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).

Nordic baked pancakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry is a fan of tzatziki

First rhubarb bellini in three years!

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

Norwegian baked pancake

Bakes to a rich dense custardy mass

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Also this week:

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

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

Also: Just trying to keep warm.

Jean’s apple plate pie

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

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

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

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

Jean’s perfect pie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cook the apples with sugar and water until pulpy

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

Chill the finished apple filling

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

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

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

Spread your chilled filling on top

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

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

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

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

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

Apple Plate Pie

Makes 1 20cm / 8inch pie

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

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

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

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

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

Also this week:

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

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

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

Sticky toffee pudding with quince

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

£40 for some twigs. Christmas madness folks!

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

Wreath using ivy from the garden

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

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

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

Sticky Toffee Pudding with quince
Serves about 8

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

Slice some cooked quince into chunky wedges

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

Bubble together your caramel sauce

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

Layer up sauce and quince in a buttered dish

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

Make your cake batter – it’s a wet one

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

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

Also this week:

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

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

Sprout Linguine

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing the oxtail for its 5-hour braise

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

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

Current exhibition at Eastside Projects, Digbeth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dutch appeltaart (work in progress)

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

Fields in Great Witley on a damp November morning

Goodman’s Geese, home of the best Christmas poultry

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

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

Matt inspects the glass house at Baddesley Clinton

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

The best apple pie, at Amsterdam’s Rijks Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First frosts and whiskey cake

Our house needs a big red cross on the front door: once again we are diseased. Well actually it’s not that dramatic – potentially a bit of hand, foot and mouth, except Harry’s spots are on his bum, knees and mouth. I haven’t googled “bum, knees and mouth childhood illness” as I’m pretty certain it’s new to science. Whilst Harry’s potentially infectious and therefore off nursery, I’ve been mentally bouncing off the walls at being nearly-housebound. The worst is over so today we even went to Ikea out of desperation.

In the meantime, autumn has taken hold and Birmingham is bathed in golden colour. It’s good to pay attention to these things…the changing light roots me into the passing of the seasons. We’ve had a few frosts now which have finally meant the end of the cosmos – the Cosmos Purity and Dazzler gave me blooms from June to November, which is pretty impressive.

My allotment visits look like this now, meaning it’s almost impossible to get anything done

Cosmos have finally been zapped by the frosts

A week or so back I managed to take out the remaining plants from the one veg bed and get some black plastic down, to protect the soil from the worst of the winter weather and limit the weeds. Keeping the plastic in place is always a feat of “that’ll do” – pegs and staples are useless here, so I use any bits of heavy material I can find including, this year, the hopolisk, some discarded fencing and (my favourite) a marrow.

The one veg plot has been covered in plastic, though the brassicas are still going strong

Without really meaning to, I have become the proud owner of a gazillion dahlias – none of which are in the right place. The ones at home have now been dug up so that I can over-winter them indoors and replant in the spring. The allotment ones also need to come up (just need to find the time) and they will get the same treatment.

First crate of dahlia tubers for over-wintering

All this is diversion from what Harry and I spend most of our poorly time doing, which is cooking. Every morning I plonk him in the high chair so he can watch me concoct something – today it was a lentil and vegetable stew, which he later scoffed very happily, and yesterday it was a parsnip and cheddar soda bread. I know that he’s very young to be indoctrinated into Stallard cookery but I like to think that he will learn by osmosis.

One of his favourite treats of recent weeks has been an Irish Whiskey Cake that was leftover from the cake table at our wedding. He (and I) liked it so much that I pumped my friend Felicity for the recipe, which she in turn had to get from Mrs Audrey Flint from Smethwick Old Church. Audrey very kindly came up with the goods, and I discovered that my naive assumption that the whiskey would have been baked into the cake was wrong wrong wrong. It’s actually a tea bread, and the key ingredient is drizzled on after cooking to increase the moisture content…which means that my son has started his boozy life extremely young.

Here is Audrey’s fine typed-up version, which I see no reason to re-type as I can not improve on this excellent piece of food culture. Thank you Mrs Flint for carrying on the fine tradition of simple yet richly fruited, boozy loaves that keep forever.

Irish Whiskey Cake courtesy of Mrs Audrey Flint of Smethwick Old Church

Also this week:

On the allotment: Covered one vegetable bed with plastic. All the cut flowers are now finished, but still harvesting chard, beet spinach and cavolo nero.

Cooking and eating: Chocolate Eve’s pudding, parsnip & cheddar soda bread, banana muffins, lentil and vegetable stew.