…And exhale. The festivities are over and we’ve tipped into January, the quiet month. The cold is somehow more agreeable now, for it gives an excuse to make old-fashioned and emotionally-necessary classics involving lard and suet and beef. The dark is OK, for we can light candles, put the fire on and make a hole in the pile of books that’s been waiting for attention since the start of December. I rather like January: it’s usually reasonably quiet, work-wise and allotment-wise, which gives me time for reflection, a spot of planning, and some proper kitchen projects.

After all the running around of Christmas, it’s good to be still. This year we were in London for Christmas, and my brother flew in from Australia to join us.

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Christmas dinner with the Stallards

On Boxing Day we headed to Battersea Park for fresh air and exercise, and I was charmed by the Buddhist Peace Pagoda on the banks of the Thames. It was built in the 1980s to symbolise hope in the face of (nuclear) war, a sentiment that is sadly needed as badly today as it was then.

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Mum and Dad take a brisk boxing day walk in Battersea Park, overlooking the Thames

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The Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park

Back in Birmingham, the days after Christmas were beautifully bright. Warley Woods is only a few minutes from our house and is usually full of dogs taking their owners for a walk. On 29th December the shadows were long, and patches of woodland were still white with frost at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

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Warley Woods on 29 December

We finished the year as we began, with a Park Run (Matt, not me) and lunch courtesy of the National Trust. Baddesley Clinton on New Years Eve was grey with freezing cloud, which I suppose some may find depressing, but I see great beauty in these dulled shades. We need a bit of dark in order to appreciate the light.

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Baddesley Clinton on the last day of 2016

Back to food projects. For the past few years my festive table has included a side of home-cured salmon, partly because it’s fun to make but also because it’s loads cheaper than purchasing a side of smoked salmon. My gravlaks recipe uses a traditional Scandinavian cure that is both sweet and salty, and punchy with herbal dill notes. And I say salmon, but this year I made it with trout and if anything, I preferred it. Sea-trout would also work well for this.

First, find yourself a side of quality salmon or trout, weighing about 1.5kg. If we were in America we’d ask for ‘sushi-grade’ salmon (which means that it’s considered safe to eat raw) but I don’t think that such a thing has been heard of in Birmingham. It’s therefore wise to freeze the fish for 24 hours and then defrost it before use, which helps to remove any nasty bacteria.

Slice the fish in half width-ways and remove any remaining pin bones. There’s no need to scale the fish, though you can if you wish.

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Find yourself a beautiful fillet of trout or salmon and remove any remaining pin bones. It’s wise to freeze the fish for 24 hours, then defrost before use. This helps remove any nasty bacteria.

Next make the cure. Using a pestle and mortar, crush 1 tablespoon black or white peppercorns with 2 tablespoon coriander seeds, then mix with 75g granulated sugar and 75g sea salt. I prefer to use Maldon salt for this.

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Measure salt, sugar and crushed pepper and coriander

Get yourself a big bunch of dill – about 25g – and finely chop, and measure 1 shot (25ml) of gin.

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Chop loads of dill and have ready a swig of gin

Now it’s an assembly job. Pour the gin over the flesh side of the fish, smear the salt mix over the gin, then pat the dill on top. Sandwich the two fillets together with the dill in the middle, then tightly wrap the fishy sandwich in several sheets of clingfilm so that it is entirely encased – if any cure falls out, which is likely, just shove it back in with your fingers. Pop the fish into a dish to catch any fishy brine, then place in the fridge for 48 hours.

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Spread the gin and salt over the flesh, press the dill on top and sandwich the two fillets together

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Wrap tightly with clingfilm, place in a high-sided container to catch the liquid, and place in the fridge for 48 hours

After two days, remove the clingfilm, wipe the cure from the fish as best you can and remove any excess moisture with kitchen paper. You’ll see that your fish has become a slightly darker shade and will have firmed up considerably.

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After its curing time, remove the clingfilm and scrape off all the spice and dill, then pat dry with kitchen towel

Chop some more dill and pat onto the flesh side of the fish, then finely slice the gravlaks into long lengths and place on a serving platter.

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Press more chopped dill onto each fillet

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Slice as thinly as possible, then serve with a wedge of lemon

Once cured, the gravlaks lasts for at least a week (it is a method of preservation after all). Serve with lemon and some form of carbohydrate, be it blinis, crackers or simple bread and butter. It is glorious, though I am biased.

This recipe is inspired by various published by Signe Johansen over the last few years, both online and in her How to Hygge book.

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


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


75g salted butter

50g caster sugar

2 level tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp vanilla paste (optional)


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.

Toscakaka – caramel almond sponge

There are bulbs popping up everywhere. It’s good to see that the afternoon I spent back in October planting daffodil and snowdrop bulbs into the rock-hard earth in our communal ‘garden’, has paid off. I say that, but actually there’s only one snowdrop so far. I’ll take it, it’s better than none.

The flat is getting its own dose of not-quite-seasonal colour.

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Morning sun streams in over fiery tulips

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Striking blue iris

I spent Saturday pottering around in the kitchen. As well as that chilli con carne, I also came up with cinnamon buns and Toscakaka, a Scandinavian cake which is topped with crunchy, gooey, caramelly, almondy goodness.

The recipe comes from Signe Johansen’s Scandilicious Baking and has become a staple in my baking repertoire. It’s easy as anything but fun to make – you get to work with caramel! Plus it makes a great pudding.