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.

Cinnamon bun-cake

Only three weeks into the new year and the holidays are a distant memory. Numerous work projects demand attention, there are tax returns and business leases to attend to, yoga classes to plan and deliver, plus we’re dipping our toes into the world of home-ownership: time is spent traipsing around Brummie streets checking out house facades and ‘The Parking’ (what to do with the car has become a noun in its own right). Any residual emotional energy is sucked up by fear-mongering estate agents.

I’ve not been to the allotment for two weeks and am hoping that Grampy’s crysanths have survived last week’s hard frosts – they should be OK, wrapped in their fleecy blankets. When life is busy, it’s hard to think creatively, and yet creative thinking is what’s needed now: next season’s planting needs thinking about and – the best bit – seed catalogues are patiently waiting to be thumbed through. It’s a job for a Sunday afternoon on the sofa, highlighter pen in hand.

A bit of baking is a great decompressor. Today it’s cinnamon buns taken from Signe Johansen’s Scandilicious Baking book. This is a classic Scandi recipe, the buns baked together in a round tin to form a tear-and-share cake. They’re made with plain (rather than strong) flour, which I always find curious in a yeasted dough, but they have the great advantage of being quick to make. Start at 9am and they’ll be on the table by 11.30am, which is super-speedy for a yeasted loaf.

Mix the flours, sugar, salt, yeast and cardamom in a large bowl

Simply mix plain white and wholemeal flour in a bowl with fine salt, yeast, sugar and ground cardamom. A lot of Scandi baking has cardamom at is core, but it can be difficult to find ready ground – mine came from an Iranian shop up the road – so if you can’t find it, just bash up some cardamom pods in a pestle and mortar. (The original recipe asks for spelt flour, but I’m not keen so I sub in a few spoons of wholemeal to get the nutty flavour).

Next we need wet ingredients: milk, butter and egg. So melt the butter into the milk – I use the microwave for this – then beat in the egg. Apparently, scalding the milk in this way makes for a softer bun.

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Melt the butter into the milk

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Beat an egg into the buttery milk

Then just add the wet ingredients to the dry and beat it together. It comes to a loose and wet dough, so I use a wooden spoon for this, but you could use a table-top mixer if you have one. There’s barely any gluten in these plain flours so the mixture doesn’t need kneading, but I do give it a good beat (about 5 minutes) with the spoon.

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Mix to a soft dough then leave to ferment (rise); no kneading required.

Cover the dough and leave to ferment for half an hour or more – it will grow in size as the yeast gets to work. Meanwhile, make the filling by mixing softened butter with caster sugar, ground cinnamon and vanilla.

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Make your cinnamon butter by mixing butter with cinnamon, sugar and vanilla

When the dough is ready, pile it out onto a floured work-surface, using a scraper to help you. (I don’t normally like to use much flour as it can change the consistency of your finished bun, but this dough is so soft that it’s a sticking risk.) Use your fingers to gently ease the dough into a rectangle about 25cm x 30cm, then spread the butter on top. I usually soften the butter for a few seconds in the microwave to make this easier. Then roll the dough up from the long end, just like a swiss roll, and slice into 7 pieces.

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Cut your rolled dough into seven pieces, then place in a round baking tin

Grease a loose-bottomed 23m round cake tin then place the buns inside, one in the middle and the rest around the edges. Cover and leave to prove for about 30 minutes whilst you preheat the oven.

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Leave to prove for another thirty minutes

When the buns are puffy and ready – check by poking one with a finger; if the indentation stays put, they are done – then glaze them, if you want, with a little beaten egg and demerara sugar. Alternatively leave them plain but ice them later. Bake at 180c fan for 30 minutes until golden and risen.

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Cinnamon bun-cake fresh from the oven, waiting for a blanket of icing

Leave them to cool and then, if desired, top with a glace icing made by mixing 9 dessertspoons of icing sugar with 2 dessertspoons of boiling water. The hot water helps to remove any lumpy bits of sugar.

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Soft, gently spiced cinnamon buns

I love the speed of these buns and they make for a great brunch treat. Truth be told, I  prefer buns made the slow way, with strong bread flour and a good knead, but this is a useful recipe to have up one’s sleeve. They’re gently spiced, super-sociable and will keep for a few days in an air-tight tin.

Cinnamon bun-cake

from Signe Johansen’s Scandilicious Baking

Dough

225ml milk

75g butter

300g plain white flour

125g wholemeal flour

70g caster sugar

1/2 tsp ground cardamom

1/2 tsp fine salt

10g dried yeast

1 egg

Filling

75g salted butter

50g caster sugar

2 level tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp vanilla paste (optional)

Topping

Either 1 egg, beaten, and demerara sugar, OR

10 dessertspoons icing sugar and 2 dessertspoons boiling water

In a large bowl, mix the flours, salt, yeast, sugar and cardamom to combine. Melt the butter into the milk in the microwave, then add the egg and beat with a fork to combine. Mix the wet ingredients into the dry and bring together to a loose, soft dough – I use a wooden spoon for this. Beat for a few minutes so that the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl. Cover with a tea towel or clingfilm, then leave to ferment for 30 minutes to an hour.

Make the filling by creaming the ingredients together – if the butter is too hard, soften it in the microwave for a seconds, but be careful not to melt it.

Grease a 23cm round loose-bottomed cake tin.

Flour a work surface then use your scraper to tip out the dough. Use your fingers to flatten it into a rectangle, about 25cm x 35cm. Spread the butter over the dough, then roll up from the long end like a swiss roll. Slice into 7 pieces. Place the pieces into the cake tin, cover again and leave to prove for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 180c fan.

If glazing your buns, brush them with beaten egg, then sprinkle with demerara sugar. Bake for 30 minutes until risen and golden. Leave to settle in the tin for 15 minutes or so, then remove and cool completely on a wire rack.

If icing the buns, mix the sugar and boiling water to make a soft icing, then pour over the bun-cake. Leave to set before serving.

Matt’s favourite sausage rolls

It’s the winter solstice and – briefly – the sun has come out. It’s a welcome respite from the seemingly never-ending grey and rain. Yesterday morning we took a stroll around Edgbaston Reservoir, which at this time of year is noisy with overwintering geese. Amongst them is their silent friend, the heron.

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Spot the heron

The reservoir is a green lung only five minutes from our flat. The regular flow of joggers, dog-walkers, sailors and rowers have plenty of views to keep them occupied: there’s Tolkein’s two towers (or at least, the towers that inspired the book); the city-centre with its sky-scrapers and new library; the post-industrial land surrounding the Birmingham canal and, my favourite, a gold-topped Buddhist temple. Chuck in the Tower Ballroom and a car park full of teenagers smoking illicit substances, and you have a microcosm of Birmingham as a 21st century city.

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View across the water to St Augustine’s church

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Plenty of Canada geese at this time of year

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Winter fungi on an old tree stump

The winter solstice happens to coincide with our first-date-aversary, which we mark by eating some kind of meat, covered or topped with some kind of pastry. (This is because on said first date we had a memorable steak and oyster pie).

This year I made sausage rolls, the kind I usually make at Christmas anyway so it was just a question of bringing the baking day forward a little. Cheap, claggy sausage rolls are an insult to the pig that died to create them. But a proper, home-made sausage roll, fresh from the oven: this is the stuff of the Gods.

I actually got the recipe for these from Delia Smith years and years ago, and have just adapated them a little to my taste. The most important thing is to make a flaky pastry with a lot of butter, and to flavour the sausage meat with fresh lemon and herbs.

For the pastry, you need to grate the butter and then get it super-super cold before mixing it into the flour; I usually stick it in the freezer for fifteen minutes or so. The idea is that it stays in larger lumps than normal, so that when the lumps melt the steam gives the pastry that lovely, flaky texture.

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Grate your butter then freeze it for ten minutes to firm back up

If you’re feeling indulgent, you can go BIG on the butter: the best rolls I’ve made had a 75% butter to flour ratio. If that sends you over the edge, just use 50% butter to flour – this is the same ratio as in regular shortcrust pastry. So take your butter, add it to plain flour and gently combine, before making into a pastry with cold water. Voila.

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Work the butter into the flour, keeping large lumps of fat

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Add cold water to work into a dough, then pop it in the fridge for an hour or more

The pastry needs for chill for an hour or so, so make the filling next. I use good quality sausagemeat from a local farm shop, and turn up the flavour with fresh herbs and lemon zest. Thyme, sage and rosemary all work well.

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The farm shop is your friend: sausagemeat from Packington Moor

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Flavour the sausage with lemon and herbs

Next we need a small onion, finely diced and softened in a touch of olive oil.

Add a chopped, softened onion

Add the chopped herbs, lemon zest and onion to the sausagemeat, season with a touch of salt (not a lot) and black pepper, then chill the mixture in the fridge until you’re ready to make the rolls.

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Then just mix it all together

Assembly is a question of rolling and splodging. Roll the pastry out to about the thickness of a pound coin, then slice into straight-ish rectangles. Place a line of sausage down the centre, leaving a good gap either side. I never measure anything so can’t offer any guidance here, but you want them to look like this:

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Roll the pastry, cut into strips, then put a line of sausage meat down the middle

Then we just roll them up, using a touch of egg wash to seal the seams, and chill again for ten minutes. The chilling is important as if the butter gets too warm the pastry will be oily rather than flaky when baked.

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Roll up, using a slick of egg wash to seal the seam, then chill before slicing and baking

Last step is to brush the rolls with egg-wash and slice to the desired size. Go small for cocktail hour, or large for lunch. Bake at 190c until golden and oozing with glorious butter.

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Cocktail-size, fresh from the oven

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If you really love him, go super-size

Matt’s favourite sausage rolls

Makes about 40 cocktail-sized rolls

For the pastry:

200g butter (or 300g if you’re feeling indulgent. I use salted butter)

400g plain flour

Cold water – about 100ml

For the filling:

1 pack sausagemeat, about 400g

Zest of 1 lemon

handful of herbs – try thyme, sage and/or rosemary

1 small onion, finely diced

Salt and pepper

olive oil

1 egg, beaten, to glaze

First make your pastry. Use a box grater to grate your butter onto a plate, then freeze it for ten minutes or so until very firm. Put the flour in a bowl, add the butter and use a scraper or table knife to work the butter into the flour. We’re looking to distribute the fat into the flour without breaking it up too much. Add a splash of cold water and bring the pastry into a ball – use more water as required. When it’s a pliable pastry, wrap in film and put in the fridge for an hour minimum.

To make the filling, empty the sausagemeat into a bowl, finely chop the herbs and add them to the sausage along with the lemon zest. Fry the onion in a splash of olive oil until soft but not brown, about 15 minutes. Add to the meat, season to taste, then mix together. Refrigerate until needed (this is important, else the warm onion could melt your pastry.)

To make the rolls, lightly flour a work surface then roll the pastry into long rectangles, about three times as long as wide. Trim the edges to neaten them up (see picture above).

Place a line of sausage down the middle of each rectangle. Paint a little egg wash along one edge, then roll the pastry over and seal the seam.  Repeat with each rectangle, place on a baking tray and refrigerate again for 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 190c. Brush egg wash over your rolls then cut to the desired size and bake. Cocktail sausage rolls take about 25 minutes – larger ones will take a little longer. Cool slightly then EAT.

Tunis Cake

What a mild, sticky, damp start to December. It doesn’t feel cold enough to be approaching Christmas, yet the Nativity scene in Lichfield Cathedral suggests otherwise (note the absence of the Three Wise Men – they have yet to arrive in Bethlehem and can be found hiding next to an altar in an adjacent chapel).

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The nativity at Lichfield Cathedral

I love religious buildings of all denominations, from churches and cathedrals to temples and gurdwaras. There is always stillness and a sense of higher purpose to be found, plus endless extraordinary feats of architecture and craftsmanship. We popped into Lichfield’s magnificent cathedral on Saturday having visited Packington Moor farm shop to order my Christmas gammon, game pie and pigs in blankets – a promise of the feast to come.

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Candles light the dark December days

In her wonderful book Four Hedges, Claire Leighton describes December as a time of “friendly loneliness” – a time of quiet in the garden and the fields, where countryfolk hunker down in front of the fire. I am yearning for the stillness of deep winter: for sheets of blue sky painted with white cloud, chilly country lanes and evergreens against the brown earth.

No such luck in Birmingham, home of perpetual busy-ness, concrete and Christmas shopping. But there is solace if you know where to look: the trees are singing with birds, invisible to the eye, though I did catch sight of the robin in our cherry tree this morning, chirruping proudly. On the allotment, the winter greens are quietly doing their thing (apart from the cavalo nero, which are embarrassingly bad). It’s far too wet to work the soil now, it sticks and melts onto the garden fork as chocolate truffles do in a child’s palm.

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Winter lettuce mix: rocket, mizuna, mustard spinach

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The variegated chicory is still cropping

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My pathetic little cavalo nero plants: next year, must try harder!

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Creeping ivy looks healthy

Now that the shops are heaving with Christmas abundance, it’s a good time to take inspiration in the kitchen.  I popped into M&S last week for a pint of milk and came across a boxed Tunis cake – madeira cake topped with a thick layer of chocolate fondant. I dimly remembered that this was a recipe on the Great British Bake Off a few years ago so went home, Googled it, and had one on the table within a few hours.

According to The Internet, Tunis cake is Christmas cake from the Edwardian period – however some claim it was invented by McVities, so who knows. The basic premise is that you make a madeira sponge flavoured with lemon zest, then top it with chocolate before decorating with marzipan fruits.

I fancied a little more aroma to my cake so subbed the lemon for orange zest, and also added ground cinnamon to the mix. I have no interest in marzipan flowers so kept the citrus theme going by decorating with crystallised peel.

So to make Tunis cake, simply cream butter and sugar together, then add in flour, ground almonds, cinnamon, orange zest and eggs to make a classic sponge.

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Butter, sugar, orange zest, flour, cinnamon, ground almonds and eggs

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Cream together to make a madeira cake

The cake is baked in a round tin then left to cool in said tin. An important point – the sides of the tin need lining with baking parchment, to make life easier later. I did not do this but will learn from my mistake next time.

The topping is a ganache: hot cream is poured over dark chocolate and stirred until melted. Actually my ganache was on the point of splitting so I added a drop of boiling water to bring it back to smoothness. Reader, it works.

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Melt chocolate and cream for a rich ganache

You then pour the thick luscious ganache over the cool cake, decorate as you wish, then leave entirely untouched for a few hours to set.

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Pour the ganache on the cake whilst still in the tin then leave to set

Then remove from the tin. This is the point when you realised that you should have lined the edge of the tin with parchment – mine came away OK, but it wasn’t as neat as it should be.

Tunis cake is wonderful! A lovely moist and fragrant sponge, topped with an indulgent chocolate layer. It is special enough for Christmas (or any celebration come to think of it), but easy enough for everyday. A great addition to the cake repertoire, so thank you GBBO and M&S.

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Tunis cake with its characteristic thick chocolate icing

Tunis Cake

Adapted from Mary Berry’s Great British Bake Off recipe, here: www.bbc.co.uk/food

175g softened butter

175g caster sugar

175g self-raising flour

50g ground almonds

3 large eggs

1 orange, zest and juice

Pinch cinnamon

For the ganache:

200ml double cream

200g plain chocolate (55% solids) or a mixture of plain and milk chocolate

Optional – small knob of butter

crystallised peel, or marzipan fruits, to decorate

Also:

A 7-inch spring-form or loose-bottomed round tin

Baking parchment

Preheat the oven to 160c (fan). Grease the base and sides of the cake tin and line with parchment.

Make the cake: cream butter and sugar together until light and pale, then add the eggs one by one, adding a little flour with each addition. Finally add the rest of the flour, ground almonds and cinnamon along with the orange zest and juice. Beat together until entirely light and smooth. Tip into the tin, smooth the surface and bake in the centre of the oven for about 40 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin until totally cold.

For the ganache, break the chocolate into a bowl. Warm the cream in a saucepan until just below simmering point, then pour over the chocolate and leave to melt – you can nudge the chocolate on its way with a spatula. Stir until smooth and add the butter, if using (it helps give a shine to the ganache). If the mixture looks likely to split, add a splash of hot water and beat like billy-oh, and it should come back together. Leave to cool slightly, but use whilst it is still runny rather than set.

Pour the ganache over the cake, add your decoration of choice, then leave for several hours until set. Remove the cake from the tin, peel off the parchment and serve.

Oatmeal raisin hazelnut cookies

I was in London yesterday, happened to be walking past Harrods and so, on a whim, popped into the food hall. The Harrods food hall is, obviously, preposterous…amazing produce, outrageously overpriced and great fun. Star of the charcuterie counter was a whole Iberico ham, sold complete with knife and instruction DVD, and going for a sweet £2800. That is not a typo. I betrayed my yokel roots and took an audible intake of breath.

It would however take a cold heart not to be impressed with the Harrods boulangerie counter and, obviously a tourist, I took a few snaps. Look at these expertly plaited brioche, so tempting alongside the hunks of apple and walnut slice (I think these are made from a yeasted, enriched dough topped with fruit and nuts).

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The Harrods boulangerie counter

Harrods has a fine array of cronuts, which looked so outstanding I was tempted to applaud. For the uninitiated, a cronut is a cross between a croissant and a doughnut – you make croissant dough, fry it like a doughnut, then glaze with sugar or icing. It’s seriously skilled stuff and, like so many of the best baked goods, started life in New York. Though these looked amazing, prices started at £4.50 and I just could not bring myself to part with the cash. (You can take the girl from the Midlands, etc.)

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The cronuts were incredible and waaay expensive

Lots of impressively layered drum cakes followed, plus a counter heaving with American-style pies. The Brits would call them tarts – deep-sided pastry filled with fruit, nuts, custard and cream.

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Impressive layer work on the Russian Honey Cake

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American-style pies reminded me of trips to NYC

I’ve studied (and that is the only word for it) food and cooking since I was a kid and in my reasonably wide-ranging experience, I’ve concluded that two nations do the best baked goods: the French and the Americans. The French are all about pretty-pretty precision, whilst our friends over the Pond like big, bold, homespun flavours. I think it’s hard to pull off French patisserie at home – but those American bakes are a different story. Inspired by my trip to Harrods, I dug out an old American favourite: Jim Fobel’s Old-Fashioned Baking Book.

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Jim Fobel’s Old Fashioned Baking Book: Recipes from an American childhood

I love this book. It’s a memoir-cum-recipe book, full of cookies, cakes, pies, bars and slices cooked by Jim Fobel’s grandmother in Ohio in the early twentieth century. 1932 Mystery Cake tells the story of surviving the Depression, whilst many recipes carry echoes of East European heritage: anyone fancy Aunt Irma’s Sour Cream Twists? Today I whipped up a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies, which he describes quite literally as “one of the oldest recipes in the book”.

You could use a food mixer for these, but I always prefer a wooden spoon. First, beat softened butter with muscavado sugar until smooth and fluffy.

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Cream butter and muscavado sugar until fluffy

Next you beat in vanilla extract, an egg and a drop of water. I was certain the mixture would split but Grandmother knew best – keep going and it comes together to a smooth, thick cream.

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Crack in an egg, vanilla extract and a tablespoon warm water

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Beat again until thick and creamy

Then you simply add your dry ingredients: rolled oats, plain flour, baking powder, raisins and chopped hazelnuts. The recipe actually calls for walnuts but I’m not keen, so substitute whatever nut you like best.

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Mix together rolled oats, plain flour and baking powder

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Have ready your chopped hazelnuts and raisins

Mix it all together to a stiff batter, then dollop tablespoons of mixture onto lined baking sheets. Flatten the top with your fingers, then bake at 180c for about 15 minutes until golden.

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Mix the lot together. Job done.

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Dollop tablespoons of mixture onto lined baking trays and bake

Ideally they are slightly browner around the edge than the middle – this gives you a nice mix of crunchy edges and chewy centres. Cool on the trays for five minutes or so before transferring to a rack.

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A golden, chewy all-American cookie

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They are as big as my hand!

These are pretty big – as big as my hand – though the original recipe has them three times bigger! Delicious on their own or, if you’re going all-American, with a glass of milk.

Oatmeal raisin hazelnut cookies

Adapted from ‘Grandma’s Oatmeal Cookies’, Jim Fobel’s Old Fashioned Baking Book, p140

135g rolled oats

150g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

200g butter (I use salted butter. If using unsalted, add a pinch of salt to the mixture)

195g muscavado sugar

1 large egg

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tablespoon warm water

100g chopped hazelnuts (or any nut you fancy)

150g raisins

Preheat the oven to 180c and make sure the oven racks are evenly spaced. Line two or three baking sheets with baking parchment.

Cream butter, sugar and vanilla until fluffy. Crack in the egg and water, and beat until thick, light and creamy. If it looks like splitting persevere, it will come good in the end. Add all the dry ingredients and stir to a thick batter.

Dollop tablespoon-sized amounts of mixture onto your trays, allowing room to spread, and smooth the tops. (You might have to bake in batches, depending on how much oven space you have.) Bake for 15 minutes, checking half-way through to see if the trays need switching in the oven to get an even bake. Cool on the tray for five minutes so they firm up before transferring to a wire tray.

Blueberry crumble cake

Despite the past week of rain and cloud, the allotment flowers are perky and sunshiny. I don’t even particularly like marigolds, but these ones look great in an impromptu arrangement with sunflowers and bishop’s flower (that’s the white frothy stuff).

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Allotment blooms

But there are early signs of autumn. Apples are swelling on the boughs and on Friday I spied cobnuts ripening in the grounds of Compton Verney, the art gallery in Warwickshire.

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Ripening cobnuts at Compton Verney art gallery

Plus it’s really not very warm. At this rate I’ll be lucky to get a raspberry or blueberry harvest, the chill wind stopping any ripening in its tracks. Not so for my mother, who came at the weekend with these beauties:

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Moody blue: blueberries from Mother’s veg patch

So on a rainy Monday morning I whipped up a blueberry crumble cake, good for late breakfasts, lunch, afternoon tea and pudding.

First you make up a really stiff batter. Take flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and sugar, then rub in butter until finely mixed. I use my hands but you could use a food processor if you’re that way inclined.

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Crumble flour, sugar, baking powder, bicarb and butter

Next the wet ingredients: simply whisk a large egg with buttermilk and vanilla extract. If there’s no buttermilk to hand, use yoghurt or even cream, loosened with a splash of milk.

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Whisk an egg with buttermilk and vanilla

Then mix the two together to make a really stiff batter. It needs to be stiff in order to take the weight (and juice) of the fruit and crumble.

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Combine the two to make a stiff batter

For the crumble, simply take flour, caster sugar, muscavado sugar, butter and cinnamon and rub it all together.

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For the crumble, take flour, sugar, butter…

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…and rub together

Then it’s time to bake! Spread the batter into the base of a spring-form tin, pile the fruit on top, then sprinkle the crumble on top of the fruit. I’ve used a bowl of blueberries plus a few alpine strawberries but I think most summer fruits would work well here: raspberries, sliced strawberries, peaches, apricots, plums.

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Spread the batter in your tin and top with berries, then sprinkle the crumble over the top

Bake for about an hour, until a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool for at least an hour before removing from the tin (else it’ll likely fall apart). Serve it up warm or cold, perhaps with a dollop of cream on the side. Yum! Incidentally, this is not a cake that keeps well, so eat it up within a day or two.

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Blueberry crumble cake

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Eat with cream

Blueberry crumble cake

Adapted from this: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/recipes/11755276/Strawberry-cake-recipe.html

190g plain flour

100g caster sugar

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

115g cold butter

1 egg

115g buttermilk (or cream or yoghurt, loosened with a splash of milk)

1 tsp vanilla extract

400g or so blueberries (or other summer fruit, such as raspberries, strawberries, etc)

For the crumble topping:

50g muscavado sugar

50g caster sugar

60g plain flour

1/2 tsp cinnamon

60g cold butter

Preheat oven to 180c and grease and line a 22cm springform tin.

Combine flour, baking powder and bicarb in a bowl then rub in the butter until the mixture is fine, with no lumps. Beat the egg with the buttermilk and vanilla,  then mix it all together to a stiff batter. Spread in the base of your tin then pile the fruit on top.

For the crumble topping, rub the butter into the flour, sugar and cinnamon until well distributed, though a few lumps are OK. Pile on top of the fruit.

Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Cool in the tin for an hour or so before serving.