Moussaka

Welcome to the courgette plank of shame. These don’t look that big in the picture, but trust me, they’re massive. Although I’ve noticed that the courgettes for sale in the supermarkets are sometimes bigger, which is clearly madness. According to Ruth Rogers of River Cafe fame, the best courgette for picking is the size of a large thumb – the problem being that it stays that size for, ooh, around thirty seconds before transforming into a monster. I’ve given up picking them now, so overladen are we with the glut.

The courgette-marrow plank of shame

Meanwhile the drop in temperature and damp weather has brought on the hops, which are now covered in these prickly little flowers. I’m on the allotment three times a week to pick the raspberries and gather the sunflowers, dodging showers (not always successfully) and noticing all the jobs that need doing that I don’t have capacity for.

The hops are beginning to flower

Harry and I got caught in a downpour so had to hang out in the ramshackle greenhouse for half an hour

Dad’s monster aubergine demanded some proper attention. These days I prefer recipes that take ten minutes here and there, leaving me free to run the business / remove Harry from the fireplace (his latest favourite place) / organise the wedding etc etc. Moussaka fits the bill perfectly.

Dad with his aubergine

Lots of recipes demand that aubergines are fried first but I dislike this approach for two reasons: 1, you use a shed load of oil, which is both too fatty and too expensive, and 2, it takes forever and is very dull. The best thing to do is thickly slice the aubergines, add a wee bit of oil, then roast in the oven until soft. I’ve added some summer squash to the mix because GLUT.

Roast the sliced aubergines and courgettes

Whilst the veg is roasting away, make a braised lamb sauce. You could use leftover roast lamb here – I think this would probably be better actually – but I only had lamb mince to hand. Simply cook together with onions, tomato puree, cinnamon and red wine until reduced and unctuous. The cinnamon is important, giving background warmth and the whisper of distant sunkissed shores. After an hour of gentle puttering it should be thick and delicious, at which point you can use it straight away or leave for a few hours until you’re ready to finish the moussaka.

The braised lamb sauce

Finally, make a simple béchamel sauce, generously flavoured with nutmeg. Once it’s done leave it to cool for a while, then stir in two eggs for that classic custardy finish.

The béchamel is mixed with eggs and nutmeg

To make the moussaka, layer up your dish in this order: aubergines, meat, aubergines, meat, béchamel. Bake at 180c for about 45 minutes, until the top is blistered and golden. Now – this is VERY important – leave it untouched for at least thirty minutes to calm down and firm up. Hot moussaka is a sloppy horrible mess, but warm moussaka holds its shape and the flavours shine through. Serve with a simple side salad.

Let the moussaka stand for half an hour after baking to allow it to firm up

Moussaka
Inspired by Felicity Cloake’s Guardian recipe. Serves 6 (I made two dishes and froze one)

Olive oil
1 monster aubergine and 1 summer squash / courgette, or 2 large aubergines
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1.5 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp dried oregano
500g minced lamb or leftover roast lamb. Use good quality if you can.
2 tbsp tomato puree
splash of water
150ml red wine
Parsley, chopped

For the béchamel: 
500ml milk
60g butter
60g plain flour
50g parmesan, grated (you could use pecorino or kefalotryi if you have it)
2 eggs
Nutmeg, to grate

Preheat the oven to 180c. Cut the aubergines and squash into thick slices, and place on a roasting tray. Drizzle with oil and season. Bake until soft and golden, about 20 minutes.

Now the lamb. Warm a lidded frying pan or casserole dish on a gentle heat. Cook the onion in a shake of olive oil and a pinch of salt until soft. Stir in the garlic, cinnamon and oregano, then add the lamb. Cook over a high-ish heat until the lamb is well browned and the mixture is quite dry – about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato puree and cook for another few minutes to get rid of the raw taste, then add in the wine and a splash of water to cover the meat. Turn the heat right down and braise for about 45 minutes until the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the parsley and season to taste. Leave to cool and spoon off any excess oil.

Make the béchamel. Melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in the flour and cook for a minute or two, then gradually add the milk. (Recipes always tell you to use hot milk but who actually does this? I use it cold and stir like mad between each addition to remove the lumps.) Cook until you have a thick sauce and then simmer gently for five minutes to cook through. Stir in the cheese. Remove from the heat and cool slightly, then add the nutmeg and eggs.

Finish the moussaka. In a suitably size dish (or two dishes) layer up aubergine, meat, aubergine, meat and finish with the sauce. Bake for about 40 minutes until well browned. Leave to cool for 30 minutes before serving.

Also this week:

Cooking: Roast leg of lamb with garlic, rosemary and anchovy; roasted vegetable pasta (allotment veg); caramel almond sponge; runner beans braised with tomatoes.

Eating: Pizza at Baked in Brick, Cronut from Medicine bar, Chandigarh veggie samosa and curries

Harvesting: Sunflowers, cleome, dahlia, sweetpeas, cosmos, rudbeckia, last runner beans, loads and loads of raspberries, last blueberries, courgette, squash, cavolo nero, chard, spinach beet. The tomatoes that we’re getting are great and gnarly and red and delicious.

Also: Trying to balance work projects (festival organising, website writing) with baby care with organising a wedding with general life stuff. Re-reading The Summer Book by Tove Jansson and disturbingly obsessed with Say yes to the dress on Quest Red.

Blackberry (baby) muffins

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

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

My Dad has grown a massive aubergine

Getting two or three baskets like this a week

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

What to do with all these beans!

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

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

Blackberry muffins
From the River Cottage Baby and Toddler Cookbook

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

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

Blackberry baby muffins

Also this week:

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

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

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

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

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

Strawberry cheesecake ice cream (no-churn)

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

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

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

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

Whizz together strawberries, lemon juice and icing sugar

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

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

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

Bash up some Lotus Biscoff biscuits

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

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

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

No-churn strawberry cheesecake ice cream

Also this week:

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

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

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

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

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Chocolate sorbet

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

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

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

Abundance of apple blossom at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

Cow parsley is at its best right now

A hangover from Christmas on a dry stone wall

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

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

Harry tried to escape but gravel stopped play

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

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

Dark chocolate sorbet
From The Vintage Tea Party Cookbook

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

Make a syrup with 500ml water and 200g sugar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chocolate sorbet – lovely with strawberries and cream

Also this week:

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

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

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

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Clementine Cake

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

A 1990s classic: How to Eat

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

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

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

Clementine Cake
From Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat

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

Simmer five clementines until totally soft then whizz to a pulp

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

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

Whisk eggs with the sugar and almonds

Add the clementines

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

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

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Granny’s apple scone

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

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

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Early evening in Quainton

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First visit to the farm (Harry, not Matt)

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

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

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Granny’s recipe book

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

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The famous apple scone recipe

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

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My effort…not bad for a first timer!

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

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

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

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

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

Bake at 180c for about 20 to 25 minutes.

Gooseberry, strawberry & almond crumble

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

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

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Scorchio!

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

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

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

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

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

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Tamworth goosegogs and rhubarb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pink and bubbling!

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

Gooseberry, strawberry & almond crumble

Enough strawberries and gooseberries to fill your crumble dish

Caster sugar

Cornflour

Orange zest

for the crumble:

300g plain flour

150g cold unsalted butter

150g caster sugar

Handful flaked almonds

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

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

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

Also this week:

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

Hot smoked salmon & spinach tart

I’ve been re-reading Alice B Toklas’ Murder in the Kitchen, the most brilliant compendium of food writing. Although her book was written in Nazi-occupied France, the murder in question is not war-related, but refers to the dispatching of pigeons, carp and the occasional duck that wandered into the kitchen. (A stiff drink and a few cigarettes is recommended for the murderer-cook.) Toklas was lover, muse, confidante and critic to friend-of-the-artists Gertrude Stein, and she learns to tiptoe around the artistic sensibilities of their famous visitors. A baked striped bass is chilled and then topped with colour-blocks of red mayonnaise, green parsley and the chopped whites and yolks of hard boiled eggs. Picasso, whilst appreciating the effort to create this masterpiece, says “But better for Matisse, no?!”*

This story came to mind because I attended an art dinner this week at Grand Union, the gallery and studio space in Digbeth, and I thought what a hard lot artistic people are to cook for. All credit to the brave chef! They’re a hard lot to please full stop. I’ve been helping Matt to prepare a new exhibition gallery and studios, upstairs from his workshop. He wasn’t impressed with my sanding but I think I passed the painting test, just about…

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Furniture and ceramics in Matt’s new gallery space

But back to matters of food and gardening. The hot weather has had a brilliant effect on the slugs: they’ve sloped off out of the sun. Great news. In their absence the beans and brassicas are rejuvenating, and the spinach and chard are leafing up nicely. I’m getting several bunches of sweet peas, cosmos, calendula and lavender a week, though the ammi is a bit drab this year. Oh – and the sunflowers are beginning to make their sunny brash presence known.

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July harvest of sweetpeas, potatoes, lettuce, courgette and stick beans

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The sunflowers are opening…all 24 of them

I don’t know if it’s the inspiration of Alice B. Toklas, or the sunny weather, or the allotment bounty that’s now arriving, but I’ve been lusting after doing some Proper Cooking. Yesterday I baked up a batch of hot smoked salmon and spinach tarts – a perfect light summer supper. The inspiration for these is a salmon and broccoli flan that my Mum used to get from Sainsbury’s in the 1980s, when we were kids. It had pale pastry and a deep eggy middle, and I loved it. This is a grown-up version for 2016 – I’ve substituted the broccoli for spinach, as that’s what I grow.

First things first, get yourself some decent smoked salmon. I used a roasted smoked salmon but regular (raw) cuts would work too – they’re going to be baked after all.

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Roast smoked salmon

Next, make a shortcrust pastry in the usual way. I used half-butter half-lard, like I was taught at school, as it makes for the shortest, crispest pastry. Bake the tart cases blind until the bases have dried out and are lightly golden. Incidentally, despite making pastry for years, mine always comes out wonky; it’s something I’ve learned to live with.

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Blind bake your pastry to get a good crisp bottom

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My pastry always goes wonky, no matter how hard I try…

For the filling, soften some spring onions in a touch of olive oil, and blanch the spinach in boiling water until it collapses. My spinach came from the allotment and is sturdy (I only used five or six leaves) but the supermarket stuff is more inclined to dissolve to mush so you’ll need a bit more. Be sure to drain it really, really well – squeeze all the liquid out with your hands – else you’ll end up with a soggy tart.

Spread the spinach, onions and salmon over the tart bases, then top with a savoury custard made from whisked eggs, cream and milk. Then it’s a question of baking until golden and puffy – but with a little wobble in the middle.

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Fill with salmon, spinach and spring onions before pouring on the custard and baking

I made four small and one large tart. The small ones make for a dainty summer starter and they’ve gone in the freezer for another day. Serve the tarts warm or at room temperature, with a mustard-spiked salad.

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Baked until golden and puffy

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Smoked salmon & spinach tarts

Hot smoked salmon & spinach tart

Makes 1 6-inch and 4 individual tarts, or 1 large 12-inch tart

Pastry:

400g plain flour

100g salted butter

100g lard

Iced water

Filling:

About 200g roast smoked salmon

5-6 sturdy allotment spinach leaves, or a bag of shop-bought leaves

5-6 spring onions, sliced

Olive oil

3 eggs

200ml double cream

200ml milk

salt & pepper

First, make your pastry. Rub the butter and lard into the flour, add sufficient cold water to make a pliable dough, then cover and rest it in the fridge for an hour or two. Pre-heat the oven to 190c. Use the pastry to line your cases; leave an overhang if you can, to allow for shrinkage. Line with baking parchment and baking beads and bake blind for about 15 minutes, until the base is set. Remove the paper and beads and continue cooking for a further 5 minutes (for individual tarts) or 10-15 minutes for larger tarts, until the pastry is lightly golden. Leave the tart shells to cool and then trim the edges with a serrated knife if they need it.

For the filling, blanch the spinach in boiling water for 30 seconds then drain well. When cool, squeeze all the liquid out with your hands, then finely slice. Soften the spring onions in a little oil. Flake the salmon. Mix the fish and vegetables together and fill each of the tart cases.

Make a custard by whisking the eggs, cream and milk together with pepper and a little salt (not too much as the fish is salty).

Decrease the oven to 160c. Place the tart shells, still in their metal tins, on a baking sheet (this makes moving them around much easier). Pour in the custard to near the top, then bake for 15 minutes (individual tarts) and 30 minutes (larger tarts). They should be golden and puffed but still with slight wobble. Cool for 15 minutes or more before serving.

* If this makes no sense, I’ll explain: Matisse was famous for his colour-block works of art.

Rhubarb upside down cake

The first allotment architecture of the 2016 has been raised! First the sweet pea poles went up, at which point we were on a roll and so the bean sticks were installed too. It’s a tricky thing, choosing where to put the sticks – we’re stuck with them now for a good 8 months – and they provide the height and structure for half the plot.

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First garden architecture of 2016 is raised: bean and sweet pea poles

Meanwhile the hops are needing their own supports; this one has shot up a foot in the past week.

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The hops are crying out for the hopolisk

The sorrel that I chopped down to the ground a few weeks ago have grown back with gusto! I love its lemony freshness and given that my lettuce seedlings are pathetic, this is a great salady perennial to have in the veg patch.

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Sorrel ready for cropping

Matt came home from Tamworth on Sunday with a ‘small amount’ of rhubarb from his parent’s allotment – yup, it’s that time of year when we enter the rhubarb glut! Our rhubarb plant is still small but will be cropping well within a fortnight.

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The first of the rhubarb glut

What to do with all this pretty pink fruit (and yes, I know that technically it’s a vegetable)? I’ve made two versions of this pudding-cake in the past week, once with frozen stems (rhubarb freezes particularly well) and once with fresh. It comes out with a pretty pink top but the caramel turns the sides of the cake treacly, which helps to offset that mouth-stripping acidity of rhubarb. This upside-down cake is now a permanent addition to my rhubarb repertoire.

Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

Adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

500g rhubarb, fresh or frozen (no need to defrost), sliced into 5cm pieces

60g soft brown sugar

60g butter

Grated zest of 1 large orange

125g soft butter

175g caster sugar

3 eggs (though if using massive eggs from Chappers, use only 2)

175g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tbsp milk

Toasted flaked almonds

Grease a 8-inch round non-stick springform or push-pan tin and place it on a baking tray to catch any drips. Preheat the oven to 180c.

First make the caramel rhubarb. In a large frying pan, melt the butter and brown sugar together, then tip in the rhubarb. If using frozen rhubarb, allow the fruit to sit in the caramel on a very low heat until defrosted, about 10 minutes. If using fresh rhubarb, allow it to cook in the caramel until just softened, about 5 minutes. Add the orange zest. Remove the rhubarb with a slotted spoon and place in a pretty pattern on the base of your cake tin. Bring the caramel to the boil and bubble until reduced and sticky, then tip over the rhubarb.

Now make the cake. Beat the butter and caster sugar until pale and light, then alternatively beat in the eggs and flour until well mixed. Add the baking powder and milk. You want a light, pale batter with a soft dropping consistency. Spread the batter over the top of the rhubarb and smooth the top.

Bake for about 50 minutes but keep an eye on the cake and cover with foil if it’s looking too brown. It’s ready when a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Leave the cake to rest in the tin for about 20 minutes and  then turn out directly onto a plate. Sprinkle with the toasted almonds.

This is lovely served warm with a dollop of thick fresh cool cream.

Raspberry almond swiss roll

We had friends for lunch on Sunday, which is an excuse for me to make a scrummy pudding. Raspberry pavlova, to be precise, which I drizzled with a soft-set jammy compote using bags of berries that are still lurking in the freezer from last summer. The pavlova was great – it’s a distant memory now – but the bowl of leftover ‘jam’ remains. What to do?

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A bowl of leftover jammy-compote. What to do?

The answer,  *obviously!*, is to whip up a swiss roll. So between juggling phone calls and press releases and eshots this morning, that’s just what I did. I suppose there are some great benefits from working at home, and the ability to bake on a whim is one of them.

Once you’ve got your technique down, making a swiss roll is easy as pie. Actually, it’s LOADS easier than pie as all you need are eggs, caster sugar, flour and jam. Plus a few flavourings, if you want. Start by lining a swiss roll tin with greaseproof paper, and preheat the oven to 175c (fan).

Next, using an electric whisk, beat the eggs, vanilla and sugar together into submission. About four or five minutes should do it – they need to be thick, fluffy, mousse-like and able to hold their shape, like this:

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Beat the eggs and sugar into submission. About four or five minutes should do it.

Then gently sift and fold your flour into the eggs, a little at a time. Spread the lot into your prepared tin, being careful not to knock the air out of your lovingly whisked sponge, and scatter a few flaked almonds on the top.

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Spread the mixture into the prepared tin and scatter with almonds

Bake for 10 minutes but keep an eye on it – it might need two or three minutes longer in the oven. It needs to be just set, springy to the touch and slightly golden, but not over-done as a crispy sponge simply won’t roll. Whilst it’s cooking, prepare your rolling surface: a sheet of baking parchment sprinkled with caster sugar. I like to rest it on a tea towel, but that’s not essential.

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Prep for the roll! Get a sheet of baking parchment and sprinkle it with sugar.

When the sponge is cooked, immediately invert it onto your prepared paper. If the sides are crispy, trim them off (I didn’t trim these but I should have done as they ended up cracking when I rolled the sponge). I like to fill and roll the sponge whilst it’s still hot to prevent the chances of cracking.

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Invert your cooked sponge onto the paper – almond-side down. If the edges are crispy, trim them off (cook’s perk!)

Spread your jam right to the edges of the sponge, then make a score about 1cm from one of the short edges of the sponge – this helps it to roll tightly.

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Spread the jam evenly over the sponge

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Score a line about 1cm from the short side of the sponge

Now, deep breath, go for your roll! Use the paper to help guide the sponge into a roll, starting with the scored short side. Go slowly and it will come together into tight swirl, like this.

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Then roll up tightly from the scored short edge, using the paper to help you. You’ll get a swiss roll as reward for your efforts.

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Leave it to cool completely…

Leave the sponge to cool completely on a wire rack, then get stuck in. Old-school jammy swirly easy goodness!

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Admire the swirly jammy goodness

This cake is a teatime classic, and a fun way of using up pots of jam left lurking in the fridge. I also make a swiss roll that’s filled with fresh cream, but the technique is slightly different – that’s a post for another day…

Raspberry almond swiss roll

3 large eggs, as fresh as possible, at room temperature

75g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling

75g plain flour, sifted

1 tsp vanilla extract

Flaked almonds, for sprinkling

Jam of your choice – about half a jar should do it

Plus you’ll need baking parchment and a swiss roll tin, about 35 x 25cm.

Prepare the tin with baking parchment, and preheat the oven to 175c fan. Beat the eggs, vanilla and sugar together using an electric whisk until they are thick and fluffy, at least four minutes. Do not stint this bit, it’s really important to get air into the sponge. Using a very large metal spoon, fold the flour into the eggs in three batches, until the flour is totally combined. Be careful not to overwork the mixture; it needs to be light and fluffy. Gently pour it into the prepared tin and spread evenly, right to the edges. Lightly sprinkle with flaked almonds. Bake for 10-12 minutes until lightly golden and just set.

Lay a sheet of greaseproof paper that is larger than the cake, on top of a tea towel. Sprinkle the paper with caster sugar. Invert the cooked sponge onto the paper, peel of its backing, and trim the edges of the sponge. Spread evenly with jam, right to the edges. Score a line 1cm from the edge of one of the short sides of the sponge. Using the paper to help you, roll it up from the scored edge, easing it into a tight roll. Allow the roll to cool completely, seam side down, until you want to serve it.