Nordic baked pancakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry is a fan of tzatziki

First rhubarb bellini in three years!

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

Norwegian baked pancake

Bakes to a rich dense custardy mass

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Also this week:

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

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

Also: Just trying to keep warm.

Jean’s apple plate pie

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

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

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

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

Jean’s perfect pie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cook the apples with sugar and water until pulpy

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

Chill the finished apple filling

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

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

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

Spread your chilled filling on top

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

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

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

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

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

Apple Plate Pie

Makes 1 20cm / 8inch pie

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

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

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

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

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

Also this week:

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

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

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

Sticky toffee pudding with quince

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

£40 for some twigs. Christmas madness folks!

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

Wreath using ivy from the garden

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

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

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

Sticky Toffee Pudding with quince
Serves about 8

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

Slice some cooked quince into chunky wedges

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

Bubble together your caramel sauce

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

Layer up sauce and quince in a buttered dish

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

Make your cake batter – it’s a wet one

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

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

Also this week:

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

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

Sprout Linguine

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing the oxtail for its 5-hour braise

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

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

Current exhibition at Eastside Projects, Digbeth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dutch appeltaart (work in progress)

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

Fields in Great Witley on a damp November morning

Goodman’s Geese, home of the best Christmas poultry

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

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

Matt inspects the glass house at Baddesley Clinton

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

The best apple pie, at Amsterdam’s Rijks Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First frosts and whiskey cake

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

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

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

Cosmos have finally been zapped by the frosts

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

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

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

First crate of dahlia tubers for over-wintering

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

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

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

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

Also this week:

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

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

Matt’s rabbit rillettes

The temperature in our house has plummeted in recent days from long-sleeve-t-shirt-with-thick-cardigan temperature, to proper-jumper-plus-thick-cardigan-and-socks-but-still-really-cold temperature. The windows are permanently hazed with condensation and I find it inconceivable that I ever used to wander around in shorts with nothing on my feet. What madness was that?!

This means that we have arrived firmly in autumn. Actually we might be fast-forwarding through autumn in a rush towards winter, given this weekend’s chill wind. Aside from these nonsense low temperatures, autumn brings with it a great many pleasures, most of them culinary. It’s quince season for one. You can buy the fuzzy aromatic pear-shaped fruits in the halal shop on Bearwood High Street for £1 each, or I found this basket of 50p fruits in Moreton-on-Marsh the other day.

Quinces a bargain 50p each in Moreton-on-Marsh

Pumpkins and squash abound, of course, in the run-up to halloween. My local Aldi is selling ‘decorative’ turks turban and blue prince squash for 39p each – presumably they think people will use them as table decorations but I’d rather cook with these than a butternut squash anyday. In Ludlow on Saturday, the pumpkin prices were higher but the colours just as fun.

Gorgeous colours on Ludlow market

We were in Ludlow for our annual freezer-filling visit. I have come to the conclusion that there is nowhere better in the UK to stock up on game, meat, cheese and proper veg (i.e. field-fresh, knobbly and ideally still crusted in mud). Add to that the independent shops, the cosy pub that serves really good pies AND has an open fire, the Ludlow Brewing Company, the castle and the glorious country drive and you have the perfect escape from the city. It’s also surprisingly good value. We came home with (VEGETARIANS PLEASE LOOK AWAY NOW) 2 pheasants, 2 rabbits, stewing venison, stewing mutton, oxtail, 1kg beef mince, 1kg braising steak, Italian sausages, pork pie, a round of cheese, amazing pain de levain and purple sprouting broccoli for less than £55. We’re not talking rubbish meat here, we’re talking meat that someone has taken care over, but without the pretension that you find in the posh urban butchers.

The Ludlow visit always precedes the start of Proper Cooking Season. Yesterday was a happy day of concocting rabbit rillettes, beef bourguignon and orange & cinnamon creme caramel and this morning I interspersed press release writing with making a massive vat of deeply flavoured bolognese sauce. My Things to Cook list has gone subtly wintry….cranberry breakfast bread, pumpkin pie, smoked mackerel pate with beetroot and horseradish.

The rillettes are a particularly welcome addition to the autumn kitchen. The rabbit is slow-cooked with pork belly, thyme and garlic until shreddable, then packed together with their cooking liquor (which is essentially lard, let’s face it) to make a subtly-flavoured pate. Keep a tub of these in the fridge for topping warm buttery toast: lard and butter, working together to keep out the autumn chill.

Rabbit Rillettes
Adapted from this recipe by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Makes two shallow 10cm tubs.

First, joint a rabbit (or get the butcher to do it for you). Remove the rind from 500g fatty pork belly and dice into chunky cubes. Place the meat in an oven-proof dish with sprig of fresh thyme, 3 bay leaves, a bulb of garlic sliced in half through the centre and 250ml water. The meat should be in a single layer so that it cooks evenly. Cover tightly with foil and bake at 220c for 30 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 140c and cook for 2-and-a-half hours more, until the rabbit and pork can be shredded with a fork. Give the dish a prod every now and then during the cooking to ensure that it’s not drying out (top with a little water if you need to).

Allow the rabbit and pork to bubble together in a gentle oven for several hours

Remove the meat from the liquor and leave until cool enough to handle. Shred the meat from the bones and place in a large bowl, making sure all the fat from the pork is included.

Strip the meat from the bones and save the liquor

Thoroughly mix the two meats together and season well with salt and pepper (you could also add some nutmeg or mace now). Add a good splash of the cooking liquor and stir until you achieve a loose pate texture, adding more of the liquor as needed. Transfer your rillettes to tubs or jars, and refrigerate until firm.

Pack the meat into your container and chill

Serve on hot toast, preferably with something slightly acidic to counter all the lard. A cornichon or pickled onion is just the ticket. The rillettes will keep for several days in the fridge, or you could make a few jars and freeze what you don’t need for a later day.

Serve on good toast, ideally with something pickled

Also this week:

Cooking & Eating: German bienenstich (bee sting) cake, spiced squash soup, pies at The Crown Inn in Ludlow, hake from the Birmingham fish market with chorizo. Stollen-watch has begun: Aldi has its mini stollens in, which means the proper ones won’t be too far away.

Reading & Watching: The Apple Orchard by Pete Brown, a love story to the English apple tradition with plenty of references to Herefordshire. The Prawn on the Lawn cookbook by Rick and Katie Toogood.

Visiting: Batsford Arboretum to make the most of the autumn colour. Ludlow for freezer-filling. The new BOM cafe, near the Bullring markets – a cosy cafe that has been designed to be friendly to autistic people.

On the allotment: Still harvesting cosmos, chrysanthemums, chard and cavolo nero. It’s time to clear: Matt has started to remove the thicket of brambles at the back of the greenhouse, I’ve pulled up most of the annuals and veg, and have put black plastic on the one plot to protect the soil and keep weeds down. It’s nearly time for a bonfire.

Lemon ricotta hotcakes

It’s been a fortnight of partying, working and gales. Harry had yet another birthday party, complete with chocolate fingers and more cake; I had my third (THIRD!) hen party ahead of this weekend’s nuptials, then I got busy working on Festival of Imagineers in Coventry. In the meantime, the weather gods decided to do their best to destroy the wedding flowers.

My Mum’s birthday cake, complete with chocolate fingers

Oh, and scones

A hen do with my Birmingham pals, aka the Supperagettes. I was forced to wear that tiara.

Last week’s gales mean that the sunflowers have been battered and the cosmos now lie essentially flat on the ground. After much debate, I am leaving them where they are – it will take at least two people to stake them again (which is logistically impossible) and actually the cosmos can be trimmed to go into pint-sized jars and still look pretty. What drama is involved in growing wedding flowers, and mine are just the back up! Every season I find new respect for the people who grow for a living.

Then the winds blew. The sunflowers held up pretty well, all things considered…

…but the thick, big stems were the least resistant.

After a few days of heads-down work – and after the rain eased – I indulged in a little light foraging. There’s a secret place in Broadway where you can find the best sloes. I could tell you where it is…but I won’t.

Today’s recipe has become a Harry favourite. These lemon ricotta hotcakes are from my favourite Bill Granger Sydney Food cookbook – or at least, I thought they were from there, but on closer examination he uses ricotta NO WHERE in any of his pancake recipes. I had made it up entirely. So I used his recipe for a souffle-style pancake, subbed in some ricotta, and came up with something new. On the one hand, they’re a good way of getting extra calcium into the baby whilst having a supply of easy snacks in the fridge. On the other, they taste of summer whilst being comfortingly warm and cosy.

Lemon Ricotta hotcakes

A knob of butter (about 25g)
150g ricotta
2 eggs, separated
squeeze of lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract
120g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 tblsp caster sugar
milk

Melt the butter in a heavy-based frying pan (the one that you’ll cook your hotcakes in) then remove from the heat to cool.

In a bowl, mix together the ricotta, egg yolks, lemon zest, juice, and vanilla. In a larger bowl, sift together the flour, baking power and sugar. In yet another bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff.

Whisk the ricotta mixture into the flour until well mixed. Add the egg whites in batches, folding through with a large metal spoon, until combined. Loosen with a little milk if it needs it. Finally, gently stir through the melted butter.

Heat the frying pan over a medium heat and drop in a dollop of batter to make one pancake – flip when the underside is golden brown. Repeat until all the hotcakes are cooked. Serve with soft fruit.

Harry likes to watch me cook

Also this week:

Cooking and Eating: Apple cake and babka from the Polish deli in Coventry, T-bone steak from Gloucester services, trio of roasts at The Swan in Broadway

Harvesting: Not so much now. The tomatoes and beans have finished but chard and cavolo nero still going strong. Haven’t harvested any flowers for a week due to work.

Reading and watching: The Saffron Tales by Yasmin Khan, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Watching The Bodyguard, like everyone else in Britain.

Experiencing: Hupla, the 20m tall sculpture made of hula-hoops, and remembering the joy of freestyle stitching at Festival of Imagineers

Birthday cake

I am slowly getting used to the fact that summer has gone. I know we were all whinging about the heat but when the weather broke at end of July, I presumed it would be just a short break before normal 30c service resumed. It was not to be and now we’re in mid-September, wearing long trousers and socks (SOCKS!) and the heating has even been on for a few hours. Both the allotment and the back garden have got a bit shaggy and could do with a back-to-school tidy up. This may have to wait until October.

Sunflowers are nearing being out of my reach

The hops tower over everything

They’ve even infiltrated the sweet pea poles

The season’s shift means that new produce sits alongside the summer hangers-on. I stocked up with pears and apples at Clives the other week, and the freezer is now re-filled with my Mum’s excellent corn on the cob. The autumn raspberries have been brilliantly productive this year – got two big freezer bags of those – and the fridge is stuffed with beets, peppers, cavolo nero, courgettes (still) and beans (still). And the tomatoes! So many tomatoes – despite the fact that 50% of the plants totally failed.

Apple and pear season is here

Dad’s [smug] basket of produce

But onto more pressing matters. Harry is 1! 1! We have kept a human alive for a year with sanity (just about) intact, bank account (just about) intact and relationship intact (getting hitched so looks OK).

Harry is 1!

Birthday balloons

I made a rib roast as a special treat

Everyone knows the crazy lengths people go to now to make their children’s birthday cake. Google ‘1st birthday cake’ and you will see thousands of glorious bakes, each one suspiciously perfect and indicating to me that a nervous breakdown took place behind the scenes. And they’re all covered with sugar paste, which is (in my opinion) so disgusting and stupid expensive. Bugger that. So Harry’s birthday cake involved four things:

  1. Cake
  2. Buttercream
  3. Sweets
  4. Candles

The birthday cake

I went for a tray bake, as it’s easier to decorate and actually is also easier to cut up for a crowd. This one is surprisingly dense and chocolatey, so it keeps adults happy as well as the kids. I upped the quantities from the original recipe so that I could bake the cake in our massive roasting dish; use whichever quantities are right for your baking tray.

Easy to make, easy to bake, easy to slice. Sorted.

Birthday Cake
From Signe Johansen’s Scandilicious Baking

The first quantities are for a 20x30cm tray. Quantities in (brackets) are suitable for a 35x25cm tray.

5 (8) eggs (I always use large)
250g (375g) light brown muscavado sugar
75g (115g) dark chocolate
150g (225g) unsalted butter, melted
50g (75g) cocoa powder
60ml (90ml) strong coffee
100g (150g) creme fraiche (full fat)
3tbsp (5tbsp) milk
200g (300g) self-raising flour
tiny pinch fine salt

Icing:
150g (225g) unsalted butter
3tbsp (6 tbsp) cocoa powder
150g (225g) icing sugar
Squirt of vanilla paste or splash of vanilla extract
Milk to loosen
Sweets, chocolate and candles, to decorate

Preheat the oven to 170c and line your tin with baking parchment.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a bowl set over simmering water, then leave to cool.

Sift the cocoa into a bowl, add the coffee and mix to a paste. Stir in the creme fruit and milk, to make a smooth mixture (it may need a quick whisk to get rid of lumps).

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar until you reach the ribbon stage – this may take in excess of 10 minutes. Use a hand-held mixer or table-top mixer.

Pour the chocolate mix into the side of the eggs, and whisk to combine. Do the same with the cocoa mixture. Finally, sift the flour in top with a tiny pinch of salt and fold in, using large metal spoon – you may want to do this in batches. Mix carefully until fully combined, keeping as much air in the batter as you can. Pour into the tray and bake for 25-30 minutes, until firm. Leave to cool completely before decorating.

To make the icing, soften the butter in the microwave for 10 seconds or until beatable. Using a hand-held whisk, beat the butter then sift in the icing sugar and cocoa – it will make a massive mess alas – and continue to whisk the hell out of it until smooth and fluffy. Add a splash of milk at this stage to make the icing softer (but don’t add it any earlier as you risk the lot splitting).

When ready, use a palette knife to spread the icing over the cake, then decorate as you see fit!

Moussaka

Welcome to the courgette plank of shame. These don’t look that big in the picture, but trust me, they’re massive. Although I’ve noticed that the courgettes for sale in the supermarkets are sometimes bigger, which is clearly madness. According to Ruth Rogers of River Cafe fame, the best courgette for picking is the size of a large thumb – the problem being that it stays that size for, ooh, around thirty seconds before transforming into a monster. I’ve given up picking them now, so overladen are we with the glut.

The courgette-marrow plank of shame

Meanwhile the drop in temperature and damp weather has brought on the hops, which are now covered in these prickly little flowers. I’m on the allotment three times a week to pick the raspberries and gather the sunflowers, dodging showers (not always successfully) and noticing all the jobs that need doing that I don’t have capacity for.

The hops are beginning to flower

Harry and I got caught in a downpour so had to hang out in the ramshackle greenhouse for half an hour

Dad’s monster aubergine demanded some proper attention. These days I prefer recipes that take ten minutes here and there, leaving me free to run the business / remove Harry from the fireplace (his latest favourite place) / organise the wedding etc etc. Moussaka fits the bill perfectly.

Dad with his aubergine

Lots of recipes demand that aubergines are fried first but I dislike this approach for two reasons: 1, you use a shed load of oil, which is both too fatty and too expensive, and 2, it takes forever and is very dull. The best thing to do is thickly slice the aubergines, add a wee bit of oil, then roast in the oven until soft. I’ve added some summer squash to the mix because GLUT.

Roast the sliced aubergines and courgettes

Whilst the veg is roasting away, make a braised lamb sauce. You could use leftover roast lamb here – I think this would probably be better actually – but I only had lamb mince to hand. Simply cook together with onions, tomato puree, cinnamon and red wine until reduced and unctuous. The cinnamon is important, giving background warmth and the whisper of distant sunkissed shores. After an hour of gentle puttering it should be thick and delicious, at which point you can use it straight away or leave for a few hours until you’re ready to finish the moussaka.

The braised lamb sauce

Finally, make a simple béchamel sauce, generously flavoured with nutmeg. Once it’s done leave it to cool for a while, then stir in two eggs for that classic custardy finish.

The béchamel is mixed with eggs and nutmeg

To make the moussaka, layer up your dish in this order: aubergines, meat, aubergines, meat, béchamel. Bake at 180c for about 45 minutes, until the top is blistered and golden. Now – this is VERY important – leave it untouched for at least thirty minutes to calm down and firm up. Hot moussaka is a sloppy horrible mess, but warm moussaka holds its shape and the flavours shine through. Serve with a simple side salad.

Let the moussaka stand for half an hour after baking to allow it to firm up

Moussaka
Inspired by Felicity Cloake’s Guardian recipe. Serves 6 (I made two dishes and froze one)

Olive oil
1 monster aubergine and 1 summer squash / courgette, or 2 large aubergines
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1.5 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp dried oregano
500g minced lamb or leftover roast lamb. Use good quality if you can.
2 tbsp tomato puree
splash of water
150ml red wine
Parsley, chopped

For the béchamel: 
500ml milk
60g butter
60g plain flour
50g parmesan, grated (you could use pecorino or kefalotryi if you have it)
2 eggs
Nutmeg, to grate

Preheat the oven to 180c. Cut the aubergines and squash into thick slices, and place on a roasting tray. Drizzle with oil and season. Bake until soft and golden, about 20 minutes.

Now the lamb. Warm a lidded frying pan or casserole dish on a gentle heat. Cook the onion in a shake of olive oil and a pinch of salt until soft. Stir in the garlic, cinnamon and oregano, then add the lamb. Cook over a high-ish heat until the lamb is well browned and the mixture is quite dry – about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato puree and cook for another few minutes to get rid of the raw taste, then add in the wine and a splash of water to cover the meat. Turn the heat right down and braise for about 45 minutes until the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the parsley and season to taste. Leave to cool and spoon off any excess oil.

Make the béchamel. Melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in the flour and cook for a minute or two, then gradually add the milk. (Recipes always tell you to use hot milk but who actually does this? I use it cold and stir like mad between each addition to remove the lumps.) Cook until you have a thick sauce and then simmer gently for five minutes to cook through. Stir in the cheese. Remove from the heat and cool slightly, then add the nutmeg and eggs.

Finish the moussaka. In a suitably size dish (or two dishes) layer up aubergine, meat, aubergine, meat and finish with the sauce. Bake for about 40 minutes until well browned. Leave to cool for 30 minutes before serving.

Also this week:

Cooking: Roast leg of lamb with garlic, rosemary and anchovy; roasted vegetable pasta (allotment veg); caramel almond sponge; runner beans braised with tomatoes.

Eating: Pizza at Baked in Brick, Cronut from Medicine bar, Chandigarh veggie samosa and curries

Harvesting: Sunflowers, cleome, dahlia, sweetpeas, cosmos, rudbeckia, last runner beans, loads and loads of raspberries, last blueberries, courgette, squash, cavolo nero, chard, spinach beet. The tomatoes that we’re getting are great and gnarly and red and delicious.

Also: Trying to balance work projects (festival organising, website writing) with baby care with organising a wedding with general life stuff. Re-reading The Summer Book by Tove Jansson and disturbingly obsessed with Say yes to the dress on Quest Red.