Sun shining, a day out to the nearest edge of the Cotswolds for a first posh lunch out as a trio since 2019, then an ice cream in the shadow of Broadway Tower. Cow parsley, buttercups, long long grass, hawthorn blossom and stinging nettles.
Back home, the foxgloves are in flower, majestic spikes of pink, peach and white, marked with spots of purple and orange. Foxgloves are absolutely in my top 5 flowers – so architectural and plain weird – and even better, these all self-sowed so cost not a penny. Here I’ve placed them with alliums and sweet william for an interesting mix of height and form.
I made a big batch of chocolate gelato at the weekend, overcome by the hot weather. It was good – very good – but even better are these chocolate almond macaroons that use up the left-over egg whites. They’re now my go-to recipe whenever we have egg whites hanging around, say after a carbonara or custard, and – unlike meringues, which never get eaten – they’re a firm favourite for both pre-schoolers and early-middle-agers. I found the recipe from a blog about living in a vicarage, so this is recipe is also known as Church Biscuit No.70.
Preheat the oven to 180c and line a baking sheet with parchment. Sift the almonds, cocoa and icing sugar into a bowl and using a wooden spoon, mix in the unbeaten egg whites to a firm dough. Simple.
With wet hands, roll out walnut-size balls of mixture and place on the baking sheet, flattening each one slightly as you go. Bake for 11-15 minutes, until dry on top and slightly cracked. You want to keep a certain squishiness in the middle. Cool before serving.
These last several days in the tin and are good on their own or as an accompaniment to ice-cream.
Also this week: Harvesting: sweet william, foxgloves, last of the spring rocket, last of the chervil. Allotment and garden: Watering twice a week (it’s not enough, no rain for two weeks now) but the veg are still small despite the warm weather. Admiring the roses, now at their peak. Delphiniums just coming out whilst the aquilegia go over. Eating and cooking: Lunch at The Fish of asparagus with brown shrimp followed by Fowey mussels. Rhubarb ice cream at Broadway Tower. Cost a fortune but a joy to be out at last. Made chocolate gelato from the Rick Stein Venice to Istanbul book. Eating more Greek salads than most Greeks at present. Also: Reading Under a Mackerel Sky, Rick Stein’s memoir.
The sun has re-emerged and out we come, like worker bees. In the past week, overtaken by this new solar energy, I have forked over half the vegetable and flower beds, whilst Matt has hacked away at the brambles in the wilderness. The thick manure mulch that I put down back in November has hardened into a sepia-toned cake, flecked with straw, but once the fork goes in the soil beneath is light, open and moist. I am pleased by the investment of both effort and cash. As we work we are accompanied by a symphony of bird song.
It’s slim pickings now, of course, and will be for several more weeks. Had I been more organised I could have been picking tulips and sweet fennel at this time; as it is, I have only just got around to planting out the biennial honesty and sweet fennel that I sowed last spring. Last year’s sweet william are showing no sign of flower; for some reason, biennials behave like triennials in this ground – they take two years to get established and then in year three, we are overtaken by blooms. And speaking of biennials – I am leaving a few parsnips in the ground this year, to see what their flower looks like; as part of the carrot family I have high hopes for a whooper umbellifer.
I come home with dry hands, grubby nails and a head full of plans. The planting map from a few weeks back has been revised, drawn pedantically to scale by Matt using Google maps as a guide. As ever, I am wondering how I will fit it all in – but we will, as we always do.
The sudden warmth has transformed our kitchen. Asparagus is on the table a few times a week; there’s the salt-kick of anchovy and olive against the sweet onion of a pissaladiere; proper burgers and pink wine. I’m also thinking about ice cream. Is it too early in the year? Not a bit of it.
This recipe for chocolate mint semi-freddo comes from Rachel Roddy’s wonderful book Two Kitchens, which my friend Annette raved about until I felt duty bound to get a copy of my own. Ordinarily I would be excessively snobby about mint ice cream but this has been a revelation; using really good fresh mint is the key. What you get is a bar of frozen mint cream, chocolate and air: predictably enough, we have come to call this Fake Vienetta, which both over- and under-plays its worth.
Even if you don’t like mint make this anyway, because the semi-freddo base is sensational; just leave out the herbs and flavour with citrus zest, or vanilla, or you could leave the mixture plain but stir in chopped nougat before freezing. It can be served straight from the freezer and manages to be rich, light and creamy at the same time.
This makes a massive bar of semi-freddo, enough to fill a 1kg loaf tin; you could halve the recipe to make it more manageable.
Chocolate-mint semi-freddo From Two Kitchens by Rachel Roddy
The night before, warm up 500ml double cream with five stems of fresh mint, then transfer the lot to the fridge to steep overnight.
The next day, chop 60g good dark chocolate into a rubble along with a few extra leaves of mint.
Now gather three bowls and an electric whisk.
Separate 4 large eggs, yolks into one bowl and whites into another.
Whisk the egg whites until thick. (If you whisk the whites first you don’t need to wash your beaters as you go along, but work quickly so there’s no risk of egg white collapse).
Strain the flavouredcream into a bowl, remove and discard the herbs. Whisk until thickened.
Add 100g caster sugar to theyolks then whisk until pale and thick – the ribbon stage.
Fold the cream into the egg yolk mixture gently but firmly, then fold in the egg whites – it’s best to do this in two or three stages. Lastly, fold in the chocolate and chopped mint.
Line a large (1kg) loaf tin with cling film, ensuring that plenty is left to hang over the sides. Gently tip the semi-freddo into the tin, then fold the clingfilm one the top so that it is entirely covered. Freeze for a good 12 hours until firm.
To serve, slice straight from the freezer. No other accompaniment needed.
Also this week: Sowing and allotment: More broad beans, more peas, sunflowers, and I’ll start the climbing and dwarf beans in the next few days. Direct sowed carrots, parsnips and dill on allotment, and carrots and lettuce at home. Also planting up pots for summer. Dug over much of the flower and veg patches. Planted out broad beans and peas. The first lot of broad beans that we direct sowed a month ago have not come up. Cooking and eating: Asparagus. Proper burgers. Pissaladiere. Rock cakes and banana flapjack – nursery food, which of course Harry completely rejects. Joy of joy – rose wine!
When the world shut down, a year ago this week, I remember going into a retreat of my own making. Home and garden became a sanctuary; I avoided news and social media in an act of self-preservation and focused instead on sowing seeds, being with my family, finding stillness and contentment in the unfolding wonder of spring. Twelve months on I find myself having to do the same thing. Recent events are so deeply distressing, I feel raw. And angry. So do many of my friends.
I do what I can to have a positive impact on the world, both in my professional work and my personal life (for goodness sakes I have even been moved to join the Women’s Equality Party this week), but sometimes it can feel immovable. So this poem, by the writer and thinker L. R. Knost, feels appropriate:
Do not be hardened by the pain and cruelty of this world Be strong enough to be gentle To be soft and supple like running water Gracefully bending around sudden turns Lithely waving in strong winds Freely flowing over sharp rocks All the while quietly sculpting this hard world Into ever deeper beauty Gently eroding ridged rock into silken sound Tenderly transforming human cruelty into human kindness Remember true strength is found not in the stone But in the water that shapes the stone
Meanwhile there is slow progress with the seeds. The sweet peas and broad beans are shoving up their lime green shoots, and I have started sowing the hardy annuals – cornflower, toadflax, honeywort – and a few bush-type tomatoes for the veg trug. It’s all slow and steady, which suits the current mood. I am told by friends in Worcestershire that the blossom there is not only out but almost going over, whilst here, an hour north, the trees are bare. We still wait for daffodils in shady areas. A late spring can feel both a hindrance and a blessing – for although the long winter is hard, when the warmth finally arrives, its presence is doubly appreciated. I distract myself with line drawings of this year’s allotment plan, good intentions of blocks and rows that will inevitably become a jumble when we actually come to plant in May.
Onto buns. I was going to write that Lockdown has seen our household become mad about buns but actually, I don’t think the pandemic has anything to do with it….yeasted dough has been a slight obsession since youth. Every few weeks I will make a batch of something or other, Harry and I will snaffle a few, then the rest get bagged in the freezer ready for another day. Once frozen, individual buns can be put straight into our rickety counter-top oven at 150c for a few minutes until they are hot and crisp. Cinnamon buns are my usual, but they can also be simple round fruited buns, Scandi-type twists, apple buns…really I am not fussy.
I first attempted Chelsea buns years ago, only to experience crashing disappointment when they emerged from the oven as solid as rocks. This time around, encouraged by the wonderful fellow bun-obsessive writer Regula Ysewijn, I have success. But there are things to mention.
First, over the years I have realised that the judging criteria of a home-made bun has to be different from the shop bought ones: mine will inevitably be wonkier, stickier and probably a bit heavier (no steam injection ovens in these parts). No matter.
Second, I use the Bertinet method of mixing, working and proving dough. It’s not my place to repeat it all here, but you can look it up at www.thebertinetkitchen.com. In short, the dough begins far wetter than you think it should be. Work it by hand in the right way, and the mess miraculously transforms into dough as pert as a baby’s bottom. I suppose you could use a mixer, but I don’t have one, and in any case I actively enjoy the tactile squelchiness of getting my fingers into dough. Remember to remove any nail varnish first, though, as it will inevitably be ripped off by the dough, which is stickier than a swamp to begin with.
Thirdly, Chelsea buns should never (in my view) be messed about with. There has been a tradition of making Chelsea buns in this country since at least 1711, and as such this is no place for yuzu or chocolate or chilli any of that kind of thing. I want a classic Chelsea of the kind that I sold in Cooks Bakery in the 1990s: they should be square, tightly coiled, studded with more fruit than is perhaps wise, crunchy on top and soft beneath. The trick is to roll the dough as thinly as you can manage, and to ensure the filling is very soft before attempting to spread it on your dough. Finally, be sure to use the correct size tin so that the buns squash together as they rise.
Chelsea buns Adapted from Oats in the North Wheat from the South by Regula Ysewijn
Makes 12 buns, using a 39x27cm tin
For the buns: 500g strong white flour 5g fine salt 15g dried yeast 60g caster sugar 300ml milk 70g unsalted butter 1 egg
For the filling: 225g unsalted butter, very soft 145g caster sugar 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon 175g currants or raisins
For the sugar syrup: 30g granulated sugar 3 tbsp water caster sugar, for sprinkling
For the buns, gently warm the butter with the milk until it is melted. Cool a little – it should feel simply wet when you touch it, not hot or cold. Place the salt in the bottom of a large bowl, then put the flour and sugar on top, then yeast in last. Stir to combine using a plastic scraper. Whisk the egg into the milk, add to the flour, then combine using your scraper to a sticky mess. Tip the lot onto a work surface, then work with your hands until it comes together into a springy, worked dough – about 5 to 10 minutes. Do not add extra flour. This video explains the Bertinet technique of working dough. When it is ready, put the dough back into a bowl, cover with a tea towel, then leave to prove in a warm place for at least one hour, until puffed and roughly doubled in size.
In the meantime, prepare the filling by mixing together the butter, sugar and cinnamon until it is very soft and whipped.
When the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 200c and line a roasting tray or baking tin with greaseproof paper.
When the dough is ready, lightly flour your work surface. Gently encourage the dough out of its bowl, and ease it out onto the surface using your finger tips. Do not punch it; treat it firmly but gently. Roll out the dough to a rectangle that is about 2mm thick – basically, as thin as possible. It should be facing you horizontally, with the long edge facing you.
Smear the top half of the dough with a third of the filling, then fold the bottom half over the filling. Roll it again to flatten it out.
Smear the remaining filling over the dough, dot with the dried fruit, then roll up lengthways to make a long roll. Ease and firm it together with your hands so that it is roughly the same size all the way along.
Cut evenly into 12 slices, then place cut-size up in your tray. There should be a small space between each bun. Leave to prove for another 15 minutes or so.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown and fully cooked through.
Whilst the buns are baking, make a syrup by gently melting the sugar into the water then bubbling until this and sticky (do not stir else it will crystallise). When the buns are cooked, immediately brush with the syrup and sprinkle lightly with caster sugar.
Cool before eating. Best eaten on the day they are made, so freeze any leftovers then reheat in a warm oven before eating.
Also this week: Sowing: Starting the hardy annuals, so toadflax, honeywort, cerinthe, cornflowers, plus tomatoes. Harvesting, cooking and eating: Last of the cavolo nero and pentland brig kale, salads from the veg trug. Cooking Viennese fingers; Italian sausage rolls spiked with chilli, fennel and oregano; egg fried rice with fat prawns bought in bulk from the Chinese supermarket.
Week four of Lockdown 3 brought snow, sleet and several sleepless nights, a rich mix of gloom if ever there was one. Though I have to admit that the garden, frosted with ice, is a thing of beauty.
By the weekend I even succumbed to some classic kids’ cookery, made purely for my own enjoyment – I have never used mini eggs this early in the year before, but currently we have to do whatever gets us through the day.
But then, on Saturday, Harry slept through the night again – and then he did it again – and slowly I begin to feel less like a husk and more like a real, thinking, living, person. Not fully replete with vim but with life enough to think about baking something beige. And so I come to Regula Ysewijn‘s latest book, Oats in the North, Wheat from the South: A History of British Baking. It is, as the name suggests, a love letter to the great baking traditions of Britain, singing the joys of iced buns, lardy cake and simple plain toast.
I have written about Regula before and I have to state up front that a) she’s a wonder, b) I am deeply jealous (she gets paid to write about buns!) and c) I often think we could be good friends. This is a woman who waxes lyrical about giant pies from Yorkshire, who is deadly serious about the Kentish Huffkin and who insists that Chelsea buns should only ever be square (quite right). An Anglophile Belgian, she has a romantic view of our baking tradition that is fun for the Brit to read: as she rightly points out, our baking may be simple, but we are one of the few European nations to have a tradition of making cakes, buns and biscuits in our own kitchens, with our own hands; in France they wouldn’t dream of making their own patisserie, but buy it instead.
I was also pleased to see this statement at the start of her beautiful book and it makes me wonder why author’s notes like this are not more common?
Whilst I do intend to have a go at the aforementioned lardy cakes, in my fragile state I thought it best to start with something quick. Regula has a double page spread devoted to Brighton Rock Cakes and their brother, the Fat Rascal. On close examination the recipes are precisely the same except that Rock Cakes are dusted with sugar and perhaps a cherry or two, and Fat Rascals given an egg wash.
Now, I used to live on Rock Cakes as a teenager, as I considered them the only thing in the school canteen worth the calories. The Fat Rascal, however, whilst I have heard of them, was never something that we ate. According to Regula they are an old Yorkshire tradition, but in recent years the famous Betty’s Tea Room in Harrogate have taken out a trademark which prevents other businesses from selling them. (Point of note: this is clearly outrageous and I struggle to believe that it is even legal. Would the Italians only allow one company to make spaghetti?!)
I then enquired my Professionally Yorkshire friend Helen to ask she knows anything about Fat Rascals and she replied in the negative, but does remember that Rock Buns (note – buns not cakes – this is Yorkshire afterall) were a regular event in her house. She duly WhatsApped me her Mum’s hand-written recipe, which calls for marg and mixed fruit. Helen’s Grandad Stokes was a baker and he didn’t sell Fat Rascals or Rock Cakes/Buns and now that I reflect on it, we didn’t have them at Cooks Bakery in Upton On Severn either. Perhaps they are home-cooking in the truest sense of the word.
Regula’s recipe for Rock Cakes uses plain flour rather than self-raising, and currants rather than mixed fruit. This is probably true to the oldest recipes; I think that sometime during the 1970s supermarkets began to sell bags of mixed fruit and that become the housewife’s choice, rather than individual packets of raisins, currants and the rest. My mum certainly never dreamed of having anything other than mixed fruit in her baking cupboard. Regula also adds a touch of mixed spice, which is new to me for this kind of simple bake, but a nice touch.
It occurs to me now that the Rock Cake is akin to the American scone, for they add eggs to their scone mix and sometimes also cream, making for a more cakey texture. I presume the early settlers took their recipes with them – but more research is needed. The movement of food cultures around the globe will never cease to be fascinating.
Rock Cakes An amalgamation of Regula’s recipe, Mrs Annett’s recipe, and my own instinct. Makes 6.
225g self raising flour 100g caster sugar 1 tsp mixed spice pinch of fine sea salt 75g unsalted butter, cold, diced 1 egg up to 3 tbsp full fat milk 50g raisins or currants pearl sugar, for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 200c. Line a tray with baking parchment.
Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and spice in a bowl. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs – you can use a food processor for this but I always use fingers to save on the washing up.
Beat the egg with 1 tbsp milk, then tip into the flour mixture. Use a blunt knife or dough scraper to mix the liquid to a loose shaggy dough – add more milk if necessary. Once the dough starts to come together, add the fruit. Very lightly knead then turn onto a floured surface.
Cut into 6 pieces using a knife, then gently ease them into a rounded shape – they don’t need to be perfect. Transfer to the baking tray, brush with milk and sprinkle on a little pearl sugar (or granulated sugar if that’s all you have).
Bake for about 15 minutes, checking after 10 to see that they are baking evenly. They are done with risen, golden and no longer moist on the top. Cool slightly before tucking in – these are best eaten on the day they’re made.
Also this week: Garden: Cut back the front garden hydrangea – it will either never recover, or will come back a monster. The ground has been covered with snow and hard with ice, but now we have gentle rain and a sleepy sun. Eating and cooking: Anything beige due to sleep deprivation and the January blues. These are the days of toast that drips with butter. Chocolate easter nests (in January!). Also making the most of seasonal citrus: Forced rhubarb simmered with orange zest then turned into crumble. Roast chicken flavoured with seville oranges and thyme. Orange jelly. Also: Spotted parakeets in both Warley Woods and Highbury Park. Listening to Lockdown Parenting Hell with Josh Widdecombe and Rob Beckett, for much needed relief.
Well hello! It’s been a month or so since I last blogged, and that time has been spent in a state of winter quietude. The days of Christmas busy-ness and upset plans were followed by a household bout of coronavirus (thankfully mild), and given that the outside world has a tendency to noisiness – that’s a pandemic for you – I have been left with the inescapable need to simply be still. The natural world goes into rest and quiet renewal at this time; I follow this urge.
There are a few things to share from Christmas and New Year, such as this garland which used up the last of the summer 2020 harvest of flowers from allotment and hedgerow. I took bunches of strawflower, hydrangea, hops, cornflower, amaranthus and poppy heads, plus a few twigs of haws and hips, and tied them together with string to make a display approximately 4 feet long. It was by no means perfect – I had to stick in several extra bunches once in situ to cover up the string and fill it out – but I absolutely loved it: crafting of this nature is a physical process, created on the floor, on knees, surrounded by the strong scent of hops, the papery textures of dried petals and dangerous pricking thorns. There was something very fitting about having remnants of summer in the house for the darkest days of the year.
The weather turned cold – there’s been a few flurries of snow in these parts and deep hard frosts, which will be good for the fruit trees who need time below 0c.
Most pleasingly, the seeds for 2021 are here. I got in slightly earlier than normal with my order, mindful of the increased popularity of gardening amidst the pandemic, and I was right to as many things have already sold out. Is there a joy more content or complete than searching seed catalogues for this year’s collection of flowers and vegetables? In many ways it is better than the growing, for one lives entirely within a place of promise and hope, not yet scarred or deterred by failed harvests and slug damage. This year I plan to try a few new varieties, including kohlrabi, flower sprouts, honeywort and toadflax. I’ll report on these in due course.
On to today’s recipe. Harry and I have been reading The Gingerbread Man with alarming regularity (why are kids’ books so dark??) leading to a few baking sessions where we create – you’ve guessed it – gingerbread men. Or I should say gingerbread people, for our cutters are more of an amorphous human-shaped blob rather than gender-specific. We also have a cutter shaped like a moose, which is a personal favourite.
This is the best recipe for gingerbread that I have ever come across, cut out years (and I mean YEARS) ago from a magazine. No matter what a pre-schooler can throw at it, and how many times it is re-rolled, it refuses to get tough. The dough, when first made, is incredibly wet so it does need a few hours in the fridge to firm up before rolling out. You can of course adjust the amount of ginger depending on how spicy you want your biscuits, and there is the option to make them pretty with icing, but we prefer the slapped on approach. Gingerbread softens in the tin, so if you want to retain a bit of ‘bite’ to your biscuit then I’d err on the side of over-baking, not to the point of burnt, obviously, but certainly browned around the edges.
Harry can eat three of these in one sitting.
125g unsalted butter 100g soft brown sugar 4 tablespoons golden syrup 325g plain flour 1/2 teaspoon fine salt 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda 1-2 teaspoons ground ginger (use more or less according to your taste) To decorate: water icing, melted chocolate and sprinkles
Melt together the butter, sugar and syrup, then leave to cool slightly. Mix together the dry ingredients, add the butter mixture, then stir to combine. You will create a very soft dough. Tip onto clingfilm, wrap it firmly then place in the fridge for an hour or two to firm up.
Pre-heat the oven to 170c. Line several baking trays with parchment.
Roll out the dough onto a lightly floured surface, to the thickness of about 1.5cm. Cut out your biscuits and place them on the baking trays – they do spread so keep them several centimetres apart. You’ll probably need to bake in batches.
Bake until golden around the edges. The time depends on the size of your biscuits but my gingerbread men take about 10 minutes, and the large moose biscuits take about 12. Leave to harden on the trays for five minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.
Decorate with water icing, melted chocolate and sprinkles, if liked. These store for several days in a tin.
Also this week (month): Harvesting: Mustard red frills, baby chard and rocket from the veg trug. First daffodils are in the supermarkets – I marvel at their cheapness, it somehow seems not right to be able to buy 8 stems for £1. Eating and cooking: Did very well with the turkey leftovers this year: there was turkey hash, loads of sandwiches, 4 freezer boxes of soup, 2 pies, 3 boxes of chilli and 4 boxes of stock. Also made Jamie Oliver’s Jerk ham which was delicious, though my method needs improving as it does tend to dryness. Buying boxes of clementines and looking for the first seville oranges. Reading:The book you wish your parents had read by Philippa Perry, who I like very much as a human being, but I think that’s enough psychotherapy for now, thank you very much. Also the new British baking book by Regula Ysewijn, which I will talk about at a later date, and a book about Qi Gong.
The Jobs list in December is guaranteed to turn one into the Grinch. There’s all the Christmas stuff; women take on the burden of organising it all, at our own behest, and annually I wonder why on earth do we do this to ourselves? And yet here I am, writing the cards, worrying about table settings and undelivered parcels and what to give the nursery teachers as a thank you gift. Then there’s the house jobs (lockdown with a three year old does not make for an ordered household. We’re in Tier 3 which essentially means No Non-Household Fun Allowed. There’s a lot of TV at present), and the allotment jobs (it still needs covering) and then all the work jobs to get done before the holidays (holidays! Pah!).
So I come to realise that at this time of year I have to make space for small, soul-sustaining things – else martyrdom and a minor breakdown will set in – one of which is manuring the allotment. The sweet joy of shifting a pallet of poo, ripping open bags, forking through the rich brown gold, to create a veg patch as pristine as an untouched canvas in time for winter.
This year’s December door swag is a hastily constructed bouquet of greens and oranges, gathered by my Mum from her garden and then tied together for the door by me. I fully intended to adorn it further with dried hydrangea and strawflower heads but will probably never actually get around to doing so.
The lockdown baking continues – of course – it’s such a normalised activity now that I barely notice it, but I do want to record Harry’s progress from bemused onlooker to active ‘helper’. Here we’re making brown sugar cinnamon rolls, using a scraper to spread scented butter over stretched dough.
In my last post I mentioned that I felt some Project Cookery coming on. Reader, I am true to my word. Project Cookery is anything which requires a little effort: pickling, drying, layering, fermenting. It’s a good time of year to have a go at something new, given that we’re at home anyway so the small daily interventions that Projects require can be easily slotted into a daily routine.
Usually come December I’m having a go at making my own gravadlax or contemplating a gammon, and so it’s a natural progression to take the curing/salting mindset down a different road, to a different ingredient. The project, therefore, was decided: Salt Beef. Inspired by the River Cottage Meat Book, I tracked down a 2kg rolled brisket from my local butcher…and that’s where my troubles began.
It may be easy to make OK salt beef, but I have concluded that to make GOOD salt beef requires years of experience and more precise instructions than any recipe I have found. What follows, therefore, is not my definitive salt beef recipe, more a record of our family’s (for that is what it became) explorations.
Step 1: The Pickle Stage 1 of making salt beef is to pickle the meat in a sweet-spiced brine solution for about a week. Easy enough. Except the myriad recipes I referred to confuse the matter. To roll or unroll the meat? Kosher (sea) salt or the bog standard stuff that comes in 1kg sacks from the Co-op? What receptacle does one keep a brisket plus 2+ litres of brine in for a week? In the fridge or not? Salt petre or not?
In the end we unrolled the meat, stabbed it several times with a skewer, then put it in my biggest plastic cake tin which, happily, could then hold 2 litres of brine and sit on the top shelf of the fridge. Some recipes called for a 5 litre mix which surely calls for a barrel and an out-house – fine if you live in Devon (I’m talking about you Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall) but not so great for folks in Smethwick.
I didn’t use salt-petre for the simple reason that I didn’t want the palaver of an online shop for an ingredient I will rarely ever use, especially if it’s just for aesthetic purposes. The spices I kept in keeping with the season: cinnamon, star anise, clove, juniper, bay.
Ingredients: 2 kg brisket, unrolled and stabbed with a skewer 2 litres cold water 75g sugar (I used half granulated, half brown) 200g salt (I used normal table salt) 2 bay leaves dessertspoon each of black peppercorns, juniper berries, star anise, cloves 1 cinnamon stick
Place the brisket in a large tupperware box or other receptacle – it needs to be kept covered and not react to brine, so plastic or ceramic is best (not aluminium). Heat all the brine ingredients in a saucepan and simmer for five minutes, cool completely and then tip over the brisket. Cover and refrigerate for 6 days, turning once per day.
Step 2: The Soak On day 6, I tipped away the brine and covered the meat in fresh water, to remove excess salt.
Step 3: The boil This is the bit that I think we messed up. The idea is to poach the meat in a court bouillon until it is meltingly tender. The problem with brisket is that, in my view, it actually rarely achieves tenderness: some of this is beyond the cook’s control (much depends on how the animal has lived, died and been butchered) but most of it is due to cooking time. The recipes I looked at said to look the meat for between 2-4 hours – now, that’s a big leeway right there.
Anyway, the beef want into a stock pot with carrots, leek, onion and garlic (there should have been more bay leaves but we ran out) and was simmered for two hours. At this point it was declared done (we were hungry) and removed it from the heat; in hindsight, I have decided that it needed either MUCH LESS or MUCH MORE cooking.
The argument for much less time in the pot is that a shorter cook prevents the meat drying out too much; it is a myth that poached meats can not be over-cooked.
The argument for much more cooking is that it gives the touch connective tissue time to disappear into a soft gelatinous mass, a state that can only be achieved with a profoundly long cook.
The true perfect cooking time therefore remains an unknown but my advice for the aspiring salt beef cook is to have a thorough prod of that meat before declaring it done, really checking for tenderness, and to err on the view that when it comes to brisket, more cooking is better than less.
Ingredients: The drained brisket 1 each: carrot, onion, leek, roughly chopped A few garlic cloves, bashed Bay leaves
Place the beef into a large stock pot with the veg and herbs, cover with cold water, then bring to a simmer. Cook until meltingly soft – probably 3-4 hours, but could perhaps only be 1. The timing of this dish remains a mystery.
When it’s done, remove the meat and serve. Note: do not put the stock liquid down the sink as it will be full of melted beef fat that can clog the drain. Leave it in a cold place overnight, scrape the hardened fat off, then the stock can be saved for other dishes or chucked, as you will.
Step 3: What does one do with 2kg salt beef?!
Now here’s the rub. What on earth do you DO with that much salt beef?! The flavour is delicious, salty yes but also complex with clove and cinnamon. The problem is that it’s just a teensy weensy bit tough…oh OK, at times it was like shoe leather. Of course there is no gravy to counteract the dryness.
Meal 1: Serve hot, in thick slices, with boiled new potatoes and buttered carrots. The Irish way.
Meal 2: Serve warm, in thick slices, tucked into a toasted bagel with gherkins and a slather of hot mustard. The Brick Lane bagel-shop way.
Meal 3: We’re in the territory of leftovers now. Many recipes recommend a red flannel hash (salt beef, beetroot, potato, onion) but honestly, our beef is too tough for that, so I am turning it into a ragu, rich with wine and tomatoes, thinking that an extra two hours cooking won’t do it any harm.
The verdict: It’s easy enough to make, and I love the flavour, but that piece of beef cost about £15 which in my view is an expensive bit of Project Cookery. I’m not convinced it’s worth it – but then maybe if we’d cooked it properly I could be swayed. Let’s see how that ragu turns out.
Also this week: Allotment and garden: Moving the pallet of manure and mulching both allotment and garden (still need to get the plastic covers on). Broad beans and the annual cut flowers have germinated but are leggy weaklings. Cooking and eating: Osso bucco, steamed syrup pudding, chocolate buttermilk muffins Also: Christmas overload already; all the fun things we had planned have been cancelled due to Sandwell being in Tier 3. Starting again on the Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante.
Goodness this November is a drag. Without wanting to sound a total misery (which I’m not), but doesn’t it feel that the dreariness of February has arrived three months early? Lockdown, as a friend of mine eloquently put it, has taken the sheen off life. Have we ever valued the simple act of sharing a cup of tea with a neighbour, having real-life creative conversations with colleagues or a wander round the shops, so much as we do now? I realised yesterday that this is the first year in forever when – forgive me – there’s been no chance of getting a pig roast, whether it’s at a wedding, country fair, open day, you name it. All I can now think about is crackling. Make of that what you will.
It seems to me that there are two ways of dealing with the drudge. You can either forget the present and project yourself into the future – it’s no coincidence that several people near me have gone WAY EARLY with their Christmas decorations. Or you can immerse yourself in something completely different, a diversion ideally of a comforting and creative nature. And so this weekend I found myself leafing through the superlative River Cottage Meat Book, reminding myself of the joy of solid, classic, non-poncy, ingredient-led cookery.
I can feel some project cookery coming on. Back in Lockdown 1 we were all about house and garden, messing around with tulips and plug plants. Lockdown 2 is looking likely to be about lard. And suet. Plus butter, obviously. I still dream of cooking a whole ham (A WHOLE HAM!) but given that it would serve at least 20 people, it is perhaps not the best vehicle to relieve lockdown fatigue. Ditto the proper fore-rib of beef. I will probably take it easy with a spot of salt beef…and as thoughts turn to Christmas, maybe a pork pie or two. I’ll keep you posted of progress.
In the meantime, here is a far simpler dish, one to have a go at mid-week when a bit of gentle kitchen pottering is needed after a day of Zoom calls. It’s vegetarian, inexpensive, authentic and – most importantly – really tasty. I have got into the habit of keeping diced paneer in the freezer, and there’s always chickpeas, tomatoes and spices to hand. So consider it the perfect store cupboard curry – and what could be more 2020 than that?
Paneer and chickpea curry Serves 4. Adapted from Waitrose Weekend recipe by Chetna Makan.
Sunflower oil 1 tsp cumin seeds 1 tsp black mustard seeds 2 onions 2 green chillies – the long thin ones – left whole. (If you like it hot, slice them up) salt 2 fat cloves of garlic, bashed and chopped a thumb of ginger, peeled and grated 1/2 chilli powder (or more/less to taste) 1 tsp ground tumeric 1 tsp garam masala 2 tomatoes, chopped about 200ml water 400g can chickpeas about 200g paneer, diced 1 tsp sugar
I use a karahi for this but you can also use a heavy-based sauté pan or casserole.
Heat the oil over a medium heat, add the cumin and mustard seeds until they sizzle, then tip in the onions, chillies and good pinch of salt. Gently fry for about 5 minutes, until quite soft and turning golden. Add the garlic and ginger, then the ground spices – fry them for a scant minute just to cook the spices – then add the tomatoes and sugar. Cook for 10 minutes or so until you have a thick, amalgamated sauce, loosening with water as needed.
Tip in the chickpeas and paneer, then cook for another 10 minutes to allow the flavours to come together. Taste and adjust the salt and sugar as required. Serve with rice, chutneys and maybe a piquant chopped salad of onion, cucumber and tomato.
Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Chicken in white wine, with leftovers turned into a filthy chicken tartiflette. Gingerbread. Ordering the Christmas meats and, as every year, my plans of beef or something else interesting has been given up to tradition: turkey it is.
Garden and allotment: Clearing last of the annuals, cutting back perennials. Planted out hellebores. Started off broadbeans. Clearing the masses of leaves that have blown into both front and back garden. The cosmos etc started last month are a leggy mess so once again I ask, what point is there starting annuals in the autumn?
Also: Trying to dodge the ‘what am I doing with my life’ lockdown gloom with cookbooks, plus starting Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View. I have totally lost my ability to drink all alcohol other than traditional-method sparkling wine, coming out in instant allergic reaction at the mere sip of wine or beer. Spirits are a distant memory. Whilst I partly enjoy how pretentious my liver has become, this is a source of great sadness.
The lawn is littered with yellow-brown leaves, the stems of fennel have faded to crispy bronze and the remaining sunflower heads are drooped and withered. The world feels saturated with colour. Afternoons are spent outside, kicking leaves and squelching in mud.
The fruit bowl is rammed with those green tomatoes from the other week – now turned red – plus seasonal apples, pears, figs and the first pomegranates. I’m on the alert for quince too and am going out of my way to drive past the halal shop every few days, checking out their veg display for the first signs of these autumnal treasures.
There is still a weekly vase of strawflower and chrysanthemum to gather, plus the kale and parsnips, but forays into the garden or allotment are few and require boots, gloves and a serious coat. Instead I’ve turned my attention indoors, with decorations of squash and pumpkin for halloween, and evenings learning macrame (which feels simultaneously a middle aged and incredibly hipster pursuit, not that I am drawn to either of these labels).
Autumn – and in particular this Lockdown Autumn – is a great time to get on with recreational cookery – the kind of cooking that is neither essential nor time-pressured, but exists purely for fun or to learn a new technique. The other day I had a few egg whites in the fridge leftover from a carbonara, and shuddered at the thought of meringue (no-one eats in). Then a brainwave struck: marshmallows!
Reader, they’re easier than you think. A marshmallow is simply an Italian meringue, set with gelatine. That’s it. They’re nutritionally pointless but massive fun, plus boiling sugar is involved so there’s a whisper of potential calamity, which is always enjoyable.
First, make a stock syrup and boil it up to hard ball stage, 125c. Meanwhile, soak sheet gelatine in cold water until it goes soft and squelchy, then dissolve it over a gentle heat. Once the syrup has come to temperature turn off the heat, add the gelatine then give it a stir to combine.
Whisk two egg whites until it becomes firm and stiff, then gradually pour the syrup onto the egg whites, whisking all the time. Keep whisking for a good 5 minutes, perhaps longer, until you have a rich thick meringue that holds its shape. You can now add a flavouring if you like, such as vanilla or rose water, and maybe swirl in some colouring – I used pomegranate juice but for a stronger colour use red food dye or even a spot of beetroot juice.
Tip the mixture into a tin that you’ve sifted cornflour and icing sugar onto, then leave to set for a few hours.
Once set, sift a load more cornflour and icing sugar onto a board, tip the marshmallow into it then chop into chunks. Toss around in the icing sugar mixture, (to stop them sticking) and gobble them up.
These would be great for a lockdown family cookery session. Obviously take care as there’s boiling sugar involved, but there’s nothing like learning dangerous new skills to give youngsters confidence in the kitchen. Experiment with the colours and flavours…think peppermint, rose water, orange flower water, vanilla…and have fun.
Marshmallows Recipe adapted from the River Cottage Family Cookbook. You need a large and small saucepan, sugar thermometer, rubber spatula or wooden spoon, food mixer or hand whisk, mixing bowls, brownie pan or square shallow cake tin (about 20cm) and sieve.
1 tbsp icing sugar 1 tbsp cornflour vegetable oil for greasing 8 sheets gelatine water 2 egg whites 500g granulated sugar Flavouring and/or colour of your choice – I used 1 tsp rose water, but vanilla extract, peppermint essence, orange flower water would also be good. For colour, I used a squeeze of pomegranate juice. Beetroot juice or regular food colouring would give a more vibrant result.
Very lightly grease the bottom and sides of your brownie pan or cake tin. Mix together the cornflour and icing sugar, then sift a spoonful into the bottom and edges of the tin, and set aside.
Measure the sugar with 250ml water into a large saucepan, and heat gently to dissolve the sugar. Meanwhile, put the gelatine with 125ml water into a small saucepan and leave to stand until the gelatine becomes soft and squelchy. Heat the gelatine and water over a very gentle heat, stirring occasionally until dissolved.
Increase the heat on the sugar syrup and boil hard until you reach 125c, hard-ball stage. Keep an eye on it as it heats up very quickly, especially once it gets close to temperature. Turn the heat off, remove the thermometer, then add the gelatine mixture to the syrup. Give it a stir with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to combine; it will bubble up slightly.
Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl, using either the hand whisk or free-standing food mixer. Once they are stiff, gently pour in the syrup/gelatine mixture in a slow stream – it will become creamy, and then will thicken into a big meringue-y mass. Keep beating for another five minutes or so until the mixture is thick and supports its own shape when dolloped from the beaters. Now stir in your flavouring, and swirl in your colouring.
Pour the marshmallow mixture into the prepared pan and leave to set. This will take about 2 hours.
When you’re ready to cut it up, sieve the remaining cornflour/icing sugar mixture onto a board. Tip the marshmallow block onto it, then using a sharp knife, cut it into squares – it may help to lightly grease the knife. Toss each square in the cornflour/icing sugar to stop them sticking, and serve.
Also this week: Garden and allotment: Harvesting chrysanthemum, cosmos, strawflower, kale, parsnips. Sowing sweet peas. Back garden still has roses, cosmos, salvia, chrysanthemum etc in bloom so still far to early to do any clearing jobs. Cooking and eating: Chicken with fennel, lemon and chilli; chicken pie; blueberry porridge; chocolate brownies; several picnics as we can no longer meet people in cafes/indoors (Lockdown life) Also: Evenings spent learning macrame as I make a wall-hanging for the house.
The autumn clearing began this week, the slow removal of stems, supports and seed heads in time for the plot’s winter sleep. Amongst the debris piled onto the ‘compost’ (read, rubbish) heap, are, sadly, the leeks, which once again have all succumbed to some kind of fungal disease. Their stems look good enough at a distance, but look closely and they are mottled with orange, and what should be firm flesh has been rendered limp and slimy. Next year I must remember this and stop myself from planting more seeds, for every year the result is the same.
Removal of tired sunflowers and beans feels right in October, an appropriate task marking the end of summer. What astounds me, however, is the longevity of the cosmos. It’s not a question of hanging in there, more that they are thriving in this autumnal weather. Cosmos ‘dazzler’ has given handfuls of hot pink stems for several weeks but now it is littered with buds, a final hurrah before the frosts set in. Amongst them is a newly flowering mystery cosmos, a pink so pale that it’s almost blue. They sit amongst the chrysanthemum and strawflower, fully at home in what now shall be known as the autumn cut-flower bed.
The autumn squashes has been slow this year, with only three tiny little gourds and three larger squash making it to harvest (though the largest turned to rot in the wet weather). I suspect I planted too many too close together, so they were fighting for both space and sunlight. The smaller ones are decorating the house, while the larger specimens are curing in the sun room ready for storage.
Is there a vegetable so wonderfully voluptuous at autumn squash? Orange, green, grey, yellow; round, long, ribbed, fat, turbaned; they are emblematic of all that is joyful about the autumn harvest. A confession though: I much prefer growing squashes to eating them. The odd wedge will make its way onto my dinner plate, and I do enjoy sweet chunks of butternut in a soup or curry, but, for me, the best way to use the soft sweetness of squash in baking. The all-American pumpkin pie is a thing of joy, and just writing the phrase ‘pumpkin spice’ is enough to conjour up a comfortable feeling of seasonal hibernation.
These pumpkin spiced muffins are just the thing for this time of year, when one wants to feel embedded in the season of autumn. Reminiscent of carrot cake, but denser, they have an element of the virtuous about them and therefore work for breakfast as well as afternoon tea. I say ‘pumpkin’ but I would actually use a squash if you can, such as butternut, to avoid wateriness. Alternatively, do as I do, which is to use pre-cooked pumpkin that has been thoroughly drained of all its liquid, either from a tin or home-made. These little cakes are not lookers, but what they lack in appearance they make up for in homely comfort.
Spiced pumpkin muffins Makes 12
400g fresh squash, or around 200g pre-cooked squash puree that has been thoroughly drained of excess liquid (from a tin or home-made). 1 tsp mixed spice pinch salt 225g spelt flour (or normal white flour if preferred) 2 heaped tsp baking powder 4 tbsp soft brown sugar 125g unsalted butter 2 eggs 2 tsp vanilla extract 4 tbsp plain yoghurt Handful sultanas Demerara or white sugar crystals, for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 180c and line a 12-hole muffin tin with cases.
If using fresh squash, peel and chop it, then whizz in a food processor until finely chopped and transfer to a mixing bowl. If using pre-cooked squash, drain any excess liquid off then place in a large bowl. Add the spice, salt, flour, baking powder and sugar, then stir gently to combine.
In a separate bowl or jug, melt the butter in the microwave (about 40 seconds). Add the eggs, yoghurt and vanilla, when whisk to combine.
Pour your wet ingredients into the pumpkin mixture, then stir gently but thoroughly until just mixed. Add a handful of sultanas and stir to combine.
Place spoonfuls into each paper case, top with a sprinkle of sugar, and bake until risen and golden – about 20 minutes.
Best eaten fresh but also good for a few days after if re-heated in the oven or microwave.
Also this week: Harvesting: Strawflower, chrysanthemum, cosmos, dahlia, cavolo nero, kale, squash. Also on the allotment and garden: Pulling up sunflowers, bean stalks, summer annuals and ditching the diseased leeks. Sowing sweet peas, ammi, cosmos and laceflower for next year. Cooking and eating: Beef brisket chilli rich with peppers and coffee (recipe to follow). Butternut and sweet potato curry. Bangers, mash and onion gravy. Sticky toffee pudding. Reading and visiting: A Suitable Boy, still less than a quarter of a way in after three weeks of effort. Autumn walk in Wyre Forest. Van Gogh experience at Birmingham Hippodrome.
After a fortnight’s abandonment, I steadied myself for a trip to the veg patch. Weeds everywhere, of course, and faded bean sticks, nibbled sweetcorn and rotten raspberries. But I worried not, for amidst the decay of summer there is still the sweet autumnal harvest – the unshowy and unsexy brassicas and parsnips, the not-yet-ripe squash, and the ever-lasting flowers. All of them thriving, in their own way.
Just as I’ve been yearning for stews and soups once the night draws in, in the mornings I want soft, comforting nourishment. Working alone, from home, I’m often on back-to-back Zoom meetings for 4+ hours a day which believe me, is exhausting. Headaches are an everyday part of life now. To endure it all I need yoga, stamina – and porridge.
The trick to porridge is ratios and time. When I say ‘time’, I am of course talking minutes rather than hours, but I do think that proper oats cooked for 8 minutes in the microwave are deeply superior to those 90 second instant packets that so many office workers use (or used…do you remember the days of putting on actual clothes to go on an actual train for an hour, just to sit behind a desk all day? What madness that was).
I suppose it could be cooked on the hob but that involves hovering over the stove to avoid the risk of burning, and in the morning I’m probably also putting a wash on or shooing the neighbourhood cats off my garden, so a microwave it is. I habitually add coconut to my porridge, partly for the vitamins and flavour, but mostly for the gentle sweetness it provides – I find that I don’t then need much extra sugar or syrup, which I say not as one of those dull sugar-fascists but because I have found that too much refined sugar in the morning makes me feel iller-than-ill.
The ratios bit is fun. I have done away with scales when it comes to oats and instead use one of Harry’s tommee-tippee sippy cups, the ones that hold about 200mls. You could use a broken old mug, or a measuring cup, or whatever you like. For every 3/4 sippy-cup of oats, I add 1/4 cup desiccated coconut, 3/4 cup milk and 1 cup of water. In other words, for 1 part coconutty-oats, add 1 and 3/4 parts liquid.
Tip the lot into the largest microwaveable mixing bowl you own – this bit is important because it bubbles like mad and no-one needs to be clearing that mess up first thing in the morning (I speak from experience). Split porridge does look like baby sick, don’t you think?
Anyway, microwave for 5 minutes whilst you put the kettle on. Give it a stir, then pop it back in for 90 seconds. Finally add your berries – a handful of fresh blueberries works for me at the moment, but frozen allotment fruits will find their way into my porridge during the winter months, the sourer the better. Microwave again for 1 final minute (if using frozen berries they may need a little longer, use your judgement on this one). Total cooking time, 7.5 minutes. If you have timed it right, your mug of tea will also now be of a drinkable temperature.
When it’s done, tip the lot into a bowl, add a circle of cold milk around the edge (this is a traditional Scottish touch) and then finish with the merest hint of maple syrup, just a teaspoon or two. Or more, if you have a sweeter tooth than me.
Eat in front of the laptop, ideally before the first meeting of the day.