Strawberry & redcurrant jam

The first harvests of the year are coming, and it’s a mixed bag. The sweetpeas and soft fruit are abundant – redcurrants and strawberries, with the promise of blackcurrants and blueberries to come – but the greens and cut flowers are far from promising. Instead of the armfuls of greens that I’ve gathered in previous years, this summer the spinach has bolted before it’s reached 6 inches high, most of the lettuce has failed and the rocket is already in flower. The cosmos is tiny and the sunflowers leggy!

I raised our seedlings in the ‘sun room’ this year to make my life easier, but perhaps they would have been better off beginning life in the greenhouse….or perhaps it’s the lack of proper horse poo from Chappers’ field that’s the problem (we didn’t get any this year, partly because I was laid low with morning sickness from January to March, partly because it’s such a huge effort). But I’ve learnt that, when allotmenting, I have to put my expectations to one side: we both work (more than) full-time, I’m with child, we can’t use hosepipes, it gets cold then hot then windy. I can fuss and preen over a plant and it can fail, and the things that I ignore can yield extraordinary amounts. Plus not all is lost: the allotment can chuck up surprises and it may still all come good.

In the meantime, the first sweetpeas of the year are vivid and fragrant.

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First pick of sweetpeas

A few weeks ago I picked my first two strawberries, sweet and juicy, and I’m now collecting several punnets a week. They’re better macerated or turned into compote than eaten raw – on their own they have a curiously bitter aftertaste and don’t last longer than a day – but I can’t complain about the quantities.

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From a tiny start we now have a crescendo of strawberries!

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Yesterday’s picking of broadbeans, strawberries and redcurrants

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90 minutes later, beans are podded and fruit is prepped

In Cornwall last week I had a brilliant redcurrant and raspberry jam with my scone and cream. I’m not a massive jam lover, but this one was memorable – the sharp redcurrants cut through the insanely sweet raspberries and balanced it all out. I presume that the same effect could be had by matching redcurrants with other sweet berries and so, with all these strawberries, there was one obvious bit of summer cooking to be done: Strawberry & redcurrant jam it is!

First, place 700g granulated or preserving sugar into a bowl and pop into a low oven (160c) for ten minutes to heat up.

Next, warm 500g halved (or quartered if they’re massive) strawberries and 225g redcurrants into a preserving pan, and bring to a simmer over a medium heat. Lots of liquid will come out of the fruit and the berries will soften.

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Place strawberries and redcurrants in a preserving pan and bring to a simmer

When you’ve got a soft liquidy mass, add the juice of one lemon, another 375g strawberries, 125g redcurrants and the sugar. Adding the fruit in two parts means you get nice chunky lumps in the finished jam. Stir over a low heat until the sugar has totally dissolved, and then bring to a boil. Have a jam thermometer ready!

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Add lemon juice, sugar and the remaining fruit – heat gently to dissolve the sugar

As the jam boils, spoon off any foamy scum that comes to the top. Be careful at this stage as the jam is hot hot hot, and will bubble up alarmingly in the pan.

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Bring to the boil and be sure to spoon off any foam that rise to the surface

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Cook until the jam reaches about 110c

Once the jam has reached 110c turn off the heat and leave the jam to stand for ten minutes or so. At this point prepare the jam jars: wash in soapy water, rinse, then heat in a hot oven (200c) until dry. Always put hot jam into hot jars, else the glass may crack. I use a jam funnel to transfer the jam to the jars, but you could use a spoon (if so expect it to be messy). Cover the jars with wax discs and cellophane tops, then leave to cool completely.

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Transfer the jam into warm sterilised jam jars, cover then leave to cool

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Strawberry & redcurrant jam!

And behold, you have strawberry and redcurrant jam! A taste of June on the allotment.

Strawberry & redcurrant jam
Recipe adapted from Good Housekeeping

700g granulated or preserving sugar

875g strawberries, hulled and halved

350g redcurrants, stripped from their stalks

Juice of 1 lemon

You’ll also need a preserving pan or big stock pot, jam thermometer, a funnel, four jam jars and lids.

Warm the sugar in the oven (160c) for about ten minutes. Place 500g strawberries and 225g redcurrants in the preserving pan over a low heat and cook until the juice runs and the berries soften.

Add the remaining strawberries and redcurrants, lemon juice and sugar to the pan. Stir and cook over a low heat until the sugar is totally dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook until the mixture reaches 110c, about 20 minutes. Spoon off any foamy scum that comes to the top. Once the jam has come to temperature, turn off the heat and leave to cool slightly.

Whilst the jam is cooling prepare the jars: wash in hot soapy water, rinse, then dry in a hot oven (200c). Using a jam funnel, spoon the jam into the warmed jars, cover with waxed discs and cellophane tops, then leave to cool completely before eating.

Elderflower cordial

Anyone with half an eye can’t fail to miss the abundance of elderflowers that are in bloom right now. This is a brilliant year for elderflowers! I’m seeing masses of white froth in both the city and the country, including on an irritatingly-out-of-reach tree on the allotments.

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Elderflowers are in abundance right now

I think there’s another fortnight of elderflower foraging to be had before the flowers turn, and of course the best thing to make is cordial. I usually find my flowers from Evendine Lane on the Malvern Halls and then make this in bulk, storing bottles in the freezer to last me through the summer. Obviously it’s a great summer drink but I also use this cordial to flavour sorbet and ice-cream, and to marinate berries for a summer dessert.

Make sure your elderflowers are in full bloom (else the cordial will taste ‘green’) but not going over (else it will taste of cat wee – unpleasant but true). It’s best to pick the flowers on a sunny day when the pollen is at its most fragrant.

The only equipment required is a saucepan, sieve and muslin (or you could use a clean jaycloth). The citric acid is a preservative but also gives a lovely citrussy-tang to the cordial.

Elderflower cordial
Makes 1 litre

600g granulated sugar

600ml water (I use Malvern water, obviously)

10 elderflower heads

2 lemons, thinly sliced

1 lime, thinly sliced

15g citric acid

Over a gentle heat, melt the sugar into the water until fully dissolved, and then bring to the boil. Tip the elderflowers, lemons, lime and citric acid into the syrup and remove from the heat immediately. Cover and leave to steep for at least 24 hours. Place a muslin cloth into a sieve over a large jug and strain the cordial, then transfer to clean bottles and store in the fridge (or freezer). It will last a few months.

Chocolate crispy cakes

After last weekend’s August-like temperatures, we’ve dipped back to the more-normal low teens. It’s not a bad thing – too much heat and all the delicate spring flowers go over in a heartbeat. As it is the daffodils are now nearing their finish point, the forget-me-nots are dusting beds with delicate blue, and bluebells are nearly out. This wild garlic will flower within a week, which means that it’s past its peak. Yesterday I picked a load to be chopped into butter as flavouring for my Easter turkey.

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Wild garlic, just coming into flower

There’s a lot going on at the moment – why is it that intense work periods seems to coincide with holidays? It means that even when you’re off, you’re not really off, because something is either needed urgently or the down-time is being used for a bit of workplace problem solving. The other day I came home after a particularly difficult meeting, dumped the laptop, and right there-and-then whisked up a batch of Easter chocolate crispy cakes. Cooking doesn’t make the crap go away but it does release a pressure valve.

There must be no-one on the planet who doesn’t enjoy a crispy cake, no matter how grown up and sophisticated you are. They fall into that litany of Easter cooking which in my house will also include one or more of the following: a gooey chocolate cake covered with ganache and chocolate eggs; Easter biscuits; a roast dinner of some persuasion; spanakopita (there’s a close connection in my mind between Easter and Greek religion/tradition), a proper cream-based dessert (e.g. pavlova) and of course hot cross buns.

Like most people I don’t follow a Lenten fast, but I do think of Easter as a time for feasting. It’s better than Christmas – no stress over presents, it’s warmer and lighter and you can cook without all that pressure to do it all ‘perfectly’. I’ve been theming my yoga classes around Easter, seasonal change and fertility all week (lots of Tree and Goddess poses); all part of noticing and honouring the change of the seasons.

So, for – I quote – “the best chocolate crispy cake I’ve ever eaten” (says Matt) you need to melt together in a large saucepan 2oz unsalted butter, 2oz sieved icing sugar, 2 tablespoons golden syrup, 2 tablespoons sieved cocoa (I use Bournville) and a tiny pinch of salt. Give it a good stir until it’s smooth and combined.

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Melt together butter, golden syrup, cocoa and icing sugar

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Make sure it’s smooth and runny

Whilst your coating is melting, place 12 paper cases into their appropriate baking tray (I make muffin-size cakes). Measure 4oz cornflakes or rice crispies. Incidentally I have seen loads of recipes that call for shredded wheats here, as they look more like birds-nests when finished and are healthier. I can only ask that you don’t go down this route, because they taste horrible. It’s Easter, let’s indulge a little.

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Have ready your cornflakes

Tip the cornflakes or rice crispies into the chocolate mix, give it a thorough mixture, and that’s it – child’s play.

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Mix it all together

Obviously it’s not Easter without a few mini eggs!

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You’ll need some of these…

You need to work fairly quickly to spoon the mixture into paper cases, as it does set rapidly. Make a well in the centre and press down your eggs and then pop into the fridge to set.

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Et voila, chocolate crispy cakes for Easter

I’m not sure if it’s the whack of cocoa in these cakes or the gooey syrup, but they are epic. Not just for the kids!

Also this week:
Allotment: Matt began tidying up the grass edges, emptied the compost bins and more digging, digging, digging.
Sowing: Sweetcorn, rocket, lettuce mixes and I will start the sunflowers this week
Harvesting: Lots of tulips!

Baked rhubarb with orange & honey

I spent the weekend at one of my favourite places in Britain: Rivendell retreat centre in Sussex. Rivendell – yes, it’s named after the Lord of the Rings, but we’ll overlook that – is a place of perfect peace. It’s a grand old Victorian rectory set in a few acres of garden and woodland, run as a Buddhist retreat centre. There are no phones, no email, no telly, no radio. The daily schedule can be condensed thus: early to rise, meditation/yoga, food, free time, more meditation/yoga, food, early to bed. Which to some may sound like new-fangled purgatory but after feeling so poorly since Christmas, I have come back from my few days on the South Downs feeling as if the world has gone from black-and-white into Technicolor.

It helps that the spring weather has finally decided to join us. Rivendell’s woodland was carpeted with daffodils and primroses, dotting the ground with patches of vivid yellow amidst the buff leafless trees.

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A host of golden daffodils

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Unusual pink primroses amidst the yellow

The joy of slowing down, if only for a few days, is that you begin to notice those things that could so easily be missed. Wandering round the grounds at 7.30am (Reader: 7.30am is not a time that normally exists for me) I watched a blackbird having an energetic bath in a stone trough. Later a bright yellow butterfly meandered across the path, resting on a nearby roof to bask in the sun. Small fleeting moments.

Speaking of fleeting moments, and of spring colour, now is the time to be buying up forced rhubarb. It’s been in the shops for the last few weeks, all pretty in shades of pastel pink, but its season is short. Forced rhubarb is totally different from the thick stringy stuff that emerges later in the summer: it’s delicate and less sour. Along with the zesty citrus fruits that I talked about last week, rhubarb is there to put some colour and zing into the early spring kitchen.

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First spring sticks of forced rhubarb

You can of course use rhubarb for many things – pies, crumbles – but I like to bake a load with orange and honey and then keep it in the fridge for impromptu desserts and breakfasts. To bake rhubarb, simply slice the stems into a shallow dish and drizzle with honey and the zest and juice of an orange. The quantities will depend on the amount of rhubarb you have and the level of sweetness that you prefer, but for these seven stems I used one orange and two dessertspoons of honey.

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Slice the rhubarb into decent-sized chunks

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Drizzle with honey and the zest and juice of an orange

Rhubarb does not need a lot of liquid within which to bake, so don’t feel that you need to add any more than a few tablespoons. Once all your stems have been anointed with honey and juice, bake at 180c for twenty minutes, until just tender but not falling apart. You’ll see that it will have produced its own syrup. Leave to cool and then place in the fridge.

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Baked rhubarb, still holding its shape and with plenty of syrup on the side

So what to do with your baked creation? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Instant rhubarb & ginger trifle: Layer dollops of ready-made thick custard into glasses with rhubarb and crushed ginger biscuits, finishing with a spoonful of cream if you’re feeling decadent.
  • Rhubarb yoghurt: Mix thick Greek yoghurt with rhubarb and honey, perhaps topping with granola. Great for a quick breakfast.
  • Rhubarb bellini: Place a spoonful of rhubarb syrup in the bottom of a champagne flute, adding a slice or two of rhubarb if liked. Top up slowly with champagne or sparking wine. Utterly delicious.
  • Quick crumble: If, like me, you have raw crumble mix in the freezer, then make up a quick crumble. Place the rhubarb in a suitable oven-proof dish, spoon crumble mix on top and bake at 180c until crisp and golden.
  • Cakes and muffins: Add a few slices of rhubarb to your favourite plain sponge or muffin mix for a pretty-pink bake. If you’ve got any blush oranges lying around, you could then make a pink icing to decorate.

Blush orange jelly

There are definite signs of life beginning to emerge. In our back garden, the first yellow daffodils are about to break, and the leaves of the blueberry bush are uncrinkling like a butterfly from its chrysalis, purple and green. I visited a garden in Warwickshire on Saturday and, whilst the borders are mostly still bleak, there are shots of colour if you’re willing to look.

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Dusty-purple hellebores

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A carpet of blue scilla

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A clump of snowdrops, now beginning to fade

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Bobbing yellow narcissi are beginning to make themselves noticed

Speaking of colour, now is the perfect time to pep up the fruit bowl with citrus. It seems incongruous that these sunshine fruits should be at their best between January and March; nature’s way of taking the edge off winter, perhaps. Now’s the time to snap up oranges in all their beauty, not to mention gorgeous fat lemons and limes.

My discovery this year has been the blush orange – lighter in colour to the classic blood orange, and marbled with pink and claret, like a Mediterranean sunset. You can currently pick them up at Waitrose (who, incidentally, are also selling bergamots, those rare oranges used to scent perfumes) for less than £3 a bag. Snap them up whilst you can!

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New Favourite: blush oranges

I have been having these raw, but the vivid colour of the blush orange makes them great for cooking. Last week I mixed the juice of one blush orange with a few tablespoons of icing sugar to make a candy-pink icing for a carrot cake – pretty as a picture.

But my real favourite is a wibbly-wobbly blush orange jelly, made from fresh juice. This knocks that nasty packet stuff out of the water and is incredibly easy.

To make two servings, simply squeeze five blush oranges and one lemon into a jug through a sieve (to remove any pips), then measure the juice. We need about 300ml, so if it’s short, top it up with water. Meanwhile take 1 and a half (or two if you like a firm set) sheets of gelatine and leave them to soak in cold water for a few minutes, to soften.

Heat the orange juice in a small pan with a tablespoon of sugar, or more to taste – I like mine on the sharp side – and when it’s hot but not boiling, add the gelatine and stir until it is completely dissolved. Then pour your jellies into a glass, pop in the fridge, and leave to set.

I like to serve my jelly with a trickle of cream on top, but they’re great eaten just as they are. You can of course make this with regular oranges, but the blush variety give this gorgeous deep red colour. A beautifully light, zesty dessert…and it’s good for you!

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A glass of shimmering red jelly

Palak paneer

I found the courage on Sunday to head into the chill and take a look at the mid-winter allotment. I’m aware that it doesn’t sound remotely brave to go look at one’s land, but MY GOD that padlock gets cold in January. One touch and you are in fear of frostbite. Well, it’s all still there: the so-called ‘hardy’ chicories have not survived the frosts, and all of the remaining over-wintering chard and greens have been gnawed to their ribs by the pigeons. The raspberries are ready for their winter chop-back but that can wait for another day, when it’s a little warmer. As long as the waterbutts are frozen over, it’s too cold for any serious grafting.

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January on the allotment

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Frozen waterbutt

Last week we had friends for dinner and – we being 21st century metropolitans – this included 1 vegetarian, 1 nut allergy, 1 pregnant woman, 1 person-on-a-diet and 2 ‘normals’. There’s only one option in situations such as this: curry (the best vegetarian food on earth, in my view) & buffet (so everyone can help themselves). That may read like two options so I’ll write it again: CURRY BUFFET.

I whisked up a sizeable portion of Bengali egg curry, a batch of tandoori-style chicken, carrot salad and a pile of palak paneer. Add a few bags of samosa, pakora and chapati from the wonderful Chandigarh’s on Bearwood Road, and we had a good feed.

The palak paneer recipe is yet another that comes from my friend Tune, and is a great staple for curry nights. It’s a simple dish of spiced spinach cooked down with chunks of paneer (fresh cheese) and finished with cream or yoghurt. Incidentally, I always thought that saag paneer referred to the spinach-with-cheese combo but Tune put me right on that front: palak means spinach, whilst saag refers to general greens. Excellent knowledge from my Indian kitchen guru.

In summer I would use fresh spinach from the allotment for this but it’s January, so frozen will do just fine. To feed 6 as part of a buffet, take 8 ‘lumps’ of frozen spinach and leave at room temperature to defrost for an hour or two. If using fresh, take a large colander-full of leaves, blanch in boiling water and drain incredibly well.

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Frozen spinach is fine for this dish

To make the curry base, whizz up ginger and garlic in a mini food processor, then soften it over a low heat in ghee or vegetable oil with a large teaspoon of ground cumin. Once it’s fragrant, tip in the spinach – it doesn’t matter if it’s still a little frozen. Pop the lid on and cook down for ten minutes or so, until the spinach turns a shade darker in colour.

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Fry garlic, ginger and cumin

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Add the spinach and cook down for ten minutes

After ten minutes, tip in half a tin of chopped tomatoes (or three large, fresh tomatoes, chopped) with a good pinch of salt, pop the lid back on and cook for another ten minutes.

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Add half a tin of chopped tomatoes and cook for 10 more minutes

When it’s all cooked down, add a dollop of cream or yoghurt and stir through. The spinach can be kept like this (i.e. chunky) or for a more traditional finish, take your hand blender and blitz it to a puree.

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Then add a dollop of cream or yoghurt

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If you prefer a smooth texture, blitz with a hand blender

Meanwhile, take a block of paneer, cube it, then brown in a little oil for a few seconds until golden. Add the paneer to the spinach with a sprinkle of garam masala and ta da – palak paneer is yours.

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Add browned paneer to the spinach, heat through then serve

Eagle-eyed readers will note that there is no chilli in this, and no gluten for that matter, so it’s light and easy on the digestive system. I also suspect that it might be disturbingly good for you! Serve with rice and yoghurt for a weekday veggie dinner, or as a side as part of a more generous curry feast.

Tune’s Palak Paneer
Serves 6 as part of a substantial buffet

8 ‘cubes’ of frozen spinach, or large colander of fresh spinach

Ghee or vegetable oil

1 heaped teaspoon ground cumin

2 large cloves garlic (or more, to taste)

1 thumb-sized piece of ginger (or more, to taste)

Salt

Half tin chopped tomatoes, or 3 large fresh tomatoes, diced

Cream or yoghurt, to finish

1 block paneer

Scant half-teaspoon garam masala

If using fresh spinach, blanch it in boiling water, drain then squeeze until it is really, really dry. If using frozen, leave to defrost at room temperature for a few hours.

Blitz the ginger and garlic in a food processor, or grate it on a fine-grater, to make a paste.

In a lidded frying pan, warm the ghee or oil and fry the ginger-garlic paste over a low heat for a minute until softened. Add the cumin and cook for a further 30 seconds. Tip in the spinach with a pinch of salt, pop the lid on and cook down gently for ten minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and cook for another ten minutes. Taste for seasoning and add a dollop of cream or yoghurt to taste. Use a stick blender to blitz the vegetables to a thick puree.

Whilst the spinach is cooking, cut the paneer into cubes and brown in a little ghee in a non-stick pan until golden. Tip the paneer into the spinach with a scant half-teaspoon of garam masala. Heat through and adjust seasoning to taste. Serve.

Coconut bread

The holidays are a distant memory now aren’t they? Those few precious days of still, thoughtful calm have been replaced with To Do lists (and they are long), emails and the general drudgery of January. Our festive season ended with a birthday dinner for my Mum, who has hit her 70th year with style. And I mean that: I’ve been looking at pictures from a decade ago and the men in the family now look, well, ten years older. The girls, on the other hand, are wearing pretty well, all told. Happy birthday Mum!

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Happy birthday Mum!

I am struggling with the lack of light. It’s not so much that the days are grey, it’s just that we live in a really, really dark house. No wonder the Victorian period is remembered as being a big grim: living in brick terraced houses like this, with no electric light and no heating, they must have been depressed for half the year. If Charles Dickens had had the LED bulb, what a difference it might have made to our perceptions of 19th century living…

Don’t misunderstand me: I love our house. But it is undeniably nicer in summer. My remedy for this is to get on with some home repair (the living room got repainted this weekend) and to cook, cook, cook.

So I turned to that personification of sunshine, Bill Granger, for a breakfast bake that he recommends “for days when you’d rather be in the Caribbean”. I’ve been making this coconut bread for a few years but it’s only now that I’ve tried it with fresh coconut. What a difference it makes! So get yourself a ripe fresh ‘nut, prepare and blitz it as described in my beef rendang recipe, and then you’re good to go. This bread is in the American style of quick, baking-powder-raised sweet loaves. I serve it in thick slices, toasted, with a slick of butter, ricotta or – brace yourself – Nutella.

Bill Granger’s Coconut Bread
from Sydney Food

Preheat the oven to 180c and grease and line a large loaf tin.

Sift together 375g plain flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder and 2 teaspoons cinnamon into a large bowl. Stir in 200g caster sugar and 150g fresh shredded coconut.

In a jug, melt together 75g unsalted butter and 300ml milk. Leave to cool slightly, then whisk in 2 large eggs and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Gradually stir the liquid into the dry ingredients, until the mixture is just smooth. It is quick a stiff mixture. Don’t overmix, else you’ll have a tough loaf.

Pour the batter into the tin and bake for 1 hour, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. I like to check the bake after 30 minutes and move it around in the oven, to prevent it catching in my oven’s hot spots. It is appears to be browning too quickly, cover with foil during baking.

Cool in the tin for five minutes then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Keeps pleasingly well in a tin for a week or so, or it can also be frozen.

Beef pudding

It’s the time of year when I want (need) to pour syrup, lard and gravy down my throat. I have never understood how people can go onto healthy eating stints in January; in this cold, dark month, buckwheat noodles and chia seeds are not going to provide the rib-sticking nourishment needed to get me through to spring. To underline the point: this week I’ve been at my desk wearing thermal vest, wool jumper, alpaca-wool cardigan and thick wool scarf on top. This is no time for messing around. This is the time for suet.

So it is timely that a wonderful book has come into my life. Pride and Pudding charts the history of the British pudding tradition (savoury and sweet) from its earliest medieval incarnations to the sticky toffee desserts promoted by a million 1990s gastropubs. Its author, Regula Ysewijn, is a photographer and blogger and – intriguingly – Belgian. I think the Brits have a tendency to laugh at their own cuisine, but here is someone from the Continent with a personal passion about British puddings so great that she’s devoted several years of her life researching the subject.

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Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn

Pride and Pudding is a beautiful book and impressively well-researched: the bibliography runs to 7 pages, and I was spitting in envy looking at this weight of scholarly endeavour. The author is (I presume) bi-lingual and some of the writing is perhaps a little clunky – a good Editor could easily tighten this up – but frankly, if someone is going to give me a recipe for making clotted cream from scratch, then I love her instantly. And that’s before we get onto quaking pudding, poor knights of Windsor, apple tansy and sack posset.

Regula’s introduction is a recognition of the knowledge of our forebears and reflects so deeply how I feel about the cooks of yore that I repeat it in full: This book is a tribute to the cookery writers of the past: the master chefs to kings and queens; the female cookbook writers – of whom there are surprisingly plenty; the confectioners; the physicians; the poets; the cookery teachers; and those writers – usually ladies again – who were driven by a profound passion for British food. Thank you for writing everything down.

Inspired by my new-found literary friend, I’ll soon be having a go at jam roly-poly and spotted dick, but this week it was that classic suet-based rib-sticker: the steamed beef pudding.

Pride and Pudding informs me that beef pudding has been a favourite British meal for centuries and is an adaptation from the tradition of boiling meat puddings in cloth. Regula’s version uses the traditional method of placing raw meat, onions, herbs and beer into the suet crust, then steaming for several hours. I did have a go at making such a pudding several years ago, but upon turning it out, found the meat to still be raw. I’ve therefore chosen the slightly more reliable method of making my stew first, straining off and reserving the gravy, and then stuffing the cooked meat and vegetables into the pudding before steaming. This way you can be sure that the beef is seasoned to your liking, plus there is a  separate jug of gravy with which to moisten the plate.

The beef stew is straightforward and can be made a day ahead. Take around 500g of stewing steak chopped into bite-sized chunks, and brown in a hot, heavy-based frying pan until the pieces take on a deep colour (i.e. are not just ‘greyed’ with heat). Transfer the meat to a lidded casserole dish. In the same frying pan but on a cooler heat, soften a diced onion, throw in some thyme leaves and a bay leaf, then add 5 sliced mushrooms and colour slightly. Stir in 1 tablespoon plain flour, pour in around 200ml red wine (or a dark beer) and stir until thickened. Transfer the sauce to the beef, season well and top up with hot water to just cover the meat. Cook either on the lowest heat on the hob, or in the oven at 160c, for about two hours or until the meat is tender. When cooked, pour the stew onto a sieve or colander placed over a bowl, and save the gravy for later.

Now we get onto the pudding creation. As well as the strained stew, have ready plain flour, baking powder, suet, salt (not pictured), lemon juice and water. You’ll also need a 17cm pudding basin and a large lidded saucepan or steamer within which the basin fits neatly. I use a plastic basin with lid, but if using ceramic or glass basin, you’ll also need string, baking parchment and foil. I like to grease the inside of my basin with a little oil to ensure the pudding turns out easily.

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You need beef stew, plain flour, baking powder, suet and lemon juice

To make the suet pastry, place 300g plain flour in a bowl with 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon of salt and 130g shredded suet, then mix thoroughly.

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Combine the dry ingredients with the suet

Mix together 200ml water with the juice of half a lemon, then add the liquid to your dry ingredients. I think it’s best to do this in stages as you may not need it all. Work the liquid into the flour using a bread scraper or table knife until the pastry comes together into a ball. It should be firm and pliable but not sticky.

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Add water and lemon juice and work to a firm but not sticky dough

Work the dough gently on a lightly floured surface until smooth – we’re not kneading it, just bringing it together – and then remove a third to make the lid. Roll the remaining pastry into a circle and use to line the inside of your pudding basin, leaving an overhang of around 2cm around the top. If there are any holes just squidge them together with your fingers; suet makes for a wonderfully forgiving pastry.

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Remove a third of the dough for your lid

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Roll the larger piece into a circle and press into your pudding mould

Spoon the cooled beef stew into the mould and moisten the pastry ends with water. Roll the remaining pastry into a circle and use it to cover the beef, pressing the pastry ends together well so they are truly stuck. I like to ‘double-crimp’ – pressing the edges together, then folding the pastry in on itself to make a double seal.

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Fill the pudding mould with stew and then top with the remaining piece of dough

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Crimp the edges together, turn them over on themselves for a double-seal, cover and steam for 60-90 minutes

Place the lid on your pudding basin – or, if using paper and foil, you can follow the instructions here: www.bbcgoodfood.com/videos/techniques/how-steam-pudding.

Place your pudding into the saucepan or steamer (I use a pasta steamer for this). If using a regular saucepan, it’s wise to raise the basin from the base of a pan with a jam-jar lid. Pour in boiling water to reach half-way up the side of the basin, and set over a low heat to steam for 60-90 minutes. Check the pan a few times during steaming to ensure that it hasn’t boiled dry. All that’s needed is a gentle simmer; a rolling boil is too hot.

Once the pudding is done, remove the coverings and – with great trepidation – turn your creation out onto a pretty plate.

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Turn out onto a pretty plate and serve.

Re-heat the gravy and season to your liking (I like to thin mine with a little water) and serve alongside the pudding. I also think that a bowl of steamed greens, ideally savoy cabbage, is a must here.

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Slurp the gravy, relish the suet, eat up your greens: this is winter cooking at its best

The steamed beef pudding is real British winter cooking at its best. Suet: how I have missed thee.

The beef stew recipe is mine. Pastry recipe is from Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn. The technique for steaming a pudding is how my mother taught me, and is all the more precious for that. Once again I apologise for the strange light on my photographs, the result of blogging in a dark Victorian house in January.

Gravlaks

…And exhale. The festivities are over and we’ve tipped into January, the quiet month. The cold is somehow more agreeable now, for it gives an excuse to make old-fashioned and emotionally-necessary classics involving lard and suet and beef. The dark is OK, for we can light candles, put the fire on and make a hole in the pile of books that’s been waiting for attention since the start of December. I rather like January: it’s usually reasonably quiet, work-wise and allotment-wise, which gives me time for reflection, a spot of planning, and some proper kitchen projects.

After all the running around of Christmas, it’s good to be still. This year we were in London for Christmas, and my brother flew in from Australia to join us.

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Christmas dinner with the Stallards

On Boxing Day we headed to Battersea Park for fresh air and exercise, and I was charmed by the Buddhist Peace Pagoda on the banks of the Thames. It was built in the 1980s to symbolise hope in the face of (nuclear) war, a sentiment that is sadly needed as badly today as it was then.

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Mum and Dad take a brisk boxing day walk in Battersea Park, overlooking the Thames

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The Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park

Back in Birmingham, the days after Christmas were beautifully bright. Warley Woods is only a few minutes from our house and is usually full of dogs taking their owners for a walk. On 29th December the shadows were long, and patches of woodland were still white with frost at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

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Warley Woods on 29 December

We finished the year as we began, with a Park Run (Matt, not me) and lunch courtesy of the National Trust. Baddesley Clinton on New Years Eve was grey with freezing cloud, which I suppose some may find depressing, but I see great beauty in these dulled shades. We need a bit of dark in order to appreciate the light.

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Baddesley Clinton on the last day of 2016

Back to food projects. For the past few years my festive table has included a side of home-cured salmon, partly because it’s fun to make but also because it’s loads cheaper than purchasing a side of smoked salmon. My gravlaks recipe uses a traditional Scandinavian cure that is both sweet and salty, and punchy with herbal dill notes. And I say salmon, but this year I made it with trout and if anything, I preferred it. Sea-trout would also work well for this.

First, find yourself a side of quality salmon or trout, weighing about 1.5kg. If we were in America we’d ask for ‘sushi-grade’ salmon (which means that it’s considered safe to eat raw) but I don’t think that such a thing has been heard of in Birmingham. It’s therefore wise to freeze the fish for 24 hours and then defrost it before use, which helps to remove any nasty bacteria.

Slice the fish in half width-ways and remove any remaining pin bones. There’s no need to scale the fish, though you can if you wish.

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Find yourself a beautiful fillet of trout or salmon and remove any remaining pin bones. It’s wise to freeze the fish for 24 hours, then defrost before use. This helps remove any nasty bacteria.

Next make the cure. Using a pestle and mortar, crush 1 tablespoon black or white peppercorns with 2 tablespoon coriander seeds, then mix with 75g granulated sugar and 75g sea salt. I prefer to use Maldon salt for this.

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Measure salt, sugar and crushed pepper and coriander

Get yourself a big bunch of dill – about 25g – and finely chop, and measure 1 shot (25ml) of gin.

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Chop loads of dill and have ready a swig of gin

Now it’s an assembly job. Pour the gin over the flesh side of the fish, smear the salt mix over the gin, then pat the dill on top. Sandwich the two fillets together with the dill in the middle, then tightly wrap the fishy sandwich in several sheets of clingfilm so that it is entirely encased – if any cure falls out, which is likely, just shove it back in with your fingers. Pop the fish into a dish to catch any fishy brine, then place in the fridge for 48 hours.

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Spread the gin and salt over the flesh, press the dill on top and sandwich the two fillets together

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Wrap tightly with clingfilm, place in a high-sided container to catch the liquid, and place in the fridge for 48 hours

After two days, remove the clingfilm, wipe the cure from the fish as best you can and remove any excess moisture with kitchen paper. You’ll see that your fish has become a slightly darker shade and will have firmed up considerably.

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After its curing time, remove the clingfilm and scrape off all the spice and dill, then pat dry with kitchen towel

Chop some more dill and pat onto the flesh side of the fish, then finely slice the gravlaks into long lengths and place on a serving platter.

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Press more chopped dill onto each fillet

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Slice as thinly as possible, then serve with a wedge of lemon

Once cured, the gravlaks lasts for at least a week (it is a method of preservation after all). Serve with lemon and some form of carbohydrate, be it blinis, crackers or simple bread and butter. It is glorious, though I am biased.

This recipe is inspired by various published by Signe Johansen over the last few years, both online and in her How to Hygge book.

Squidgy chocolate-chestnut roll

Today is the first day of meteorological winter. The winter solstice, the shortest day, the darkest night.  It’s natural at this time of year to pause, reflect, and perhaps shed ourselves of that which we no longer need. I’ve been sifting through boxes of old papers, letters and cards, some of which date back to the 1980s and 1990s…the ghosts of years past. Some mementoes I’ll keep, but most have been ditched; it’s so liberating, deciding to let go of the old.

As of tomorrow, we work ourselves back towards the light. When I was younger and less attuned to the natural world, I didn’t realise that although it’s dark now in mid-December, true winter (i.e. the really cold bit) doesn’t tend to get going until January or February. Get outside and you’ll find that there’s still loads of life out there; early daffodil shoots are pushing through, the trees have set their buds ready for spring; the ivy is in full flower and the squirrels are still gathering up their nuts. Yesterday I went to Woodgate Valley Country Park for the first time, a haven of wildlife just a stone’s throw from the M5 – great respite for any city-dweller desperate for some country air. Were it not for the tower blocks in the distance, I could believe myself to be back in the Shire.

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Woodgate Valley Country Park

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Believe it or not, this is Birmingham!

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The nosey robin is the only shot of colour on an overcast December day

Some ‘old’ things are worth getting rid of, but others should be cherished. If it’s an old recipe, then I’m definitely interested. This dessert is inspired by the 1990s Queen of Christmas, Delia Smith: a squidgy chocolate log filled with a light chestnut cream. Delia’s original uses chocolate mousse and whipped cream, but I’ve swapped the chocolate for some chestnut puree, which feels appropriately seasonal. It’s kind of like a yule log, but without the rich icing; a great way to feed a crowd, or just a greedy couple.

(Note: As is a recent theme, the images on this post are terrible. I blame my dark kitchen. Santa, if you want to bring me some decent lighting for Christmas, that would be marvellous).

First, make the sponge. This is a flourless cake, so it’s super light and squidgy. (It’s just occurred to me that the new phrase for flourless is ‘gluten free’. That phrase hadn’t been invented in the 90s!) First whisk egg yolks with caster sugar until pale and thick, then fold in sifted cocoa powder and stiffly whisked egg whites until the batter is smooth and super light.

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Beat sugar and egg yolks until thick

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Whisk egg whites until stiff

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Fold cocoa and then the stiff egg whites into the egg yolk and sugar mixture

Spread the batter into a prepared swiss-roll tin and bake for about 20 minutes until risen and cooked through, but be careful not to overcook else it will never roll.

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Smooth into a swiss roll pan and bake for about 20 minutes

Whilst the sponge is baking, place a piece of baking parchment onto a tea towel, and sprinkle a little caster sugar onto the paper. When the cake is cooked remove from the oven and leave to stand for two minutes, to take the extreme heat away, then tip the cake upside down onto the baking parchment. Whilst the cake is still warm, roll it up from the short side, using the baking parchment and tea towel to help you, then leave to cool on a wire rack. Rolling the cake now makes it easier to re-roll later. It may crack a bit; that’s just the way it is.

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Put the cooked sponge upside down onto sugared baking parchment and a tea towel, roll up and leave to cool

Whilst the cake is cooling, make the filling. Loosen some chestnut puree in a bowl (if you’re using unsweetened puree then you might like to add a little sugar) and whisk some double cream until light and thick. Fold the chestnut into the cream along with a shot of rum (or brandy), then leave in the fridge to chill.

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Beat chestnut puree to loosen

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Fold chestnuts into whipped cream with a tot of rum

Finally, finish the cake! Unroll the sponge, and if the ends look scruffy then trip them with a bread knife. Spread the cream mixture on top of the cake, then re-roll as tightly as you can. It you use LOADS of cream like me, it is impossibly to roll it tightly and the cake will be like a cream-filled log. If you go easy on the cream, it will be easy to roll tightly and will look more like a swiss roll…it’s up to you. Pop back in the fridge for a few hours to firm up then serve.

This is an indulgent dessert that manages to not be overtly sweet and cloying. I think is actually gets better the next day, especially with a few raspberries on the side to cut through the richness. Enjoy!

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Spread the cream onto the sponge and roll up into a log. Chill for several hours then serve.

Squidgy Chocolate-Chestnut log

Inspired by the Squidgy Chocolate Log in the Delia Smith Complete Cookery Course (1989)

6 large eggs, separated

150g caster sugar

50g cocoa (I use Bournville)

300ml double cream (or 200ml if you’d prefer a tighter roll)

150g chestnut puree (I use Merchant Gourmet)

1 tablespoon rum

Extra caster sugar, for sprinkling and to serve

Pre-heat the oven to 180c. Grease and line a swiss-roll tin. In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks with the caster sugar until thick and light (ribbon stage). Sift the cocoa on top and fold in gently but thoroughly. With a clean whisk and in a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff. Fold the whites into the yolks; it’s easiest to do this in three stages. Gently spread the cake batter into the tin, level with the spoon or spatula, then bake for 15 to 20 minutes until risen and springy to the touch.

Whilst the cake is baking, place a sheet of baking parchment over a clean tea towel, then sprinkle the paper with caster sugar. Remove the cake from the oven, leave to stand for two minutes, then turn out onto the paper. Roll up from the short end and leave to cool.

Loosen the chestnut puree with a spoon. If using unsweetened chestnuts, add a spoon of sugar until sweetened to your liking. Whisk the cream until thick, then fold into the chestnuts and rum. Place in the fridge to cool.

When the sponge is quite cold, unroll. You may wish to trim the edges of your cake to neaten them. Spread the cake with cream, then roll from the short end as tightly as you can. Place back in the fridge to firm up for several hours, then serve.