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.

Almond (and chocolate) crescents

You know how you get Instagram food and then you have real life food? Instagram is usually style over substance but the home-made stuff, whilst not being pretty, is actually where we can find real heart-warming soul-bolstering cooking. It’s the same with cookbooks – the things we covet on paper somehow don’t carry the true essence of what is real. The expensive images can’t give the impression of the kitchen filled with the fug of bubbling chicken stock, or the furtive treat of stealing the first biscuit off the tray before anyone’s noticed. They can’t give the life-preserving feeling that you get from a slice of proper toast slathered in salty butter. Nor do they give room for the truth that some of the best cooking actually happens when we mess it up a bit.

On that note, I’ve been tinkering about my cinnamon bun recipe (yes, it is an obsession), thinking it would be fun to try something else that’s Scandi and calorie-laden, and my eye was drawn by these, Gifflar med kanel, or cinnamon crescents, from The Nordic Baking Book. Have you ever seen a thing of such dough-based beauty? Look at the swirl! Look at the shine! Look how NEAT they are!

What a Crescent is meant to look like…

So obviously I had a go and, inevitably, my version look utterly crap. Big and puffy, with all the filling oozed out, like I’ve made some cheesy sausage roll from my Mum’s 1970s M&S Picnic Cookbook. But do not be deceived, for this swirly ugly mass is a thing of caramelised unctuous gorgeous heaven.

…and the homemade version!

Instead of the cinnamon filling that is traditional, I used an almond version called remonce, the type used in Danish pastries and Mandelbullar (almond buns). The almond actually comes from marzipan, creamed with heart-stopping quantities of butter and sugar, so imagine this: Sweet dough baked golden in a puddle of marzipanny-buttery caramel. Then think of the illicit pleasure of peeling the leaked caramelised butter-almond off the paper in shards, shovelling them in your mouth before your 2 year old sees and wants them for himself.

Then imagine a chocolate version. Dear God.

Roll your dough out more thinly that you’d expect, and you might succeed in making crescents that are slightly better looking than mine. These freeze well so any that don’t get eaten can be stashed for future breakfasts, brunches or midnight feasts.

Almond crescents
Makes 32 crescents. Recipe adapted from various things in The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson.

For the dough:
320ml milk
150g unsalted butter
1 heaped teaspoon ground cardamon
15g dried yeast
1 egg
125g caster sugar
1 teaspoon fine salt
750g strong wheat flour

In a jug in the microwave, melt the butter into the milk then leave to cool slightly. In a large bowl, place the salt, the flour, the yeast and cardamon (in that order so that the yeast and salt don’t come into contact with each other) and mix thoroughly with a scraper. Whisk the egg into the milk mixture, then tip the lot into the flour and mix to combine. Once you have a sticky mass, tip onto the work surface and knead for a good 10 minutes until you have a soft, elastic dough. Or you can use a stand mixer if you have one. Don’t stint on the kneading, this dough needs it! Shape the dough into a ball, put back in the bowl and cover with a tea towel. Leave to prove for about 2 hours or so, until really risen and puffy. Meanwhile, make your filling:

Lys remonce – Danish pastry filling
125g unsalted butter, very soft
125g caster sugar
125g marzipan

Place the butter and sugar in a bowl, then grate the marzipan over using a box grater. Cream together thoroughly and set aside.

For the crescents:
Preheat the oven to 220c. Prepare three or four (depending on their size) baking sheets or roasting trays with baking parchment. Tip the dough out onto the work surface with the tenderness that you would treat a newborn baby. Gently shape it into a circle then divide into 4 pieces.

To make crescents, roll each piece into a circle using a rolling pin. They should be quite thin, about 1cm deep or thinner. Spread a quarter of the filling over the circle using an off-set spatula, then cut into 8 equal triangles. Roll each triangle up from the thick edge to the thin, then place on a baking sheet. Repeat and repeat until all the dough is used up. Leave to prove for another 30 minutes or so, until puffy.

If you want, at this stage you can egg wash the crescents, or simply leave them plain as I do. Bake for about 10 minutes until risen and golden. You may need to turn the trays around mid-way through baking to avoid burnt bits. Leave to cool before tucking in but take every opportunity to munch on the crunchy almondy caramelised bits that have leaked from your buns.

Variation: Almond & chocolate buns
To make a sinfully good chocolate version, break up some shards of 70% dark chocolate and scatter on top of the dough after you have spread it with the remonce filling. Either shape as crescents or make into traditional cinnamon or cardamon bun shapes, as I have done here. Bake as before.

The chocolate almond version. Ugly but mind-blowingly good.

Copenhagen Cake

The hot weather over Easter meant that the outside world felt a million miles away. Tulips bloomed, baby leaves and pea shoots were ripe for picking, birds scouted for nesting sites. Harry scooted and I sat. Dear God we even cleaned out the sun room, chucked out a load of decade-old paint tins and moved the barbecue to the shed. Those were days of glory.

Since then we’ve had perpetual rain and dank, grey skies, work has reared its head again and I’ve had one too many Zoom meetings for my liking. But as ever, there is solace in the garden, in the allotment and in the kitchen. Every morning and evening I wander outside for a few minutes’ solitude where I can admire my tulips and tend to my seedlings. And look at Matt’s shed in all its glory!

Bar the window, the shed is finally in a useable state!

Before the rain hit Matt found time to put up all the support structures on the allotment – it’s his favourite job, obviously – and so I think the sweetpeas and climbing beans will be planted out within the next week or so. Whilst there I found another bonus crop – lilac and cow parsley – which, if you sear the stems in boiling water, will last for a week or so in the vase.

Supports are up for beans, sweetpeas and sunflowers
Cow parsley and lilac

But easily the most exciting thing to happen this week is the tracking down of actual real life BREAD FLOUR. It’s been weeks since I’ve seen this stuff. Flour is harder to come by than Class A drugs these days (I am told). Morrisons are flogging 1 kilo bags from their bakery, which they’ve packed themselves in their paper bags normally reserved for doughnuts and sausage rolls. Good for them for their entrepreneurial spirit. It means that we can finally stock ourselves up with cinnamon buns and pizza again, staple foods in this house.

Finally scored some bread flour in Morrisons, so it’s nearly cinnamon bun and pizza time again

The whole nation is baking now to get them through Lockdown. Wise people. This time last year we were in Copenhagen, for a blissful few days of pastries, bread, pastries, bread, coffee, cake, pastries and bread. First (and only) time we’d been aboard since having Harry. It was one of the best weeks of my life. But despite all those hand-made artisan cinnamon snails and rye breads, it was actually a basic vanilla sponge with pink glace icing bought from the supermarket that sticks in the memory. We called it Copenhagen Cake and refer back to it often, with longing. Plain yet buttery. Basic yet iced. Elegant yet brashly pink. Cheap and yet not THAT cheap, for we were in Copenhagen after all, where a pint costs a tenner. It was a thing of joy.

Copenhagen Cake, the original, May 2019

I’ve tried to replicate Copenhagen Cake at home a few times, referring to Scandinavian cook books and making my own food colouring from squashed raspberries. This time, with the help of The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson, I think I’ve nailed it. Copenhagen Cake isn’t really a ‘thing’, but if you match a Swedish-style plain sponge with a tangy raspberry water icing, it’s close enough to the original. The trick is to whisk the hell out of the eggs and sugar, and fold in the butter and flour with comparatively great tenderness. Then go large on the icing and sprinkles. Enjoy.

Copenhagen Cake, the home-made version, May 2020

Copenhagen Cake

125g unsalted butter
50ml milk
2 large eggs
175g caster sugar
160g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the icing:
a scant handful raspberries, fresh or frozen
icing sugar, about 5 tablespoons
water
sprinkles or dried raspberries, to decorate

Preheat the oven to 175c. Butter and line your cake tin – I used a 7inch spring-form round pan.

Melt the butter and milk together in the microwave or on the hob, then leave to cool slightly.

Using an electric whisk, whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla together until thick and at the ribbon stage – this will take at least five minutes, probably more.

Measure out the flour and baking powder into a bowl and have your sieve ready to go. You also need a large metal spoon.

Very gently pour the milk and butter mixture down the side of the bowl with the eggs in, then fold in with the spoon. Sieve the flour on top and fold to combine – be really gentle to ensure the air stays in the sponge, but make sure no lumps of flour remain.

Pour the batter into the tin, smooth the top then bake for about 30-40 minutes until risen and golden, and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to sit for ten minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.

To make the icing, squish the raspberries through a sieve to make a scant spoonful of bright pink juice. Add icing sugar and water, drop by drop, to make a spoonable icing.

When the cake is quite cold, spread your icing over the top and decorate with sprinkles or dried raspberries. Leave the icing for half an hour or so to set before cutting.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Asparagus, tomatoes, strawberries, baby salad leaves, duck eggs – heaven. Matt’s tagine. Apple crostata.
Allotment and garden: The garden tulips are out and glorious, such a happy addition. Picking lilac and cow parsley. Baby leaves from the veg trug. Hardening off some seedlings. Planted out 30 strawberry plants.
Life: Just staying at home. Week 7 now. I leave the house only to go to the park, allotment, supermarket and the farm shop. Matt goes to the workshop. Apart from too much Cbeebies, it’s been OK.

Anna Del Conte’s Crostata

I’ve been obsessed with tagliatelle all this week. Lusting after it. The reason is the re-reading of Anna Del Conte’s lovely memoir-with-recipes Risotto with Nettles which – unusually for me – I’ve actually been cooking from. Her deceptively simple prose whisks the reader to a different time, a different place, a different age, that of well-to-do pre-war Milan, where women spent most of their time either shopping for food, making the food or discussing the food.

It happens that I’m reading this just after Matt’s return from Bolzano in north Italy, where he spent a few days for work. (I spent most of January solo-parenting whilst he fabricated the Sonia Boyce exhibition at Eastside Projects, then went to Italy, then was in Cambridge. And no, I was not happy about it.) Knowing that the goodwill of one’s spouse is essential to a successful career, Matt did a wise thing and brought back a bulging bag of Italian goodies: speck, salami, noisette, parmesan, pickled vegetables, sunflower bread, Milka (not Italian but still food of the Gods) and, for proper sucking up, a heart-shaped box of Ferrero Rocher. The eagle-eyed may notice that the writing on the speck and salami labels is Germanic, this a cultural hangover from the various periods of history when the Tyrol was in German hands.

Matt’s sucking up present

So when I came across Del Conte’s recipe for Taglietelle with prosciutto and peas, and I realised that I actually had proper Italian bacon in the house, and proper Italian parmesan (the stuff over there is a world away from the pre-packaged stuff in the supermarkets over here), I gave it a go. And I liked it so much that I made it for Harry’s tea the following day. And then again for MY dinner the following day. It is simply tagliatelle tossed with very finely diced onion that has been stewed in butter, matchsticks of prosciutto (speck), peas, a dollop of cream, parmesan, salt and pepper. A ladle of pasta water brings the dish together into silky mass. Simple, but beautiful, and a reminder of just how good Italian food can be when the ingredients are of perfect quality.

It makes me think how different the Italian approach to food is to that of the British. Another of her recipes, Crostata di marmellata di fichi (or Fig jam tart), is a masterclass of perfection in simplicity. Jam tart carries a very particular meaning for the English. For me, it has traditionally meant a basic shortcrust, made without sugar and with half Stork margarine, half vegetable shortening, rolled into a plate pie dish, filled with raspberry or maybe mixed fruit jam (always homemade), topped with a thin lattice, then baked until golden or even slightly over done, meaning the jam is often chewy. It’s everyday food, nothing fancy, the stuff of Enid Blyton and childhood.

The Italian crostata is a different being.  Anna’s is a pate sucre dough, made with butter, enriched with egg yolk and sugar, and delicately seasoned with lemon zest, and so it becomes biscuit-like in the oven. This is a pastry so rich and delicate that it needn’t even be rolled, but can be pressed into the tin with fingers. The lattice top spreads in the oven to become closely linked, meaning the filling is almost entirely enclosed apart from tantalising nuggets of bubbling fruit that escape from between the gaps. It feels indulgent and yet…it’s just a jam tart.

Crostata from Anna Del Conte’s Risotto with Nettles. Ignore my dodgy lattice work: I was in a hurry, school run and all that.

Anna’s recipe uses fig jam, but given that figs are not forthcoming on an English allotment, I used last summer’s strawberry and redcurrant preserve, loose set, fresh-tasting and vibrantly coloured. The same pastry could easily be filled with stewed apple, plum or soft fruit. Incidentally, she strongly asserts, quite rightly, to eat this on the day that it is made, but also that it should be eaten without cream. This is a step too far for this Englishwoman: plain ice cream on the side for me, please.

Crostata (Jam Tart)
Adapted from Anna Del Conte’s Risotto with Nettles, p99

225g plain flour (she uses 00 but I used regular plain flour)
1/2tsp fine salt
100g caster sugar
grated zest of half a lemon
120g cold unsalted butter
2 large free-range egg yolks
milk
350g jam or other fruit filling
juice of half a lemon
1 egg yolk and splash of milk, for glazing (optional)

To make the pastry, whizz the flour, salt, sugar, lemon and butter in the food processor until fine. Pulse in the egg yolks and sufficient milk to make a ball. Wrap and place in the fridge to firm up for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer.

Preheat the oven to 200c. Grease a 8 or 9 inch tart tin with a loose bottom and sprinkle with a little flour, shaking off the excess.

Remove about one third of the dough and roll the rest out into a circle, about the depth of a pound coin, and use to line the base of your tin. If this is tricky, you can take lumps and simply press it into the sides of the tin, ensuring that there are no gaps and that the pastry is even. Make sure the pastry is pressed firmly down between the base and the side.

Mix the jam with the lemon juice and pile it into the tart case, spreading it out evenly.

Roll out the remaining dough and cut into strips about 1-2cm thick, then place the strips quite closely together in a lattice format over the tart (they will spread a little in the oven). If you wish, brush the pastry with a glaze made of egg yolk mixed with a little milk.

Bake for 10 minutes at 200c then turn the heat down to 180c and bake for 20 minutes, until the pastry is golden and biscuit coloured. Leave to cool in the tin before serving at room temperature.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Tagliatelle with prosciutto and peas, or did I mention that already?; Rogan josh made with goat from the butchers on Bearwood High St, with a good saag aloo and some terrible chapatti; lots of blush oranges whilst they’re in season, including blush orange bellinis; apple cake with whipped cream at Ikea. Harry’s really into what he calls ‘cold cheese’, which is cream cheese, but I like his name better.

Reading: Gave up on the Jilly Cooper, she’s not for me. Also tried, and gave up on, Walden…there are too many grumpy men in the world as it is without reading their work at bedtime. So Anna Del Conte is providing respite, plus I am dipping into the re-print of Dick Strawbridge’s book about sustainable living.

Also: Attended Writing West Midlands course Starting to Write, which was fun if only to see the characters who go on a writing course on a stormy Saturday in February. It feels good, after 2 and a half years of constant work/parenting, to find little notches of space for creativity. Also our two expensive new windows were finally fitted, and the house has warmed from Positively Arctic to merely needing only one jumper. Only six more windows, a kitchen, the shed, the utility room, the bathroom and my office still to do.

Seville orange cake

2020 has hit us with a bang. This past week I’ve had a cold so bad that a hole in the head to alleviate sinus pressure would have been welcome. Matt’s working all hours so I am single-parenting whilst also putting in the hours on my own projects. Harry’s in the terrible twos. Yah-de-yah-de-yah, moan moan moan. The other week I took myself over to Leamington Spa for a special lunch date with my friend Tune and – more importantly – Tune’s mum, Mrs Roy, who is from Calcutta. Mrs Roy is not confident with her English, which is fair enough as my Bengali is somewhat lacking. But good cooking crosses all borders and languages, and I was fascinated as she expertly toasted her daal and rolled her parathas from scratch. Who would have thought that cabbage curry could be so delicious? Well in the hands of a Bengali cook it really can (the trick is more salt than I ever thought feasible).

Mrs Roy’s vegetarian lunch

I’ve also been busy with the seed catalogues, planning and plotting. I’ll post about this another day but there are to be some new additions to the allotment this year, with yet more cut flowers and a few varieties purely for drying. And despite the cold, there is sowing to be done: the chill of our sun room is the perfect place to start off a few sweetpeas, deceptively tough as they are, plus there’s the first of many sowings of broad beans. I’ve also filled a drain pipe with mustard mix for an early crop of spicy leaves; it’s the perfect size for a windowsill salad bar.

Amidst the chaos, sweet peas, broad beans and mustard leaves have been started on their way

January food writing seems to be entangled with veganuary and being booze free, which is all well and good, but seems to me to be at odds with what’s actually good to eat right now. I like a salad as much as the next person but surely January is the time for root vegetables, slow cooking and rib stickers? Or citrus for that matter, which is now bountifully in season. I came home with other week with a box of Seville oranges, lovely for marmalade but with potential for so much more. I enjoy their citrus astringency, and use the juice in stir fries or stuff the whole fruit into the cavity of a roast chicken so that the sharp orangey fug can permeate the flesh.

This recipe for Seville orange cake could also be called marmalade cake, for that is what it tastes like; the alchemy happens when the gooey orange syrup melts its way into the just-cooked crumb, making a cake that is sweet and sharp and dense and damp all at the same time. Perfect on its own with a cup of tea but also – my preference – with a fruity compote and a dollop of thick double cream.

Seville Orange Cake
Recipe adapted from Waitrose & Partners Food magazine, January 2020

200g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
1 Seville orange, zest and juice
2 eggs
300g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
150g natural yoghurt
50ml sunflower oil

For the syrup:
2 seville oranges
75g caster sugar
40g clear honey

Grease and line a 900g loaf tin and pre-heat the oven to 180c.

Beat together the butter, sugar and orange zest until pale and fluffy; I use electric beaters for this. In a separate bowl, sieve together the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda to combine. In yet another bowl, measure the yoghurt, oil and orange juice (squeeze the fruit through your fingers to get rid of the pips) and stir to combine.

Add the eggs one at a time to the butter mixture along with a spoonful of flour between each addition, mixing thoroughly. When all is combined, beat in the remaining flour and the yoghurt mixture until you have a smooth dollop-able batter. Spoon into the cake tin and bake for 1 hour 10 minutes or so, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Keep an eye on the cake as it may brown too soon; if this happens, cover with foil and also maybe reduce the heat to 170c.

Leaving the cake in its tin, leave to stand for 10 minutes whilst you make the syrup. The centre of the cake will probably collapse in on itself but no matter. Warm together the juice, sugar and honey until the sugar has dissolved, then raise the heat and bubble for a few minutes until it looks syrupy. Stab the cake several times with the skewer, then carefully and slowly pour the hot syrup over the cake, allowing it to soak into your holes. Leave to cool entirely before removing from the tin.

Seville orange cake

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Yet more cinnamon buns, this time made with 50% spelt flour, 50% strong white flour. I can never get enough of them. Sausages with lentils stewed with red wine, which pleasingly gives me a glass of something in the evening. Trying to find nourishing things to feed Harry with and am brought up short by the realisation that all he really wants are baguette, biscuits, shreddies and chocolate.

Reading: The Consolations of Food by Valentine Warner, which is essentially the book that I would like to write myself, and Dick Strawbridge’s book about bread, borrowed from the library, which reminds me that I can actually bake and should do it more often. Revisiting Vajragupta’s Buddhism: Tools for living your life in an effort to regain mental clarity.

Also: Sowed broad beans, sweet peas and mustard salad mix. Ordered my seeds for this season, plus several plug plants as I don’t have space to propagate. Made myself go for my first solo swim in something like 5 years as I rarely find the space to exercise these days.

Quince and apple crumble

These late mornings and early events are terrible for the circadian rhythm. Hard to wake up…certain it’s time to go to bed at 7pm. Last night picking Harry up from nursery in the pitch black at 5pm, the local owl was twit-ting for a mate. It was good to hear: in our old flat, just around the corner from the nursery, owls were a regular winter sound. I stood transfixed listening, Harry the same, then we spent several happy minutes twit-twooing at each other.

There are grounding, seasonal tasks for November. The annual trip to Ludlow to stock up on game for the freezer; the stirring up of the Christmas cake and pudding; the gathering of hydrangea heads for drying…and the lorry-load of poo.

Low autumn light over Ludlow
Macerating dried fruits in Amontillado sherry and orange juice ready for the Christmas cake
Note the cake tin double wrapped in newspaper ready for its three hour bake

A pallet of poo is actually 60 x 50l bags of matured ‘farmyard’ manure, for mulching. That’s 60 (heavy) bags that need moving from the lorry, down the road, through the gate, down the path, to the allotment. Then shifting from pile to plot. I’m fortunate that it cost us not a penny, as this poo was my Christmas present from my garden-supplier Dad and we’re OK with a bit of graft; my brother, with his posh garden in the Cotswolds, has been quoted £5k (£5000!!!) for a good mulch. There is money to be made in poo.

Dad brought me a pallet of poo!
A few filthy, freezing cold hours later, we have two manured plots
I needed a shower afterwards

One more November activity is cooking with quince, something that only began when I moved to Bearwood and I realised they could be bought (in season) for pence at the halal shop. What a glorious thing a quince is, with its fuzzy velveteen coating, its can’t-quite-place-it scent, its slight otherness. not quite a pear, not an apple, but a glamorous cousin. There’s no need to make boring old quince jelly that will sit uneaten in the cupboard for months: treat the quince as you would any orchard fruit, in cakes, crumbles, pies and for a sweet note in savoury cooking.

A note of warning that quince are hard, and have unpredictable cooking times. I take Claudia Roden’s advice and quarter them, leaving them with skin and core, before simmering in acidulated water until just tender. This can take 20 minutes or it can take 5 so keep an eye on them. When the quince are soft, drain and cool, before removing skin and pips and dicing into chunks. A squeeze of lemon in the water will prevent the fruit browning too much, though it does take on a beautiful hue of rose parchment.

It’s best to briefly simmer the quince in water with lemon before peeling and dicing
The cooked flesh is delicately perfumed and the colour of parchment

For a simple crumble, mix the stewed quince with sweetened apple puree – for my three quince I cooked down three bramley apples with water and a few tablespoons of white sugar. Tip the lot into a suitable dish and either top with crumble mix to bake straight away or freeze the fruit to use another day.

Mix the quince with sweetened apple puree and either turn into a crumble immediately or freeze for another day

I tend to bulk-make crumble topping then leave it in the freezer so a pudding is ready to go when needed. In a food processor, blitz 230g butter with 460g plain flour, then stir in 200g caster sugar and 30g demara sugar. It’s sometimes nice to add flaked almonds or chopped hazelnuts or pecans. Sprinkle a generous layer of crumble over the fruit and lightly press down, then freeze the leftovers in for speedy future desserts.

A final note: Crumbles need baking at quite a high temperature, 180c to 190c – anything less leads to soggy rather than crumbly crumble. Baking times depend on your dish of course, this one took 40 minutes. Leave to stand for a good 15 minutes before eating, to allow the fruit to settle.

Simple but slightly out of the ordinary: quince and apple crumble

Also this week:

Cooking, shopping and eating: Pie and chips in Ludlow; veal pot roast using Ludlow veal; Italian pastries from the tiny fairy-light filled deli. Chanterelles cooked with butter, parsley and garlic. Game pie. Came home with venison haunch and burgers, Italian sausages, mutton, stewing steak, stems of winterberries, purple sprouting…God love Ludlow.

Allotment, garden and house: Mulched allotment and garden with 57 bags of manure, holding three back to use on the strawberries. Ordered new replacement sash windows for office and kitchen; perhaps a new blog about how to rescue your Victorian terrace whilst on a budget is in the offing.

Reading: Bake Off Creme de la Creme, to learn daring baking skills.

Pear and honey tea bread

I went out with actual adult human beings last week. Out! After dark! Our Weekender farewell dinner was great fun but – despite not drinking – I was rewarded at the weekend with a two day migraine. It’s all the body’s way of saying Love, time to step away from the chips and the Instagram and the email and have a few weeks of quiet / pottering / wholegrains.

You know that festival season is done and dusted when the Big Wheel moves into Centenary Square

Remember the mystery squash from the allotment? I picked it before it was ripe but happy to report that it has come into fullness just in time for Halloween.

Mystery squash turned into a handsome massive pumpkin

There’s glorious light at present. After Saturday’s endless drizzle (not that I noticed, being comatose in bed) Sunday gave us low, golden, warm rays. Woodland at the moment has the sweet smell of fermenting leaves and at Baggeridge Country Park the hills are abundant with hips and haws. Their fat redness is a vivid, lipstick-like come-hither gesture in contrast to the brown bareness of hedgerows and stems.

Low autumnal light at Baggeridge Country Park

We’ve been in Herbert Road for three years now yet every time autumn comes around it’s a genuine shock to see condensation dripping down the windows and find my fingers numb. Make no mistake, this is a COLD house. It won’t be long before I’m sleeping in my moth-eaten ancient cashmere jumpers. I’m trying to avoid having the heating on during the day (saving the planet and all that) so I’ve shifted out from the back office – with a window that won’t shut and no insulation to speak of it’s not fit for human habitation – and into the dining room. Working here causes many issues of distraction. There’s the view out to the garden, now golden and swept with leaves. And then there’s the kitchen, with things to cook.

This tea bread is adapted from the Vintage Tea Party book by Angel Adore (from Channel 4’s Escape to the Chateau). She uses plums and walnuts in her recipe, but as plum season is long gone I’ve subbed in diced firm plums. It has a subtle spice hint from the nutmeg, reminiscent of classic fruit cake or gingerbread, but is lighter. This is best served warm from the oven and is good for breakfast. Go easy on the bicarb though, as too much ruins the delicate flavour balance.

Pear and honey tea bread

Pear and Honey Tea Bread
Adapted from the Vintage Tea Party by Angel Adore

200g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
grating of fresh nutmeg
1/2 tsp fine salt
175ml low-fat yoghurt or buttermilk
125ml runny honey
2 tbsp sunflower oil
1 egg
1 fim pear
pearl or demerara sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 170c. Grease and line a 450g/1lb loaf tin.

Prep your pear: quarter and core, then finely dice. Place the flour, baking powder, bicarb, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon in a bowl and stir to combine. Measure the yoghurt, egg, honey and oil in a jug and whisk to combine. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry, then fold in the pear. Tip the lot into the loaf tin and smooth the top. Sprinkle pearl or demerara sugar on top for decoration. Bake for about 50 minutes until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Serve fresh and warm.

Christianshavn Pie (Danish strawberry cream cake)

Warning: This post contains images of extreme baking

We’re back from a long weekend in Copenhagen, or as I now think of it, heaven on earth. Allow me to set the scene: a city of beautiful people, beautiful design and beautiful living, but not self-consciously so. It is a city seeped in wholesome-ness and good manners. Everyone rides bikes, not wearing lycra or any of that nonsense, but in their normal, beautifully stylish, clothes (jeans, an expensive coat, maybe a scarf, and definitely trainers). All the bikes means that there are few cars, so the air is clear, and there is a noticeable lack of road rage or rage in general, so people are relaxed and happy. The children – all beautifully well-dressed and well-mannered – play in beautifully-maintained playgrounds. The wide boulevards are peppered with naturalistic plants and flowers; nothing looks forced or overly manicured. The buildings, both old and new, are clean and tidy. There is no litter, ANYWHERE. The cafes are full, day and evening, of beautiful, wholesome people enjoying coffee and fika whilst tapping on their laptops.

Who are these people?! How can I live more Danishly?

Our few days of living Danishly, based in a tenement apartment in Vesterbro

How’s this for a playground? This wooden-based area was 10m from our apartment and is full of carefully-controlled danger and opportunities for creative play.

Central Copenhagen has two magnificent free-entry gardens, the Botanical Garden and the King’s Garden. The latter was established in the 1600s as the private garden of the King (hence the name) and is still maintained in that style, with knot garden, rose borders, espaliered apple trees and extensive borders. Note: this is FREE. What an amazing place to while away a lunch hour or take the kids for a picnic. I tell you, Copenhageners have it made.

Incredible long borders in the King’s Garden, the free park right in the centre of the city

Gorgeous avenue of light and shade, King’s Garden

Talking of horticulture, it’s a city awash with florists – this I was not expecting – and they are a lesson in abundance. Plants, shrubs, herbs and flowers spill out onto the pavement in a manner that is not what I expected from the usually pared-back Danes.

Florists were all a lesson in abundance

But of course the real reason to go to Denmark is for the baking. The Danish Pastry is not so-named for nothing. Oh dear God the baking.

On every street, pretty much, is a baker of such skill and brilliance that I wanted to applaud. Copenhagen’s answer to Greggs is Lagkaghuset – they are ubiquitous, albeit far more expensive – with the crucial difference that Lagkaghuset is REALLY GOOD. Their windows are a masterclass of sourdoughs, rye loaves, pastries, gateaux, cookies, muffins and buns. Beyond the chain, there is brilliant baking to be found everywhere.

As well as the dark rye tin loaves, the bakeries had a wide selection of rough, sourdough-style flattish loaves, all with a long prove and an open texture.

Danish pastry selection 1….

…and more….

There are two main types of Danish pastry: the first is an enriched bread-based dough, knotted or swirled, and the second is more pasty-style, with laminations and a crispy, flaky finish. The cinnabun pictured here was in the first style (my preference), and came topped with a cream-cheese icing.

The cinnabun was of note: bread-based cinnamon dough topped with cream cheese icing

This version is in the second style: more pastry-like, flaky and crispy, like a croissant.

This cinnamon-based pastry was more, well, pastry like – higher in butter content with a flakier finish

The Trasestammer is a favourite of Matt’s: an incredibly rich, rum-laced chocolate-nut truffle wrapped in marzipan and dipped in dark chocolate. They translate as ‘tree logs’, which is pleasing.

Special mention also to the ‘tree log’ cakes…

I was a fan of this rhubarb-and-custard filled pastry, topped with flaked hazelnuts and demerara sugar. Even if I practised every day for a decade, I am not sure I could achieve this level of mastery of the pastry-baking art.

…to this rhubarb-and-custard filled pastry…

There is room, though, for the simple sponge. In what we now refer to as ‘Copenhagen Cake’, a new favourite is a simple vanilla sponge topped with pink icing and freeze-dried raspberries. Suitable for gluttons of all ages.

…and to this simple treat: a light vanilla sponge topped with pink (royal?) icing and freeze-dried raspberries

At the airport I spotted these beauties. The Strawberry Pie has a chocolate pastry base, topped with a layer of marzipan and creme patissiere and finished with strawberries. The Christianshavn Pie has a nutty-sponge base, topped with strawberry mousse and finished with fruits.

A mere selection of gateax AT THE AIRPORT!

Well I may not be up to making a rhubarb-and-custard Danish pastry but a Christianshavn Pie I can do. Here’s my version – and dear Reader, if you want to eat amazing baked goods, then book yourself a trip to Copenhagen ASAP.

My attempt at Christianshavn pie, inspired by that incredible display at the airport

Christianshavn Pie (Danish strawberry cream cake)

Makes 1 cake. Recipe adapted from baketotheroots.de

For the topping:
120g strawberries
2 tbsp icing sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
1.5 leaves gelatine
300ml double cream

For the sponge:
80g hazelnuts
30g shortbread biscuits
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla bean paste
2 egg whites

To finish:
Strawberries
Icing sugar
2 tbsp strawberry jam

First make the mousse. Puree the strawberries in a food processor, then transfer to a small saucepan. Stir the icing sugar into the strawberry puree. Soak the gelatine in cold water until malleable, then add to the strawberries. Warm gently until the gelatine has dissolved – do not boil. Transfer to a bowl and set aside in the fridge to cool completely.

Whip the cream until soft peaks form. Fold the strawberry mixture into the cream, cover with clingfilm and place in the fridge to set (1-2 hours).

To make the sponge, preheat the oven to 190c. Grease and line a sandwich cake tin (mine is 6-inches). Tip the hazelnuts into a dry frying pan and toast on a medium heat until golden – be careful not to let them burn. Tip into a food processor with the shortbread biscuits, and blitz to a crumb. Add the sugar, vanilla, baking powder, salt and egg whites and pulse until combined. Tip into the baking tin and bake for around 20 minutes until firm and golden. Leave to cool.

To make the topping, hull and half your strawberries and place in a bowl with icing sugar (the amount of sugar you use depends on how many strawberries you have – use your instinct). Leave to macerate for at least half an hour, at room temperature.

Meanwhile, heat the jam with any juices from the strawberries until runny, then pass through a sieve to remove any pips.

Finally, assemble the pie. Place your cake on a plate. Pipe (or as I did, dollop) your cream on top and mould into a dome shape with a spatula. Top with strawberries. Finally, brush on your glaze. Refrigerate for an hour or so before serving.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Sicilian-style pizza with onions and anchovies; mussels with serrano ham and garlic; Harry has taken to eating mango and gnawing on the mango stone.

Allotment and garden: Planted out the dahlias, cosmos, sunflowers, achillea, nigella, courgette and squash both at home and allotment.

Watching: Absolutely nothing. Our Air B&B in Copenhagen didn’t have a telly or radio and I remembered the sweet joy of silence interrupted by evening bird-song.

Nordic baked pancakes

Bit nippy isn’t it? In the last fortnight I think I’ve been outside maybe twice. Once to look at snowdrops…

Snowdrops are peeping in the garden. I planted these in the green last spring so hopefully now they’ll start to spread and establish.

…and the other because Matt wanted to watch the Stourbridge Stagger 10k running race.

This picture gives no indication of how painfully cold it was in Stourbridge yesterday.

The rest of the time I’ve been finding indoor pursuits, including finally planting the broad beans that I meant to sow back in November, and lots and lots of cooking.

Harry planted his first seeds last week – broad bean Aquadulce Claudia

There’s been braised ox cheeks with ancho, a massive chocolate meringue cake, spicy lamb kebabs, tzatziki with flat breads and the first – glorious – rhubarb bellini of the year. Actually, the first for three years, as in 2018 the booze made me feel too poorly and in 2017 I was pregnant. I spent a fortune on the precious pink stems and, for once, I don’t regret a penny of it.

Harry is a fan of tzatziki

First rhubarb bellini in three years!

I know there are some who give up booze and carbs and dairy and joy for January, but I think you need to find whatever sustenance you can to get through these icy-cold days. This recipe for Norwegian baked pancakes is just the ticket. This baked pancake has a greater proportion of egg and milk to flour than our normal pancakes and so it cooks into something more like a custard than a pancake.

Norwegian baked pancake

Bakes to a rich dense custardy mass

I found the recipe in the Nordic Baking Book, which is a dense encyclopaedia of all things to do with Scandi baking. The author, Magnus Nilsson, is EXTREMELY particular about the way things are done (and quite rightly too as this is meant to be a documentary book). However at home we can have more leeway. If you prefer a more cakey pancake, just add a few more spoonfuls of flour. The original has no sugar in it – though you could add some if you like – making it an ideal accompaniment to morning bacon or maple syrup and berries. It will happily keep in the fridge for a few days after baking.

Thick Norwegian oven-baked Pancake – Tjockpankaken
From The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson

25g unsalted butter
125g plain flour
2 eggs
pinch of salt
500ml milk

Preheat the oven to 220c. Place a baking dish large enough to hold your mixture into the oven to warm – I used a 8inch round pie dish. Add the butter to the dish and return to the oven to melt.

Combine the flour, eggs, salt and half the milk in a bowl and whisk until no lumps remain. Add the rest of the milk. (This bit is just the same as for making Yorkshire Puddings).

Swirl the melted butter around your dish to coat. Add the batter and return to the oven to bake. Cook for 30 minutes until dark golden and completely set. Leave to stand for 5 minutes before serving.

 

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Beef cheeks braised with ancho and tomato, golden wholemeal soda bread, golden oat and raisin cookies, rabbit braised with root veg and pearl barley, chocolate dacquoise, chocolate meringue cake, rhubarb bellinis. Harry’s first trip to Original Patty Men.

Reading: Becoming by Michelle Obama – from the library rather than giving Amazon any more ££.

Also: Just trying to keep warm.

Sticky toffee pudding with quince

The frugality challenge has been true to its name this week – a challenge. On Day 8 I took a trip to London and was reminded how, when you set one single foot out into the capital, money is hoovered out of your wallet. Consumerism rules for urbanites, from morning coffee to the after-work pick-me-up. Take as evidence this decorative bunch of sticks – literally a bunch of sticks – for sale in Regent St for the princely sum of £40.

£40 for some twigs. Christmas madness folks!

By day 10 I needed to do a proper shop. I did an Ocado order for the big/heavy stuff, like cat food and tins of tomatoes (£71, pretty normal), and then headed to Aldi for milk, butter, wipes and nappies, and to the local Halal shop for bananas and herbs. Altogether the ‘top up shop’ came to £25, which seemed alot, and I reflected that there was nothing profligate in this shopping bag; it’s not like I was filling up with Taitinger. Life has become expensive now we’re three, even when you shop at Aldi. I offset my grumpiness by making my own Christmas wreath, using ivy from the garden.

Wreath using ivy from the garden

The shopping highlight of the week was a trip to a local nursery for a potted Christmas tree, where I also stocked up on some potted daffodils, hyacinths and veg. £10 buys us loads and reminds me that independent rural food shopping is the best there is.

Total for the week: £144.50. It’s less than normal and we’re still eating really well but I see that mindful shopping is making me mardy about consumerism.

Let’s cheer things up with some good December comfort eating. Earlier in the week I made my lamb with quince recipe, using those quince that I bought from the Halal shop a few weeks back. I used the leftover fruit as a base for a sticky toffee pudding, giving a lovely bit of fruity interest amidst the dense sweetness of sponge and toffee sauce. If quince are not to hand, which is most of the time, this would also work with firm apples or pears. This recipe is a total keeper.

Sticky Toffee Pudding with quince
Serves about 8

First, find yourself a few quince. Poach them in simmering water until softened (about 15 minutes), drain, then allow to cool. Core and cut the fruit into wedges.

Slice some cooked quince into chunky wedges

Next make a simple caramel sauce. In a small saucepan, melt together 115g unsalted butter, 75g caster sugar, 40g dark muscavado sugar and 140ml double cream. Bring the lot to a simmer and reduce until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat to cool slightly. Preheat the oven to 180c.

Bubble together your caramel sauce

Find yourself an ovenproof baking dish (I use a lasagne dish) and butter it well. Pour in a drizzle of caramel sauce, lay the quince on top, then drizzle more sauce on top (leave some sauce back to serve with your pudding). Then put the dish in the fridge to firm up whilst you make your sponge.

Layer up sauce and quince in a buttered dish

For the sponge, take 100g stoned dates, chop them roughly, then place in a bowl with 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda and 275ml boiling water. In a separate bowl, beat together 50g unsalted butter with 80g caster sugar and 80g dark muscovado sugar. In yet another bowl, measure 175g flour with 1tsp baking powder1/2 tsp cinnamon and a small pinch of salt. Alternatively beat 2 eggs and the flour into the sugar-butter mixture. Stir in the dates and their water. Mix well.

Make your cake batter – it’s a wet one

Pour the sponge mixture on top of the sliced quince, then bake for about 40 minutes until firm and risen. Serve warm with the remaining toffee sauce and ice-cream. I prefer Mackay’s plain but you could go for vanilla.

Bake the lot together until risen and burnished. Serve with extra sauce and plain ice cream.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Amazing Danish pastries from Ole & Steen in Marylebone, doughnuts from St John’s in Covent Garden, lamb with quince, Tune’s egg curry with roasted cauliflower and roti, homemade mince pies, tons of stollen and panettone, the first brandy cream of the season.

Reading: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, which has the best food writing I have ever read. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get around to reading this classic.