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.

Explorations in salt beef

The Jobs list in December is guaranteed to turn one into the Grinch. There’s all the Christmas stuff; women take on the burden of organising it all, at our own behest, and annually I wonder why on earth do we do this to ourselves? And yet here I am, writing the cards, worrying about table settings and undelivered parcels and what to give the nursery teachers as a thank you gift. Then there’s the house jobs (lockdown with a three year old does not make for an ordered household. We’re in Tier 3 which essentially means No Non-Household Fun Allowed. There’s a lot of TV at present), and the allotment jobs (it still needs covering) and then all the work jobs to get done before the holidays (holidays! Pah!).

So I come to realise that at this time of year I have to make space for small, soul-sustaining things – else martyrdom and a minor breakdown will set in – one of which is manuring the allotment. The sweet joy of shifting a pallet of poo, ripping open bags, forking through the rich brown gold, to create a veg patch as pristine as an untouched canvas in time for winter.

Allotment and garden have been mulched with a thick blanket of manure

This year’s December door swag is a hastily constructed bouquet of greens and oranges, gathered by my Mum from her garden and then tied together for the door by me. I fully intended to adorn it further with dried hydrangea and strawflower heads but will probably never actually get around to doing so.

This year’s December door swag

The lockdown baking continues – of course – it’s such a normalised activity now that I barely notice it, but I do want to record Harry’s progress from bemused onlooker to active ‘helper’. Here we’re making brown sugar cinnamon rolls, using a scraper to spread scented butter over stretched dough.

Harry has progressed to helping with cinnamon buns

In my last post I mentioned that I felt some Project Cookery coming on. Reader, I am true to my word. Project Cookery is anything which requires a little effort: pickling, drying, layering, fermenting. It’s a good time of year to have a go at something new, given that we’re at home anyway so the small daily interventions that Projects require can be easily slotted into a daily routine.

Usually come December I’m having a go at making my own gravadlax or contemplating a gammon, and so it’s a natural progression to take the curing/salting mindset down a different road, to a different ingredient. The project, therefore, was decided: Salt Beef. Inspired by the River Cottage Meat Book, I tracked down a 2kg rolled brisket from my local butcher…and that’s where my troubles began.

It may be easy to make OK salt beef, but I have concluded that to make GOOD salt beef requires years of experience and more precise instructions than any recipe I have found. What follows, therefore, is not my definitive salt beef recipe, more a record of our family’s (for that is what it became) explorations.

Step 1: The Pickle
Stage 1 of making salt beef is to pickle the meat in a sweet-spiced brine solution for about a week. Easy enough. Except the myriad recipes I referred to confuse the matter. To roll or unroll the meat? Kosher (sea) salt or the bog standard stuff that comes in 1kg sacks from the Co-op? What receptacle does one keep a brisket plus 2+ litres of brine in for a week? In the fridge or not? Salt petre or not?

In the end we unrolled the meat, stabbed it several times with a skewer, then put it in my biggest plastic cake tin which, happily, could then hold 2 litres of brine and sit on the top shelf of the fridge. Some recipes called for a 5 litre mix which surely calls for a barrel and an out-house – fine if you live in Devon (I’m talking about you Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall) but not so great for folks in Smethwick.

I didn’t use salt-petre for the simple reason that I didn’t want the palaver of an online shop for an ingredient I will rarely ever use, especially if it’s just for aesthetic purposes. The spices I kept in keeping with the season: cinnamon, star anise, clove, juniper, bay.

Ingredients:
2 kg brisket, unrolled and stabbed with a skewer
2 litres cold water
75g sugar (I used half granulated, half brown)
200g salt (I used normal table salt)
2 bay leaves
dessertspoon each of black peppercorns, juniper berries, star anise, cloves
1 cinnamon stick

Place the brisket in a large tupperware box or other receptacle – it needs to be kept covered and not react to brine, so plastic or ceramic is best (not aluminium). Heat all the brine ingredients in a saucepan and simmer for five minutes, cool completely and then tip over the brisket. Cover and refrigerate for 6 days, turning once per day.

Soak the brisket in a sweet, spiced brine for one week

Step 2: The Soak
On day 6, I tipped away the brine and covered the meat in fresh water, to remove excess salt.

Step 3: The boil
This is the bit that I think we messed up. The idea is to poach the meat in a court bouillon until it is meltingly tender. The problem with brisket is that, in my view, it actually rarely achieves tenderness: some of this is beyond the cook’s control (much depends on how the animal has lived, died and been butchered) but most of it is due to cooking time. The recipes I looked at said to look the meat for between 2-4 hours – now, that’s a big leeway right there.

Anyway, the beef want into a stock pot with carrots, leek, onion and garlic (there should have been more bay leaves but we ran out) and was simmered for two hours. At this point it was declared done (we were hungry) and removed it from the heat; in hindsight, I have decided that it needed either MUCH LESS or MUCH MORE cooking.

The argument for much less time in the pot is that a shorter cook prevents the meat drying out too much; it is a myth that poached meats can not be over-cooked.

The argument for much more cooking is that it gives the touch connective tissue time to disappear into a soft gelatinous mass, a state that can only be achieved with a profoundly long cook.

The true perfect cooking time therefore remains an unknown but my advice for the aspiring salt beef cook is to have a thorough prod of that meat before declaring it done, really checking for tenderness, and to err on the view that when it comes to brisket, more cooking is better than less.

Ingredients:
The drained brisket
1 each: carrot, onion, leek, roughly chopped
A few garlic cloves, bashed
Bay leaves

Place the beef into a large stock pot with the veg and herbs, cover with cold water, then bring to a simmer. Cook until meltingly soft – probably 3-4 hours, but could perhaps only be 1. The timing of this dish remains a mystery.

When it’s done, remove the meat and serve. Note: do not put the stock liquid down the sink as it will be full of melted beef fat that can clog the drain. Leave it in a cold place overnight, scrape the hardened fat off, then the stock can be saved for other dishes or chucked, as you will.

Braise the beef with herbs and stock vegetables until tender

Step 3: What does one do with 2kg salt beef?!

Now here’s the rub. What on earth do you DO with that much salt beef?! The flavour is delicious, salty yes but also complex with clove and cinnamon. The problem is that it’s just a teensy weensy bit tough…oh OK, at times it was like shoe leather. Of course there is no gravy to counteract the dryness.

Meal 1: Serve hot, in thick slices, with boiled new potatoes and buttered carrots. The Irish way.

Meal 2: Serve warm, in thick slices, tucked into a toasted bagel with gherkins and a slather of hot mustard. The Brick Lane bagel-shop way.

Meal 3: We’re in the territory of leftovers now. Many recipes recommend a red flannel hash (salt beef, beetroot, potato, onion) but honestly, our beef is too tough for that, so I am turning it into a ragu, rich with wine and tomatoes, thinking that an extra two hours cooking won’t do it any harm.

Salt beef: serve sliced with potatoes and carrots, in a bagel with pickles and mustard, or try leftovers in a long-braised tomato-rich ragu

The verdict: It’s easy enough to make, and I love the flavour, but that piece of beef cost about £15 which in my view is an expensive bit of Project Cookery. I’m not convinced it’s worth it – but then maybe if we’d cooked it properly I could be swayed. Let’s see how that ragu turns out.

Also this week:
Allotment and garden: Moving the pallet of manure and mulching both allotment and garden (still need to get the plastic covers on). Broad beans and the annual cut flowers have germinated but are leggy weaklings.
Cooking and eating: Osso bucco, steamed syrup pudding, chocolate buttermilk muffins
Also: Christmas overload already; all the fun things we had planned have been cancelled due to Sandwell being in Tier 3. Starting again on the Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante.

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.

Autumn beef & vegetable stew

We are returned from our summer holiday, ‘summer’ being perhaps an optimistic notion for October. It is at this time of the year that we travel, partly to avoid school holidays but mainly because work is usually busiest during the festival-season of June to September. Not this year of course. Nothing is the same this year – not that you’d know it in Cornwall. There, the pace of life remains reassuringly unhurried, the noise of lockdown diktats from London seem to merely echo rather than shout.

Alas, the weather threw everything at us. Gales, rain, drizzle, sun, rainbow, wind again…Watching it all unfold, I wrote a few words in my journal:

Sea merging into sky
steel blue, grey, white, concrete
Three days of leaden sky
Forceful wind, rajasic weather,
Stormy. Relentless.

But then this morning, sun broke through
turning the cliffs golden
The hint of a rainbow dissolves onto the sea
and then returns with greater resolve.
A brief strengthening of sprit.

I am not normally driven to write poetry-style words. This is what the Cornish landscape does to a woman in middling-age.

Endless grey skies at Mawgan Porth
Industrial architecture mimicking a Norman keep
Sky meets sea

I have always thought of our September/October break as the end of summer, a mental shift towards the autumn/winter months. On returning home my mind whirrs with lists to make the next six months more tolerable; much of it is kitchen and garden-room (I can wish) related: the final autumn harvests, the creation of dried flower vases around the house. Sloe-apple jelly and butternut squash soup become earmarked for creation. Traditionally we prepared for winter by filling our stores and retreating indoors, a way of thinking that remains in my blood.

Yesterday I gave in and harvested the outdoor tomatoes from the veg trug. These are lockdown plants, arriving shrivelled and near dead in the post after whiling away for days in the postal service, but they perked up and the four plants have given several kilo of fruit. Harry, only 3, insisted on using the secateurs and to his credit, did an effective job. The issue is ripeness, or rather the lack of it: 90% of them are green, our back garden too overlooked and the summer too cloudy to allow them to ripen. I’ve placed them on newspaper in the sun room in hope of a late ripening, and the rest – let’s face it – will probably end up in the compost.

The harvest from 4 tomato plants, all outdoor. An abundance of fruit, alas all of it in varying shades of green

Whilst sorting out tomatoes my eyes were drawn to the bunches of hanging strawflower and hops, now papery and dried, and I cut a few to make a small vase for the office – a classic procrastination before work. Over the next few weeks there will be more of these to brighten up the house, replacing the vases of dahlias and chrysanthemums that have been so abundant during late summer.

The first of this year’s dried flower posies, made of hop, strawflower, cornflower and poppy head

October weather – once one has truly been in it for days, as even in gale-force winds a pre-schooler insists on building sandcastles – demands a return to slow food. Feta cheese and salads won’t cut it now; my body yearns for homely, inexpensive, peasanty cooking. Yesterday, whilst stocking up on essential supplies I even found myself sneaking turnips into the trolly. Turnips! They found their way into a simple long-braised stew, rich with root vegetables and just a scrap of meat, served steaming in deep bowls with a few stodgy-yet-crunchy dumplings.

The trick to this is cutting your foundation vegetables – the onions, celery, leeks – quite small so that they melt into the stock, but the hero veg – the parsnips, carrots and the like – big. That way you get a smooth silky soupy base with interesting chunks to chew on.

This is what I call National Trust cookery. Autumn is here.

Autumn beef & vegetable stew
serves 4, generously

500g braising steak, diced
oil or dripping
2 small onions, peeled and finely sliced
2 large sticks of celery, trimmed and finely sliced
1 leek, cleaned, trimmed and finely sliced
2 large carrots, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
2 small turnips, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
2 parsnips, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
5 mid-sized new potatoes, halved or quartered (if you have tiny ones leave them whole and just use a few more)
4 or so fat cloves of garlic, peeled and bashed but left whole
4-5 bay leaves
few springs of thyme
1 tablespoon flour
salt and pepper
2 beef stock cubes (I use Kallo organic low-salt)
boiling water

For the dumplings:
250g self-raising flour
125g suet
cold water
salt and pepper

Set the oven to 160c. Warm a heavy-weight frying pan and when hot, brown the meat on all sides until burnished – I do this in batches, without any extra oil as I dislike all the splatters. Remove the meat to a very large casserole pot.

Turn the heat on the frying pan down, add a little oil or dripping, then soften the onions, leeks and celery for about five minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper, then tip the lot into the casserole with the meat – the onions should pick up any crusty bits left from browning your beef. The frying pan can now go in the sink to be washed up.

Put your casserole pan onto the heat, add the remaining vegetables and turn them over with the onions and beef for five minutes or so, just to slightly soften. Add the herbs, flour and the stock cubes, and stir again for a few more minutes so that everything is well distributed. Tip in enough boiling water to cover the meat, bring it all to a slow simmer and give everything another good stir – we need the stock cubes to fully dissolve and for there to be no lumps of flour.

Pop the lid on and transfer to the oven, where it should putter away for two hours. Top the water up if it looks dry.

For the dumplings, stir the suet, flour, salt and pepper together using a table knife, then add enough cold water to bring it together to a rough dough – maybe 3 tablespoons. Shape into however many dumplings you require – this mixture makes 5 BIG ones or rather more smaller ones.

After two hours, turn the heat up to 180c. Remove the lid of the casserole, pop the dumplings on top of the stew and return to the oven, cooking uncovered for 30 minutes or so until the dumplings are puffy and crunchy on the top.

Enjoy in a deep bowl with a dollop of hot horseradish. No other accompaniment is required.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Braised rabbit with rose wine, rosemary and bacon (found an independent rural butcher selling wild rabbits for £3, which is an offer I can not refuse); pasties, scampi, chips, fudge etc etc; a tot of sloe gin from Chappers’ 2017 vintage. Buying up apples and pears, some for eating now, some to be sliced and frozen for future pies.

Reading: Two Kitchens by Rachel Roddy, wonderfully evocative writing; A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, which I’ve been putting off because it is literally the size of a brick, but when on holiday there is no excuse.

Bullace & plum pudding-cake

We have tipped into Late Summer. I think this time, from late August to the start of October, is a season in its own right, a transition from one thing to the next, a time to celebrate the harvest whilst letting go of the busy-ness of the longest days. I used to feel sad at the onset of autumn but now it’s one of my favourite times of year…as summer’s end I finally get my days at the seaside (we never holiday during peak season, I’m usually busy with work), the light is gloriously golden, and the allotment, garden and kitchen is filled with rich colour: oranges, yellows, purples and reds.

We’ll be harvesting hops soon; their papery husks are filled with resiny fragrance. Not that I know what to do with them as we never get around to turning them into beer…perhaps this year we’ll use them as an outdoor cut flower display for the garden. Slightly more excitingly, for me at least, is the swelling of the borlotti beans: the irresistible hot pink pods open up to reveal rows of beautifully striped beans, which sadly turn to humble brown when cooked. I’ll freeze these fresh from the pods to use in chillis during the winter.

Hops are nearing their harvest time
The lurid pink borlotti beans nearing perfection

As ever, the courgettes quickly became a burden this year and I stopped harvesting them a few weeks ago. As a result we now have an abundance of whopper marrows, which I enjoy looking at if not eating. Next to them the autumn squash have become triffid-like, stretching their growing shoots to anywhere where they find space, and using the more sturdy of the dahlia plants as a climbing frame. Incidentally I never label my squash as I enjoy the mystery, come October, of finding out what we’ve got this year (I never remember what I have sown). Will it be a Turks Turban or a Jill Be Little?

A squash is using the dahlias as a climbing frame

The cut flower have held up well, considering the storms. Well, they are mostly now growing horizontally, but they’re still standing, so I take that as a small victory. This year we have an abundance of hot pinks and oranges, with the chrysanthemum, dahlias and straw flower putting on particularly flamboyant shows.

Clashing shades of chrysanthemum
Hot colours of strawflower
Cut flowers still standing, despite the storms

Traditionally at harvest time, growers would store their hard-won produce and then sell or give-away any excess – this exchange would fill up holes in one’s own supply. It’s an age-old habit that still exists now, and this week I have happily exchanged sunflowers for tomatoes, raspberries for damsons. Alex’s black tomatoes, still warm from the greenhouse, are big enough to carve and eat with a knife and fork – and I did just that, anointing them with olive oil, salt and a sprinkling of dill. Late august perfection.

A regular late summer harvest

The damsons demanded some cooking, however. Now I say damsons but I am pretty sure that these little black beauties are actually bullace, which is a type of wild plum, indigenous to the British Isles. They came from my friend Hannah’s back garden and indeed there is debate in her house as to whether they have damsons or bullace. Either way, they are as seasonal to late summer as asparagus is to May. Incidentally, I would never want to buy a damson – to me they are a foraging food, or at least one that should be scavenged from a friend’s orchard or a neighbour’s tree, leaving fingers stained purple and legs sore with nettle stings. A damson that arrives at the kitchen wrapped in plastic is going against the natural order of things.

I stewed the damsons/bullace with a handful of plums in just a little water and sugar until soft, then picked out the little hard stones, a laborious but essential job. They create a syrup the colour of lipstick. Top with a basic sponge batter and a sprinkling of flaked almonds, and you have the perfect late summer pudding.

Plum and bullace just starting to burst their skins
Simmer until the juices flow freely, then top with sponge batter and bake
Plum & bullace pudding cake

Plum & bullace pudding cake
The bullace can be exchanged for plums or damsons. The amount of sugar needed will vary according to the ripeness of your fruit – an unripe damson can taste like sucking a battery, but a ripe one can be lusciously sweet.

About 500g plums, bullace, damsons or a mixture of the three
Water
Sugar

For the sponge:
100g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter, softened
100g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
flaked almonds, for sprinkling

First prepare your fruit. If using plums or damsons, halve them and remove the stones. The bullace can be cooked whole. Place in a lidded pan with a splash of water and sugar to taste – I would start with 2 tablespoons and add more if required. Simmer the fruit until soft and the juices run, about 5-10 minutes. Leave to cool then fish out any stones.

Grease an oven-proof dish that is of a suitable size to take your fruit and sponge. Using a slatted spoon, transfer the fruit to the dish, keeping any juices in the pan. Return the pan to the heat and reduce the juices down to make a syrup, then pour this over your fruit. Set aside whilst you make the sponge.

Preheat the oven to 180c.

In a bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time with a spoonful of flour, beat to combine, then beat in the remaining flour, baking powder and vanilla extract. When fully combined spoon the batter onto the fruit, then smooth the top and sprinkle with flaked almonds.

Bake for about 45 minutes until golden and set firm. Cool slightly before serving.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Roast lamb and dauphinoise potatoes, the first truly autumnal dinner of the season. Shepherds pie with the leftovers. Spaghetti with tomatoes and runner beans. Jam turnovers. Baked pancakes with blueberries. Korean vegetable pancakes, hot with gochujang.

Harvesting: TONS of raspberries, I have no freezer space left. Plus chard, dahlias, cosmos, chrysanthemum, ammi, zinnia, marigolds. A few beans but they’re over now really.

Also: Upping my fitness with Jessica Ennis-Hill’s HIIT app, which is leaving me a sweaty mess but is fun, plus weekly yoga with Mel.

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.

Barabrith

I am writing from the bliss of a quiet house. This week I had a birthday (a big one, but the least said about that the better) and it turns out that birthdays in lockdown are tricky. It’s not like you can have loads of friends over for pizzas and aperol spritz as we would in normal times, or pop to the spa for a pick-me-up. So tea and cake in various gardens it is and rather than dwelling on the parties-that-never-were, I’m grateful to have parents who bring flowers and in-laws that make cracking Victoria sponges. Incidentally, let it be committed to print that my dear other half has promised to make me a new desk for my birthday, and now that it’s public, he has to deliver the goods.

This birthday I had not one cake but two (actually I had three but the third one came a week later)

In baking news, the cinnamon buns continue, this time with a new shape (the twisted knot) and also with chunks of dark chocolate folded into the layers, for a cinnamony-chocolatey-south-american flavour.

Cinnamon bun twists with chunks of chocolate

The parched earth of spring has now been nourished with days and days of rain. The allotment is grateful for it – the sweet peas in particular are now galloping away – and of course the fat hen, thistles and buttercups are thriving. Last year the weeds drove me bonkers but this year I’m just seeing them as part of the ecosystem of the land, their place as much as mine. As long as the flowers and veggies are still cropping, not too much harm is done by their existence. Meanwhile Matt’s made a new brassica cage, sturdier than my efforts of last year, and so I have finally planted out three types of kale plus chard and beet spinach.

This year’s brassica cage has come into operation
Harvesting redcurrants, broad beans and sweet peas

The broad beans are giving two crops weekly and I also now have a few diddy purple pea pods, planted for their shoots but left to mature just for the fun of it. Thankfully I have a helper to assist with all the processing of pods and stalks, a necessary but (to my mind) excessively enjoyable June task.

I have a helper to pod all those beans…

On to a recipe. Harry’s obsessed with Fireman Sam at the moment, and I took the view that if we can’t get to Pontypandy, then Pontypandy can come to us. Meaning, if we can’t go to Wales, then I can at least do some Welsh baking in the form of Barabrith. This one is a tea loaf made with self-raising flour, though it’s more common to find recipes that rely on yeast. Yeast cookery holds no fear for me but sometimes I prefer to take the easy option, which this definitely is: soak fruit in sugary tea, add flour and an egg, than bake. Unashamedly old-fashioned, it keeps for weeks and somehow manages to be simultaneously plain, nourishing and a special treat. My only stipulation is that it must be served plastered with plenty of salted butter.

Barabrith, Wales’ great contribution to baking culture

Barabrith

450g dried mixed fruit – I used sultanas, raisins, currants and cranberries
250g light brown sugar
300ml boiling water
1 tea bag
2 tsp mixed spice
450 self-raising flour
1 egg

In a big bowl, place the fruit, sugar, water and tea bag, give it a stir, then leave to soak. This can be for an hour or overnight, which ever is most convenient.

When ready to bake, prepare a 900g loaf tin with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 170c.

Fish out the tea bag from the fruit, then add the spice, flour and egg to the mixture. Give it a good mix with a wooden spoon to combine, then dollop it into the loaf tin. I like to smooth the top then make a slight dip so that the end loaf comes out flattish.

Bake for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until a skewer comes out clean. You may need to put foil over the cake to prevent it browning too much. Leave to cool in the tin for ten minutes or so before turning out onto a wire rack. This is a big cake but it keeps for weeks in a tin. Serve in thick slices toasted with butter.

Also this week:

Harvesting and growing: Harvesting lettuce, broad beans, peas, red currants, sweet peas, first cornflower. Planted out dahlias, chard, beet spinach, kale. Given a lovely apricot rose in a pot for my birthday from Mum and Dad, which is sitting happily next to the pink lilies (I like a colour clash).

Cooking and eating: Amazing lamb and chicken kebabs, rice, bulgur, bread and salads from the new Turkish grill in Bearwood. Baked lamb with capers, garlic and rosemary, served with potatoes boulanger. Birthday party at Claire’s with two Victoria sponges, and another at our house with one chocolate sponge, crab sandwiches, fresh prawns on the shell and the inevitable party rings. Lots of new season broad beans, lettuce, and a few peas.

Reading: Yin Yoga by Norman Blair. European Peasant Cookery by Elizabeth Luard. Feast by Nigella Lawson.

Be the change, an update

The end of yet another deeply troubling week. How many more troubling weeks will there be? Brexit crisis, climate crisis, pandemic and economic crisis, and now the re-emergence in the public consciousness of the crisis of inequality in Western society. The protest for Black Lives Matter may have begun in the USA but its resonance is far, wide, loud. It should give all of us pause for reflection.

In my industry (arts and culture) diversity, equality and universal representation, or rather the lack of it, has been an issue present my entire career. My very first job was for a theatre company, which happened to be led by a white woman, which worked in what was then called ‘culturally diverse’ performance – in practice, this meant voices of Black and Asian people, from the UK but also the Caribbean, Africa, India. They tended to be angry voices. I had to question some assumptions that I had about other people from different cultural backgrounds to my own, assumptions that I’d never actually been aware that I’d had; there wasn’t a phrase for this then but it’s now called ‘unconscious bias’.

Since then I’ve worked with many different faces from many different backgrounds. Sometimes my projects are specifically about attempting to improve representation of people who aren’t white, middle class, straight, able-bodied. This work always brings me up short, making me realise the things I’ve misunderstood about people who are different to myself. Twenty years I’ve been doing this, and still it’s hard. I’ve given jobs to people who were white and ‘ready to go’ over those who were not white and needed training to get them up to speed. It was the right decision for the project, but was it the right decision for society? The emotions are conflicting: guilt, confusion, defensiveness, self-pity, frustration, tiredness, anger. Equality work is difficult. Black and White isn’t actually that black and white.

But the work is worth doing, we have to keep doing it.

So if you’re wondering what you can do to make life better in our society, I’d recommend once again to try and Be The Change. Look at your choices, look at your unconscious bias, look at the things you say/think/feel and see if they need unpicking a little. Educate yourself a little more on how we got to this point. It may make you feel uncomfortable but if everyone does this, imagine the changes that would come.

“We can not always do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” Mother Theresa of Calcutta

Life in lockdown

On the whole, we’ve been having a thoroughly nice time in lockdown. I read yesterday that psychologists are worried that people have made such cosy cocoons for themselves that even when we’re finally allowed out, we’ll all be a bunch of agoraphobes who refuse to leave the sanctuary of home. I think there is truth in that and I also think that perhaps it is no bad thing, that there is time yet for stillness and an appetite for life focused on things other than endless consumption and growth.

We do go out every day, but usually only the hundred metres or so to the park. Last week children had left chalk graffiti on the path, an act of pure creativity without self-consciousness.

Kids’ graffiti in Lightwoods Park

I’ve been following my own creative urges – nothing amazing, just thirty minutes of free writing here, a bit of colouring there. I envy all those people I know who actually have skills to draw or paint (or write) well. There’s always cooking of course, and now that we have flour again I’m drawn back to the alchemy that is yeast cookery. Last week I had a go at crumpets; this week I can feel Danish pastries coming on.

Homemade crumpets

In our domestic bubble, aside from the cookery and colouring, there is always the cultivated world to turn for solace and creative endeavour. I am so pleased with my garden this May, the first time I’ve got it looking good. Some of it is considered, some of it is a happy accident. Tulips give tones of green, cream, pink and peach against the hot pink azalea, and in the last week the alliums have opened their lavender pom pom heads. The hottest pink roses are opening too, offset by the vigorous green growth of delphinium, aquilegia and foxglove. It will stay looking glorious for a few more weeks before the inevitable early July slump. To offset that I have a cold-frame full of seedlings – cosmos, nicotiana, more delphiniums, dahlia – readying themselves for their summer in the sun.

The tulips are still going strong, giving white, pink and peach tones to the greening-up garden

All this fecundity is in sharp contrast to the allotment, where nothing much is happening yet. Nothing cultivated I mean, for the grass and nettles are once again rampant. I popped down on Saturday for an hour alone-time, only to be met by a downpour. The shed provided cover and I perched on a spindle of hop twine for half an hour, accompanied by bird song, lilac, cow parsley and the sound of rain on the roof.

In a downpour, I take refuge in the allotment shed, with a view of lilac, cow parsley and nettles

The climbing beans, dwarf beans and sweet peas have now been in for a week or so, netted to protect against the inevitable bird attack. The rest of the soil remains fallow for now. I have learnt that things planted directly in our soil do not do well and it does no good to rush; the first five months of the year are a dormant period down there. No, much better to sow the seeds at home, develop strong plants and put them out only when they’re good and ready, which for the brassicas, salads, squash, corn and cut flowers may not be for another month yet.

Beans have been planted out and netted against the birds

I still visit the allotment though, partly to keep the grass down, but mostly to get my fix of May cut flowers. Alongside the alliums, which I planted several years ago, there is self-sown cow parsley, lilac and persicaria for the picking, making for a gloriously frothy vase.

Alliums, lilac, cow parsley and persicaria, all foraged from the allotment

Having worked from home for years, I find that lockdown life is just a slowed down, slightly more domestic version of normal life. I look after Harry, tend to my seeds, do my bits of work, cook, take care of the never-ending chores, read, sit, chat, play in the garden. There are Zoom meetings, Zoom parties, Zoom yoga, and we even managed a socially-distanced drink with our neighbours through the back gate. Once a week I go to the shops and collect bread from the baker in Stirchley. I completely avoid Facebook, the newspapers and much of the news as I find all the shouting to be wildly unhelpful. I yearn to write but don’t know where to begin (always that sense that we should be doing something useful or productive). There is always the worry of financial armageddon, of course, so as not to become overwhelmed I find I take life one week at a time.

It feels like the right conditions for good things, good ideas, to brew.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Roast chicken with fennel, chilli and oregano; peach and blackberry cobbler; homemade pesto to dress roasted aubergine and asparagus; tagliatelle with peas and bacon; raspberry lemon muffins; lemon ricotta hotcakes; cannellini beans braised with tomato; crumpets.

Allotment and garden: Planted more dwarf beans, climbing beans and squash. Planted out runner, French and borlotti beans, sweet peas, cornflowers. Hardening off many younger plants. Uncovered all the old strawberry patch ready to take the squash plants in a few weeks. Garden tulips holding on and the first roses are breaking bloom. Covered up the gooseberry and redcurrant against bird attack.

Harvesting: Cow parsley, lilac, alliums, persicaria, lettuce merveille de quat saison (veg trug), tarragon, marjoram.

Reading: The land where lemons grow by Helena Attlee. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.