Lemon ricotta hotcakes

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

My Mum’s birthday cake, complete with chocolate fingers

Oh, and scones

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lemon Ricotta hotcakes

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

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

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

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

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

Harry likes to watch me cook

Also this week:

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

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

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

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

Birthday cake

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

Sunflowers are nearing being out of my reach

The hops tower over everything

They’ve even infiltrated the sweet pea poles

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

Apple and pear season is here

Dad’s [smug] basket of produce

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

Harry is 1!

Birthday balloons

I made a rib roast as a special treat

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

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

The birthday cake

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

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

Birthday Cake
From Signe Johansen’s Scandilicious Baking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackberry (baby) muffins

Plague has visited the household. Harry brought home – simultaneously – a vomiting bug, a chest infection and a general got-no-energy malaise. The vomit, dear God, the vomit! He’s now fine of course, but I am in day 10 of being decidedly below par. It’s also the time of year when the biting insects reach peak-feasting mode and I succumb to wearing jungle formula to bed. I know we should appreciate the warm but frankly, I am now ready for drizzle, anoraks and things-wrapped-in-pastry.

Meanwhile the harvest continues. Beans…so many beans, and courgettes, so many courgettes. And great-looking chard, cavolo nero, perpetual spinach, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and rather less-great-looking knobbly tomatoes. Plus, whilst not armfuls of flowers, enough for a few pretty vases a week. I also am gratefully receiving the fruit of other people’s labour: just look at this whopper of an aubergine!

My Dad has grown a massive aubergine

Getting two or three baskets like this a week

The sweetpeas, sunflowers, cleome, rudbeckia and cosmos are providing several vases a week

What to do with all these beans!

There’s been a good deal of batch cooking this week. Given that I’m still working and am losing about an hour a day to massive coughing fits, I’m not entirely sure how that’s happened, but there it is. Cooking on auto-pilot. I like to keep a good amount of baby food in the freezer, ready to go, to prevent meltdowns at teatime. Fruity muffins are useful and I’ve been using this River Cottage recipe from their Baby and Toddler cookbook which, in truth, taste way too much like health food to me, but Harry likes them. The purple juice stains, so you must either strip your child before they dig in, or else surrender your power to the washing machine. I choose the latter.

Substitute the blackberries with raspberries, redcurrants, blueberries or apples as the mood takes you. Cooked muffins can be frozen. Defrost at room temperature and maybe given them 20 seconds in the microwave before eating to refresh. Grown-ups may prefer these higher-sugar tayberry muffins instead.

Blackberry muffins
From the River Cottage Baby and Toddler Cookbook

125g wholemeal flour
125 plain flour
3 level tsp baking powder
75g caster sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
75g unsalted butter
1 egg
125g plain full-fat yoghurt
125ml whole milk
100-200g blackberries

Preheat the oven to 180c. Sift together the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. In a pyrex jug, melt the butter in the microwave until just melted. Using a fork, whisk the egg, milk and yoghurt into the butter. Add the milky mixture to the dry ingredients and stir to combine (I use a wooden spoon for this). Stir in the blackberries. Dollop the mixture into muffin cases and bake for about 20mins or until golden.

Blackberry baby muffins

Also this week:

Harvesting: last French beans, runner beans, chard, perpetual spinach, cavolo nero, courgette, tomatoes, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cleome, sunflowers, cosmos, rudbeckia, dahlia, sweetpeas. Gratefully receiving beetroots, tomatoes, peppers and aubergine from my folks.

Taking up: bolted lettuce and rocket, lots of annoying thistle weeds

Cooking and eating: Red beans and ham hock, hidden-veg pasta sauce for Harry, Peach cinnamon buns, beetroot salad, mixed veg couscous. A 15% Manzanilla, the first time I’ve enjoyed a sherry since before pregnancy and sign that my liver is improving. Cough mixture.

Reading: The legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark, a brilliant portrait of both a Scottish island (drizzle!) and the secret lives of women

Visiting: Tenbury show. Lots of trips to Coventry for work.

Strawberry cheesecake ice cream (no-churn)

We’re approaching glut season. Ten days I go a had a piddling number of quite crappy-looking strawberries, and now I’m picking by the ice-cream-tub full. Same goes for redcurrants and it won’t be long before the blackcurrants, blueberries and raspberries head in the same direction. This is not a complaint of course: loads of strawbs and loads of redcurrants mean a kitchen filled with the sweet fragrant fug of boiling fruit and sugar as I bottle up a year’s worth of jam. Need to wait until the baby’s in bed though; I can not even imagine the horror of attempting jam-making with a 9 month old whizzing around under my feet in his baby walker.

Strawberries, redcurrants, chard, rocket, lavender and sweet william

One thing that can absolutely be made with the kids is this no-churn strawberry cheesecake ice-cream, shamelessly pinched from this month’s Waitrose Kitchen magazine. It uses fresh strawberries (anything to get through the glut), those little caramelly Lotus Biscoff biscuits (I get them from the Pound Shop), and a few other store cupboard items that you’ll have lying around anyway or can pick up cheaply enough. There’s no making of custard or boiling of sugar, and no messing around with ice-cream makers, so it’s simple too AND is surprisingly good.

First, in your food processor or blender, whizz together 235g strawberries with a squeeze of lemon juice and 1 tbsp icing sugar until smooth.

Whizz together strawberries, lemon juice and icing sugar

In a largish bowl, using a handheld whisk, beat a 200g pack cream cheese until soft and creamy, then add 1 tsp vanilla extract, a small pinch of fine salt, and a 397g can of condensed milk. Keep whisking until smooth, then add 425ml whipping cream and whisk until thick with soft peaks.

Whisk together cream cheese, condensed milk, vanilla extract, salt and whipping cream

Finally, in a another bowl, crumble up 60g Lotus Biscoff biscuits. I think it’s important to use these as their intense flavour comes through even when frozen, but you could try a different type of hard, caramel biscuit if you can’t find the Lotus Biscoff ones.

Bash up some Lotus Biscoff biscuits

Then get a tupperware box and fill to halfway with a layer of cream, then fruit and then biscuits. Swirl with a knife to make a ripple effect, then add a final layer of cream, fruit and biscuits. Give it one last swirl with a knife and then put in the freezer until firm, about 5 hours.

Layer the fruit, cream and biscuits into a plastic tub and freeze until firm

Once you’re ready to serve it’s best to leave this at room temperature for ten minutes or so to soften. Word up: this is RICH and a little goes a very long way. But it tastes great. It would also work blackcurrant, raspberry or blueberry…always thinking about the next glut, me. Serve with some more fresh fruit on the side to cut through the richness.

No-churn strawberry cheesecake ice cream

Also this week:

Harvesting: Lettuce, rocket, chard, broad beans, strawberries, redcurrants, lavender, sweet william

Also in the garden: Foxgloves are going over but the delphinium and roses are coming into their own. Sunflowers are stunted by the dry weather but beans are romping away. From my desk I’ve been watching newly-fledged magpies testing out their flight muscles whilst still being fed by their parents.

Cooking & eating: Tarragon roast chicken with broad beans, pecan brownies

Days out: Three Counties Show for Matt’s first Father’s Day and to introduce Harry to his cultural heritage of sheep, cows and men-being-daft-about-old-tractors. David Austen Roses for a cream tea on my birthday. 38 and not out!

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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 103c

Once the jam has reached 103c 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 103c, 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.