Rock cakes

Week four of Lockdown 3 brought snow, sleet and several sleepless nights, a rich mix of gloom if ever there was one. Though I have to admit that the garden, frosted with ice, is a thing of beauty.

The forsythia edged with snow
An ice sheet formed on the blueberry bush

By the weekend I even succumbed to some classic kids’ cookery, made purely for my own enjoyment – I have never used mini eggs this early in the year before, but currently we have to do whatever gets us through the day.

I have never made these so early in the year before – but whatever gets you through the day…

But then, on Saturday, Harry slept through the night again – and then he did it again – and slowly I begin to feel less like a husk and more like a real, thinking, living, person. Not fully replete with vim but with life enough to think about baking something beige. And so I come to Regula Ysewijn‘s latest book, Oats in the North, Wheat from the South: A History of British Baking. It is, as the name suggests, a love letter to the great baking traditions of Britain, singing the joys of iced buns, lardy cake and simple plain toast.

The History of British Baking by Regula Ysewijn

I have written about Regula before and I have to state up front that a) she’s a wonder, b) I am deeply jealous (she gets paid to write about buns!) and c) I often think we could be good friends. This is a woman who waxes lyrical about giant pies from Yorkshire, who is deadly serious about the Kentish Huffkin and who insists that Chelsea buns should only ever be square (quite right). An Anglophile Belgian, she has a romantic view of our baking tradition that is fun for the Brit to read: as she rightly points out, our baking may be simple, but we are one of the few European nations to have a tradition of making cakes, buns and biscuits in our own kitchens, with our own hands; in France they wouldn’t dream of making their own patisserie, but buy it instead.

I was also pleased to see this statement at the start of her beautiful book and it makes me wonder why author’s notes like this are not more common?

Why are statements like this still so rare?

Whilst I do intend to have a go at the aforementioned lardy cakes, in my fragile state I thought it best to start with something quick. Regula has a double page spread devoted to Brighton Rock Cakes and their brother, the Fat Rascal. On close examination the recipes are precisely the same except that Rock Cakes are dusted with sugar and perhaps a cherry or two, and Fat Rascals given an egg wash.

Now, I used to live on Rock Cakes as a teenager, as I considered them the only thing in the school canteen worth the calories. The Fat Rascal, however, whilst I have heard of them, was never something that we ate. According to Regula they are an old Yorkshire tradition, but in recent years the famous Betty’s Tea Room in Harrogate have taken out a trademark which prevents other businesses from selling them. (Point of note: this is clearly outrageous and I struggle to believe that it is even legal. Would the Italians only allow one company to make spaghetti?!)

I then enquired my Professionally Yorkshire friend Helen to ask she knows anything about Fat Rascals and she replied in the negative, but does remember that Rock Buns (note – buns not cakes – this is Yorkshire afterall) were a regular event in her house. She duly WhatsApped me her Mum’s hand-written recipe, which calls for marg and mixed fruit. Helen’s Grandad Stokes was a baker and he didn’t sell Fat Rascals or Rock Cakes/Buns and now that I reflect on it, we didn’t have them at Cooks Bakery in Upton On Severn either. Perhaps they are home-cooking in the truest sense of the word.

Helen’s mum’s recipe for rock buns

Regula’s recipe for Rock Cakes uses plain flour rather than self-raising, and currants rather than mixed fruit. This is probably true to the oldest recipes; I think that sometime during the 1970s supermarkets began to sell bags of mixed fruit and that become the housewife’s choice, rather than individual packets of raisins, currants and the rest. My mum certainly never dreamed of having anything other than mixed fruit in her baking cupboard. Regula also adds a touch of mixed spice, which is new to me for this kind of simple bake, but a nice touch.

It occurs to me now that the Rock Cake is akin to the American scone, for they add eggs to their scone mix and sometimes also cream, making for a more cakey texture. I presume the early settlers took their recipes with them – but more research is needed. The movement of food cultures around the globe will never cease to be fascinating.

Rock buns fresh out of the oven – you can see that they are fat, and could be thought of as rascals
Dusting with pearl sugar lends a pleasant crunch

Rock Cakes
An amalgamation of Regula’s recipe, Mrs Annett’s recipe, and my own instinct. Makes 6.

225g self raising flour
100g caster sugar
1 tsp mixed spice
pinch of fine sea salt
75g unsalted butter, cold, diced
1 egg
up to 3 tbsp full fat milk
50g raisins or currants
pearl sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 200c. Line a tray with baking parchment.

Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and spice in a bowl. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs – you can use a food processor for this but I always use fingers to save on the washing up.

Beat the egg with 1 tbsp milk, then tip into the flour mixture. Use a blunt knife or dough scraper to mix the liquid to a loose shaggy dough – add more milk if necessary. Once the dough starts to come together, add the fruit. Very lightly knead then turn onto a floured surface.

Cut into 6 pieces using a knife, then gently ease them into a rounded shape – they don’t need to be perfect. Transfer to the baking tray, brush with milk and sprinkle on a little pearl sugar (or granulated sugar if that’s all you have).

Bake for about 15 minutes, checking after 10 to see that they are baking evenly. They are done with risen, golden and no longer moist on the top. Cool slightly before tucking in – these are best eaten on the day they’re made.

All things beige and beautiful – rock cakes are only lightly studded with fruit

Also this week:
Garden: Cut back the front garden hydrangea – it will either never recover, or will come back a monster. The ground has been covered with snow and hard with ice, but now we have gentle rain and a sleepy sun.
Eating and cooking: Anything beige due to sleep deprivation and the January blues. These are the days of toast that drips with butter. Chocolate easter nests (in January!). Also making the most of seasonal citrus: Forced rhubarb simmered with orange zest then turned into crumble. Roast chicken flavoured with seville oranges and thyme. Orange jelly.
Also: Spotted parakeets in both Warley Woods and Highbury Park. Listening to Lockdown Parenting Hell with Josh Widdecombe and Rob Beckett, for much needed relief.

Gingerbread biscuits

Well hello! It’s been a month or so since I last blogged, and that time has been spent in a state of winter quietude. The days of Christmas busy-ness and upset plans were followed by a household bout of coronavirus (thankfully mild), and given that the outside world has a tendency to noisiness – that’s a pandemic for you – I have been left with the inescapable need to simply be still. The natural world goes into rest and quiet renewal at this time; I follow this urge.

There are a few things to share from Christmas and New Year, such as this garland which used up the last of the summer 2020 harvest of flowers from allotment and hedgerow. I took bunches of strawflower, hydrangea, hops, cornflower, amaranthus and poppy heads, plus a few twigs of haws and hips, and tied them together with string to make a display approximately 4 feet long. It was by no means perfect – I had to stick in several extra bunches once in situ to cover up the string and fill it out – but I absolutely loved it: crafting of this nature is a physical process, created on the floor, on knees, surrounded by the strong scent of hops, the papery textures of dried petals and dangerous pricking thorns. There was something very fitting about having remnants of summer in the house for the darkest days of the year.

Dried flower garland in my living room, made with strawflower, hydrangea, hops, amaranth, cornflower, hawthorn, rosehips and poppy heads.
All tied together with string, which takes trial and error to look good!

The weather turned cold – there’s been a few flurries of snow in these parts and deep hard frosts, which will be good for the fruit trees who need time below 0c.

New Year has been chilly – there was snow on the ground on 2nd January
A hard frost accentuates delicate features on dormant plants, as in this hydrangea

Most pleasingly, the seeds for 2021 are here. I got in slightly earlier than normal with my order, mindful of the increased popularity of gardening amidst the pandemic, and I was right to as many things have already sold out. Is there a joy more content or complete than searching seed catalogues for this year’s collection of flowers and vegetables? In many ways it is better than the growing, for one lives entirely within a place of promise and hope, not yet scarred or deterred by failed harvests and slug damage. This year I plan to try a few new varieties, including kohlrabi, flower sprouts, honeywort and toadflax. I’ll report on these in due course.

This year’s new veg seeds from Seeds of Italy
Plus a few new varieties courtesy of Sarah Raven

On to today’s recipe. Harry and I have been reading The Gingerbread Man with alarming regularity (why are kids’ books so dark??) leading to a few baking sessions where we create – you’ve guessed it – gingerbread men. Or I should say gingerbread people, for our cutters are more of an amorphous human-shaped blob rather than gender-specific. We also have a cutter shaped like a moose, which is a personal favourite.

Cutting out gingerbread men (or moose) is child’s play

This is the best recipe for gingerbread that I have ever come across, cut out years (and I mean YEARS) ago from a magazine. No matter what a pre-schooler can throw at it, and how many times it is re-rolled, it refuses to get tough. The dough, when first made, is incredibly wet so it does need a few hours in the fridge to firm up before rolling out. You can of course adjust the amount of ginger depending on how spicy you want your biscuits, and there is the option to make them pretty with icing, but we prefer the slapped on approach. Gingerbread softens in the tin, so if you want to retain a bit of ‘bite’ to your biscuit then I’d err on the side of over-baking, not to the point of burnt, obviously, but certainly browned around the edges.

Harry can eat three of these in one sitting.

There is the option to decorate beautifully – or just slather your biscuits with water icing, melted chocolate and sprinkles

Gingerbread biscuits

125g unsalted butter
100g soft brown sugar
4 tablespoons golden syrup
325g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1-2 teaspoons ground ginger (use more or less according to your taste)
To decorate: water icing, melted chocolate and sprinkles

Melt together the butter, sugar and syrup, then leave to cool slightly. Mix together the dry ingredients, add the butter mixture, then stir to combine. You will create a very soft dough. Tip onto clingfilm, wrap it firmly then place in the fridge for an hour or two to firm up.

Pre-heat the oven to 170c. Line several baking trays with parchment.

Roll out the dough onto a lightly floured surface, to the thickness of about 1.5cm. Cut out your biscuits and place them on the baking trays – they do spread so keep them several centimetres apart. You’ll probably need to bake in batches.

Bake until golden around the edges. The time depends on the size of your biscuits but my gingerbread men take about 10 minutes, and the large moose biscuits take about 12. Leave to harden on the trays for five minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

Decorate with water icing, melted chocolate and sprinkles, if liked. These store for several days in a tin.

Also this week (month):
Harvesting: Mustard red frills, baby chard and rocket from the veg trug. First daffodils are in the supermarkets – I marvel at their cheapness, it somehow seems not right to be able to buy 8 stems for £1.
Eating and cooking: Did very well with the turkey leftovers this year: there was turkey hash, loads of sandwiches, 4 freezer boxes of soup, 2 pies, 3 boxes of chilli and 4 boxes of stock. Also made Jamie Oliver’s Jerk ham which was delicious, though my method needs improving as it does tend to dryness. Buying boxes of clementines and looking for the first seville oranges.
Reading: The book you wish your parents had read by Philippa Perry, who I like very much as a human being, but I think that’s enough psychotherapy for now, thank you very much. Also the new British baking book by Regula Ysewijn, which I will talk about at a later date, and a book about Qi Gong.

Marshmallows

The lawn is littered with yellow-brown leaves, the stems of fennel have faded to crispy bronze and the remaining sunflower heads are drooped and withered. The world feels saturated with colour. Afternoons are spent outside, kicking leaves and squelching in mud.

Autumnal outings

The fruit bowl is rammed with those green tomatoes from the other week – now turned red – plus seasonal apples, pears, figs and the first pomegranates. I’m on the alert for quince too and am going out of my way to drive past the halal shop every few days, checking out their veg display for the first signs of these autumnal treasures.

The newly-invented pear pancake

There is still a weekly vase of strawflower and chrysanthemum to gather, plus the kale and parsnips, but forays into the garden or allotment are few and require boots, gloves and a serious coat. Instead I’ve turned my attention indoors, with decorations of squash and pumpkin for halloween, and evenings learning macrame (which feels simultaneously a middle aged and incredibly hipster pursuit, not that I am drawn to either of these labels).

Autumn – and in particular this Lockdown Autumn – is a great time to get on with recreational cookery – the kind of cooking that is neither essential nor time-pressured, but exists purely for fun or to learn a new technique. The other day I had a few egg whites in the fridge leftover from a carbonara, and shuddered at the thought of meringue (no-one eats in). Then a brainwave struck: marshmallows!

Reader, they’re easier than you think. A marshmallow is simply an Italian meringue, set with gelatine. That’s it. They’re nutritionally pointless but massive fun, plus boiling sugar is involved so there’s a whisper of potential calamity, which is always enjoyable.

Take a syrup to hard-ball stage before mixing in melted gelatine

First, make a stock syrup and boil it up to hard ball stage, 125c. Meanwhile, soak sheet gelatine in cold water until it goes soft and squelchy, then dissolve it over a gentle heat. Once the syrup has come to temperature turn off the heat, add the gelatine then give it a stir to combine.

Whisk the bejesus out of two egg whites

Whisk two egg whites until it becomes firm and stiff, then gradually pour the syrup onto the egg whites, whisking all the time. Keep whisking for a good 5 minutes, perhaps longer, until you have a rich thick meringue that holds its shape. You can now add a flavouring if you like, such as vanilla or rose water, and maybe swirl in some colouring – I used pomegranate juice but for a stronger colour use red food dye or even a spot of beetroot juice.

Gradually add the syrup to the eggs with your chosen flavouring whilst whisking all the time – eventually you’ll get fluffy meringue

Tip the mixture into a tin that you’ve sifted cornflour and icing sugar onto, then leave to set for a few hours.

Marble through food colouring (or pomegranate juice)

Once set, sift a load more cornflour and icing sugar onto a board, tip the marshmallow into it then chop into chunks. Toss around in the icing sugar mixture, (to stop them sticking) and gobble them up.

Toss in cornflour and icing sugar to finish

These would be great for a lockdown family cookery session. Obviously take care as there’s boiling sugar involved, but there’s nothing like learning dangerous new skills to give youngsters confidence in the kitchen. Experiment with the colours and flavours…think peppermint, rose water, orange flower water, vanilla…and have fun.

Marshmallows
Recipe adapted from the River Cottage Family Cookbook. You need a large and small saucepan, sugar thermometer, rubber spatula or wooden spoon, food mixer or hand whisk, mixing bowls, brownie pan or square shallow cake tin (about 20cm) and sieve.

1 tbsp icing sugar
1 tbsp cornflour
vegetable oil for greasing
8 sheets gelatine
water
2 egg whites
500g granulated sugar
Flavouring and/or colour of your choice – I used 1 tsp rose water, but vanilla extract, peppermint essence, orange flower water would also be good. For colour, I used a squeeze of pomegranate juice. Beetroot juice or regular food colouring would give a more vibrant result.

Very lightly grease the bottom and sides of your brownie pan or cake tin. Mix together the cornflour and icing sugar, then sift a spoonful into the bottom and edges of the tin, and set aside.

Measure the sugar with 250ml water into a large saucepan, and heat gently to dissolve the sugar. Meanwhile, put the gelatine with 125ml water into a small saucepan and leave to stand until the gelatine becomes soft and squelchy. Heat the gelatine and water over a very gentle heat, stirring occasionally until dissolved.

Increase the heat on the sugar syrup and boil hard until you reach 125c, hard-ball stage. Keep an eye on it as it heats up very quickly, especially once it gets close to temperature. Turn the heat off, remove the thermometer, then add the gelatine mixture to the syrup. Give it a stir with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to combine; it will bubble up slightly.

Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl, using either the hand whisk or free-standing food mixer. Once they are stiff, gently pour in the syrup/gelatine mixture in a slow stream – it will become creamy, and then will thicken into a big meringue-y mass. Keep beating for another five minutes or so until the mixture is thick and supports its own shape when dolloped from the beaters. Now stir in your flavouring, and swirl in your colouring.

Pour the marshmallow mixture into the prepared pan and leave to set. This will take about 2 hours.

When you’re ready to cut it up, sieve the remaining cornflour/icing sugar mixture onto a board. Tip the marshmallow block onto it, then using a sharp knife, cut it into squares – it may help to lightly grease the knife. Toss each square in the cornflour/icing sugar to stop them sticking, and serve.

Also this week:
Garden and allotment: Harvesting chrysanthemum, cosmos, strawflower, kale, parsnips. Sowing sweet peas. Back garden still has roses, cosmos, salvia, chrysanthemum etc in bloom so still far to early to do any clearing jobs.
Cooking and eating: Chicken with fennel, lemon and chilli; chicken pie; blueberry porridge; chocolate brownies; several picnics as we can no longer meet people in cafes/indoors (Lockdown life)
Also: Evenings spent learning macrame as I make a wall-hanging for the house.

Spiced pumpkin muffins

The autumn clearing began this week, the slow removal of stems, supports and seed heads in time for the plot’s winter sleep. Amongst the debris piled onto the ‘compost’ (read, rubbish) heap, are, sadly, the leeks, which once again have all succumbed to some kind of fungal disease. Their stems look good enough at a distance, but look closely and they are mottled with orange, and what should be firm flesh has been rendered limp and slimy. Next year I must remember this and stop myself from planting more seeds, for every year the result is the same.

Slimy leeks end their days on the ‘compost’ heap

Removal of tired sunflowers and beans feels right in October, an appropriate task marking the end of summer. What astounds me, however, is the longevity of the cosmos. It’s not a question of hanging in there, more that they are thriving in this autumnal weather. Cosmos ‘dazzler’ has given handfuls of hot pink stems for several weeks but now it is littered with buds, a final hurrah before the frosts set in. Amongst them is a newly flowering mystery cosmos, a pink so pale that it’s almost blue. They sit amongst the chrysanthemum and strawflower, fully at home in what now shall be known as the autumn cut-flower bed.

The cosmos have (finally) exploded into colour
The mystery cosmos – not veloutte, not dazzler, not pied piper, not purity, so what is it?

The autumn squashes has been slow this year, with only three tiny little gourds and three larger squash making it to harvest (though the largest turned to rot in the wet weather). I suspect I planted too many too close together, so they were fighting for both space and sunlight. The smaller ones are decorating the house, while the larger specimens are curing in the sun room ready for storage.

Taking home my two autumn squash amongst the cut flowers

Is there a vegetable so wonderfully voluptuous at autumn squash? Orange, green, grey, yellow; round, long, ribbed, fat, turbaned; they are emblematic of all that is joyful about the autumn harvest. A confession though: I much prefer growing squashes to eating them. The odd wedge will make its way onto my dinner plate, and I do enjoy sweet chunks of butternut in a soup or curry, but, for me, the best way to use the soft sweetness of squash in baking. The all-American pumpkin pie is a thing of joy, and just writing the phrase ‘pumpkin spice’ is enough to conjour up a comfortable feeling of seasonal hibernation.

These pumpkin spiced muffins are just the thing for this time of year, when one wants to feel embedded in the season of autumn. Reminiscent of carrot cake, but denser, they have an element of the virtuous about them and therefore work for breakfast as well as afternoon tea. I say ‘pumpkin’ but I would actually use a squash if you can, such as butternut, to avoid wateriness. Alternatively, do as I do, which is to use pre-cooked pumpkin that has been thoroughly drained of all its liquid, either from a tin or home-made. These little cakes are not lookers, but what they lack in appearance they make up for in homely comfort.

Spiced pumpkin muffins
Makes 12

400g fresh squash, or around 200g pre-cooked squash puree that has been thoroughly drained of excess liquid (from a tin or home-made).
1 tsp mixed spice
pinch salt
225g spelt flour (or normal white flour if preferred)
2 heaped tsp baking powder
4 tbsp soft brown sugar
125g unsalted butter
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
4 tbsp plain yoghurt
Handful sultanas
Demerara or white sugar crystals, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 180c and line a 12-hole muffin tin with cases.

If using fresh squash, peel and chop it, then whizz in a food processor until finely chopped and transfer to a mixing bowl. If using pre-cooked squash, drain any excess liquid off then place in a large bowl. Add the spice, salt, flour, baking powder and sugar, then stir gently to combine.

In a separate bowl or jug, melt the butter in the microwave (about 40 seconds). Add the eggs, yoghurt and vanilla, when whisk to combine.

Pour your wet ingredients into the pumpkin mixture, then stir gently but thoroughly until just mixed. Add a handful of sultanas and stir to combine.

Place spoonfuls into each paper case, top with a sprinkle of sugar, and bake until risen and golden – about 20 minutes.

Best eaten fresh but also good for a few days after if re-heated in the oven or microwave.

Spiced pumpkin muffins

Also this week:
Harvesting: Strawflower, chrysanthemum, cosmos, dahlia, cavolo nero, kale, squash.
Also on the allotment and garden: Pulling up sunflowers, bean stalks, summer annuals and ditching the diseased leeks. Sowing sweet peas, ammi, cosmos and laceflower for next year.
Cooking and eating: Beef brisket chilli rich with peppers and coffee (recipe to follow). Butternut and sweet potato curry. Bangers, mash and onion gravy. Sticky toffee pudding.
Reading and visiting: A Suitable Boy, still less than a quarter of a way in after three weeks of effort. Autumn walk in Wyre Forest. Van Gogh experience at Birmingham Hippodrome.

Blueberry coconut porridge

After a fortnight’s abandonment, I steadied myself for a trip to the veg patch. Weeds everywhere, of course, and faded bean sticks, nibbled sweetcorn and rotten raspberries. But I worried not, for amidst the decay of summer there is still the sweet autumnal harvest – the unshowy and unsexy brassicas and parsnips, the not-yet-ripe squash, and the ever-lasting flowers. All of them thriving, in their own way.

Cavolo nero and Pentland brig kale are enjoying the damp weather. Brilliant in minestrone or simply sautéed with garlic and chilli.
A rather mediocre pumpkin harvest this year but the green will eventually ripen to orange, and into store they will go.
Strawflowers cut long, with jewel-chrysanthemum and pompom dahlia

Just as I’ve been yearning for stews and soups once the night draws in, in the mornings I want soft, comforting nourishment. Working alone, from home, I’m often on back-to-back Zoom meetings for 4+ hours a day which believe me, is exhausting. Headaches are an everyday part of life now. To endure it all I need yoga, stamina – and porridge.

The trick to porridge is ratios and time. When I say ‘time’, I am of course talking minutes rather than hours, but I do think that proper oats cooked for 8 minutes in the microwave are deeply superior to those 90 second instant packets that so many office workers use (or used…do you remember the days of putting on actual clothes to go on an actual train for an hour, just to sit behind a desk all day? What madness that was).

I suppose it could be cooked on the hob but that involves hovering over the stove to avoid the risk of burning, and in the morning I’m probably also putting a wash on or shooing the neighbourhood cats off my garden, so a microwave it is. I habitually add coconut to my porridge, partly for the vitamins and flavour, but mostly for the gentle sweetness it provides – I find that I don’t then need much extra sugar or syrup, which I say not as one of those dull sugar-fascists but because I have found that too much refined sugar in the morning makes me feel iller-than-ill.

The ratios bit is fun. I have done away with scales when it comes to oats and instead use one of Harry’s tommee-tippee sippy cups, the ones that hold about 200mls. You could use a broken old mug, or a measuring cup, or whatever you like. For every 3/4 sippy-cup of oats, I add 1/4 cup desiccated coconut, 3/4 cup milk and 1 cup of water. In other words, for 1 part coconutty-oats, add 1 and 3/4 parts liquid.

Tip the lot into the largest microwaveable mixing bowl you own – this bit is important because it bubbles like mad and no-one needs to be clearing that mess up first thing in the morning (I speak from experience). Split porridge does look like baby sick, don’t you think?

Porridge fail: May 2018

Anyway, microwave for 5 minutes whilst you put the kettle on. Give it a stir, then pop it back in for 90 seconds. Finally add your berries – a handful of fresh blueberries works for me at the moment, but frozen allotment fruits will find their way into my porridge during the winter months, the sourer the better. Microwave again for 1 final minute (if using frozen berries they may need a little longer, use your judgement on this one). Total cooking time, 7.5 minutes. If you have timed it right, your mug of tea will also now be of a drinkable temperature.

When it’s done, tip the lot into a bowl, add a circle of cold milk around the edge (this is a traditional Scottish touch) and then finish with the merest hint of maple syrup, just a teaspoon or two. Or more, if you have a sweeter tooth than me.

Porridge win: October 2020

Eat in front of the laptop, ideally before the first meeting of the day.

Peach and amaretto ice cream

High summer is upon us. This has meant a few days of treacherously hot, heavy weather, broken with restless thunder and incredible forked lightening. Now we’ve lulled back into good old comfortable drizzle and mist – grey skies being the true constant feature of an English summer in the Midlands. Already there is the sense of nature drying out and crinkling up.

Yesterday we headed the other side of the city to Castle Bromwich gardens, a 17th century walled garden placed rather ignominiously beside the M6 and underneath the flightpath to Birmingham International Airport. It’s a gem of a find. Come August there is little I enjoy more than checking out someone else’s veg patch, and these marrows planted in a parterre style are certainly impressive. These cornflowers also caught the eye for their unusual shades of pink and purple, more fun than the normal blue and white.

The kitchen garden at Castle Bromwich Walled Garden
Cornflowers in shades of pink, plum and indigo

On my veg patch, or should I say flower farm, we have reached peak abundance. The dahlias are sensational this year; they must enjoy the full sun of our plot. Likewise we have armfuls of sunflowers and chrysanthemums, marigolds, tansy and strawflower.

Brassicas, squash and corn thriving amidst the cut flowers

This year I have sown ammi visnaga for the first time, a stubbier version of the more common ammi majus, and it’s quietly magnificent. On its own it is elegant, with lime green to white shades, but when placed with other stems it makes their colours shout louder. Also it doesn’t drop seeds and fluff everywhere, which is always a bonus. Highly recommend.

Ammi visnaga and cosmos purity are now coming into their own
We’re getting towards the jungle stage

I’m also enjoying this sunflower, whose name I do not know as I think it has come out of a Seeds of Italy mix. I’m planning to leave this head on the stem in order to harvest the seeds in a few weeks time so that next year I can grow more. The sunflowers are always covered in bees, no matter what time of day I visit, and it makes them impossible to cut for who has the heart to steal their nectar?

The un-named sunflower, a magnet for insects

With high summer comes a surplus of stone fruit in the supermarket, most of it – let’s face it – bruised and still rock hard. It is nigh on impossible to get a really good peach in this country, they usually need to be nudged along into softness. A peach that is picked before it is ripe will never become truly sweet, so the best thing is to poach them in syrup (stones and all) and then use them in cooking. Poaching stone fruit with their skins and stones intact gives the most glorious sunset colours; add a strip of lemon peel or a few bay leaves and you are whisked away to an Italian terrace.

This peach and amaretto ice cream is just the thing for those meltingly hot days where you’d rather be dipping into the sea around Amalfi. Incidentally, this is yet another ice that doesn’t need eggs, and I am coming to the conclusion that the very best fruit ice creams are the simplest: fruit, sugar and cream is all that’s required. A splash of booze helps to keep the ice cream smooth, but is by no means essential. You do need an ice cream machine, however.

Peach and amaretto ice cream
Makes about 1 pint. You need an ice cream machine and a stick blender or food processor.

5 small peaches, rock hard is fine
150g granulated sugar
150ml water
150ml double cream
25ml amaretto
icing sugar, optional

Halve the peaches but you can leave the stones and skins intact. In a shallow pan, melt the sugar into the water, then add the peaches and bring to a slow simmer. Put the lid on and poach the fruit for 5-10 minutes, until soft. Leave to cool, fish out the stones and skins, then blitz to a puree using a stick blender or in a food processor. Chill the mixture thoroughly before attempting the next stage.

When the fruit is quite cold, stir in the cream and add a shot of amaretto. Have a taste and if it needs to be sweeter, stir in a spoonful of seived icing sugar (remember that ice cream looses its sweetness when frozen). Transfer the lot to your ice cream machine and churn into a soft peachy mass. When it’s done, move the ice cream to a tub and freeze until firm. Remove from the freezer for fifteen minutes or so to soften before serving.

Peach & amaretto ice cream – as usual, no pretty sundae pictures here, just ice cream in a tub

Also this week:

Harvesting: Dahlias, ammi, cosmos, sunflowers, marigold, delphinium, strawflower, amaranthus, chrysanthemum, tansy, raspberries, blueberries, spinach, chard, courgettes, chard, dwarf beans.

Cooking & eating: Roast chicken with runner beans and roasted potatoes, carrots and fennel; pancakes with fresh raspberries, cinnamon buns; vegetable curry using home-grown veg.

Doing: Elford Walled Gardens, Castle Bromwich Walled Garden, moving back into my office after a 5 month renovation.

Raspberry and apple kuchen

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I’ve been in a fug all week. No, longer than a week. Aimless, listless. Work feels like treacle, with contracts ending or not happening in the first place, a general feeling of tetchiness, and nothing new on the horizon. The state of the world seems to get worse. And this grey, humid, drizzly weather! Today I’ve decided to press ‘reset’, with time dedicated to Harry, a bit of cooking, staying away from Instagram and all the rest. I’m reminding myself of Elizabeth Luard’s observation that in peasant societies, money is a crop like any other…when it fails, it’s not the end of the world provided that there’s still other crops to fall back on. I love this idea as it reminds us that our professional lives are not our only indicator of worth, a notion that sadly is indoctrinated into us from Day 1 at university. To be a freelancer in the arts is to take the rough with the smooth.

And Lord knows there are PLENTY of other crops going on at the moment. Courgettes, of course, and amazing dahlias, sunflowers, achillea, cosmos, marigolds, blackberries, raspberries, a few potatoes. I was feeling pretty smug about my efforts until I was beckoned over to Martin’s plot last Saturday, to be greeted with a field of cabbages, purple sprouting, cauliflowers and sprouts. These are whopping prize-winning specimens! I was kindly offered a cabbage and cauli to take home, which are now taking up the entire top shelf of the fridge. There’s no room for them in the veg drawer because that is filled with my parents’ efforts – aubergines, peppers – and my courgette glut. I’ve spent the morning roasting sliced courgettes, peppers and aubergines in a blisteringly hot oven before bottling with olive oil, fresh marjoram, red wine vinegar and chilli flakes.

Martin with his whopping 10lb cabbage

I escaped from my desk for a few hours on Tuesday to take a look at the potatoes, which we planted in March and then completely ignored. No mounding up or watering or anything like that. And blow me there’s a crop! It’s not magnificent but there are few things more satisfying than forking up a mound of pale round spuds from black soil.

Digging spuds this week

The cut flowers are at their zenith now, with an incredible display of dahlias and the cheery sunflowers, their colours ranging from yellow and gold to copper and brown.

Sunflowers are the star of August cut flowers

This week the raspberries started cropping, along with the first blackberries of which we’re going to get a bumper crop. I was also gifted a bag of early apples, a sight that reminds us that summer will soon be on the way out. Carpe diem, seize the day: this apple and raspberry kuchen makes the most of late summer fruit but can be adapted through the year to use whatever’s in season (or use up whatever’s lurking in the freezer).

Raspberry and apples stud the top of the enriched-dough base

A kuchen is a Germanic sweet bake, not dissimilar in concept to a sweet focaccia, where an enriched bread base is glazed then topped with fruit and sugar before baking. It can also be iced or topped with a crumble or streusel. It’s lovely for breakfast but also as a snack during the day, and as it’s full of eggs and fruit, I consider it a health food. Do eat it up within a day or two, as it won’t keep well.

Raspberry and apple kuchen

Raspberry and apple kuchen
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess

350g strong white bread flour
3g fine salt
50g caster sugar
5g easy blend yeast
2 large eggs
grated zest of half a lemon
grating fresh nutmeg
125ml milk
50g unsalted butter

For the topping:
1 large egg
1 tablespoon cream or creme fraiche
1 tsp cinnamon
2 apples
handful raspberries
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp demerara sugar

You’ll need an ovenproof dish – I use a 8 inch flan dish but a brownie pan would also be fine. Make sure it’s well greased with butter.

Mix the flour, yeast, salt, sugar, lemon and nutmeg together in a large bowl. Melt the butter into the milk, leave to cool slightly, then beat in the eggs. Tip the lot into the flour and use a plastic scraper to combine into a rough dough. Knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Form into a ball, cover with a cloth and leave to prove for about 2 hours, until puffy and risen.

For the topping, mix the egg into the cream with a fork, then stir in the cinnamon. Peel, core and dice the apples.

Preheat the oven to 200c. When the dough is ready, ease it into your prepared pan – gently does it – then press it in to reach the sides. Spread the egg glaze over the top, scatter on the fruit, then the sugar. Place in the oven and turn the temperature down to 180c. Bake for about 40 minutes, until risen and golden. Cool slightly before eating.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Courgettes, squash, a few beans, spinach beet, chard, blackberries, raspberries, dahlias, sunflowers, cosmos, achillea, chrysanthemums, delphinium, marigold, strawflower, last sweetpeas. Gifted harvests of green peppers, beetroot, tomatoes, aubergine, apples, cabbage, cauliflowers, runner beans.

Cooking and eating: Roasted courgette, peppers and aubergine which I marinate in olive oil, red wine vinegar, chilli flakes and fresh marjoram – great kept in the fridge for easy snacks. Moussaka with my Dad’s aubergine. Courgette cream pasta.

Reading: Normal People by Sally Rooney, a few years late on this one. Dipping into Buddhist texts to get me back on track.

Best-in-show blackcurrant jam

Finally the allotment has come to fullness. June always surprises me with how sparse it looks, but by the end of July, it’s a jungle. The courgettes have doubled in size in the last fortnight, and the squash are sending out exploratory shoots studded with yellow flowers. The self-seeded borage literally hums with bees, and the dahlias are full of whopping dinner-plate blooms. We have yet more new allotment neighbours and as they steadily hack away at their bindweed and other nasties, there’s a quiet happy sense of communal endeavour.

The difference a few weeks make: the plot has transformed from sparse to a jungle
The self-sown borage literally hums with bees
Sweet peas are cropping again in abundance

This year I tried a few new varieties in the cut flower patch. The amaranthus is a big success, with frothy plum-coloured foliage, and this new type of sunflower (can’t even remember the name) is just fabulous, a green centre framed with fluffy petals finished off with a halo of yellow.

This sunflower and the amaranthus are new additions to the cut flower patch for 2020

The summer cooking continues. Those blackberries I mentioned were turned into a frangipane tart, and there’s also been salads of courgette, summer squash and toasted sweetcorn, made fragrant with allspice.

The blackcurrants were turned into a frangipane tart

Baking can only take us so far through the summer harvest though; it’s time to get preserving, bottling and jamming in time for winter. For previous generations this was necessary for survival and whilst times are more generous now, it’s a tradition that I enjoy. There is something very grounding about making jam.

Happily for me, my room-mate from university is a genuine prize-winning jam maker. Way back in the heady days before children and mortgages, Kerry’s blackcurrant jam won Best in Show – BEST IN SHOW – at the Quainton Village Show. This is an achievement not to be underestimated: a 29 year old stole the show away from ladies twice her age. Not just any ladies either: these were HOME COUNTIES ladies, ladies who are stalwarts of the WI. It was phenomenal. A decade later, Kerry’s still the person to go to when you want advice on jam.

Kerry clutching her Best in Show commemorative plate at the Quainton Show 2009

My jams always tend to be a bit, erm, ‘jammy’ for my liking, heavy-set and sweet, but Kerry’s are soft-set and with a balance of acidity to stop them being cloying. For want of a better word, they taste really ‘contemporary’. But it turns out that she turns to another jam queen for advice, no other than Marguerite Patten and her Jams, Preserves and Chutneys Handbook. There’s no date on this recipe but judging from the cover-picture it’s ancient.

Kerry’s secret recipe actually comes from Marguerite Patten

Marguerite’s (and Kerry’s) trick is to include a good amount of water with the blackcurrants and sugar, and not just rely on the blackcurrant juice. Genius. My trick, not pictured here, is to sterilise the jam jars in the Tommee Teepee baby bottle microwave steriliser, so much easier than faffing around with boiling water and kettles. From then on it’s all easy. Oh and if you’re picking your own blackcurrants, make sure that you pick out all the stalks and leaves from the fruit, a lengthy but utterly essential job.

Blackcurrant Jam
From Marguerite Patten’s Jams, Preserves and Chutneys Handbook. Makes 4 x 300g jars.

450g blackcurrants – make sure any stalks and leaves are removed
450ml water
550g granulated sugar

Prepare your jam jars, ensuring they are spotlessly clean and sterilised. I use glass jars with screw-on lids rather than the old-fashioned waxed paper/cellophane lids, as they can be completely sterilised and therefore there is less likelihood of the jam going bad.

In a stock pot or small jam kettle, place the fruit and water and bring to a simmer. Cook until the fruit bursts. Tip in the sugar and stir until it melts. Bring to a simmer and cook until the jam reaches setting point – use a jam thermometer for this. Leave to cool slightly then pour into your still-warm jars. Seal and store.

Blackcurrants, sugar and water transform into a shiny deep purple preserve
Blackcurrant jam ready for storing

Also this week:

Harvesting: Courgettes, summer squash, green beans, spinach, blueberries, dahlias, sunflowers, amaranthus, sweet peas, marigolds.

Cooking and eating: Blackberry frangipane tart, sweetcorn and courgette warm salad, chicken chilli, plums straight from the punnet.

Watching: Mrs America. Important, pertinent and all with great outfits.

Red gooseberry ice cream

It’s mid-July and the glut is starting to hit. Not that much of it has been grown by me, of course; I do get a glut of cut flowers and courgettes but that’s always about it. No, this glut is the result of greedy farm shop purchases plus generous gifting from my mum and dad’s veg patch, and a spot of judicious shopping from Aldi (a supermarket that is surprisingly good for summer produce).

The bright late summer cut-flowers are starting: chrysanthemum, strawflower and achillea
The allotment is reaching its cut-flower peak

In my kitchen currently I have: punnets of plums, strawberries, blackberries and peaches; a massive bowl of red gooseberries, a juicy cantaloupe melon sliced and topped with blueberries from the shrub outside the back door, three aubergines, five green peppers, a bag of French beans, a bag of chard, another bag of spinach beet, a kohlrabi, an overflowing plate of tomatoes and several courgettes (erm maybe a marrow). This week there has also been raspberries, bulb fennel, beetroot and young carrots. Outside there are pots of basil, marjoram, tarragon and leaf fennel; there should be lettuce too, but the snails got there first.

What can be more joyous than whole boxes of summer fruits and veg? The box at the back was grown by my mum and dad, the stuff at the front is from Hillers farm shop
Late strawberries meet early plum and blackberries

And so begins my annual trawl through the cook books to find new things to do with all this loot, because one thing I REALLY don’t want to do is spend hours prepping it, stick it in the freezer, forget about it for a year, then chuck it out. (No judgment, everyone with a productive fruit and veg patch does this.)

These days I don’t have much space for wafting around the kitchen creating fun new dishes – no one ever tells you just how much time pre-schoolers take up – but one evening this week, after work, teatime, bath time, Tree Fu Tom, Big Red Bath, Katie and the Dinosaurs and bed time, I found myself, glass in hand, sitting down to top and tail this lot.

Homegrown red gooseberries getting topped and tailed

Thomasina Miers posted a recipe on Instagram for red gooseberry ice cream a few days back, spiked with grappa, orange and proper vanilla. Thus inspired, I’ve come up with this version, which is full of the flavours of the English summer. The grappa is replaced by blackberry gin, and elderflower cordial takes the place of vanilla.

The method is simple enough and can be adapted to so many summer fruits (see my blackcurrant ice cream). Take your prepped gooseberries, bubble them up with elderflower cordial until soft, add the gin and sugar, then blitz to a puree. Push through a sieve and chill until quite cold, then fold in whipped cream and churn to freeze.

Gooseberry puree spiked with elderflower cordial and blackberry gin
Churn the puree with cream, then freeze until firm. I know I should post a picture of a perfect ball of pink ice cream in a dainty glass dish, but in this house we eat it straight from the tub.

It’s rich, of course, but the acidity of the gooseberries stops it being cloying. The alcohol helps to keep the ice cream smooth but you can leave it out if you prefer. These cream-based ices don’t last so long, so eat this one up within a few weeks. Now…what to do with those blackberries?!

Red gooseberry ice cream

500g red gooseberries (you could use green but you may need more sugar)
1 tbsp water
2 tbsp elderflower cordial
140g granulated sugar
50ml blackberry gin (or other suitable spirit)
250ml double cream

Top and tail the gooseberries. Tip them into a pan with the water and elderflower, then cook gently for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the sugar and gin. Blitz in the blender or with a stick blender until smooth. Push through a sieve and chill until quite cold. Stir in the cream then churn in your ice cream machine, or use the stir-freeze method. Pop in the freezer to set hard. Remove about thirty minutes before you want to eat to soften.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Dahlias, calendula, nasturtium, first sunflowers, achillea, last sweet peas, cornflowers, first chrysanthemums, first strawflower. The soft flowers of June are giving way to lurid carnival brights of late summer. First courgettes, a few French beans and spinach beet leaves. Took up final broad beans. Onions are ready and we need to have a poke around the potatoes. Have had to put cages over the 6 nepeta plants to stop the neighbourhood cats destroying them.

Cooking and eating: A tart of puff pastry topped with harrisa, sliced roast aubergine and feta. Summer minestrone (no tomatoes, just greens). Lemon and blueberry drizzle cake. Matt’s beef shin, beer and mushroom pie. Plums straight from the punnet.

Reading: Nothing of note. I am desperate for the library to re-open. We’re watching Toy Story at least once a day.

Also: Renovation of the office continues and I’ve decided that the bathroom is next.

Chocolate mini milks

I’ve been remiss in documenting this year’s allotment, mainly because progress has been slow and steady and therefore not very dramatic to photograph. Plus we have new neighbours whose efforts put me to shame (that’s retirement for you). Something has flipped in me this year though, because the self-seeded plants who have set up home on our allotment have become friends rather than foes. Last year, everything felt like a struggle, partly because I was running a festival and HAD NO TIME. This year it’s a wee bit more relaxed, though I’m only spending an hour or two a week down there and I can only do what’s possible in the time I have. The thistles and groundsel I do remove, but there’s no point fighting the borage, nasturtium, mullein and poppies. The pollinators love them and actually their colour and form are welcome elements to this year’s allotment (I have harvested some poppy seed heads for drying). Even those annoying brambles are swelling with the promise of a bumper crop of blackberries.

Perhaps because of my tardiness, the broad beans have been fine but no major success this year. They are full of weeds and I do wonder if they needed less competition. It’s a similar story with the climbing beans, whose base are overrun with nasturtium. I think the Cobra will do OK, but the purple and borlotti beans are sluggish. We will get a crop but it will be late, partly because my first set of plants were zapped by that late April frost so these are Maytime afterthoughts. The runner beans, incidentally, have completely vanished, which makes me wonder if I planted any in the first place. I’ll pop some seeds directly into the ground next time I visit, in hope of an autumn bean surge.

The long view, with bean sticks, squash plants, sweetcorn and amaranthus. Also plenty of self-sown ‘weeds’ – borage, nasturtium and poppy.

The things that we leave alone often do the best. The dahlias were over-wintered in the allotment, I never water them, and they are now the biggest plants on the plot. There is something to be said for leaving tubers in situ. They are just now beginning to give a crop, as are the new tubers planted last month on the gritty thin soil at the top of the path.

The March-sown corn plants with dahlias behind

The onions have become fat, their leaves beginning to flop, and next to them – miraculously – we have a line of pale green parsnip seedlings that finally germinated on the third attempt.

onions, leeks and tiny parsnips plus some hastily planted zinnia to plug the gaps

August’s cut flowers will be dominated by cosmos, chrysanthemums, ammi and sunflowers. The sweet peas are fading now, their velvet shades become mottled as they give up the ghost.

Ammi visnaga and cosmos, with chrysanths and strawflower behind plus the inevitable self-seeders mullein and poppies
sweet peas, nasturtium and cornflower
Sunflowers are romping away now

The hop is one of those plants that is hidden in plain sight. It’s so part of the furniture that I rarely see it these days, only to look up last week and notice that one bine has collapsed under its own weight.

A bine has collapsed on the hopolisk

Because of my transformed attitude to weeds, plus the success of this year’s planting plan (every inch of ground is covered with something), the July allotment is a pleasure rather than the burden that it was threatening to become. The crops are coming weekly but in small number, which doesn’t make for good photos but does make for a more manageable life. We’re talking a courgette and a bag of broad beans a week, leaves from the trug at home, plus a few berries and two or three vases of flowers. Come August all this will change of course and the glut will hit.

The regular haul of sweet peas, cornflower, nasturtium plus first dahlias and cosmos

Do you remember when it was warm? No I don’t either but I have pictorial evidence that, just a few weeks ago, the sun shone. At these time I become one of those highly irritating super women who produces home-made ice lollies for her offspring. (Don’t be fooled by this, because the rest of the time he exists on chocolate buttons and Aldi’s own-brand Ritz biscuits.) These chocolate mini milks are really easy and use up those smushy black bananas that are always lurking in the fruit bowl. They’re also a good way of getting milk inside him disguised as a treat.

You’ll need a blender and some lolly moulds. Little hands can join in, but make sure they know which end of the lolly handles to put into the moulds…

Remember to put your lolly sticks in the correct way up

Chocolate mini milks

In a blender, whizz together 1 banana, 1 tsp cocoa powder, 2 tsp icing sugar and about 200ml milk. Pour into lolly moulds and freeze.

Chocolate mini milks

Also this week:

Harvesting: last broad beans, first courgette, lettuce, rocket, blackcurrants, blueberries, alpine strawberries, cornflower, sweet peas, dahlia, first sunflower, nasturtium, poppies. Also finding peaches, nectarines, plums, strawberries and red/white currants in the shops and farmer’s market.

Cooking and eating: Nectarine, plum and strawberry crumble. Inevitably, pasta prima vera with courgette and broad beans. Chicken marinated with Moroccan spice mix, yoghurt and garlic, roasted in a HOT oven and served with chopped salads, yoghurt and chips. Toscakaka. Black banana cake.

Also: Reading the biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Working back at full tilt without ever feeling any richer. Slow but steady progress on the office renovation. Taking Harry for his first hair cut since February, and then only because his fringe had become and health and safety issue.