchiette with cima di rapa and fennel sausage is a classic for a reason.

Saute the greens and serve on toast with an egg

Horta need no recipe or any grand instruction. They are the essence of what it means to grow, and cook, your own food. In this age where we are so deeply indoctrinated into supermarket food culture, I find that a plateful of simple greens can root me back to the peasant tradition – born of necessity of course, but none the worse for that – of eating what nature provides, when she provides it.

 

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Planted out chrysanthemums, marigolds, chard, spinach and bulls blood. Netted the blueberries. Grass is growing at a distressing rate. Annuals are not doing so well – it is so dry – and climbing beans have been eaten by the pigeon. Broad beans have set. Back garden nearing its peak, with roses, foxgloves and delphinium.

Harvesting: Sweet William, last Sweet Rocket, alliums, cow parsley, persicaria, flowering sage, foxgloves. Rocket, spinach, broad beans (from Mum’s garden), chives, oregano, mint.

Cooking & eating: Chicken in white wine with tarragon from garden; gateau with strawberries and raspberries; Lincolnshire plum bread from work visit to Grantham.

Christianshavn Pie (Danish strawberry cream cake)

Warning: This post contains images of extreme baking

We’re back from a long weekend in Copenhagen, or as I now think of it, heaven on earth. Allow me to set the scene: a city of beautiful people, beautiful design and beautiful living, but not self-consciously so. It is a city seeped in wholesome-ness and good manners. Everyone rides bikes, not wearing lycra or any of that nonsense, but in their normal, beautifully stylish, clothes (jeans, an expensive coat, maybe a scarf, and definitely trainers). All the bikes means that there are few cars, so the air is clear, and there is a noticeable lack of road rage or rage in general, so people are relaxed and happy. The children – all beautifully well-dressed and well-mannered – play in beautifully-maintained playgrounds. The wide boulevards are peppered with naturalistic plants and flowers; nothing looks forced or overly manicured. The buildings, both old and new, are clean and tidy. There is no litter, ANYWHERE. The cafes are full, day and evening, of beautiful, wholesome people enjoying coffee and fika whilst tapping on their laptops.

Who are these people?! How can I live more Danishly?

Our few days of living Danishly, based in a tenement apartment in Vesterbro

How’s this for a playground? This wooden-based area was 10m from our apartment and is full of carefully-controlled danger and opportunities for creative play.

Central Copenhagen has two magnificent free-entry gardens, the Botanical Garden and the King’s Garden. The latter was established in the 1600s as the private garden of the King (hence the name) and is still maintained in that style, with knot garden, rose borders, espaliered apple trees and extensive borders. Note: this is FREE. What an amazing place to while away a lunch hour or take the kids for a picnic. I tell you, Copenhageners have it made.

Incredible long borders in the King’s Garden, the free park right in the centre of the city

Gorgeous avenue of light and shade, King’s Garden

Talking of horticulture, it’s a city awash with florists – this I was not expecting – and they are a lesson in abundance. Plants, shrubs, herbs and flowers spill out onto the pavement in a manner that is not what I expected from the usually pared-back Danes.

Florists were all a lesson in abundance

But of course the real reason to go to Denmark is for the baking. The Danish Pastry is not so-named for nothing. Oh dear God the baking.

On every street, pretty much, is a baker of such skill and brilliance that I wanted to applaud. Copenhagen’s answer to Greggs is Lagkaghuset – they are ubiquitous, albeit far more expensive – with the crucial difference that Lagkaghuset is REALLY GOOD. Their windows are a masterclass of sourdoughs, rye loaves, pastries, gateaux, cookies, muffins and buns. Beyond the chain, there is brilliant baking to be found everywhere.

As well as the dark rye tin loaves, the bakeries had a wide selection of rough, sourdough-style flattish loaves, all with a long prove and an open texture.

Danish pastry selection 1….

…and more….

There are two main types of Danish pastry: the first is an enriched bread-based dough, knotted or swirled, and the second is more pasty-style, with laminations and a crispy, flaky finish. The cinnabun pictured here was in the first style (my preference), and came topped with a cream-cheese icing.

The cinnabun was of note: bread-based cinnamon dough topped with cream cheese icing

This version is in the second style: more pastry-like, flaky and crispy, like a croissant.

This cinnamon-based pastry was more, well, pastry like – higher in butter content with a flakier finish

The Trasestammer is a favourite of Matt’s: an incredibly rich, rum-laced chocolate-nut truffle wrapped in marzipan and dipped in dark chocolate. They translate as ‘tree logs’, which is pleasing.

Special mention also to the ‘tree log’ cakes…

I was a fan of this rhubarb-and-custard filled pastry, topped with flaked hazelnuts and demerara sugar. Even if I practised every day for a decade, I am not sure I could achieve this level of mastery of the pastry-baking art.

…to this rhubarb-and-custard filled pastry…

There is room, though, for the simple sponge. In what we now refer to as ‘Copenhagen Cake’, a new favourite is a simple vanilla sponge topped with pink icing and freeze-dried raspberries. Suitable for gluttons of all ages.

…and to this simple treat: a light vanilla sponge topped with pink (royal?) icing and freeze-dried raspberries

At the airport I spotted these beauties. The Strawberry Pie has a chocolate pastry base, topped with a layer of marzipan and creme patissiere and finished with strawberries. The Christianshavn Pie has a nutty-sponge base, topped with strawberry mousse and finished with fruits.

A mere selection of gateax AT THE AIRPORT!

Well I may not be up to making a rhubarb-and-custard Danish pastry but a Christianshavn Pie I can do. Here’s my version – and dear Reader, if you want to eat amazing baked goods, then book yourself a trip to Copenhagen ASAP.

My attempt at Christianshavn pie, inspired by that incredible display at the airport

Christianshavn Pie (Danish strawberry cream cake)

Makes 1 cake. Recipe adapted from baketotheroots.de

For the topping:
120g strawberries
2 tbsp icing sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
1.5 leaves gelatine
300ml double cream

For the sponge:
80g hazelnuts
30g shortbread biscuits
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla bean paste
2 egg whites

To finish:
Strawberries
Icing sugar
2 tbsp strawberry jam

First make the mousse. Puree the strawberries in a food processor, then transfer to a small saucepan. Stir the icing sugar into the strawberry puree. Soak the gelatine in cold water until malleable, then add to the strawberries. Warm gently until the gelatine has dissolved – do not boil. Transfer to a bowl and set aside in the fridge to cool completely.

Whip the cream until soft peaks form. Fold the strawberry mixture into the cream, cover with clingfilm and place in the fridge to set (1-2 hours).

To make the sponge, preheat the oven to 190c. Grease and line a sandwich cake tin (mine is 6-inches). Tip the hazelnuts into a dry frying pan and toast on a medium heat until golden – be careful not to let them burn. Tip into a food processor with the shortbread biscuits, and blitz to a crumb. Add the sugar, vanilla, baking powder, salt and egg whites and pulse until combined. Tip into the baking tin and bake for around 20 minutes until firm and golden. Leave to cool.

To make the topping, hull and half your strawberries and place in a bowl with icing sugar (the amount of sugar you use depends on how many strawberries you have – use your instinct). Leave to macerate for at least half an hour, at room temperature.

Meanwhile, heat the jam with any juices from the strawberries until runny, then pass through a sieve to remove any pips.

Finally, assemble the pie. Place your cake on a plate. Pipe (or as I did, dollop) your cream on top and mould into a dome shape with a spatula. Top with strawberries. Finally, brush on your glaze. Refrigerate for an hour or so before serving.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Sicilian-style pizza with onions and anchovies; mussels with serrano ham and garlic; Harry has taken to eating mango and gnawing on the mango stone.

Allotment and garden: Planted out the dahlias, cosmos, sunflowers, achillea, nigella, courgette and squash both at home and allotment.

Watching: Absolutely nothing. Our Air B&B in Copenhagen didn’t have a telly or radio and I remembered the sweet joy of silence interrupted by evening bird-song.

5 hour Easter lamb

Easter is my favourite of all the bank holidays. There’s none of the excesses of Christmas, the food is great, it’s often a time for a genuine holiday (rather than running around stressed from one family engagement to another) and there’s a sense of optimism in the spring air. What a humdinger of an Easter we’ve just had, with shorts and ice creams being the order of the day.

This year’s geometric Easter cake

I spent a happy half hour on Easter Sunday drawing up this year’s allotment plan. The idea is to separate the two main beds into vegetables and cut flowers, and then attempt to block plant in each, partly for ease of harvest but mostly because I think it will look great. In reality I may have to shift this plan around – there may be just too many plants for either side to contain.

The low-fi allotment plan for 2019. Separate plots for vegetables and cut flowers, with plenty of blocks.

Yesterday was a full day of allotmenting, the first for months and months. And actually, the first with Matt for probably around a year. He got to work raising the hopolisk whilst I removed the black plastic that has been covering our two main beds and tackled the tufts of couch grass that are at constant threat of taking over entirely. Perhaps optimistically, I also sowed a line of parsnip and carrot, knowing that direct sowing rarely works well on our plot…but this year I have a feeling that they’ll come good.

Sowing parsnips next to the sweet rocket and broad beans

Matt has laid plastic near the brook in an attempt to curtail the spread of wilderness as it reaches peak summer growth

The hopolisk is risen, as are the bean sticks.

Removing grass is hard, hard work. Since having Harry I’ve noticed that my general fitness has grown poorer and on the allotment I realised why: full days like these, lugging around trugs of turf and crouching in currant bushes, are the best way to stay strong and flexible and yet I rarely get the chance these days.

But back to Easter food. If it’s Easter then lamb is probably on the menu (as well as chocolate cake adorned with mini eggs, obviously), but – to be controversial – I think that the traditional English roast doesn’t quite hit the spot. What I want is lamb that’s been cooked for so long that it is shreddably tender, full of flavour, and with some chewy gnarly caramelised ends. In the summer I might cook a boned leg of lamb in the kettle barbecue for an hour or two, but this Easter I went for a Middle Eastern-inspired half shoulder, rubbed with spices and then baked – fully encased in foil – for 5 hours. It was sensational. No photos I’m afraid, but here’s the recipe:

5 hour Easter lamb

The day before you wish to eat, take a half shoulder (or a full shoulder if feeding a crowd) of lamb and trim any excess fat. Leave the bone in for good flavour. Place in a bowl with three or four big bashed cloves of garlic, a good pinch of cumin seeds and dried chilli flakes, about a tablespoon of sweet smoked paprika and the same of ras al hanout (I used the blend brought back from Morocco a few weeks back by Claire Fudge). Salt and pepper generously, add a splash of oil and really massage the flavourings into the meat. Cover, and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight.

The following day, preheat the oven to 140c. Place a large sheet of foil in a roasting pan, put your lamb and the marinade on top and squeeze over the juice of one orange. Cover with more foil and bring the edges together to make a tight seal. Place in the oven and leave to putter away for 4 to 5 hours, checking every hour that it’s not drying out – if it is, and this is a vital step, add a splash of water from the kettle to your foil parcel, then re-seal. (The foil is important unless you want to spend hours with a scouring pad.)

As it cooks, the lamb will become more and more tender, and the edges and juices will become more and more caramelised. When the lamb is meltingly tender, remove from the oven and increase the heat to 200c. Remove the top layer of foil and siphon off any juices – if they’ve overly caramelised then you can start again by moving the lamb to a fresh foil base. Blast the meat for another 20 minutes until the top is caramelised and crisp.

To serve, shred the meat into large chunks. We enjoyed ours with tahdig from Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food, a glorious way of cooking rice that makes it as buttery as popcorn, plus a mezze of broad beans, garlic, mint, dill and yoghurt; another of cucumber, onion and yoghurt; chopped tomatoes and masses of new season asparagus.

For leftovers, Matt made Persian burritos. Take a tortilla, then stuff with leftover tahdig rice, refried crispy lamb, yoghurty cucumber and a spot of cheese. Serve with sweet potato chip and salad. Glorious.

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Sowed leeks and carrots. Removed black plastic from the main beds and placed some over the back wilderness. Heavy weeding of the edges of the main beds and around the currants. Raising of the hopolisk. Building of bean sticks. Matt has started to dig a hole for the foundations of a new shed and is muttering about re-building the greenhouse.

Cooking and eating: 5 hour lamb, tahdig, broad bean and yoghurt mezze, Persian burritos, thousands of chocolate crispy cakes, never-ending Easter chocolate cake, Mum’s salmon with tarragon sauce and asparagus, Mum’s cheesecake, baked chicken with lemon and honey at the farm with the university gang, salad of avocado, edamame and tender stem broccoli at Arco Lounge that was surprisingly good. Harry had his first Calippo (except he didn’t as it was a fake Aldi version) and enjoyed it immensely.

Reading: Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman.

Rocket and hazelnut pesto

We’ve had a week of outdoorsing it. I took Harry up to Malvern to collect spring water and see how the wild garlic is looking – pleased to report that it’s at its peak right now. We scooped up a few fistfuls (not so much as to cause any damage to the plants, which are innumerable in my secret foraging spot) which Matt then used as the basis for a chimmichurri sauce for steak. Whilst home, we headed to Clive’s to check out the chickens.

Wild garlic is in peak form right now

Toddler living his best life

Then this weekend we headed out to border country, Hay on Wye. I used to spend a lot of time in this part of the world and sometimes have deep, physical yearnings to be amongst the cool, damp air, mountains and green. The green of Herefordshire is something else. On Hay Bluff, sheep grazed amidst the aftermath of a recent snow storm, and as we wound our way down the mountainside to Llanthony Priory, streams broke their banks onto the road.

A view from Llanthony Priory

Which all sounds very romantic until you remember that Harry sees 11th century ruins as a potential playground, and regards country roads as BORING.

The reality of taking a small child to a heritage venue

Back to more practical matters. The allotment rules dictate that bonfires are allowed only in the months of November and March, a fact I had forgotten until a few days before the end of the month. Matt went down there in a brief gap between family commitments (Mother’s day lunches and Grampy’s 99th birthday party) armed with a blow torch (yes really) to destroy some of last year’s detritus.

Managed to sneak in a bonfire before the end of March

Meanwhile I used the brief hour of calm after Harry’s bedtime / before Matt gets home to whip up a vat of leek and potato soup for when I hosted a working lunch the following day. Soup is fine as far as it goes – easy, cheap, nutritious – but it can be dull. A spoonful of this rocket and hazelnut pesto, stirred in on serving, gives the poke that it needs. I turned to rocket as I had some in the fridge – ditto with the hazelnuts, I just happened to have some on hand – and was delighted at the results. I can’t help but think that some of the wild garlic from the previous weekend would have also been a welcome addition.

No quantities with this, you just have to use your eye and trust your tastebuds. In a food processor, blitz together a few handfuls of rocket, a handful of basil or Greek basil, a small clove of garlic, a chunk of parmesan, handful of hazelnuts, small pinch of salt, small squeeze of lemon with a trickle of the best olive oil. Keep blitzing until smooth, taste, then adjust your seasoning as you fancy. Keeps in the fridge for several days.

Rocket and hazelnut pesto

Also this week:

Growing: Started off rocket, dill and violas. The dahlias that I potted up a few weeks back are starting to sprout.

Eating & Cooking: Leek & potato soup with extra chard for vitamins, wild garlic chimmichurri, beautiful canale bought from the market at Hay on Wye

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).