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.

2017-06-17 16.17.53

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.

2017-06-01 16.53.32

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

2017-06-18 12.26.29

Yesterday’s picking of broadbeans, strawberries and redcurrants

2017-06-18 13.46.03

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.

2017-06-18 14.29.30

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!

2017-06-18 14.36.42

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.

2017-06-18 14.59.17

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

2017-06-18 15.05.18

Cook until the jam reaches about 110c

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

2017-06-18 15.14.34

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

2017-06-18 15.22.29

Strawberry & redcurrant jam!

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

Strawberry & redcurrant jam
Recipe adapted from Good Housekeeping

700g granulated or preserving sugar

875g strawberries, hulled and halved

350g redcurrants, stripped from their stalks

Juice of 1 lemon

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

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

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

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

Elderflower cordial

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

2017-05-28 14.10.18

Elderflowers are in abundance right now

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

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

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

Elderflower cordial
Makes 1 litre

600g granulated sugar

600ml water (I use Malvern water, obviously)

10 elderflower heads

2 lemons, thinly sliced

1 lime, thinly sliced

15g citric acid

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

Chocolate crispy cakes

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

2017-04-14 16.01.26

Wild garlic, just coming into flower

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

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

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

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

2017-04-12 12.12.11

Melt together butter, golden syrup, cocoa and icing sugar

2017-04-12 12.14.46

Make sure it’s smooth and runny

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

2017-04-12 12.12.38

Have ready your cornflakes

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

2017-04-12 12.16.46

Mix it all together

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

2017-04-12 12.20.10

You’ll need some of these…

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

2017-04-12 12.21.36

Et voila, chocolate crispy cakes for Easter

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

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

Baked rhubarb with orange & honey

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

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

2017-03-11 14.33.11

A host of golden daffodils

2017-03-11 14.51.07

Unusual pink primroses amidst the yellow

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

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

2017-03-06 10.14.48

First spring sticks of forced rhubarb

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

2017-03-06 10.16.42

Slice the rhubarb into decent-sized chunks

2017-03-06 10.19.02

Drizzle with honey and the zest and juice of an orange

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

2017-03-06 10.46.39

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

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

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

Blush orange jelly

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

2017-03-04 14.33.21

Dusty-purple hellebores

2017-03-04 14.35.06

A carpet of blue scilla

2017-03-04 14.36.14

A clump of snowdrops, now beginning to fade

2017-03-04 14.37.00

Bobbing yellow narcissi are beginning to make themselves noticed

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

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

2017-03-04 12.13.50

New Favourite: blush oranges

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

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

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

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

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

2017-03-04 12.14.58

A glass of shimmering red jelly

Coconut bread

The holidays are a distant memory now aren’t they? Those few precious days of still, thoughtful calm have been replaced with To Do lists (and they are long), emails and the general drudgery of January. Our festive season ended with a birthday dinner for my Mum, who has hit her 70th year with style. And I mean that: I’ve been looking at pictures from a decade ago and the men in the family now look, well, ten years older. The girls, on the other hand, are wearing pretty well, all told. Happy birthday Mum!

DSC_0347

Happy birthday Mum!

I am struggling with the lack of light. It’s not so much that the days are grey, it’s just that we live in a really, really dark house. No wonder the Victorian period is remembered as being a big grim: living in brick terraced houses like this, with no electric light and no heating, they must have been depressed for half the year. If Charles Dickens had had the LED bulb, what a difference it might have made to our perceptions of 19th century living…

Don’t misunderstand me: I love our house. But it is undeniably nicer in summer. My remedy for this is to get on with some home repair (the living room got repainted this weekend) and to cook, cook, cook.

So I turned to that personification of sunshine, Bill Granger, for a breakfast bake that he recommends “for days when you’d rather be in the Caribbean”. I’ve been making this coconut bread for a few years but it’s only now that I’ve tried it with fresh coconut. What a difference it makes! So get yourself a ripe fresh ‘nut, prepare and blitz it as described in my beef rendang recipe, and then you’re good to go. This bread is in the American style of quick, baking-powder-raised sweet loaves. I serve it in thick slices, toasted, with a slick of butter, ricotta or – brace yourself – Nutella.

Bill Granger’s Coconut Bread
from Sydney Food

Preheat the oven to 180c and grease and line a large loaf tin.

Sift together 375g plain flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder and 2 teaspoons cinnamon into a large bowl. Stir in 200g caster sugar and 150g fresh shredded coconut.

In a jug, melt together 75g unsalted butter and 300ml milk. Leave to cool slightly, then whisk in 2 large eggs and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Gradually stir the liquid into the dry ingredients, until the mixture is just smooth. It is quick a stiff mixture. Don’t overmix, else you’ll have a tough loaf.

Pour the batter into the tin and bake for 1 hour, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. I like to check the bake after 30 minutes and move it around in the oven, to prevent it catching in my oven’s hot spots. It is appears to be browning too quickly, cover with foil during baking.

Cool in the tin for five minutes then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Keeps pleasingly well in a tin for a week or so, or it can also be frozen.

Squidgy chocolate-chestnut roll

Today is the first day of meteorological winter. The winter solstice, the shortest day, the darkest night.  It’s natural at this time of year to pause, reflect, and perhaps shed ourselves of that which we no longer need. I’ve been sifting through boxes of old papers, letters and cards, some of which date back to the 1980s and 1990s…the ghosts of years past. Some mementoes I’ll keep, but most have been ditched; it’s so liberating, deciding to let go of the old.

As of tomorrow, we work ourselves back towards the light. When I was younger and less attuned to the natural world, I didn’t realise that although it’s dark now in mid-December, true winter (i.e. the really cold bit) doesn’t tend to get going until January or February. Get outside and you’ll find that there’s still loads of life out there; early daffodil shoots are pushing through, the trees have set their buds ready for spring; the ivy is in full flower and the squirrels are still gathering up their nuts. Yesterday I went to Woodgate Valley Country Park for the first time, a haven of wildlife just a stone’s throw from the M5 – great respite for any city-dweller desperate for some country air. Were it not for the tower blocks in the distance, I could believe myself to be back in the Shire.

2016-12-20 11.19.26

Woodgate Valley Country Park

2016-12-20 11.21.26

Believe it or not, this is Birmingham!

2016-12-20 11.21.55

The nosey robin is the only shot of colour on an overcast December day

Some ‘old’ things are worth getting rid of, but others should be cherished. If it’s an old recipe, then I’m definitely interested. This dessert is inspired by the 1990s Queen of Christmas, Delia Smith: a squidgy chocolate log filled with a light chestnut cream. Delia’s original uses chocolate mousse and whipped cream, but I’ve swapped the chocolate for some chestnut puree, which feels appropriately seasonal. It’s kind of like a yule log, but without the rich icing; a great way to feed a crowd, or just a greedy couple.

(Note: As is a recent theme, the images on this post are terrible. I blame my dark kitchen. Santa, if you want to bring me some decent lighting for Christmas, that would be marvellous).

First, make the sponge. This is a flourless cake, so it’s super light and squidgy. (It’s just occurred to me that the new phrase for flourless is ‘gluten free’. That phrase hadn’t been invented in the 90s!) First whisk egg yolks with caster sugar until pale and thick, then fold in sifted cocoa powder and stiffly whisked egg whites until the batter is smooth and super light.

2016-12-18 13.19.07

Beat sugar and egg yolks until thick

2016-12-18 13.14.57

Whisk egg whites until stiff

2016-12-18 13.23.06

Fold cocoa and then the stiff egg whites into the egg yolk and sugar mixture

Spread the batter into a prepared swiss-roll tin and bake for about 20 minutes until risen and cooked through, but be careful not to overcook else it will never roll.

2016-12-18 13.26.41

Smooth into a swiss roll pan and bake for about 20 minutes

Whilst the sponge is baking, place a piece of baking parchment onto a tea towel, and sprinkle a little caster sugar onto the paper. When the cake is cooked remove from the oven and leave to stand for two minutes, to take the extreme heat away, then tip the cake upside down onto the baking parchment. Whilst the cake is still warm, roll it up from the short side, using the baking parchment and tea towel to help you, then leave to cool on a wire rack. Rolling the cake now makes it easier to re-roll later. It may crack a bit; that’s just the way it is.

2016-12-18 13.51.42

Put the cooked sponge upside down onto sugared baking parchment and a tea towel, roll up and leave to cool

Whilst the cake is cooling, make the filling. Loosen some chestnut puree in a bowl (if you’re using unsweetened puree then you might like to add a little sugar) and whisk some double cream until light and thick. Fold the chestnut into the cream along with a shot of rum (or brandy), then leave in the fridge to chill.

2016-12-18 13.47.06

Beat chestnut puree to loosen

2016-12-18 13.52.41

Fold chestnuts into whipped cream with a tot of rum

Finally, finish the cake! Unroll the sponge, and if the ends look scruffy then trip them with a bread knife. Spread the cream mixture on top of the cake, then re-roll as tightly as you can. It you use LOADS of cream like me, it is impossibly to roll it tightly and the cake will be like a cream-filled log. If you go easy on the cream, it will be easy to roll tightly and will look more like a swiss roll…it’s up to you. Pop back in the fridge for a few hours to firm up then serve.

This is an indulgent dessert that manages to not be overtly sweet and cloying. I think is actually gets better the next day, especially with a few raspberries on the side to cut through the richness. Enjoy!

2016-12-21 13.35.11

Spread the cream onto the sponge and roll up into a log. Chill for several hours then serve.

Squidgy Chocolate-Chestnut log

Inspired by the Squidgy Chocolate Log in the Delia Smith Complete Cookery Course (1989)

6 large eggs, separated

150g caster sugar

50g cocoa (I use Bournville)

300ml double cream (or 200ml if you’d prefer a tighter roll)

150g chestnut puree (I use Merchant Gourmet)

1 tablespoon rum

Extra caster sugar, for sprinkling and to serve

Pre-heat the oven to 180c. Grease and line a swiss-roll tin. In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks with the caster sugar until thick and light (ribbon stage). Sift the cocoa on top and fold in gently but thoroughly. With a clean whisk and in a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff. Fold the whites into the yolks; it’s easiest to do this in three stages. Gently spread the cake batter into the tin, level with the spoon or spatula, then bake for 15 to 20 minutes until risen and springy to the touch.

Whilst the cake is baking, place a sheet of baking parchment over a clean tea towel, then sprinkle the paper with caster sugar. Remove the cake from the oven, leave to stand for two minutes, then turn out onto the paper. Roll up from the short end and leave to cool.

Loosen the chestnut puree with a spoon. If using unsweetened chestnuts, add a spoon of sugar until sweetened to your liking. Whisk the cream until thick, then fold into the chestnuts and rum. Place in the fridge to cool.

When the sponge is quite cold, unroll. You may wish to trim the edges of your cake to neaten them. Spread the cake with cream, then roll from the short end as tightly as you can. Place back in the fridge to firm up for several hours, then serve.

Cranberry & orange breakfast bread

I’m hunkered down, donning one vest, two jumpers, one scarf, thick socks and slippers, and yet my fingers are nearly numb with cold. The thermometer is showing that my office is at a balmy 15c, but if you add the sitting-chill factor (i.e. the coldness that is felt when one is sedentary) I reckon we’re down to about 10c. Could it be that after the late summer and later autumn, we’re in for an early winter? It was definitely the chilliest bonfire night for some years, making for some spectacular displays.

2016-11-05 19.15.53

Spectacular bonfire in Quainton, Bucks

The American election is currently unmissable, and for the most part, thoroughly depressing. If we thought that this summer’s Brexit referendum was full of negativity, then spare a thought for the millions having to contend with the vitriol and bitterness being spouted over across the Pond.

So in the spirit of the  campaign, led by a group of ever-so-nice Canadians in a comeback against Trump, I’ve been flicking through my well-thumbed USA Cookbook by Sheila Lukins. This is a huge 600 page tome, filled with such brilliance as Flaherty’s maple pecan scones, Peachy keen pie and Low country shrimp & sausage gravy. In other words, food from the heart of the USA that makes you glad to be alive.

The Americans have a fine line in cake for breakfast (of course) and one of my favourites is this cranberry & orange loaf. It’s actually not quite rich enough to be called a cake, but it’s too sweet to be a bread, and too airy to be a scone. Sheila Lukins tells us that it should be toasted and spread with cream cheese, or topped with Virginia ham with scrambled eggs but I like it as it is, naked and unadorned.

2016-11-06 15.49.17

Time to stock up on gorgeous cranberries

The recipe is simplicity itself. Line a loaf tin with baking parchment and preheat the oven to 180c.

Next, sieve together 300g plain flour, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda and 200g caster sugar. Grate the zest of one large orange into the flour mixture. In a separate jug, melt 50g unsalted butter and then stir in 125ml fresh orange juice, 75ml buttermilk (or plain yoghurt thinned with milk) and 1 egg. Stir the wet ingredients into the flour, along with around 200g fresh cranberries and a handful of chopped pecans, if liked. Make sure that the batter is combined but try not to overmix, else you’ll end up with a tough loaf. This is a stiff mixture but if it looks very dry, add a splash of water.

Pile the batter into the prepared tin, smooth the top and sprinkle a little demerara sugar on top. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack before eating.

2016-11-07 09.43.13

Cranberry & orange breakfast bread

Cranberry and orange are stalwart winter flavours and they make a welcome return to my kitchen in this recipe. The cranberries are both sweet and tart, and the orange gives a zestiness that makes this loaf great for an early morning boost, though really you could eat this at any time of day. Thank you America.

2016-11-07 09.43.54

The loaf is studded with jewels of fruit

Join the  campaign on Twitter

Recipe adapted from Sheila Lukins, USA Cookbook (1997), published by Workman Publishing, New York

Pear (or apple) pudding cake

Working in the arts was meant to herald a life filled with glamour, parties, intellectuals and Interesting People. To be paid to write for a living, what a privilege! And all that is true – in part – but most of the time life is rather more mundane (think freezing cold workshops, too-much-time at the computer, that kind of thing). And then once in a while I’ll be called upon to be an actual MODEL in a shoot that I’m working on, donning a smelly old wig from the costume store, and will have to ACT for a camera. Oh the joy! This pic is for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new exhibition The Play’s The Thing, which opens this weekend. You can read about it in this Telegraph article. And that’s another career highlight ticked off the list…

The Play's The Thing

The photoshoot for the RSC’s exhibition The Play’s The Thing

In the rather more prosaic world of allotments, things have sloooowed right down. I’ve pulled out the squash and courgette: they probably all had another couple of weeks left in them, but really, enough is enough. The cosmos have come to the end of their insanely-good four month life, but the dahlias and chrysanthemums are still producing several bunches of colour a week.

2016-10-13 17.46.19

Pink and apricot on one side…

2016-10-13 17.46.27

…pumpkin shades on the other!

With so many wonderful English apples and pears around, it’s good to have at least a few fruity cake recipes up one’s sleeve. This one is a favourite – an apple and almond sponge, dense with caramelised fruit and damp with almonds. The original recipe comes from the River Cottage Every Day book, and it’s fabulous, but occasionally I’ll sub the apples for pears and will chuck in a few chunks of diced marzipan for an extra hit of almond-goo.

First, prepare a 20cm springform or loose-bottomed cake tin, and pre-heat the oven to 170c.

Next we prepare the fruit. Peel, de-seed and chop into wedges 2 firm pears or dessert apples (use more or less, or a mixture of both, depending on how large the fruits are. If using pears I don’t always peel them). Melt 25g unsalted butter in a frying pan, add 1 heaped tablespoon caster sugar and heat until the butter begins to bubble. Add the fruit and let it all cook together over a medium heat until the caramel begins to brown, then remove from the heat.

2016-10-12 11.42.58

Caramelise the prepared apples or pears then leave to cool slightly

The batter is very simple. Cream together 150g unsalted butter with 125g caster sugar until very light and pale. In a separate bowl, mix together 75g self-raising flour and 75g ground almonds. Alternatively beat the flour into the butter mixture along with 2 eggs and a drop of almond extract, if liked. You’ll end up with quite a stiff cake mix.

2016-10-12 11.53.34

Prepare the cake batter

Pile the cake batter into the prepared tin, smooth the top, then stud the batter with the fruit, drizzling over any buttery-caramelly juices that remain. If you want an extra hit of goo, dice some marzipan and arrange the chunks on top.

2016-10-12 11.58.55

Arrange batter, fruit, juices and marzipan in the tin

Then bake for about 45 minutes until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. I usually cover the cake after about 30 minutes to prevent it getting too brown (you can see that this one still managed to get slightly singed). Allow to cool in the tin before turning out.

2016-10-12 13.10.14

A gooey pear and almond pudding-cake

This is called a pudding-cake as really it’s best served warm with a dollop of creme fraiche or vanilla ice-cream, but it’s also good at room temperature. This is a damp cake so it doesn’t keep brilliantly – try to gobble it up within a day or two. If eating it for pudding, the cake can be successfully reheated in a low oven (150c) for ten minutes or so.

Proper choc-chip cookies

The sunflowers have GROWN! The plants I grew from #SunflowerClub seeds are the tallest, as was expected, and now reach waaay over my head. The ones meant for cutting are shorter but with abundant stems – good timing as the soft pink and purple sweetpeas are coming to the end of their life and I need some colourful flowers for cutting.

2016-07-27 17.00.36

Sunflowers are now pretty tall…my head for reference

Speaking of colourful stems – finally, we have a dahlia. It’s a whopper. Interestingly, the tubers that I left in the ground over-winter (presumed dead) have now decided to send up shoots – and the remains of this year’s plants, post-slug-apocalypse, have also regenerated. Is it too late for them?

2016-07-26 16.53.30

At last, a decent dahlia!

I took a bunch of dahlia and sunflower stems home this week to decorate the house in preparation for hosting the Supperagettes. Our all-girl crew, who all happen to work in arts marketing, love grub. I fed them paprika-baked chicken with Matt’s cowboy baked beans, followed by a milk-based cinnamon-spiked vanilla ice. It was yum. It did, however, leave me with three unused egg yolks – and I didn’t want to make yet another pudding when I already had so many leftovers. So I hunted around the web for ideas using up egg yolks and only came across the best choc-chip cookie recipe EVER.

I take no credit, it’s by Claire Ptak and I found it on the Torygraph website. It’s very easy – cream butter and sugar together, add egg yolks and flour, work to a dough and add the chocolate. But two tips make these cookies brilliant: the first is that by using egg yolks rather than whole eggs, you end up with a richer, smoother texture. The second is that you freeze the dough for at least an hour before baking to firm the butter up. This means that the cookies don’t melt the second they meet the oven, meaning that you end up with a thick American-style cookie rather than a crisp flat little thing.

These cookies are the real deal. The dough can be kept in the freezer and baked from frozen, so fresh gooey cookies can be on the table whenever a fix is required.

Proper Chocolate-Chip Cookies

Makes about 16
By Claire Ptak in The Telegraph 

First, line a baking tray(s) with baking parchment – it must be able to fit in the freezer.

Then, using a wooden spoon, cream 250g butter (I use salted) with 200g light muscavado sugar and 75g caster sugar (use 100g if you want them sweeter). Don’t over-whip, just combine so there’s no lumps of butter or sugar.

Next, stir in 3 egg yolks and a splash of vanilla extract, then work in 325g plain flour and 3/4 tsp bicarb of soda to make a firm dough. Finally, work in 250g dark chocolate chips or broken up chocolate. Use the decent stuff, 55% solids minimum.

Use an ice-cream scoop to measure the dough onto the baking parchment, then pop them in the freezer for at least an hour. The ice-cream scoop gives depth to the dough, giving you a good thick cookie. (The shaped dough will sit happily in the freezer for a few weeks, so you could just bake as many as you need and leave the rest for another day.)

2016-07-30 09.36.09

Scoop the dough using an ice-cream scoop

Pre-heat the oven to 180c. The cookies need room to spread so re-arrange them as required, then bake – give them 15 minutes to begin with and pop them back if they’re still pale. Don’t overcook else you’ll end up with a crispy rather than chewy cookie. Cool for 10 minutes and then scoff!

2016-07-30 09.35.39

As big as a hand!

2016-07-30 09.34.56

Ultimate choc-chip cookies