Blackberry (baby) muffins

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

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

My Dad has grown a massive aubergine

Getting two or three baskets like this a week

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

What to do with all these beans!

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

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

Blackberry muffins
From the River Cottage Baby and Toddler Cookbook

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

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

Blackberry baby muffins

Also this week:

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

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

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

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

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

Pear (or apple) pudding cake

Working in the arts was meant to herald a life filled with glamour, parties, intellectuals and Interesting People. To be paid to write for a living, what a privilege! And all that is true – in part – but most of the time life is rather more mundane (think freezing cold workshops, too-much-time at the computer, that kind of thing). And then once in a while I’ll be called upon to be an actual MODEL in a shoot that I’m working on, donning a smelly old wig from the costume store, and will have to ACT for a camera. Oh the joy! This pic is for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new exhibition The Play’s The Thing, which opens this weekend. You can read about it in this Telegraph article. And that’s another career highlight ticked off the list…

The Play's The Thing

The photoshoot for the RSC’s exhibition The Play’s The Thing

In the rather more prosaic world of allotments, things have sloooowed right down. I’ve pulled out the squash and courgette: they probably all had another couple of weeks left in them, but really, enough is enough. The cosmos have come to the end of their insanely-good four month life, but the dahlias and chrysanthemums are still producing several bunches of colour a week.

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Pink and apricot on one side…

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…pumpkin shades on the other!

With so many wonderful English apples and pears around, it’s good to have at least a few fruity cake recipes up one’s sleeve. This one is a favourite – an apple and almond sponge, dense with caramelised fruit and damp with almonds. The original recipe comes from the River Cottage Every Day book, and it’s fabulous, but occasionally I’ll sub the apples for pears and will chuck in a few chunks of diced marzipan for an extra hit of almond-goo.

First, prepare a 20cm springform or loose-bottomed cake tin, and pre-heat the oven to 170c.

Next we prepare the fruit. Peel, de-seed and chop into wedges 2 firm pears or dessert apples (use more or less, or a mixture of both, depending on how large the fruits are. If using pears I don’t always peel them). Melt 25g unsalted butter in a frying pan, add 1 heaped tablespoon caster sugar and heat until the butter begins to bubble. Add the fruit and let it all cook together over a medium heat until the caramel begins to brown, then remove from the heat.

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Caramelise the prepared apples or pears then leave to cool slightly

The batter is very simple. Cream together 150g unsalted butter with 125g caster sugar until very light and pale. In a separate bowl, mix together 75g self-raising flour and 75g ground almonds. Alternatively beat the flour into the butter mixture along with 2 eggs and a drop of almond extract, if liked. You’ll end up with quite a stiff cake mix.

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Prepare the cake batter

Pile the cake batter into the prepared tin, smooth the top, then stud the batter with the fruit, drizzling over any buttery-caramelly juices that remain. If you want an extra hit of goo, dice some marzipan and arrange the chunks on top.

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Arrange batter, fruit, juices and marzipan in the tin

Then bake for about 45 minutes until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. I usually cover the cake after about 30 minutes to prevent it getting too brown (you can see that this one still managed to get slightly singed). Allow to cool in the tin before turning out.

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A gooey pear and almond pudding-cake

This is called a pudding-cake as really it’s best served warm with a dollop of creme fraiche or vanilla ice-cream, but it’s also good at room temperature. This is a damp cake so it doesn’t keep brilliantly – try to gobble it up within a day or two. If eating it for pudding, the cake can be successfully reheated in a low oven (150c) for ten minutes or so.

Parsnip & cheddar soda bread

Tomatoes, be gone with thee! Courgettes, au revoir! With summer’s veg glut over, roots are making a return to my kitchen and amongst them, the humble trusty parsnip. Not that they’ve come from the allotment – we do have a few tiny plants, more seedlings really, that will stay in over winter to see if they fatten up (although my hopes are not high). Nope, farm shop parsnips it is and their rich, vaguely-spicy sweetness is a welcome addition to October dinners.

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One of last year’s allotment parsnips – this year’s didn’t germinate so well and are still tiny

It’s easy to see the parsnip as merely a useful adjunct to a winter roast – and a roasted parsnip chip is truly brilliant, provided that it’s not over-cooked…burnt parsnip being surprisingly easy to make, and horrid. But I’d urge all cooks to think a little more creatively: these roots are cheap-as-you like and their sweetness can take the strong flavours of chilli, spice and cheese with ease. Their dense texture makes for a creamy, satisfying soup, or try them baked in a creamy gratin to sit next to sausages or a pork chop.

Today I whipped up this soda bread, studded with strong cheddar and grated parsnip, which is great alongside a steaming bowl of soup for a nutritious and simple supper. It’s easy, inexpensive and vegetarian – and sometimes, that is just what it needed.

First, preheat the oven to 180c and prepare some baking parchment on top of a baking tray. Slice and sweat 1 onion in a drizzle of olive oil until it’s really soft – around 15 to 20 minutes. Meanwhile, grate 1 parsnip (I don’t bother to peel mine) and 50g strong cheddar using the coarse side of the grater. In a bowl, stir together 175g self-raising flour (white or wholemeal), a pinch of thyme leaves, a pinch of salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Add the vegetables and cheese to the bowl and give it a stir to combine.

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Mix flour, parsnip, cheese, onions, salt and pepper in a large bowl

Then whisk an egg with three tablespoons of milk, pour onto the dry ingredients and stir until you have quite a loose dough. Don’t overmix – it will stay a little craggy. Shape the dough into a rough ball and place on the baking tray.

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Add beaten egg and milk to bind to a soft dough

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Shape into a bowl and place on baking parchment

Using a sharp knife or a bread scraper, cut half-way down the dough to make a cross (don’t cut all the way through). Dust with a little flour and then bake for 40 minutes or so, until risen, golden and hollow-sounding with tapped.

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Make deep crosses with a knife or metal bread scraper, then bake

You’ll open the oven door to find this crunchy-topped light savoury loaf. Leave it to cool for a few minutes but have this warm, maybe with soup, and definitely with lots of butter! It doesn’t keep brilliantly so try to eat it the loaf in one sitting.

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Parsnip and cheddar soda bread

Recipe adapted from River Cottage Every Day.