Cinnamon buns

Amidst this biblical rain, I made it to the allotment last week to sort the raspberries out. Which I did, but it has left a bigger problem: what to do with the brambles. They are over-running this really productive area of the allotment. If I dig them out I’ll almost certainly lose some raspberries, but if I leave them, they will get worse. If anyone has any suggestions of dealing with rampant brambles, I am all ears.

The monster brambles and grass have taken over the raspberries

The sun did briefly shine yesterday. I know this because we were at Moseley Old Hall, the National Trust property a stone’s throw from Wolverhampton. I sat in the tea room contorting my body into the weirdest shape so that my face could be in the triangle of sun beaming in through the window. Afterwards Harry explored the woods and tree house, covering us all in mud, which is just as it should be.

The knot garden at Moseley Old Hall. What you can’t see is the meadow of native narcissi that are coming into life behind the garden.

Onto baking. I’ve been messing about with cinnamon bun recipes since Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess was published, which Google tells me was 1998. That is over 20 years of exploration into enriched dough cookery. I am low-level obsessed, and over the years have tried my hand at kuchen, chelseas, iced buns, brioche, bun cake, various Scandi versions of kanelsnegle – I went to Denmark purely to marvel over the miracle that is baked dough with butter, spice and sugar. I wouldn’t say that I am a brilliant baker, far from it, but I surely get points for loyalty.

I have concluded that the cinnamon bun can’t really be made from a recipe; so much is about the feel of the dough, that velveteen bouncy quality that you know when you touch it but can’t explain. Having been to Denmark, I would say that my cinnamon buns are not the ‘real thing’ – there they came covered with cream cheese icing, which I can’t quite fathom. Actually I never glaze my buns anymore, but do sprinkle them with sugar pearls that I managed to track down at Ocado. The Danes would never add fruit, which I do sometimes, as I enjoy the adding squishiness of blueberries or apple. But I bake not because I want to be ‘proper’, but because I want to feed my family good food. So here is my current favourite recipe, an amalgam of many magazine cut-outs, splattered cook books and 20 years of trying. No picture I’m afraid, as they never last long enough to be photographed.

Cinnamon Buns – my current perfect recipe

For the buns:
250g spelt flour
250g strong white flour
40g caster sugar
2tsp ground cardamom
14g dried yeast (I use Dove’s Farm)
5g salt
270g whole milk
50g unsalted butter
1 egg

For the filling:
180g unsalted butter
70g caster sugar
70g soft light brown sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
Handful fruit, e.g. chopped apple, blueberries, sultanas (optional)
white sugar pearl crystals, for sprinkling

First make the dough. Melt the butter into the milk – I use the microwave – then leave to cool slightly. If you dip your finger into the mixture it should feel neither hot nor cold, just wet. Place the salt, flours, sugar, cardamom and yeast in a big bowl, in that order – this keeps the salt and yeast separate. Use a bread scraper to mix it all together. Crack the egg and whisk into the milk, then pour the lot onto the flour mixture and, using your scraper, mix to a sticky mass. Turn it out onto the work surface and knead for a good five minutes, probably more. It needs to be smoothy and springy, like a baby’s bottom. Spelt flour is low gluten so this won’t become as stretchy as normal bread flour, however a good long knead is essential to a good finished bun, so don’t be lazy. Shape the dough into a ball then pop back into the bowl to prove, covering it with a tea towel. It will need at least an hour, possibly two, to prove.

Meanwhile make the filling – mix the butter, sugar and cinnamon together in a bowl until smooth. If you need to zap the butter in the microwave to get it soft, so be it.

Next, prepare the baking tray: I use a roasting tray which I line first with foil and then with baking paper. You could also cook your buns in muffin cases, which is more traditional.

When the dough is ready – a finger pressed into it will leave a lasting dent, plus it looks good and puffy – gently tip it out onto a very lightly floured work surface. Use your fingers to ease it into a rectangle, then roll out properly with a rolling pin. I make mine about 45cm x 35cm but it would never occur to me to measure it, it just looks ‘right’. Spread the butter mixture evenly over the dough, going all the way to the edges, then sprinkle on any fruit if you’re using it.

Now roll it up, starting with the long side furthest away from you. Try to keep it tight and even, then roll the whole thing back and forth a few times so it comes together in a neat swiss roll shape. Use a sharp knife (e.g. a bread knife) to slice into rounds: the size is up to you, but I usually get between 11-13 buns from my dough. (I intentionally make them slightly different sizes as Harry has different bun needs to myself and Matt. This is unorthodox, but is proper family cooking.)

Place the buns cut-side-up on the baking tray, leaving a few centimetres between each bun to allow room for spreading. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise again, this time for about 30 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 200c.

When the buns are puffy and yearning to be baked, sprinkle white sugar crystals over them. Place them in the middle or bottom of the oven for an initial ten minutes. Open the door, turn them around (for a more even bake), turn the oven down to 180c, then bake for another 15-20 minutes, depending how crunchy you like them.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Vietnamese duck braised in orange juice, served with jasmine rice, bok choi stir-fried with garlic and fish sauce, and a massive bowl of spring rolls and gyoza. Crabs and prawns from the Rag market. Accidentally spent £50 on noodles, the spring rolls & gyoza, rice paper rapers and so on at Wing Yip supermarket, which was massive fun.

Reading: Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, after a gap of about 10 years, and reminding myself of my yoga life before Harry.

Anna Del Conte’s Crostata

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

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

Matt’s sucking up present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seville orange cake

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

Mrs Roy’s vegetarian lunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seville orange cake

Also this week:

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

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

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

Quince and apple crumble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also this week:

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

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

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

Pear and honey tea bread

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

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

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

Mystery squash turned into a handsome massive pumpkin

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

Low autumnal light at Baggeridge Country Park

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

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

Pear and honey tea bread

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

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

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

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

Plum torte

Despite the fact that this weekend was the hottest August bank holiday on record, I’m sticking my neck out to say that it’s not summer anymore. This afternoon on the allotment – although it was still warm – the sun was low enough in the sky to cast softened light and the air had the voluptuousness to it that comes as we teeter into autumn. Leaves look slightly tired; sunflowers set seed. Apples ripen. Without fail at this time of year I wonder what happened to my summer (answer, I am usually working flat out all through it) and whilst that’s true enough this year, we have tried our best to seize the season. This Sunday even saw a barbecue (Morroccan lamb shoulder with griddled courgettes, tabbouleh, tzatziki and flatbreads from the halal shop).

Produce is showing the shift in season. My allotment is at least a month behind my mother’s veg patch, so we’re only now getting going with the runner beans and the bulk of the cut flowers. My folks keep us going with baskets of green peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and sweetcorn. In the farm shops, the first apples are in and there are boxes of greengages, plums and damsons to be had.

Season’s change at Clives: crates of early apples plus damsons and plums

The white dahlias are phenomenal this year

I’m particularly pleased with today’s cut flower pickings – the orange chrysanthemums provide a great foil to the golden sunflower and dahlia, picked out with purple verbena bonariensis, achillea and cosmos. The little pincushion-headed flower is a self-seeded weed that I consider pretty-enough to make it to the vase.

The pinks of June and July have given way to fiery yellows, purples and oranges

What has slipped a bit is the cooking. In the hot weather we eat a lot of salads (interesting ones, obvs) plus Matt’s been cooking loads more lately whilst I’ve had my head buried in a laptop. And although he’s a great cook, one thing I definitely beat him at is the time-honoured (female) skill of opening the fridge door, seeing what needs eating, then doing something with it. Like my japple pudding – the ends of a jam pot covered with sponge then topped with sliced apples that were on the wrinkly side.

Japple pudding: jam topped with sponge topped with sliced apple

This plum torte comes from a similar need. I had a load of black plums from Aldi that were on the edge of going over, plus some nectarines, and I wanted to make a pudding. The Tuscan Plum Torte recipe in Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook provided a base recipe – instead of just plums I added in the nectarines, and also a bit of lemon for a citrus edge. The Italians have a fine tradition of cake that isn’t too rich but is actually more biscuity-bread like, and often eaten for breakfast. This one is easy enough, just go easy on the caramel – I took mine too dark and it made for a sponge that tasted of treacle rather than syrup.

First, simply whizz together self-raising flour, unsalted butter, caster sugar, zest of 1 lemon and a squeeze of juice in the food processor until well combined. Add in 3 eggs, one at a time, and whizz until smooth.

Whizz butter, flour, sugar, eggs and lemon in the food processor

Meanwhile, in the pan that you plan to bake your torte in, melt together sugar and water until completely dissolved, then simmer until you have a pale caramel (I took this too dark for my taste).

Melt sugar with water to make a light caramel (this is slightly too dark)

Add in sliced plums, nectarines or peaches. When you do this the caramel will bubble alarmingly and go several shades darker, be warned. Although mine looks burnt it actually isn’t, but the flavour was slightly too far on the treacly-side for my liking.

Add in plums and nectarines; be aware that your caramel will turn several shades darker when you do this

Then smooth the batter on top of the fruit, and bake for about 45 minutes until risen. Leave to stand for a few minutes before turning out and be warned – caramel is HOT HOT HOT. Nice on its own, with cream or plain ice cream.

After baking, turn the torte out onto a large plate. This isn’t burnt I promise; I simply used black plums!

Tuscan Plum Torte
Adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

For the caramel:
275g granulated sugar
150ml water

For the topping:
Up to 900g stone fruit – plums, nectarines, peaches
175g caster sugar
150g unsalted butter, softened
200g self-raising flour
3 eggs
Zest and juice from 1 lemon

Pre-heat the oven to 170c and have ready a 25cm sauté pan that is oven-proof.

Whizz together the caster sugar, butter, flour, lemon zest and juice in a food processor until combined. Add in the eggs one at a time and whizz until smooth.

For the caramel, melt together the sugar and water in your sauté pan until totally dissolved. Bring to a simmer and cook until a pale caramel is achieve. Meanwhile stone and slice your fruit.

Place the sliced fruit onto the caramel – it will bubble and turn several shades darker, so be careful that you don’t burn yourself. Spread the batter on top of the caramel and smooth to the edges. Bake for about 45 minutes until risen and cooked through. Leave to stand in the pan for 5 minutes before turning out.

Also this week:

Harvesting: First runner and climbing beans, courgettes, first raspberries, last blueberries, chard, spinach beet, courgette, chrysanthemums, dahlia, sunflower, cosmos, achillea, verbena bonariensis, strawflower. Hops have set flower.

Cooking and eating: Japple pudding, only barbecue of the summer (lamb shoulder), a lot of home-made curry. First purchase of a half-case of wine since before pregnancy.

Out and About: Chatsworth; Cotswold Farm Park; Matt’s building the shed.

Southern red beans with ham

It’s still touch and go on the allotment. The brassicas and perennials are doing just fine, but the cut flower annuals are the worst they’ve ever been. Even the sunflowers seem stunted. I am uncertain what the problem is….perhaps the evenings have been too chill, perhaps the weather too dry, perhaps the seedlings were too weak to be planted out. I don’t feel that I’ve done anything differently from previous years though…it’s a mystery.

Most of the cut flowers are far from thriving

In the meantime, I’ve been working on my cinnamon bun recipe. I am sure posts with follow, but with The Nordic Baking Book by my side, and inspired by those amazing Copenhagen bakeries, this was last weekend’s efforts.

Been experimenting with my cinnamon bun recipe

I have got into the habit of keeping a stash of cinnamon buns in the freezer for emergency breakfasts / snacks / comfort. And speaking of freezer food, this Red beans and ham dish is a new addition to the bulk cooking repertoire. The recipe comes from Jamie Oliver’s American cookbook, inspired by the frugal cuisine of Louisiana and the Southern states. Frugal it may be, and simple, and nutritious (all those beans…) but the most important thing is that it’s incredibly delicious. If you think that you don’t like kidney beans, try this and have your perspective changed.

The first thing to do is get hold of a hefty piece (around 2kg) of smoked gammon or a ham hock. The hock will shred more easily plus you’ll get all the bonus flavour from the bone in your stew, but a piece of gammon is easier to find. Either way, it really must be smoked. Then the day before you wish to cook, soak 500g dried kidney beans in fresh water for several hours.

When you’re ready to cook, plonk your hock or gammon in a large stock pot, cover with fresh cold water, bring to a simmer, then drain the water away completely. This helps remove excess salt from the meat. Replace the meat to the pot with the soaked beans2 tins of tomatoes, 4 sticks of diced celery, 2 diced onions, 1 bulb of garlic with its neck sliced off to reveal the flesh within, 1 tablespoon dried oregano, a few bay leaves, a few sprigs of fresh thyme, 1 tablespoon sweet paprika, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne for a subtle kick and a good grind of black pepper. No salt, due to the saltiness of the pork. Top it up with about 1 litre water, so the meat is covered.

Place on the hob and bring to a fast simmer for 5 minutes, then leave to putter on a low heat (lid on) for about two hours, until the beans are soft. Give it a prod every now and then, topping up with water if it looks dry.

Simmer ham and beans with tomato, stock veg and spices for a few hours

Once the beans are cooked, remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly. Fish out the garlic skin and any herb stalks that you find. The meat needs shredding so remove the hock or gammon from the pot, remove the bone and any excess skin and fat, then shred into large chunks and set aside whilst you finish the beans.

Place a few ladles of beans into a bowl and use a potato masher to break them down. This makes a thick, creamy mixture that will help to thicken the beans. Replace to the pot with the ham and give it all a good mix; If the beans are too watery, cook with the lid off for a few minutes to reduce. Season to taste – a little cider vinegar may be just the trick.

Serve with rice, a dollop of sour cream and something fresh and crunchy – lightly dressed salad leaves or a chopped guacamole. This recipe makes 8 generous portions so it’s great for a crowd, but any leftovers will freeze excellently.

A few hours later, pull the pork into the spicy red beans for a frugal but incredibly delicious dinner

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Cinnamon rolls; Matt’s beignets with cinnamon and chocolate sauce; cream tea at Emma Bridgewater in Stoke.

Harvesting: Sweet William, foxgloves, cow parsley, first homegrown salad leaves.

In praise of horta

As we edge towards midsummer there is a general lightness, in all senses. Light mornings and light evenings. Lighter food. Light, frothy flowers in the back garden. A lightness of spirit (longer, warmer days translate to having more energy, for me anyway). It’s my absolute favourite time of the year, with days filled with discovery and adventure.

The border in our back garden is coming into fullness. This is only its second season – and it’s still rife with gaps and errors – but I love watching for daily micro changes as the roses bloom, delphinium hover on the edge of flowering and foxgloves provide food for hungry bees. The allotment, as usual, is a mixture of disaster and fecundity: the climbing beans have been all but destroyed by the birds, and the cut flower annuals are as tiny now as when they were planted a month ago. The perennials, on the other hand, are thriving, with Sweet William the latest arrival to the June cutting party.

Roses on the edge of bloom

All the flower annuals are now planted out, though most are stumpy and far from thriving

Sweet William now in flower

I added a few stems of wild, self-sown cow parsley and foxgloves to today’s cut flower harvest of allium, sweet rocket, persicaria, flowering sage and the Sweet William; I’m particularly pleased with this pink, purple and pale cream arrangement.

June pickings: allium, sweet william, sweet rocket, foxgloves, flowering sage and cow parsley

Same arrangement in the vase

When it comes to home-grown veg, it’s still a sparse time of year, and it will remain so for ages, given the stumpiness of my seedlings. And this is where the joy of GREENS comes in. I don’t mean the massive, leafy cabbages or lettuces that we’ll get in a few weeks time, but rather the small, palm-sized leaves that thrive in early summer. There is a tradition in parts of the Mediterranean to collect wild greens – called horta – which are then eaten raw, or very slightly cooked, to supplement the lean, home-grown diet. In warmer climates this can go on year round, but here in England we only really start to see lush green growth in late April. Patience Gray discussed horta in great detail in Honey from a Weed, and makes wild claims that a plateful of herbs has an ‘oiliness’ to it that can keep the eater going for hours. Whilst that may be disputable, there is an undeniable vigour to freshly picked young greens that can not be replicated by any supermarket packet.

I do not collect wild greens (though I could – the allotment is FULL of nettles, and they would be grand) but I do look forward to this time of year, when the fridge has a constantly re-filled bag of fresh greens in it. Currently on the go is cima di rapa, which I grew in the veg trug from a sowing about 6 weeks ago, rocket from the allotment, and young spinach, radish tops and beetroot tops that I thieved from mum’s vegetable garden (her pickings always come a month earlier than mine).

Cima di rapa

All these young, gentle greens need is a quick wash, then to be wilted in a hot pan with a lick of butter or olive oil, perhaps a few thin slivers of garlic or chili, and a bit of salt. They take mere seconds to cook. Have them as an accompaniment to something else or – my preference – turn them into the star of the show. Horta on toast with a poached egg is my June brunch of choice, and orecchiette with cima di rapa and fennel sausage is a classic for a reason.

Saute the greens and serve on toast with an egg

Horta need no recipe or any grand instruction. They are the essence of what it means to grow, and cook, your own food. In this age where we are so deeply indoctrinated into supermarket food culture, I find that a plateful of simple greens can root me back to the peasant tradition – born of necessity of course, but none the worse for that – of eating what nature provides, when she provides it.

 

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Planted out chrysanthemums, marigolds, chard, spinach and bulls blood. Netted the blueberries. Grass is growing at a distressing rate. Annuals are not doing so well – it is so dry – and climbing beans have been eaten by the pigeon. Broad beans have set. Back garden nearing its peak, with roses, foxgloves and delphinium.

Harvesting: Sweet William, last Sweet Rocket, alliums, cow parsley, persicaria, flowering sage, foxgloves. Rocket, spinach, broad beans (from Mum’s garden), chives, oregano, mint.

Cooking & eating: Chicken in white wine with tarragon from garden; gateau with strawberries and raspberries; Lincolnshire plum bread from work visit to Grantham.

Christianshavn Pie (Danish strawberry cream cake)

Warning: This post contains images of extreme baking

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorgeous avenue of light and shade, King’s Garden

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

Florists were all a lesson in abundance

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

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

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

Danish pastry selection 1….

…and more….

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

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

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

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

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

Special mention also to the ‘tree log’ cakes…

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

…to this rhubarb-and-custard filled pastry…

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

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

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

A mere selection of gateax AT THE AIRPORT!

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

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

Christianshavn Pie (Danish strawberry cream cake)

Makes 1 cake. Recipe adapted from baketotheroots.de

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

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

To finish:
Strawberries
Icing sugar
2 tbsp strawberry jam

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also this week:

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

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

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

5 hour Easter lamb

Easter is my favourite of all the bank holidays. There’s none of the excesses of Christmas, the food is great, it’s often a time for a genuine holiday (rather than running around stressed from one family engagement to another) and there’s a sense of optimism in the spring air. What a humdinger of an Easter we’ve just had, with shorts and ice creams being the order of the day.

This year’s geometric Easter cake

I spent a happy half hour on Easter Sunday drawing up this year’s allotment plan. The idea is to separate the two main beds into vegetables and cut flowers, and then attempt to block plant in each, partly for ease of harvest but mostly because I think it will look great. In reality I may have to shift this plan around – there may be just too many plants for either side to contain.

The low-fi allotment plan for 2019. Separate plots for vegetables and cut flowers, with plenty of blocks.

Yesterday was a full day of allotmenting, the first for months and months. And actually, the first with Matt for probably around a year. He got to work raising the hopolisk whilst I removed the black plastic that has been covering our two main beds and tackled the tufts of couch grass that are at constant threat of taking over entirely. Perhaps optimistically, I also sowed a line of parsnip and carrot, knowing that direct sowing rarely works well on our plot…but this year I have a feeling that they’ll come good.

Sowing parsnips next to the sweet rocket and broad beans

Matt has laid plastic near the brook in an attempt to curtail the spread of wilderness as it reaches peak summer growth

The hopolisk is risen, as are the bean sticks.

Removing grass is hard, hard work. Since having Harry I’ve noticed that my general fitness has grown poorer and on the allotment I realised why: full days like these, lugging around trugs of turf and crouching in currant bushes, are the best way to stay strong and flexible and yet I rarely get the chance these days.

But back to Easter food. If it’s Easter then lamb is probably on the menu (as well as chocolate cake adorned with mini eggs, obviously), but – to be controversial – I think that the traditional English roast doesn’t quite hit the spot. What I want is lamb that’s been cooked for so long that it is shreddably tender, full of flavour, and with some chewy gnarly caramelised ends. In the summer I might cook a boned leg of lamb in the kettle barbecue for an hour or two, but this Easter I went for a Middle Eastern-inspired half shoulder, rubbed with spices and then baked – fully encased in foil – for 5 hours. It was sensational. No photos I’m afraid, but here’s the recipe:

5 hour Easter lamb

The day before you wish to eat, take a half shoulder (or a full shoulder if feeding a crowd) of lamb and trim any excess fat. Leave the bone in for good flavour. Place in a bowl with three or four big bashed cloves of garlic, a good pinch of cumin seeds and dried chilli flakes, about a tablespoon of sweet smoked paprika and the same of ras al hanout (I used the blend brought back from Morocco a few weeks back by Claire Fudge). Salt and pepper generously, add a splash of oil and really massage the flavourings into the meat. Cover, and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight.

The following day, preheat the oven to 140c. Place a large sheet of foil in a roasting pan, put your lamb and the marinade on top and squeeze over the juice of one orange. Cover with more foil and bring the edges together to make a tight seal. Place in the oven and leave to putter away for 4 to 5 hours, checking every hour that it’s not drying out – if it is, and this is a vital step, add a splash of water from the kettle to your foil parcel, then re-seal. (The foil is important unless you want to spend hours with a scouring pad.)

As it cooks, the lamb will become more and more tender, and the edges and juices will become more and more caramelised. When the lamb is meltingly tender, remove from the oven and increase the heat to 200c. Remove the top layer of foil and siphon off any juices – if they’ve overly caramelised then you can start again by moving the lamb to a fresh foil base. Blast the meat for another 20 minutes until the top is caramelised and crisp.

To serve, shred the meat into large chunks. We enjoyed ours with tahdig from Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food, a glorious way of cooking rice that makes it as buttery as popcorn, plus a mezze of broad beans, garlic, mint, dill and yoghurt; another of cucumber, onion and yoghurt; chopped tomatoes and masses of new season asparagus.

For leftovers, Matt made Persian burritos. Take a tortilla, then stuff with leftover tahdig rice, refried crispy lamb, yoghurty cucumber and a spot of cheese. Serve with sweet potato chip and salad. Glorious.

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Sowed leeks and carrots. Removed black plastic from the main beds and placed some over the back wilderness. Heavy weeding of the edges of the main beds and around the currants. Raising of the hopolisk. Building of bean sticks. Matt has started to dig a hole for the foundations of a new shed and is muttering about re-building the greenhouse.

Cooking and eating: 5 hour lamb, tahdig, broad bean and yoghurt mezze, Persian burritos, thousands of chocolate crispy cakes, never-ending Easter chocolate cake, Mum’s salmon with tarragon sauce and asparagus, Mum’s cheesecake, baked chicken with lemon and honey at the farm with the university gang, salad of avocado, edamame and tender stem broccoli at Arco Lounge that was surprisingly good. Harry had his first Calippo (except he didn’t as it was a fake Aldi version) and enjoyed it immensely.

Reading: Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman.