Barabrith

I am writing from the bliss of a quiet house. This week I had a birthday (a big one, but the least said about that the better) and it turns out that birthdays in lockdown are tricky. It’s not like you can have loads of friends over for pizzas and aperol spritz as we would in normal times, or pop to the spa for a pick-me-up. So tea and cake in various gardens it is and rather than dwelling on the parties-that-never-were, I’m grateful to have parents who bring flowers and in-laws that make cracking Victoria sponges. Incidentally, let it be committed to print that my dear other half has promised to make me a new desk for my birthday, and now that it’s public, he has to deliver the goods.

This birthday I had not one cake but two (actually I had three but the third one came a week later)

In baking news, the cinnamon buns continue, this time with a new shape (the twisted knot) and also with chunks of dark chocolate folded into the layers, for a cinnamony-chocolatey-south-american flavour.

Cinnamon bun twists with chunks of chocolate

The parched earth of spring has now been nourished with days and days of rain. The allotment is grateful for it – the sweet peas in particular are now galloping away – and of course the fat hen, thistles and buttercups are thriving. Last year the weeds drove me bonkers but this year I’m just seeing them as part of the ecosystem of the land, their place as much as mine. As long as the flowers and veggies are still cropping, not too much harm is done by their existence. Meanwhile Matt’s made a new brassica cage, sturdier than my efforts of last year, and so I have finally planted out three types of kale plus chard and beet spinach.

This year’s brassica cage has come into operation
Harvesting redcurrants, broad beans and sweet peas

The broad beans are giving two crops weekly and I also now have a few diddy purple pea pods, planted for their shoots but left to mature just for the fun of it. Thankfully I have a helper to assist with all the processing of pods and stalks, a necessary but (to my mind) excessively enjoyable June task.

I have a helper to pod all those beans…

On to a recipe. Harry’s obsessed with Fireman Sam at the moment, and I took the view that if we can’t get to Pontypandy, then Pontypandy can come to us. Meaning, if we can’t go to Wales, then I can at least do some Welsh baking in the form of Barabrith. This one is a tea loaf made with self-raising flour, though it’s more common to find recipes that rely on yeast. Yeast cookery holds no fear for me but sometimes I prefer to take the easy option, which this definitely is: soak fruit in sugary tea, add flour and an egg, than bake. Unashamedly old-fashioned, it keeps for weeks and somehow manages to be simultaneously plain, nourishing and a special treat. My only stipulation is that it must be served plastered with plenty of salted butter.

Barabrith, Wales’ great contribution to baking culture

Barabrith

450g dried mixed fruit – I used sultanas, raisins, currants and cranberries
250g light brown sugar
300ml boiling water
1 tea bag
2 tsp mixed spice
450 self-raising flour
1 egg

In a big bowl, place the fruit, sugar, water and tea bag, give it a stir, then leave to soak. This can be for an hour or overnight, which ever is most convenient.

When ready to bake, prepare a 900g loaf tin with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 170c.

Fish out the tea bag from the fruit, then add the spice, flour and egg to the mixture. Give it a good mix with a wooden spoon to combine, then dollop it into the loaf tin. I like to smooth the top then make a slight dip so that the end loaf comes out flattish.

Bake for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until a skewer comes out clean. You may need to put foil over the cake to prevent it browning too much. Leave to cool in the tin for ten minutes or so before turning out onto a wire rack. This is a big cake but it keeps for weeks in a tin. Serve in thick slices toasted with butter.

Also this week:

Harvesting and growing: Harvesting lettuce, broad beans, peas, red currants, sweet peas, first cornflower. Planted out dahlias, chard, beet spinach, kale. Given a lovely apricot rose in a pot for my birthday from Mum and Dad, which is sitting happily next to the pink lilies (I like a colour clash).

Cooking and eating: Amazing lamb and chicken kebabs, rice, bulgur, bread and salads from the new Turkish grill in Bearwood. Baked lamb with capers, garlic and rosemary, served with potatoes boulanger. Birthday party at Claire’s with two Victoria sponges, and another at our house with one chocolate sponge, crab sandwiches, fresh prawns on the shell and the inevitable party rings. Lots of new season broad beans, lettuce, and a few peas.

Reading: Yin Yoga by Norman Blair. European Peasant Cookery by Elizabeth Luard. Feast by Nigella Lawson.

Almond (and chocolate) crescents

You know how you get Instagram food and then you have real life food? Instagram is usually style over substance but the home-made stuff, whilst not being pretty, is actually where we can find real heart-warming soul-bolstering cooking. It’s the same with cookbooks – the things we covet on paper somehow don’t carry the true essence of what is real. The expensive images can’t give the impression of the kitchen filled with the fug of bubbling chicken stock, or the furtive treat of stealing the first biscuit off the tray before anyone’s noticed. They can’t give the life-preserving feeling that you get from a slice of proper toast slathered in salty butter. Nor do they give room for the truth that some of the best cooking actually happens when we mess it up a bit.

On that note, I’ve been tinkering about my cinnamon bun recipe (yes, it is an obsession), thinking it would be fun to try something else that’s Scandi and calorie-laden, and my eye was drawn by these, Gifflar med kanel, or cinnamon crescents, from The Nordic Baking Book. Have you ever seen a thing of such dough-based beauty? Look at the swirl! Look at the shine! Look how NEAT they are!

What a Crescent is meant to look like…

So obviously I had a go and, inevitably, my version look utterly crap. Big and puffy, with all the filling oozed out, like I’ve made some cheesy sausage roll from my Mum’s 1970s M&S Picnic Cookbook. But do not be deceived, for this swirly ugly mass is a thing of caramelised unctuous gorgeous heaven.

…and the homemade version!

Instead of the cinnamon filling that is traditional, I used an almond version called remonce, the type used in Danish pastries and Mandelbullar (almond buns). The almond actually comes from marzipan, creamed with heart-stopping quantities of butter and sugar, so imagine this: Sweet dough baked golden in a puddle of marzipanny-buttery caramel. Then think of the illicit pleasure of peeling the leaked caramelised butter-almond off the paper in shards, shovelling them in your mouth before your 2 year old sees and wants them for himself.

Then imagine a chocolate version. Dear God.

Roll your dough out more thinly that you’d expect, and you might succeed in making crescents that are slightly better looking than mine. These freeze well so any that don’t get eaten can be stashed for future breakfasts, brunches or midnight feasts.

Almond crescents
Makes 32 crescents. Recipe adapted from various things in The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson.

For the dough:
320ml milk
150g unsalted butter
1 heaped teaspoon ground cardamon
15g dried yeast
1 egg
125g caster sugar
1 teaspoon fine salt
750g strong wheat flour

In a jug in the microwave, melt the butter into the milk then leave to cool slightly. In a large bowl, place the salt, the flour, the yeast and cardamon (in that order so that the yeast and salt don’t come into contact with each other) and mix thoroughly with a scraper. Whisk the egg into the milk mixture, then tip the lot into the flour and mix to combine. Once you have a sticky mass, tip onto the work surface and knead for a good 10 minutes until you have a soft, elastic dough. Or you can use a stand mixer if you have one. Don’t stint on the kneading, this dough needs it! Shape the dough into a ball, put back in the bowl and cover with a tea towel. Leave to prove for about 2 hours or so, until really risen and puffy. Meanwhile, make your filling:

Lys remonce – Danish pastry filling
125g unsalted butter, very soft
125g caster sugar
125g marzipan

Place the butter and sugar in a bowl, then grate the marzipan over using a box grater. Cream together thoroughly and set aside.

For the crescents:
Preheat the oven to 220c. Prepare three or four (depending on their size) baking sheets or roasting trays with baking parchment. Tip the dough out onto the work surface with the tenderness that you would treat a newborn baby. Gently shape it into a circle then divide into 4 pieces.

To make crescents, roll each piece into a circle using a rolling pin. They should be quite thin, about 1cm deep or thinner. Spread a quarter of the filling over the circle using an off-set spatula, then cut into 8 equal triangles. Roll each triangle up from the thick edge to the thin, then place on a baking sheet. Repeat and repeat until all the dough is used up. Leave to prove for another 30 minutes or so, until puffy.

If you want, at this stage you can egg wash the crescents, or simply leave them plain as I do. Bake for about 10 minutes until risen and golden. You may need to turn the trays around mid-way through baking to avoid burnt bits. Leave to cool before tucking in but take every opportunity to munch on the crunchy almondy caramelised bits that have leaked from your buns.

Variation: Almond & chocolate buns
To make a sinfully good chocolate version, break up some shards of 70% dark chocolate and scatter on top of the dough after you have spread it with the remonce filling. Either shape as crescents or make into traditional cinnamon or cardamon bun shapes, as I have done here. Bake as before.

The chocolate almond version. Ugly but mind-blowingly good.

Copenhagen Cake

The hot weather over Easter meant that the outside world felt a million miles away. Tulips bloomed, baby leaves and pea shoots were ripe for picking, birds scouted for nesting sites. Harry scooted and I sat. Dear God we even cleaned out the sun room, chucked out a load of decade-old paint tins and moved the barbecue to the shed. Those were days of glory.

Since then we’ve had perpetual rain and dank, grey skies, work has reared its head again and I’ve had one too many Zoom meetings for my liking. But as ever, there is solace in the garden, in the allotment and in the kitchen. Every morning and evening I wander outside for a few minutes’ solitude where I can admire my tulips and tend to my seedlings. And look at Matt’s shed in all its glory!

Bar the window, the shed is finally in a useable state!

Before the rain hit Matt found time to put up all the support structures on the allotment – it’s his favourite job, obviously – and so I think the sweetpeas and climbing beans will be planted out within the next week or so. Whilst there I found another bonus crop – lilac and cow parsley – which, if you sear the stems in boiling water, will last for a week or so in the vase.

Supports are up for beans, sweetpeas and sunflowers
Cow parsley and lilac

But easily the most exciting thing to happen this week is the tracking down of actual real life BREAD FLOUR. It’s been weeks since I’ve seen this stuff. Flour is harder to come by than Class A drugs these days (I am told). Morrisons are flogging 1 kilo bags from their bakery, which they’ve packed themselves in their paper bags normally reserved for doughnuts and sausage rolls. Good for them for their entrepreneurial spirit. It means that we can finally stock ourselves up with cinnamon buns and pizza again, staple foods in this house.

Finally scored some bread flour in Morrisons, so it’s nearly cinnamon bun and pizza time again

The whole nation is baking now to get them through Lockdown. Wise people. This time last year we were in Copenhagen, for a blissful few days of pastries, bread, pastries, bread, coffee, cake, pastries and bread. First (and only) time we’d been aboard since having Harry. It was one of the best weeks of my life. But despite all those hand-made artisan cinnamon snails and rye breads, it was actually a basic vanilla sponge with pink glace icing bought from the supermarket that sticks in the memory. We called it Copenhagen Cake and refer back to it often, with longing. Plain yet buttery. Basic yet iced. Elegant yet brashly pink. Cheap and yet not THAT cheap, for we were in Copenhagen after all, where a pint costs a tenner. It was a thing of joy.

Copenhagen Cake, the original, May 2019

I’ve tried to replicate Copenhagen Cake at home a few times, referring to Scandinavian cook books and making my own food colouring from squashed raspberries. This time, with the help of The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson, I think I’ve nailed it. Copenhagen Cake isn’t really a ‘thing’, but if you match a Swedish-style plain sponge with a tangy raspberry water icing, it’s close enough to the original. The trick is to whisk the hell out of the eggs and sugar, and fold in the butter and flour with comparatively great tenderness. Then go large on the icing and sprinkles. Enjoy.

Copenhagen Cake, the home-made version, May 2020

Copenhagen Cake

125g unsalted butter
50ml milk
2 large eggs
175g caster sugar
160g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the icing:
a scant handful raspberries, fresh or frozen
icing sugar, about 5 tablespoons
water
sprinkles or dried raspberries, to decorate

Preheat the oven to 175c. Butter and line your cake tin – I used a 7inch spring-form round pan.

Melt the butter and milk together in the microwave or on the hob, then leave to cool slightly.

Using an electric whisk, whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla together until thick and at the ribbon stage – this will take at least five minutes, probably more.

Measure out the flour and baking powder into a bowl and have your sieve ready to go. You also need a large metal spoon.

Very gently pour the milk and butter mixture down the side of the bowl with the eggs in, then fold in with the spoon. Sieve the flour on top and fold to combine – be really gentle to ensure the air stays in the sponge, but make sure no lumps of flour remain.

Pour the batter into the tin, smooth the top then bake for about 30-40 minutes until risen and golden, and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to sit for ten minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.

To make the icing, squish the raspberries through a sieve to make a scant spoonful of bright pink juice. Add icing sugar and water, drop by drop, to make a spoonable icing.

When the cake is quite cold, spread your icing over the top and decorate with sprinkles or dried raspberries. Leave the icing for half an hour or so to set before cutting.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Asparagus, tomatoes, strawberries, baby salad leaves, duck eggs – heaven. Matt’s tagine. Apple crostata.
Allotment and garden: The garden tulips are out and glorious, such a happy addition. Picking lilac and cow parsley. Baby leaves from the veg trug. Hardening off some seedlings. Planted out 30 strawberry plants.
Life: Just staying at home. Week 7 now. I leave the house only to go to the park, allotment, supermarket and the farm shop. Matt goes to the workshop. Apart from too much Cbeebies, it’s been OK.

Viennese fingers

Helen Stallard Communications is 15 years old today! That’s one and a half decades of solvent self-employment, also known as not having a proper job. The fates have been kind. I really do remember the date 1 April 2005 for it marked the day when I decided to be bold and take a really massive leap into the unknown rather than stick it out in a miserable commute that was too long, a job that seemed ultimately pointless and, most importantly, the ludicrousness of having to spend 8+ hours every day in an office regardless of how much work I actually needed to produce. The world of work, to me, seemed (and still mostly seems) off its rocker. So I “went freelance”, which is what people in the cultural sector say when they don’t really know what they’re going to do with themselves, but it turned out to be absolutely the best choice to me and since then I’ve worked with artists, composers, musicians, dancers, festivals, major events… There have been plenty of downs and uncertainty of course, but ultimately, flexibility and self-direction are the cornerstones to me of gainful employment. That plus the ability to work on worthwhile projects with interesting people. 15 years is quite an achievement and I don’t take it for granted.

I say this now because I wonder if the disruption to the workplace caused by Coronavirus will lead many people to reconsider how they organise their lives. Working from home doesn’t mean slovenliness…far from it, in my experience it leads to greater productivity. Working around caring for children or relatives doesn’t mean that you’re uncommitted, it shows that you have a full life and are adept at juggling responsibilities. Really, it’s about time that the world of work caught up.

I was due to mark today’s anniversary with a day out to London, a trip to the V&A and shopping at the fancy bakeries in Marylebone and Soho. Obviously that plan got scrapped and instead, I stayed home and made a batch of Viennese Fingers from my favourite 1970s cookbook, The Dairy Book of Home Cookery. My mum has this book and I’ve known it all my life, although the copy I use now actually belonged to Matt’s Granny. If you ignore such delights as Sole with Bananas and Potted Kipper Creams, and stick to the basics of cakes, puddings, batter puddings, scones and pastry, then you can’t go wrong.

The Dairy Book of Home Cooking, a classic that deserves its place in any cookbook collection
The Viennese Fingers have been re-named as Butter Whirls, but the basic principle is the same

Viennese fingers are one of my favourite ‘traditional’ bakery items; I still choose them when I go to Cooks Bakery in Upton On Severn. They are a basic butter biscuit dough, which is piped into either a finger or a whirl, depending on how you feel, then sandwiched with buttercream and topped with chocolate. Given that the principle ingredients are butter, sugar, flour and chocolate, this is great store-cupboard cookery, but still feels suitably celebratory. If it wasn’t for the lockdown I would never have dreamt of making these – but I’m glad I did.

Viennese Fingers
Adapted from the Dairy Book of Home Cooking

For the biscuits:
150g softened unsalted butter
50g icing sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
150g plain flour

For the butter icing:
50g softened unsalted butter
50g icing sugar

For the topping:
100g dark chocolate

Preheat the oven to 160c. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

Beat together the butter, sugar and vanilla until the mixture is incredibly soft and whipped. You may need to zap the lot in the microwave for a few seconds to reach the desired level of softness, but be careful not to let it melt completely. Stir in the flour to make a soft dough.

Using a piping bag with a meringue nozzle, pipe lengths onto the baking paper – mine are about 6cm long – or alternatively you could make whirls. (Ideally you need a star nozzle but I only have a plain one.) Place in the oven and bake until lightly golden brown – between 12-15 minutes, depending on your oven and the size of your biscuits. Check them often to be sure that they do not burn. Remove from oven and leave to sit for five minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool.

For the buttercream, beat the butter and sugar together until very pale and fluffy. For the topping, break the chocolate into chunks and melt in the microwave – I do this by turning the microwave on in 30 second bursts.

To finish the biscuits, match your fingers up so that each pair is roughly the same size. Spread buttercream onto the inside of one biscuit and press the other half on top into a sandwich, then either dip one half in chocolate or drizzle over the top. Place on greaseproof paper to firm.

Makes about 10, depending on how big your piping is!

Viennese Fingers

Also this week:
Garden and allotment: The ‘lockdown’ (does anyone else really LOATHE the lexicon of this pandemic?) means that work continues on the shed, which I am delighted by. Sowed beans, sweetcorn, watercress and delphiniums.

Eating and cooking: Not been shopping for days given the lockdown, which means that eggs and flour have become luxury items. I am still in storecupboard mode. We’ve made some dodgy but edible bread, plus hummus, chicken and ham pie and more muffins. Matt’s had a go at potato farls.

Also: Crafting, farms, trains and play doh with Harry.

Cinnamon buns

Amidst this biblical rain, I made it to the allotment last week to sort the raspberries out. Which I did, but it has left a bigger problem: what to do with the brambles. They are over-running this really productive area of the allotment. If I dig them out I’ll almost certainly lose some raspberries, but if I leave them, they will get worse. If anyone has any suggestions of dealing with rampant brambles, I am all ears.

The monster brambles and grass have taken over the raspberries

The sun did briefly shine yesterday. I know this because we were at Moseley Old Hall, the National Trust property a stone’s throw from Wolverhampton. I sat in the tea room contorting my body into the weirdest shape so that my face could be in the triangle of sun beaming in through the window. Afterwards Harry explored the woods and tree house, covering us all in mud, which is just as it should be.

The knot garden at Moseley Old Hall. What you can’t see is the meadow of native narcissi that are coming into life behind the garden.

Onto baking. I’ve been messing about with cinnamon bun recipes since Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess was published, which Google tells me was 1998. That is over 20 years of exploration into enriched dough cookery. I am low-level obsessed, and over the years have tried my hand at kuchen, chelseas, iced buns, brioche, bun cake, various Scandi versions of kanelsnegle – I went to Denmark purely to marvel over the miracle that is baked dough with butter, spice and sugar. I wouldn’t say that I am a brilliant baker, far from it, but I surely get points for loyalty.

I have concluded that the cinnamon bun can’t really be made from a recipe; so much is about the feel of the dough, that velveteen bouncy quality that you know when you touch it but can’t explain. Having been to Denmark, I would say that my cinnamon buns are not the ‘real thing’ – there they came covered with cream cheese icing, which I can’t quite fathom. Actually I never glaze my buns anymore, but do sprinkle them with sugar pearls that I managed to track down at Ocado. The Danes would never add fruit, which I do sometimes, as I enjoy the adding squishiness of blueberries or apple. But I bake not because I want to be ‘proper’, but because I want to feed my family good food. So here is my current favourite recipe, an amalgam of many magazine cut-outs, splattered cook books and 20 years of trying. No picture I’m afraid, as they never last long enough to be photographed.

Cinnamon Buns – my current perfect recipe

For the buns:
250g spelt flour
250g strong white flour
40g caster sugar
2tsp ground cardamom
14g dried yeast (I use Dove’s Farm)
5g salt
270g whole milk
50g unsalted butter
1 egg

For the filling:
180g unsalted butter
70g caster sugar
70g soft light brown sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
Handful fruit, e.g. chopped apple, blueberries, sultanas (optional)
white sugar pearl crystals, for sprinkling

First make the dough. Melt the butter into the milk – I use the microwave – then leave to cool slightly. If you dip your finger into the mixture it should feel neither hot nor cold, just wet. Place the salt, flours, sugar, cardamom and yeast in a big bowl, in that order – this keeps the salt and yeast separate. Use a bread scraper to mix it all together. Crack the egg and whisk into the milk, then pour the lot onto the flour mixture and, using your scraper, mix to a sticky mass. Turn it out onto the work surface and knead for a good five minutes, probably more. It needs to be smoothy and springy, like a baby’s bottom. Spelt flour is low gluten so this won’t become as stretchy as normal bread flour, however a good long knead is essential to a good finished bun, so don’t be lazy. Shape the dough into a ball then pop back into the bowl to prove, covering it with a tea towel. It will need at least an hour, possibly two, to prove.

Meanwhile make the filling – mix the butter, sugar and cinnamon together in a bowl until smooth. If you need to zap the butter in the microwave to get it soft, so be it.

Next, prepare the baking tray: I use a roasting tray which I line first with foil and then with baking paper. You could also cook your buns in muffin cases, which is more traditional.

When the dough is ready – a finger pressed into it will leave a lasting dent, plus it looks good and puffy – gently tip it out onto a very lightly floured work surface. Use your fingers to ease it into a rectangle, then roll out properly with a rolling pin. I make mine about 45cm x 35cm but it would never occur to me to measure it, it just looks ‘right’. Spread the butter mixture evenly over the dough, going all the way to the edges, then sprinkle on any fruit if you’re using it.

Now roll it up, starting with the long side furthest away from you. Try to keep it tight and even, then roll the whole thing back and forth a few times so it comes together in a neat swiss roll shape. Use a sharp knife (e.g. a bread knife) to slice into rounds: the size is up to you, but I usually get between 11-13 buns from my dough. (I intentionally make them slightly different sizes as Harry has different bun needs to myself and Matt. This is unorthodox, but is proper family cooking.)

Place the buns cut-side-up on the baking tray, leaving a few centimetres between each bun to allow room for spreading. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise again, this time for about 30 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 200c.

When the buns are puffy and yearning to be baked, sprinkle white sugar crystals over them. Place them in the middle or bottom of the oven for an initial ten minutes. Open the door, turn them around (for a more even bake), turn the oven down to 180c, then bake for another 15-20 minutes, depending how crunchy you like them.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Vietnamese duck braised in orange juice, served with jasmine rice, bok choi stir-fried with garlic and fish sauce, and a massive bowl of spring rolls and gyoza. Crabs and prawns from the Rag market. Accidentally spent £50 on noodles, the spring rolls & gyoza, rice paper rapers and so on at Wing Yip supermarket, which was massive fun.

Reading: Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, after a gap of about 10 years, and reminding myself of my yoga life before Harry.

Anna Del Conte’s Crostata

I’ve been obsessed with tagliatelle all this week. Lusting after it. The reason is the re-reading of Anna Del Conte’s lovely memoir-with-recipes Risotto with Nettles which – unusually for me – I’ve actually been cooking from. Her deceptively simple prose whisks the reader to a different time, a different place, a different age, that of well-to-do pre-war Milan, where women spent most of their time either shopping for food, making the food or discussing the food.

It happens that I’m reading this just after Matt’s return from Bolzano in north Italy, where he spent a few days for work. (I spent most of January solo-parenting whilst he fabricated the Sonia Boyce exhibition at Eastside Projects, then went to Italy, then was in Cambridge. And no, I was not happy about it.) Knowing that the goodwill of one’s spouse is essential to a successful career, Matt did a wise thing and brought back a bulging bag of Italian goodies: speck, salami, noisette, parmesan, pickled vegetables, sunflower bread, Milka (not Italian but still food of the Gods) and, for proper sucking up, a heart-shaped box of Ferrero Rocher. The eagle-eyed may notice that the writing on the speck and salami labels is Germanic, this a cultural hangover from the various periods of history when the Tyrol was in German hands.

Matt’s sucking up present

So when I came across Del Conte’s recipe for Taglietelle with prosciutto and peas, and I realised that I actually had proper Italian bacon in the house, and proper Italian parmesan (the stuff over there is a world away from the pre-packaged stuff in the supermarkets over here), I gave it a go. And I liked it so much that I made it for Harry’s tea the following day. And then again for MY dinner the following day. It is simply tagliatelle tossed with very finely diced onion that has been stewed in butter, matchsticks of prosciutto (speck), peas, a dollop of cream, parmesan, salt and pepper. A ladle of pasta water brings the dish together into silky mass. Simple, but beautiful, and a reminder of just how good Italian food can be when the ingredients are of perfect quality.

It makes me think how different the Italian approach to food is to that of the British. Another of her recipes, Crostata di marmellata di fichi (or Fig jam tart), is a masterclass of perfection in simplicity. Jam tart carries a very particular meaning for the English. For me, it has traditionally meant a basic shortcrust, made without sugar and with half Stork margarine, half vegetable shortening, rolled into a plate pie dish, filled with raspberry or maybe mixed fruit jam (always homemade), topped with a thin lattice, then baked until golden or even slightly over done, meaning the jam is often chewy. It’s everyday food, nothing fancy, the stuff of Enid Blyton and childhood.

The Italian crostata is a different being.  Anna’s is a pate sucre dough, made with butter, enriched with egg yolk and sugar, and delicately seasoned with lemon zest, and so it becomes biscuit-like in the oven. This is a pastry so rich and delicate that it needn’t even be rolled, but can be pressed into the tin with fingers. The lattice top spreads in the oven to become closely linked, meaning the filling is almost entirely enclosed apart from tantalising nuggets of bubbling fruit that escape from between the gaps. It feels indulgent and yet…it’s just a jam tart.

Crostata from Anna Del Conte’s Risotto with Nettles. Ignore my dodgy lattice work: I was in a hurry, school run and all that.

Anna’s recipe uses fig jam, but given that figs are not forthcoming on an English allotment, I used last summer’s strawberry and redcurrant preserve, loose set, fresh-tasting and vibrantly coloured. The same pastry could easily be filled with stewed apple, plum or soft fruit. Incidentally, she strongly asserts, quite rightly, to eat this on the day that it is made, but also that it should be eaten without cream. This is a step too far for this Englishwoman: plain ice cream on the side for me, please.

Crostata (Jam Tart)
Adapted from Anna Del Conte’s Risotto with Nettles, p99

225g plain flour (she uses 00 but I used regular plain flour)
1/2tsp fine salt
100g caster sugar
grated zest of half a lemon
120g cold unsalted butter
2 large free-range egg yolks
milk
350g jam or other fruit filling
juice of half a lemon
1 egg yolk and splash of milk, for glazing (optional)

To make the pastry, whizz the flour, salt, sugar, lemon and butter in the food processor until fine. Pulse in the egg yolks and sufficient milk to make a ball. Wrap and place in the fridge to firm up for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer.

Preheat the oven to 200c. Grease a 8 or 9 inch tart tin with a loose bottom and sprinkle with a little flour, shaking off the excess.

Remove about one third of the dough and roll the rest out into a circle, about the depth of a pound coin, and use to line the base of your tin. If this is tricky, you can take lumps and simply press it into the sides of the tin, ensuring that there are no gaps and that the pastry is even. Make sure the pastry is pressed firmly down between the base and the side.

Mix the jam with the lemon juice and pile it into the tart case, spreading it out evenly.

Roll out the remaining dough and cut into strips about 1-2cm thick, then place the strips quite closely together in a lattice format over the tart (they will spread a little in the oven). If you wish, brush the pastry with a glaze made of egg yolk mixed with a little milk.

Bake for 10 minutes at 200c then turn the heat down to 180c and bake for 20 minutes, until the pastry is golden and biscuit coloured. Leave to cool in the tin before serving at room temperature.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Tagliatelle with prosciutto and peas, or did I mention that already?; Rogan josh made with goat from the butchers on Bearwood High St, with a good saag aloo and some terrible chapatti; lots of blush oranges whilst they’re in season, including blush orange bellinis; apple cake with whipped cream at Ikea. Harry’s really into what he calls ‘cold cheese’, which is cream cheese, but I like his name better.

Reading: Gave up on the Jilly Cooper, she’s not for me. Also tried, and gave up on, Walden…there are too many grumpy men in the world as it is without reading their work at bedtime. So Anna Del Conte is providing respite, plus I am dipping into the re-print of Dick Strawbridge’s book about sustainable living.

Also: Attended Writing West Midlands course Starting to Write, which was fun if only to see the characters who go on a writing course on a stormy Saturday in February. It feels good, after 2 and a half years of constant work/parenting, to find little notches of space for creativity. Also our two expensive new windows were finally fitted, and the house has warmed from Positively Arctic to merely needing only one jumper. Only six more windows, a kitchen, the shed, the utility room, the bathroom and my office still to do.

Seville orange cake

2020 has hit us with a bang. This past week I’ve had a cold so bad that a hole in the head to alleviate sinus pressure would have been welcome. Matt’s working all hours so I am single-parenting whilst also putting in the hours on my own projects. Harry’s in the terrible twos. Yah-de-yah-de-yah, moan moan moan. The other week I took myself over to Leamington Spa for a special lunch date with my friend Tune and – more importantly – Tune’s mum, Mrs Roy, who is from Calcutta. Mrs Roy is not confident with her English, which is fair enough as my Bengali is somewhat lacking. But good cooking crosses all borders and languages, and I was fascinated as she expertly toasted her daal and rolled her parathas from scratch. Who would have thought that cabbage curry could be so delicious? Well in the hands of a Bengali cook it really can (the trick is more salt than I ever thought feasible).

Mrs Roy’s vegetarian lunch

I’ve also been busy with the seed catalogues, planning and plotting. I’ll post about this another day but there are to be some new additions to the allotment this year, with yet more cut flowers and a few varieties purely for drying. And despite the cold, there is sowing to be done: the chill of our sun room is the perfect place to start off a few sweetpeas, deceptively tough as they are, plus there’s the first of many sowings of broad beans. I’ve also filled a drain pipe with mustard mix for an early crop of spicy leaves; it’s the perfect size for a windowsill salad bar.

Amidst the chaos, sweet peas, broad beans and mustard leaves have been started on their way

January food writing seems to be entangled with veganuary and being booze free, which is all well and good, but seems to me to be at odds with what’s actually good to eat right now. I like a salad as much as the next person but surely January is the time for root vegetables, slow cooking and rib stickers? Or citrus for that matter, which is now bountifully in season. I came home with other week with a box of Seville oranges, lovely for marmalade but with potential for so much more. I enjoy their citrus astringency, and use the juice in stir fries or stuff the whole fruit into the cavity of a roast chicken so that the sharp orangey fug can permeate the flesh.

This recipe for Seville orange cake could also be called marmalade cake, for that is what it tastes like; the alchemy happens when the gooey orange syrup melts its way into the just-cooked crumb, making a cake that is sweet and sharp and dense and damp all at the same time. Perfect on its own with a cup of tea but also – my preference – with a fruity compote and a dollop of thick double cream.

Seville Orange Cake
Recipe adapted from Waitrose & Partners Food magazine, January 2020

200g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
1 Seville orange, zest and juice
2 eggs
300g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
150g natural yoghurt
50ml sunflower oil

For the syrup:
2 seville oranges
75g caster sugar
40g clear honey

Grease and line a 900g loaf tin and pre-heat the oven to 180c.

Beat together the butter, sugar and orange zest until pale and fluffy; I use electric beaters for this. In a separate bowl, sieve together the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda to combine. In yet another bowl, measure the yoghurt, oil and orange juice (squeeze the fruit through your fingers to get rid of the pips) and stir to combine.

Add the eggs one at a time to the butter mixture along with a spoonful of flour between each addition, mixing thoroughly. When all is combined, beat in the remaining flour and the yoghurt mixture until you have a smooth dollop-able batter. Spoon into the cake tin and bake for 1 hour 10 minutes or so, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Keep an eye on the cake as it may brown too soon; if this happens, cover with foil and also maybe reduce the heat to 170c.

Leaving the cake in its tin, leave to stand for 10 minutes whilst you make the syrup. The centre of the cake will probably collapse in on itself but no matter. Warm together the juice, sugar and honey until the sugar has dissolved, then raise the heat and bubble for a few minutes until it looks syrupy. Stab the cake several times with the skewer, then carefully and slowly pour the hot syrup over the cake, allowing it to soak into your holes. Leave to cool entirely before removing from the tin.

Seville orange cake

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Yet more cinnamon buns, this time made with 50% spelt flour, 50% strong white flour. I can never get enough of them. Sausages with lentils stewed with red wine, which pleasingly gives me a glass of something in the evening. Trying to find nourishing things to feed Harry with and am brought up short by the realisation that all he really wants are baguette, biscuits, shreddies and chocolate.

Reading: The Consolations of Food by Valentine Warner, which is essentially the book that I would like to write myself, and Dick Strawbridge’s book about bread, borrowed from the library, which reminds me that I can actually bake and should do it more often. Revisiting Vajragupta’s Buddhism: Tools for living your life in an effort to regain mental clarity.

Also: Sowed broad beans, sweet peas and mustard salad mix. Ordered my seeds for this season, plus several plug plants as I don’t have space to propagate. Made myself go for my first solo swim in something like 5 years as I rarely find the space to exercise these days.

Quince and apple crumble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also this week:

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

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

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

Pear and honey tea bread

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

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

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

Mystery squash turned into a handsome massive pumpkin

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

Low autumnal light at Baggeridge Country Park

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

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

Pear and honey tea bread

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

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

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

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

Plum torte

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

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

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

The white dahlias are phenomenal this year

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

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

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

Japple pudding: jam topped with sponge topped with sliced apple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuscan Plum Torte
Adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

For the caramel:
275g granulated sugar
150ml water

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

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

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

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

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

Also this week:

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

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

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