Chocolate sorbet

I start with a warning: when grinding steel to make a new top for the hopolisk, remember to wear goggles. Matt failed to do so, got a fleck of steel in his eyeball, and had to go to the hospital for a jab from a doctor with a sharp implement.

When grinding steel always wear a mask, else you may end up with a trip to the eye hospital

With both eyes now intact, we disappeared for a long weekend in the Peak District, which was happily imbued with Royal Wedding spirit, warm sun and abundant blossom. I had forgotten what it is to wake up to the sound of birds and sheep rather than buses – what a life affirming joy it is to be close to the land. Especially the land in May, the kindest of all months.

Abundance of apple blossom at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

Cow parsley is at its best right now

A hangover from Christmas on a dry stone wall

Royal Wedding day, and Her Maj and Prince Philip hang out on the roses

Harry loved being away. In the last two months he’s become incredibly skilled on his walker – it’s his passport to freedom. Turn your back for a second and whoooooooosh! He’s off!

Harry tried to escape but gravel stopped play

At the end of 2012 my Dad and I went to Australia to visit my brother, who is based in Adelaide. We had a few days in Sydney, staying in an apartment-hotel directly above Bill Granger’s restaurant in the Surry Hills. I booked the hotel purely on the basis of the Bill Granger connection but ended up not eating there – the prices were so offensively expensive, no sane person can spend THAT much on scrambled egg with avocado. However by happy accident we discovered that the street was full of interesting independent restaurants and food shops including the most brilliant gelataria, Messina. There were queues trailing down the street for this little ice cream shop and when I finally got to the front of the queue I panicked at the masses of choice and asked for a cup of chocolate sorbet whilst thinking “chocolate sorbet? are you mad?”

It turned out to be glorious of course. I went back the next night for another go. I have never forgotten that chocolate sorbet and everytime anyone goes to Sydney I tell them: find Messina! It’s AMAZING! I’ve tried to recreate that chocolate sorbet a few times but never had any joy until I found this recipe, by Angel Adoree in the Vintage Tea Party Cookbook. Her trick is to use proper dark chocolate rather than cocoa, which makes for a smooth texture. I would add that it’s important to ensure that the syrup isn’t so hot as to make the chocolate seize when you mix them together. Use 70% chocolate and you’re all set.

Dark chocolate sorbet
From The Vintage Tea Party Cookbook

Ensure that your ice cream maker is properly frozen before you begin. In a saucepan, melt 200g caster sugar into 500ml water until completely dissolved. Turn the heat off and leave to cool for 5-10 minutes.

Make a syrup with 500ml water and 200g sugar

Meanwhile chop 200g dark chocolate into shards. I used 70% cocoa solids chocolate but it’s nothing posh, just Aldi own brand.

Chop 200g dark chocolate – I used Aldi’s own brand with 70% cocoa solids

Put the chocolate into a heat-proof jug, pour the syrup on top, then stir until the chocolate has melted. Don’t pour boiling syrup onto your chocolate else the chocolate will seize. Put the jug into the fridge and chill thoroughly (about 2 hours).

Pour the warm syrup onto the chocolate, then stir to dissolve and chill thoroughly

When the syrup is properly cold, churn to a slushy sorbet in the ice cream maker, then freeze until firm.

Churn to a sloppy sorbet, then transfer to the freezer to harden up

When you want to serve, take the sorbet out of the freezer for at least 10 minutes to soften slightly. This is really really intensely chocolatey but it doesn’t have the lingering cloyingness of chocolate ice cream. I like it with sliced strawberries and a suggestion of cream.

Chocolate sorbet – lovely with strawberries and cream

Also this week:

Allotment: Planted out sweet peas, courgette, squash, zinnia, rudbeckia, borage, chrysanthemums. Tomatoes went into the greenhouse (hard work – it was 40c heat in there). Finally dug over the sunflower patch. Went on a trip to Worcester to buy new hazel poles for the sunflowers from Worcester Coppice Crafts. With the warm weather, long days, a happy baby and the last few weeks of maternity leave, I’m finding I can get loads done….it’s like a shot of energy and enthusiasm.

Eating & Cooking: Cream tea at Chatsworth Farm Shop, chips at one of the numerous chippies at Matlock Bath. Make a lovely lentil salad rich with mustard and garlic, tossed with sausages and rocket from the garden.

Reading: Travel books written in the 1950s from the wonderfully OTT Lawrence Durrell

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Clementine Cake

I’ve been reading up on baby weaning lately and in so-doing, was prompted to revisit Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat. There’s a chapter buried in the back devoted to the feeding of babies….ten days later I’ve yet to get to said chapter for it turns out that this is the most distracting of books, a calming balm for the sleep-deprived cook.

A 1990s classic: How to Eat

Putting to one side the fact that Nigella drops into her introduction that she wrote How to Eat whilst pregnant / nursing (note, this is a whopper of a book with 500+ pages of dense prose. Already I feel inadequate, as I consider it a success if I manage to check my email in the course of a day, never mind write a classic. I suppose being monied helps), I am struck by how ahead of its time How to Eat was. The pages are full of foods that, as a student in 1998, I had heard of but would never dream to encounter: pomegranate molasses, marsala, quince. There is talk of Lebanese supermarkets and popping out for brioche and challah. Meat comes not with a dollop of mash, but with chick pea’d couscous and polenta.

At the time I felt myself to be terribly unsophisticated for not cooking like this on a daily basis (I was, but then so was 99.99% of the population). This was the food of the London sophisticate, recorded unapologetically, in a fashion that is now unpopular in the age of austerity and clean eating. I think I can thank Nigella for widening my culinary horizons… Twenty years on I can remember making some of her dishes – including walking three miles to the Co-op to try to find an aubergine (they didn’t have any) – and was beside myself the first time that I went to an actual real life Lebanese supermarket (it was in north London in about 2006 and the celery was amazing, in full leaf like the most over-the-top floral display).

In homage to Nigella, here’s her clementine cake, which I first made for a New Year’s Eve gathering in the early 2000s. It manages to be sweet but with an element of bitter, which comes from the inclusion of the whole fruit in the batter. I wasn’t so keen on it then, but I now prefer bakes that aren’t too sweet and I think it’s marvellous. Incidentally Sarah Raven has a similar cake in her Garden Cookbook, which I also turn to from time to time.

Clementine Cake
From Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat

First, put 5 clementines in a saucepan and simmer for about two hours, until completely soft. Leave to go cold, then remove any bits of stalk and pips, and whizz to a pulp in the food processor.

Simmer five clementines until totally soft then whizz to a pulp

Next, oil and line a 21cm springform tin and preheat the oven to 180c. Beat 6 eggs until just combined, then add 225g caster sugar250g almonds and 1 teaspoon baking powder. (If you’re short on almonds, you can use 150g almonds and 100g plain flour or, even better, a mixture of almonds and breadcrumbs. The cake will be lighter in texture but still good.) Stir in the orange pulp.

As well as your clementine pulp, have ready eggs, almonds and caster sugar (& baking powder, not shown)

Whisk eggs with the sugar and almonds

Add the clementines

Pour the lot into the tin and bake for about an hour. The cake will likely need to be covered with foil after about 40 minutes to stop it browning too much. Cool in the tin and then turn out, to be served naked or with cream and a dollop of fruit (rhubarb compote would be excellent).

Once baked – a not-too-sweet cake for tea or pudding

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Marmalade

So much for Calm January! As usual, the quiet first few days of the new year have given way to busy-busy-busyness: I’ve taken on a few small work projects to keep my hand in, and these, combined with baby-care, mean the days are disappearing. Which is no bad thing: the dark days of January drag on a bit, don’t they?

Today’s other juggling act has been the making of marmalade. Seville oranges are in the shops now and the season is short, so there’s no real time for delay. Marmalade-making is meant for a slow, pottering day in the kitchen…but in our house I had to fit it in between copy-writing jobs, during nap times and after bedtime. Note: This does not lead to a relaxing few hours of cooking. But on the plus side, I discovered an unexpected upside of having a baby in the house, namely the microwave bottle steriliser that now doubles up as my jam-jar steriliser.

Marmalade

This recipe is Nigel Slater‘s and makes 6 large jars.

Take 1kg of Seville oranges and 2 lemons. Score the fruit from top to bottom, to separate the rind from the fruit within.

Score the rind of 1kg Seville oranges and 2 lemons

Next, separate the peel from the fruit and place into separate bowls.

Separate the rinds from the fruit

Using a sharp knife, slice the rind into thin strips. In truth mine are little thick – but it depends how chunky you like your marmalade. Squeeze the fruit segments through a sieve into a bowl, reserving the pith and seeds.

Finely slice the rinds and squeeze the fruit, saving all the pips and pith

Place the pith, pips and other orangey detritus into a muslin bag and secure it tightly. These contain lots of pectin, which helps to set the marmalade.

Put all the pips, pith and general orangey detritus into a muslin bag

Then get a massive bowl, measure the squeezed orange and lemon juice, and add enough water to make up the quantity to 4 litres. Add the strips of rind and the muslin bag, then leave to sit overnight.

Make the juice up to 4 litres, then leave the rind, juice and muslin bag to sit overnight

The next day, transfer the lot to your biggest pan – ideally a preserving pan – and bring to a simmer. The rinds need to be cooked until soft, the timing of this depending entirely on how thickly they have been sliced (mine took 40 minutes).

The next day, use your biggest pot to simmer the rinds until soft

In the meantime, get on with washing and sterilising your jam jars – I used the baby bottle steriliser but 10 minutes in a hot oven will do the same job.

In the meantime, sterilise the jam jars

When the rinds can be easily broken against the side of the pan, they are done. Remove the muslin pan from the pot and leave aside until it is cool enough to touch, then squeeze it hard and return any juices to the pan.

Soft rinds!

Your windows will get steamy – enjoy!

Your windows should get good and steamy

Add 1.25kg granulated sugar to the pan. You can use golden caster sugar here, which will give you a darker marmalade, but I prefer the lightness of regular white sugar. I warmed mine in the oven, which Nigel Slater does not mention, but I understand this is an important part of making preserves and it definitely won’t do any harm. Stir the sugar over a low heat until it has dissolved.

Add your warmed sugar to the pan and stir gently over a low heat to dissolve

Now ramp up the heat and boil the mixture hard until the thermometer reaches 105c. You can also use the teaspoon-of-mixture-on-a-cold-saucer trick….but I prefer the scientific approach. It can take up to 50 minutes to get to this point.

Ramp up the heat and boil until the thermometer reads 105c

Leave the marmalade to sit for 15 minutes and then ladle into your jars. Cover, cool and enjoy!

Stand the mixture for 15 minutes and then ladle into the waiting jam jars. Cover and leave to cool.

Also this week:

On the allotment: Pruned blackcurrants, redcurrants and raspberries. Ordered seeds for 2018 growing. Cleaning pots ready for sowing sweetpeas and broad beans

Cooking: Anything that’s nourishing and inexpensive, including sausages with lentil stew, daal, squash soup, Mexican braised beans with smoked ham hock, Chocolate brownie pudding with armagnac prunes

Granny’s apple scone

Life is gradually mellowing into a new rhythm. I am back to my clock-watching habit, but now it’s to calculate feed times rather than dashing to work meetings. Dare I say that the night feeds have become less hideous now that I’m getting my strength back and the baby has a more predictable rhythm to his day…but I don’t want to speak too soon, it could all change again tomorrow.

It’s good to be heading towards some kind of stability or normality; I don’t care for chaos. The other weekend we braved a visit to Quainton in Bucks to catch up with my uni friends – a whole day away from home with no disasters!

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Early evening in Quainton

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First visit to the farm (Harry, not Matt)

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We’re out in a different county…a miracle!

In other news, Matt’s Granny and Grampy (both remarkable people, blessed with long life and good health) have recently moved out of their bungalow into a care home. Granny has spent her entire life baking and I’ve been lucky enough to be given temporary guardianship of her recipe books, handwritten in neat script and with brilliant records of the hundreds (not exaggerating) of mince pies and rich fruit cakes baked each Christmas for friends and neighbours.

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Granny’s recipe book

Obviously I’m going to have a go at some of these classic recipes though I am very conscious that there is danger here – no matter how hard I try, my efforts will never be considered by Matt to be as good as Granny’s, or his Mum’s for that matter. This apple scone recipe is a case in point: Matt grew up on this and I feel I have a duty to add it to my repertoire to keep the family tradition going, though it will probably take a good 20 years of practice before I finally get it just right. Food and cooking carry with them great nostalgic value; the link between generations.

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The famous apple scone recipe

Apple scone is, as the title suggests, a scone with apple in it. In a world of red velvet cakes and beetroot brownies it’s refreshing to work with a recipe that is solidly straight-forward and, dare I say, plain.  The fruit makes the scone slightly more dense and moist than normal and pleasingly it’s not too sweet.

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My effort…not bad for a first timer!

This is a fantastically adaptable bake: Granny suggests to eat with butter; Matt’s sister Claire suggests trying it with custard or ice cream, but I’d have it plain for breakfast with the first caffeine shot of the day. My attempt used apples from Grampy’s trees.

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Have for afternoon tea, pudding, or breakfast after the morning feed.

Granny’s apple scone
8oz self raising flour
2oz unsalted butter
pinch salt
1 level teaspoon baking powder
1 large cooking apple, peeled, cored and finely diced
2oz caster sugar
little milk
demerara sugar

Sift the flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until only the finest lumps remain. Stir in the sugar and apple, then add enough milk to make a soft dough.

Transfer the dough to a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Press the dough to an 8-inch round shape and mark into 8 wedges. Brush with milk and scatter with demerara sugar.

Bake at 180c for about 20 to 25 minutes.

Gooseberry, strawberry & almond crumble

The oppressive heat, horrible things in the news, and long, intense work hours have got the better of me this week. I received a work email on Friday lunchtime that, in ordinary circumstances, would have made me raise an eyebrow and swear. Except on this occasion I read it, took an in-breath, and burst into tears. Note: I very rarely do this. I’ve studied yoga for twelve years in an effort to NOT do this! (I am willing to grant that pregnancy hormone might also be at play.) So I decided to be my own HR department, slapped the laptop shut, then headed to the allotment for an hour of pottering and seed sowing. I’ve learned that a very important part of being your own boss is learning the art of self-care: I can’t hope to work effectively if I am working to exhaustion. Plus I don’t get paid enough to put up with excess levels of BS.

At the start of the week, the greenhouse thermometer was reading a whopping 50c – now that is HOT. I thought that would spell disaster for all things green but actually, the tomatoes and squash are thriving and the sweetpeas are doing well. It’s a different story for the beans, greens and cosmos, which remain stunted. I’ve decided to cut my losses so pulled up the bolted summer rocket, forked over the ground and started again: Friday’s melt-down resulted in a productive and satisfying hour sowing neat lines of lettuce, chard, parsnips, rocket, kale (for salads) and green beans. A positive outcome….if they grow!

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Scorchio!

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The courgettes and squash are thriving, and in a week we’ll be inundated

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But beans are a different story – the plants are just a few inches tall, my hand here for scale

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The ‘wild’ flowers I started from seed have come true, great for bees, but the cosmos plants are small and unpromising. I’m really saddened by this, it seems that cosmos are a vital part of my allotment happiness.

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Getting several posies of sweetpeas a week, though only one single cosmos bloom so far!

It’s soft-fruit-glut-stress season. We were in Tamworth yesterday and Matt’s mum passed us a few bags of rhubarb and gooseberries from their allotment – she’d texted earlier to ask if I wanted any and I of course said yes but, and I quote, ‘not lots’. There are only two of us after all. But soft-fruit-glut-stress is a universal experience and so I quite understood when we were handed a few kilos of goosegogs and more rhubarb than I’d get through in a year. No-one likes waste. I’ve been plotting to alleviate my own soft-fruit-glut-stress by inviting my friend’s kids over to pick blackcurrants as an after-school activity (hopefully Helen won’t swear too much when she realises that this activity could lead to hours topping and tailing fruit before sweating over boiling vats of jam).

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Tamworth goosegogs and rhubarb

The Tamworth gooseberries are fab: plump and fat and firm. I also had a few strawberries kicking around from the allotment that needed using up and, inspired by last weekend’s forays into redcurrant and strawberry jam, wondered if the sweet strawbs would be a good foil to the sharp green gooseberries. Only one way to find out: gooseberry & strawberry crumble it is.

I don’t have any quantities for this, just a method that can be adapted according to whatever fruit is in season. It’s how my Mum makes crumble, and it’s probably what her Mum did before her. First, get enough berries to fill your crumble dish to the brim (they’ll cook down lots). Make sure the berries are hulled / topped-and-tailed, and pop them into a mixing bowl.

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For a summer crumble, prep the fruit and place in a mixing bowl

Add cornflour (to thicken the juices) and sugar to the fruit. For this quantity (feeds 4) I added 5 dessertspoons of caster sugar and two of cornflour, but if you like it sweeter then just add more sugar; I like my crumble on the sharp side. If I’d had any oranges lying around then I would have scrapped in some zest here too.

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Toss in sugar and cornflour, and perhaps orange zest if you’ve got some lying around

Pile the fruit into your oven-proof crumble dish, then make the crumble. Rub 150g unsalted butter into 300g plain flour until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs, then add 150g caster sugar and a handful of flaked almonds for crunch. Cover the fruit with a thick layer of crumble, pressing the topping down fairly firmly. There will likely be leftover crumble mix, in which case it can go into the freezer for another day. Bake the crumble at 170c for about an hour, or until the fruit is bubbling up the sides and the crumble is browned. The cooking time depends on the surface area of your crumble dish – the wider the dish, the quicker the crumble will cook.

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Top the fruit with almondy crumble mix and bake for about an hour

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Pink and bubbling!

I think this is better at room temperature than boiling hot, but each to their own. Cold runny cream is definitely a must. Gooseberries and strawberries…the essence of mid-summer.

Gooseberry, strawberry & almond crumble

Enough strawberries and gooseberries to fill your crumble dish

Caster sugar

Cornflour

Orange zest

for the crumble:

300g plain flour

150g cold unsalted butter

150g caster sugar

Handful flaked almonds

Prep the fruit: top and tail the gooseberries, and hull the strawberries. Put them in a mixing bowl and mix with cornflour and caster sugar. Quantities will depend on how much fruit you’ve got but for four people, I’d use 2 heaped dessertspoons of cornflour and 5 dessertspoons sugar.

Make the crumble: rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar and almonds. Top the fruit with the crumble and press down fairly firmly. Any leftover crumble mixture can be frozen for another day.

Bake at 170c for about an hour until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden. Cool slightly before eating.

Also this week:

Sowed: Chard, lettuce, Tuscan kale, Frills of Hex kale, parsnips, summer rocket, green beans, sweetcorn, basil, parsley
Harvesting: Sweetpeas, strawberries, winter rocket, baby spinach, last broadbeans (Note to self: grow at least 30 broadbean plants next year, we’ve had far too few this year)
Reading: A little history of British gardening by Jenny Uglow; The first forty days: The essential art of nourishing the new mother by Heng Ou – a book which draws on traditional wisdom to nourish the new family (physically and emotionally) in the first days postpartum. I love this book, which was a birthday present from my friend Claire, but Heng’s recipe for placenta-cacao smoothie is not one that I’ll be making anytime soon.
Also: A lot of work (brochure writing, budgets, print jobs etc etc). Birthday gathering at Claire’s complete with Colin the Caterpillar and beauty tips from Joan Collins. Tentative foray into researching baby equipment (am totally shocked at how expensive buggies are). Matt’s been working 15 hour+ days for several weeks.

Strawberry & redcurrant jam

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

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

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

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First pick of sweetpeas

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

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

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Yesterday’s picking of broadbeans, strawberries and redcurrants

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90 minutes later, beans are podded and fruit is prepped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cook until the jam reaches about 110c

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

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

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Strawberry & redcurrant jam!

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

Strawberry & redcurrant jam
Recipe adapted from Good Housekeeping

700g granulated or preserving sugar

875g strawberries, hulled and halved

350g redcurrants, stripped from their stalks

Juice of 1 lemon

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

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

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

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

Elderflower cordial

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

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Elderflowers are in abundance right now

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

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

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

Elderflower cordial
Makes 1 litre

600g granulated sugar

600ml water (I use Malvern water, obviously)

10 elderflower heads

2 lemons, thinly sliced

1 lime, thinly sliced

15g citric acid

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

Chocolate crispy cakes

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

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Wild garlic, just coming into flower

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

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

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

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

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Melt together butter, golden syrup, cocoa and icing sugar

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Make sure it’s smooth and runny

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

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Have ready your cornflakes

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

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Mix it all together

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

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You’ll need some of these…

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

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Et voila, chocolate crispy cakes for Easter

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

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

Baked rhubarb with orange & honey

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

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

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A host of golden daffodils

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Unusual pink primroses amidst the yellow

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

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

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First spring sticks of forced rhubarb

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

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Slice the rhubarb into decent-sized chunks

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Drizzle with honey and the zest and juice of an orange

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

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

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

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

Blush orange jelly

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

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Dusty-purple hellebores

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A carpet of blue scilla

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A clump of snowdrops, now beginning to fade

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Bobbing yellow narcissi are beginning to make themselves noticed

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

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

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New Favourite: blush oranges

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

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

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

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

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

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A glass of shimmering red jelly