Pruning time

Our flat is surrounded by a kind of communal wilderness that masquerades as a garden: think lots of grass, a few very overgrown shrubs and the occasional empty crisp packet blown in by the wind. Last year I planted hundreds of spring bulbs in the rock-hard earth with the hope of brightening it up a little, and this week the green was broken by the first dainty yellow heads of tete-a-tete narcissi and deep purple crocus. I admire their bravery, for although the weather is generally mild and wet, there is still the chill breeze to contend with. The flowers bob around in the wind, withholding the onslaught.

On the allotment, where the ground is more exposed, the bulbs are only barely beginning to break through the soil. Everything there seems to come to fruition about a month later than I expect it to. Is it the wind? Some lack of nutrient in the soil? I did today manage our first harvest of purple sprouting, grown from plants gifted to us by Matt’s parents (though they’ve been picking theirs since before Christmas).

2016-02-07 14.27.23

First, and probably only, picking of purple sprouting

I’m uncertain what happened to January; it vanished in a whizz of house-viewings and new work contracts. Suddenly it’s February, nearly the start of Lent – and we’ve yet to have anything that even vaguely resembles a proper winter. This is the month to trim back the autumn raspberries and so I got to it today, breaking my brand-new secateurs in the process. The patch is now clear of dead raspberry canes – but alas their removal revealed a healthy crop of buttercup and grass. As one job is completed, another presents itself: a good few hours of weeding and mulching is called for to clear out the weeds, one of my least favourite tasks.

2016-02-07 14.27.56

The raspberry patch, post-prune. At least we can grow buttercups.

I feel like the weather, or at least the season, needs to catch up with the busy-ness of our current lives. At home and at work there is so much (too much) activity, new projects to be nailed down, this house-buying-bureaucratic-nonsense to be dealt with, things moving and changing. Yet outside the season is one of dormancy and sleep. In anticipation of season’s change I bring home my seed trays to wash (well, half of them: they get showered in the bathtub which is a two-batch process) and go through old seed packets to see what is needed for this year’s plantings.

Spring, hurry up please.

Allotment: Picked PSB, pruned raspberries, scrubbed pots, thinking about seed ordering.

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?

2016-02-04 10.24.48

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:

2016-02-04 10.15.12

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.

2016-02-04 10.18.43

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.

2016-02-04 10.21.49

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.

2016-02-04 10.35.37

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.

2016-02-04 10.36.58

Spread the jam evenly over the sponge

2016-02-04 10.37.39

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.

2016-02-04 10.39.41

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.

2016-02-04 11.14.35

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!

2016-02-04 11.14.07

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.

Tiramisu

The way to tell the changing of the seasons in not through temperature or weather but by watching the light. It changed this week. The sun has crept down from its high perch and now sits lower in the sky, creating long shadows in early evening. I was as an exhibition opening at Grand Union on Friday and the shards of 6pm sunlight lit up the artwork like spotlights.

2015-09-04 18.21.31

Autumn sun at Grand Union on Friday evening

I spent Monday evening re-planting those slug-eaten seedlings, the sun warming my back. Birds were singing as if it were spring and I swear I heard a toad. That brief idyll has now been replaced by more usual autumn weather: mist, cloud and a chill. I don’t mind the cold, for hopefully it will keep the leek rust at bay – and sort out the slugs.

Speaking of slugs: I’ve forked out for a tub of organic wool pellets from the garden centre, in what is probably a futile attempt to keep my plants protected without having to resort to the particularly grim murder afforded by slug pellets. Turns out that wool pellets smell of my childhood – in other words, they smell of FARM. The idea is that they swell up and make it difficult for Mr Slug to get around. Progress report soon.

I’m still picking sunflowers, cosmos, calendula and dahlias, plus the tomatoes keep coming. Also some red chillies now, so hot that they burn the fingers when I touch them. But the new star of the allotment are the autumn raspberries, a few punnets a week, soft and luscious.

2015-09-07 18.16.11

Monday’s pickings

2015-09-07 18.15.52

Ripe luscious raspberries

I’m bored of eating soft fruit on its own so doubtless most of this fruit will end up in the freezer. But I do think that raspberries are a great foil to creamy rich desserts. I had mascarpone in the fridge, and I’ve been wanting to try Rick Stein’s recipe for tiramisu. I’ve seen recipes that put raspberries IN a tiramisu, which I can’t quite bring myself to do, but on the side is fine.

First, make a sponge. I know you can use sponge fingers, but I don’t keep them in the house, and anyway how hard is it to make a whisked sponge? Whisk up egg yolks and sugar, fold in a smidgeon of flour and stiff egg whites, then bake for 15 minutes. Sorted.

Light whisked sponge

Next comes the mascarpone cream. I was interested in this recipe because of the whisked egg-whites which I surmised would make it really light, like a mousse. Turns out that this is the proper way to make tiramisu and I’ve just been doing it wrong for years. You whisk up egg yolks and icing sugar until really thick and creamy, then mix in the mascarpone. Fold in stiffly whisked egg whites and vanilla and voila, one creamy mass of deliciousness.

2015-09-05 17.50.34

Eggy sugary mascarpone-y filling

Last thing to get right is the coffee. I didn’t get this right. I’m starting to think that all recipes for tiramisu need to double their coffee allowance; I had enough to soak the sponge but there wasn’t that hit of coffee flavour (I’ve upped the coffee ratio in the recipe below). Either way, use the best espresso you can. I made my own but if you don’t have a machine, you could always go down to your local coffee shop and get a take-away double espresso. Slug a good measure of booze in – marsala is traditional but I used armagnac. No sugar here, just coffee and booze.

2015-09-05 17.46.53

The espresso maker is your friend

Then we layer it all together. You can put it in individual glasses, which is very pretty, but our household is too greedy for that so I made a big one. Slice the sponge to fit your dish, briefly soak it in coffee, place in the dish, dollop the cream on top, and repeat. Leave to chill for several hours so that the cream firms up and the flavours mingle, then finish with a shaving of 70% chocolate or cocoa.

Tiramisu. Serve it up on its own or with a tumble of autumn raspberries.

Tiramisu, translated as ‘pick me up’, is a cliche but what a good cliche. Serve up with raspberries for a hit of sharpness against the cream. Don’t keep it for dessert either, it’s a great breakfast!

Tiramisu

Serves 4. Adapted from here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/rick_steins_tiramisu_18785

For the sponge

3 eggs, separated

75g caster sugar

75g plain flour sifted with 1/2 tsp baking powder

For the cream

3 eggs, separated

3 tbsp icing sugar

250g mascarpone

1 tsp vanilla extract

To finish

400ml strong espresso

6 tbsp armagnac or marsala or whatever booze takes your fancy

grated dark chocolate (the 70% stuff) or cocoa, to finish

Pre-heat the oven to 180c and line a swiss-roll tin. Make the sponge: whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl until stiff. In another bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar until pale and creamy – the ribbon stage, about 5 minutes with an electric whisk. Loosen the mixture with a little egg white, then alternatively fold in the flour and remaining egg white until you have a smooth and light batter. Keep as much air in as possible. Spoon into the tin and bake for about 20 minutes until risen and just cooked. Cool.

Make the cream: whisk the egg whites until stiff. In another bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until smooth, pale and creamy. Add the mascarpone and vanilla and beat until smooth. Add a spoonful of whites to loosen, then fold in the remaining whites. I think it’s best to use a really big metal spoon to do this. Keep the mixture very light. Pop into the fridge until you’re ready to finish the tiramisu.

Make up your espresso then add the booze and leave to cool to room temperature.

Find your serving dish or glasses and cut the sponge into circles or fingers so they will fit snugly. Dip the sponge fingers into the coffee and line the base of your dish. Dollop some mascarpone cream on top, then repeat. Keep going until the mixture’s all gone, finishing with a layer of cream. Chill until firm – at least 6 hours. You can cover with clingfilm and leave for longer if desired. Sprinkle with chocolate or sifted cocoa before serving.

 

Declaring war on weeds

What a glorious weekend! This was the view from British Camp on Saturday. Not quite coats-off weather, but nearly.

2015-03-21 14.40.32

British Camp, Malvern Hills

The warmer weather is causing sap to rise. Not just in the plants – there are buds forming and seedlings making their presence known – but also in the humans. Sunshine provokes activity, and I have had it with the weeds. The giant tufts of grass, the wispy mess of straw, the decayed bind weed – we’ll never totally win the battle, but I can make in-roads.

So, with the sun on our backs, the raspberries have been reclaimed from grass, buttercups and bindweeds. Some of the grass was so heavy I couldn’t physically lift it – there is some satisfaction in knowing that it’s now smouldering on the fire.

In an unexpected pay-off, with its choking weed blanket removed, I discovered that the rhubarb we inherited is actually very established and shooting. I’ve covered it with protective straw and crossed fingers for a summer resurgence. The next job is to mulch ALL the soft fruit so that the grass can never establish itself again.

2015-03-22 17.01.07

Raspberries cleaned, rhubarb straw-ed

2015-03-22 15.36.35

Burning up 18 months of organic waste

The broad beans haven’t wintered so well, with only six remaining. So I’ve direct sown three rows more, with a mental note to protect them against the birds in the next week or so.

2015-03-22 15.36.57

Sowing new broad beans with the over-wintered seedlings

And Matt got out his tools and re-felted the shed roof, a job that I wouldn’t have even noticed needs doing until the whole structure had collapsed. * This is why we’re a good team. *

2015-03-22 17.04.32

Roof repairs

Spring cleaning and direct sowing: the new year has properly begun.

Planted: broad beans

Go-to chocolate muffins

The Birmingham Mail tweeted this morning that the UK is colder than Siberia. Whilst I don’t know about that, I do know that it’s now sufficiently chilly for the heating to have flipped itself on this morning. Only one thing for it…the furry all-weather boots have come out.

2014-08-21 17.23.59

Nature is giving us a lot of mixed messages at the moment. I think she likes to play with our nerves. Look one way and it’s still summer, look another and there are all the signs of autumn. I’ve closed the greenhouse door for the first time since, when, June? After all their mollycoddling, I’m not letting the tomatoes get a chill and fail at the final hurdle.

2014-08-21 17.27.11

Some say SUMMER!

2014-08-21 17.28.43

Others say AUTUMN!

2014-08-21 17.26.16

But these say…cosy.

The chard and spinach I put in last week have already germinated, a row of tiny green spots under the fleece.

2014-08-21 17.23.21

Spinach seedlings

It seems that I am the only gardener in the whole place who is incapable of growing a marrow. Truly, I am trying. The courgette we’re growing is Romanesco, a type I’d read about in various cooking journals, most enthusiastically in Joan Gussow’s extraordinary book This Organic Life.

I first came across Gussow in Manhatten Food magazine. She’s a lecturer at Columbia University (well into her 80s I should add) who pretty much pioneered the organic food scene in the US. I don’t mean the fluffy-lifestyle cashmere-and-champagne-and-flicky-hair organics, I mean the proper academic debate that challenges the widespread use of petrochemicals in agribusiness. Gussow is one of my food heroes.

In her book she raves about Romanesco as being a no-fail courgette and she’s right, we’ve had some pretty good courgettes. But they don’t grow into marrows, not proper ones. I have left one on purposefully to try it out and it’s now long as an arm but refuses to get fat. Looks like the classic Mum-food dish of stuffed marrow might have to be put on the back-burner.

2014-08-21 17.20.03

Romanesco ‘marrow’

We’ve been picking raspberries since June, with no end in sight. Raspberries need sponge and cream (to my mind) and so I whipped up a batch of my go-to chocolate muffins. I’ve been using this recipe since the mid 1990s, taken from an Aussie Women’s Weekly cookbook found in Upton Upon Severn library. I then wrote it into a notebook I took to university (1998) and still use it now.

These are good muffins. MAKE THESE MUFFINS.

2014-08-20 18.46.50

My 1998 cooking notebook

Chocolate Muffins

(It’s an old recipes so it’s in ounces. Just go with it)

4oz self raising flour

3oz plain flour

2oz cocoa

2tsp baking powder

8oz caster sugar

4oz butter

8floz milk

2 eggs

Pre-heat oven to 180 celsius.

Melt the butter in a measuring jug, then stir the milk in. If your milk is cold the butter may solidify a bit, but no matter.

In a large bowl, sift together the flours, cocoa, baking powder and sugar.

Stir in the milky butter (I just use a wooden spoon) and then beat in eggs one at a time. It will be a sloppy mixture.

Spoon into muffin cases and bake for about 20 minutes, or until done.

This also works really well as a large cake but you’ll need to up the baking time – about 45 minutes for an 8inch round cake.

Serve with raspberries, cream, ice-cream…

2014-08-20 19.28.40

A tray of joy

Raspberry meringues

We have friends coming for supper this evening. Supper used to be called dinner, and before that was called tea. Now it’s called ‘using up things from the veg patch’.

For my birthday in June Other Half bought me a fantastic book, Caroline Conran’s Sud de France.

2014-08-14 12.11.22

Good book

 

It’s a recipe journal/memoir of life living around La Laviniere and Saint Chinian, towns in the Launduedoc where I’ve been fortunate enough to visit and enjoy memorable food. And wine. Don’t forget the wine. So a French supper it is; a good excuse to do some proper cooking.

Tomato and taleggio tart: First up, I know that taleggio isn’t French, but you work with what you’ve got, and I’ve got taleggio. I halved 12 of our tomatoes and cooked them in a slow oven (160c) for about an hour with thyme, bay and EVOO. Then rolled out puff pastry, arranged the tomatoes on top with more herbs, baked for about 30 mins (180c) before adding slices of taleggio to the top and popping back in the oven to get the desired ooze.

Mayonnaise: I’ve been hankering about making some mayo for weeks and given the meringues (see below) there were egg yolks going. I used Conran’s Sud de France recipe: Whizzed two yolks up with 1tsp dijon mustard, 2tsp lemon juice and sea salt, then dripped in 250ml of light olive oil and sunflower oil, half and half. Dripped is the only word for it – mayo is simple but you have to take it STEADY. It takes about 5 minutes to get it all lovely, thick and gloopy. Added a bit more lemon at the end…love the lemon.

P1020998

The good stuff

Served these with this morning’s bread, and leaves and beans.

Then Conran’s raspberry swirl meringues with more fruit and cream. The meringues were interesting:

Cook 100g raspberries with 30g sugar until jammy. So far so normal. But the meringue itself is oddball: whisk 4 egg whites until stiff, gradually beat in 120g caster sugar and then 110g icing sugar (???), 1tsp cornflour and 1tsp white wine vinegar.

Swirl the raspberry with the meringue, spoon onto the prepared trays. Conran says bake at 125c but I’m always dubious about meringue temperatures so reduced this to 110c. Left them in for 1 hr 30 mins – at which point they had to come out as the bread needed baking, and when it’s got to be baked it’s got to be baked. So an hour later I put them back in for thirty mins then left them to sit in the cooling switched off oven.

Verdict on those meringues….scrumptious. Meant to take pictures but we opened a good bottle and I clean forgot until it got dark and the light was terrible. In real life they weren’t quite as pink.

2014-08-14 21.39.48

A platter of joy

 

Best bit….there is leftover cream. Oh the possibilities!