Peach and amaretto ice cream

High summer is upon us. This has meant a few days of treacherously hot, heavy weather, broken with restless thunder and incredible forked lightening. Now we’ve lulled back into good old comfortable drizzle and mist – grey skies being the true constant feature of an English summer in the Midlands. Already there is the sense of nature drying out and crinkling up.

Yesterday we headed the other side of the city to Castle Bromwich gardens, a 17th century walled garden placed rather ignominiously beside the M6 and underneath the flightpath to Birmingham International Airport. It’s a gem of a find. Come August there is little I enjoy more than checking out someone else’s veg patch, and these marrows planted in a parterre style are certainly impressive. These cornflowers also caught the eye for their unusual shades of pink and purple, more fun than the normal blue and white.

The kitchen garden at Castle Bromwich Walled Garden
Cornflowers in shades of pink, plum and indigo

On my veg patch, or should I say flower farm, we have reached peak abundance. The dahlias are sensational this year; they must enjoy the full sun of our plot. Likewise we have armfuls of sunflowers and chrysanthemums, marigolds, tansy and strawflower.

Brassicas, squash and corn thriving amidst the cut flowers

This year I have sown ammi visnaga for the first time, a stubbier version of the more common ammi majus, and it’s quietly magnificent. On its own it is elegant, with lime green to white shades, but when placed with other stems it makes their colours shout louder. Also it doesn’t drop seeds and fluff everywhere, which is always a bonus. Highly recommend.

Ammi visnaga and cosmos purity are now coming into their own
We’re getting towards the jungle stage

I’m also enjoying this sunflower, whose name I do not know as I think it has come out of a Seeds of Italy mix. I’m planning to leave this head on the stem in order to harvest the seeds in a few weeks time so that next year I can grow more. The sunflowers are always covered in bees, no matter what time of day I visit, and it makes them impossible to cut for who has the heart to steal their nectar?

The un-named sunflower, a magnet for insects

With high summer comes a surplus of stone fruit in the supermarket, most of it – let’s face it – bruised and still rock hard. It is nigh on impossible to get a really good peach in this country, they usually need to be nudged along into softness. A peach that is picked before it is ripe will never become truly sweet, so the best thing is to poach them in syrup (stones and all) and then use them in cooking. Poaching stone fruit with their skins and stones intact gives the most glorious sunset colours; add a strip of lemon peel or a few bay leaves and you are whisked away to an Italian terrace.

This peach and amaretto ice cream is just the thing for those meltingly hot days where you’d rather be dipping into the sea around Amalfi. Incidentally, this is yet another ice that doesn’t need eggs, and I am coming to the conclusion that the very best fruit ice creams are the simplest: fruit, sugar and cream is all that’s required. A splash of booze helps to keep the ice cream smooth, but is by no means essential. You do need an ice cream machine, however.

Peach and amaretto ice cream
Makes about 1 pint. You need an ice cream machine and a stick blender or food processor.

5 small peaches, rock hard is fine
150g granulated sugar
150ml water
150ml double cream
25ml amaretto
icing sugar, optional

Halve the peaches but you can leave the stones and skins intact. In a shallow pan, melt the sugar into the water, then add the peaches and bring to a slow simmer. Put the lid on and poach the fruit for 5-10 minutes, until soft. Leave to cool, fish out the stones and skins, then blitz to a puree using a stick blender or in a food processor. Chill the mixture thoroughly before attempting the next stage.

When the fruit is quite cold, stir in the cream and add a shot of amaretto. Have a taste and if it needs to be sweeter, stir in a spoonful of seived icing sugar (remember that ice cream looses its sweetness when frozen). Transfer the lot to your ice cream machine and churn into a soft peachy mass. When it’s done, move the ice cream to a tub and freeze until firm. Remove from the freezer for fifteen minutes or so to soften before serving.

Peach & amaretto ice cream – as usual, no pretty sundae pictures here, just ice cream in a tub

Also this week:

Harvesting: Dahlias, ammi, cosmos, sunflowers, marigold, delphinium, strawflower, amaranthus, chrysanthemum, tansy, raspberries, blueberries, spinach, chard, courgettes, chard, dwarf beans.

Cooking & eating: Roast chicken with runner beans and roasted potatoes, carrots and fennel; pancakes with fresh raspberries, cinnamon buns; vegetable curry using home-grown veg.

Doing: Elford Walled Gardens, Castle Bromwich Walled Garden, moving back into my office after a 5 month renovation.

Raspberry and apple kuchen

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I’ve been in a fug all week. No, longer than a week. Aimless, listless. Work feels like treacle, with contracts ending or not happening in the first place, a general feeling of tetchiness, and nothing new on the horizon. The state of the world seems to get worse. And this grey, humid, drizzly weather! Today I’ve decided to press ‘reset’, with time dedicated to Harry, a bit of cooking, staying away from Instagram and all the rest. I’m reminding myself of Elizabeth Luard’s observation that in peasant societies, money is a crop like any other…when it fails, it’s not the end of the world provided that there’s still other crops to fall back on. I love this idea as it reminds us that our professional lives are not our only indicator of worth, a notion that sadly is indoctrinated into us from Day 1 at university. To be a freelancer in the arts is to take the rough with the smooth.

And Lord knows there are PLENTY of other crops going on at the moment. Courgettes, of course, and amazing dahlias, sunflowers, achillea, cosmos, marigolds, blackberries, raspberries, a few potatoes. I was feeling pretty smug about my efforts until I was beckoned over to Martin’s plot last Saturday, to be greeted with a field of cabbages, purple sprouting, cauliflowers and sprouts. These are whopping prize-winning specimens! I was kindly offered a cabbage and cauli to take home, which are now taking up the entire top shelf of the fridge. There’s no room for them in the veg drawer because that is filled with my parents’ efforts – aubergines, peppers – and my courgette glut. I’ve spent the morning roasting sliced courgettes, peppers and aubergines in a blisteringly hot oven before bottling with olive oil, fresh marjoram, red wine vinegar and chilli flakes.

Martin with his whopping 10lb cabbage

I escaped from my desk for a few hours on Tuesday to take a look at the potatoes, which we planted in March and then completely ignored. No mounding up or watering or anything like that. And blow me there’s a crop! It’s not magnificent but there are few things more satisfying than forking up a mound of pale round spuds from black soil.

Digging spuds this week

The cut flowers are at their zenith now, with an incredible display of dahlias and the cheery sunflowers, their colours ranging from yellow and gold to copper and brown.

Sunflowers are the star of August cut flowers

This week the raspberries started cropping, along with the first blackberries of which we’re going to get a bumper crop. I was also gifted a bag of early apples, a sight that reminds us that summer will soon be on the way out. Carpe diem, seize the day: this apple and raspberry kuchen makes the most of late summer fruit but can be adapted through the year to use whatever’s in season (or use up whatever’s lurking in the freezer).

Raspberry and apples stud the top of the enriched-dough base

A kuchen is a Germanic sweet bake, not dissimilar in concept to a sweet focaccia, where an enriched bread base is glazed then topped with fruit and sugar before baking. It can also be iced or topped with a crumble or streusel. It’s lovely for breakfast but also as a snack during the day, and as it’s full of eggs and fruit, I consider it a health food. Do eat it up within a day or two, as it won’t keep well.

Raspberry and apple kuchen

Raspberry and apple kuchen
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess

350g strong white bread flour
3g fine salt
50g caster sugar
5g easy blend yeast
2 large eggs
grated zest of half a lemon
grating fresh nutmeg
125ml milk
50g unsalted butter

For the topping:
1 large egg
1 tablespoon cream or creme fraiche
1 tsp cinnamon
2 apples
handful raspberries
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp demerara sugar

You’ll need an ovenproof dish – I use a 8 inch flan dish but a brownie pan would also be fine. Make sure it’s well greased with butter.

Mix the flour, yeast, salt, sugar, lemon and nutmeg together in a large bowl. Melt the butter into the milk, leave to cool slightly, then beat in the eggs. Tip the lot into the flour and use a plastic scraper to combine into a rough dough. Knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Form into a ball, cover with a cloth and leave to prove for about 2 hours, until puffy and risen.

For the topping, mix the egg into the cream with a fork, then stir in the cinnamon. Peel, core and dice the apples.

Preheat the oven to 200c. When the dough is ready, ease it into your prepared pan – gently does it – then press it in to reach the sides. Spread the egg glaze over the top, scatter on the fruit, then the sugar. Place in the oven and turn the temperature down to 180c. Bake for about 40 minutes, until risen and golden. Cool slightly before eating.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Courgettes, squash, a few beans, spinach beet, chard, blackberries, raspberries, dahlias, sunflowers, cosmos, achillea, chrysanthemums, delphinium, marigold, strawflower, last sweetpeas. Gifted harvests of green peppers, beetroot, tomatoes, aubergine, apples, cabbage, cauliflowers, runner beans.

Cooking and eating: Roasted courgette, peppers and aubergine which I marinate in olive oil, red wine vinegar, chilli flakes and fresh marjoram – great kept in the fridge for easy snacks. Moussaka with my Dad’s aubergine. Courgette cream pasta.

Reading: Normal People by Sally Rooney, a few years late on this one. Dipping into Buddhist texts to get me back on track.

Best-in-show blackcurrant jam

Finally the allotment has come to fullness. June always surprises me with how sparse it looks, but by the end of July, it’s a jungle. The courgettes have doubled in size in the last fortnight, and the squash are sending out exploratory shoots studded with yellow flowers. The self-seeded borage literally hums with bees, and the dahlias are full of whopping dinner-plate blooms. We have yet more new allotment neighbours and as they steadily hack away at their bindweed and other nasties, there’s a quiet happy sense of communal endeavour.

The difference a few weeks make: the plot has transformed from sparse to a jungle
The self-sown borage literally hums with bees
Sweet peas are cropping again in abundance

This year I tried a few new varieties in the cut flower patch. The amaranthus is a big success, with frothy plum-coloured foliage, and this new type of sunflower (can’t even remember the name) is just fabulous, a green centre framed with fluffy petals finished off with a halo of yellow.

This sunflower and the amaranthus are new additions to the cut flower patch for 2020

The summer cooking continues. Those blackberries I mentioned were turned into a frangipane tart, and there’s also been salads of courgette, summer squash and toasted sweetcorn, made fragrant with allspice.

The blackcurrants were turned into a frangipane tart

Baking can only take us so far through the summer harvest though; it’s time to get preserving, bottling and jamming in time for winter. For previous generations this was necessary for survival and whilst times are more generous now, it’s a tradition that I enjoy. There is something very grounding about making jam.

Happily for me, my room-mate from university is a genuine prize-winning jam maker. Way back in the heady days before children and mortgages, Kerry’s blackcurrant jam won Best in Show – BEST IN SHOW – at the Quainton Village Show. This is an achievement not to be underestimated: a 29 year old stole the show away from ladies twice her age. Not just any ladies either: these were HOME COUNTIES ladies, ladies who are stalwarts of the WI. It was phenomenal. A decade later, Kerry’s still the person to go to when you want advice on jam.

Kerry clutching her Best in Show commemorative plate at the Quainton Show 2009

My jams always tend to be a bit, erm, ‘jammy’ for my liking, heavy-set and sweet, but Kerry’s are soft-set and with a balance of acidity to stop them being cloying. For want of a better word, they taste really ‘contemporary’. But it turns out that she turns to another jam queen for advice, no other than Marguerite Patten and her Jams, Preserves and Chutneys Handbook. There’s no date on this recipe but judging from the cover-picture it’s ancient.

Kerry’s secret recipe actually comes from Marguerite Patten

Marguerite’s (and Kerry’s) trick is to include a good amount of water with the blackcurrants and sugar, and not just rely on the blackcurrant juice. Genius. My trick, not pictured here, is to sterilise the jam jars in the Tommee Teepee baby bottle microwave steriliser, so much easier than faffing around with boiling water and kettles. From then on it’s all easy. Oh and if you’re picking your own blackcurrants, make sure that you pick out all the stalks and leaves from the fruit, a lengthy but utterly essential job.

Blackcurrant Jam
From Marguerite Patten’s Jams, Preserves and Chutneys Handbook. Makes 4 x 300g jars.

450g blackcurrants – make sure any stalks and leaves are removed
450ml water
550g granulated sugar

Prepare your jam jars, ensuring they are spotlessly clean and sterilised. I use glass jars with screw-on lids rather than the old-fashioned waxed paper/cellophane lids, as they can be completely sterilised and therefore there is less likelihood of the jam going bad.

In a stock pot or small jam kettle, place the fruit and water and bring to a simmer. Cook until the fruit bursts. Tip in the sugar and stir until it melts. Bring to a simmer and cook until the jam reaches setting point – use a jam thermometer for this. Leave to cool slightly then pour into your still-warm jars. Seal and store.

Blackcurrants, sugar and water transform into a shiny deep purple preserve
Blackcurrant jam ready for storing

Also this week:

Harvesting: Courgettes, summer squash, green beans, spinach, blueberries, dahlias, sunflowers, amaranthus, sweet peas, marigolds.

Cooking and eating: Blackberry frangipane tart, sweetcorn and courgette warm salad, chicken chilli, plums straight from the punnet.

Watching: Mrs America. Important, pertinent and all with great outfits.

Red gooseberry ice cream

It’s mid-July and the glut is starting to hit. Not that much of it has been grown by me, of course; I do get a glut of cut flowers and courgettes but that’s always about it. No, this glut is the result of greedy farm shop purchases plus generous gifting from my mum and dad’s veg patch, and a spot of judicious shopping from Aldi (a supermarket that is surprisingly good for summer produce).

The bright late summer cut-flowers are starting: chrysanthemum, strawflower and achillea
The allotment is reaching its cut-flower peak

In my kitchen currently I have: punnets of plums, strawberries, blackberries and peaches; a massive bowl of red gooseberries, a juicy cantaloupe melon sliced and topped with blueberries from the shrub outside the back door, three aubergines, five green peppers, a bag of French beans, a bag of chard, another bag of spinach beet, a kohlrabi, an overflowing plate of tomatoes and several courgettes (erm maybe a marrow). This week there has also been raspberries, bulb fennel, beetroot and young carrots. Outside there are pots of basil, marjoram, tarragon and leaf fennel; there should be lettuce too, but the snails got there first.

What can be more joyous than whole boxes of summer fruits and veg? The box at the back was grown by my mum and dad, the stuff at the front is from Hillers farm shop
Late strawberries meet early plum and blackberries

And so begins my annual trawl through the cook books to find new things to do with all this loot, because one thing I REALLY don’t want to do is spend hours prepping it, stick it in the freezer, forget about it for a year, then chuck it out. (No judgment, everyone with a productive fruit and veg patch does this.)

These days I don’t have much space for wafting around the kitchen creating fun new dishes – no one ever tells you just how much time pre-schoolers take up – but one evening this week, after work, teatime, bath time, Tree Fu Tom, Big Red Bath, Katie and the Dinosaurs and bed time, I found myself, glass in hand, sitting down to top and tail this lot.

Homegrown red gooseberries getting topped and tailed

Thomasina Miers posted a recipe on Instagram for red gooseberry ice cream a few days back, spiked with grappa, orange and proper vanilla. Thus inspired, I’ve come up with this version, which is full of the flavours of the English summer. The grappa is replaced by blackberry gin, and elderflower cordial takes the place of vanilla.

The method is simple enough and can be adapted to so many summer fruits (see my blackcurrant ice cream). Take your prepped gooseberries, bubble them up with elderflower cordial until soft, add the gin and sugar, then blitz to a puree. Push through a sieve and chill until quite cold, then fold in whipped cream and churn to freeze.

Gooseberry puree spiked with elderflower cordial and blackberry gin
Churn the puree with cream, then freeze until firm. I know I should post a picture of a perfect ball of pink ice cream in a dainty glass dish, but in this house we eat it straight from the tub.

It’s rich, of course, but the acidity of the gooseberries stops it being cloying. The alcohol helps to keep the ice cream smooth but you can leave it out if you prefer. These cream-based ices don’t last so long, so eat this one up within a few weeks. Now…what to do with those blackberries?!

Red gooseberry ice cream

500g red gooseberries (you could use green but you may need more sugar)
1 tbsp water
2 tbsp elderflower cordial
140g granulated sugar
50ml blackberry gin (or other suitable spirit)
250ml double cream

Top and tail the gooseberries. Tip them into a pan with the water and elderflower, then cook gently for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the sugar and gin. Blitz in the blender or with a stick blender until smooth. Push through a sieve and chill until quite cold. Stir in the cream then churn in your ice cream machine, or use the stir-freeze method. Pop in the freezer to set hard. Remove about thirty minutes before you want to eat to soften.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Dahlias, calendula, nasturtium, first sunflowers, achillea, last sweet peas, cornflowers, first chrysanthemums, first strawflower. The soft flowers of June are giving way to lurid carnival brights of late summer. First courgettes, a few French beans and spinach beet leaves. Took up final broad beans. Onions are ready and we need to have a poke around the potatoes. Have had to put cages over the 6 nepeta plants to stop the neighbourhood cats destroying them.

Cooking and eating: A tart of puff pastry topped with harrisa, sliced roast aubergine and feta. Summer minestrone (no tomatoes, just greens). Lemon and blueberry drizzle cake. Matt’s beef shin, beer and mushroom pie. Plums straight from the punnet.

Reading: Nothing of note. I am desperate for the library to re-open. We’re watching Toy Story at least once a day.

Also: Renovation of the office continues and I’ve decided that the bathroom is next.

Chocolate mini milks

I’ve been remiss in documenting this year’s allotment, mainly because progress has been slow and steady and therefore not very dramatic to photograph. Plus we have new neighbours whose efforts put me to shame (that’s retirement for you). Something has flipped in me this year though, because the self-seeded plants who have set up home on our allotment have become friends rather than foes. Last year, everything felt like a struggle, partly because I was running a festival and HAD NO TIME. This year it’s a wee bit more relaxed, though I’m only spending an hour or two a week down there and I can only do what’s possible in the time I have. The thistles and groundsel I do remove, but there’s no point fighting the borage, nasturtium, mullein and poppies. The pollinators love them and actually their colour and form are welcome elements to this year’s allotment (I have harvested some poppy seed heads for drying). Even those annoying brambles are swelling with the promise of a bumper crop of blackberries.

Perhaps because of my tardiness, the broad beans have been fine but no major success this year. They are full of weeds and I do wonder if they needed less competition. It’s a similar story with the climbing beans, whose base are overrun with nasturtium. I think the Cobra will do OK, but the purple and borlotti beans are sluggish. We will get a crop but it will be late, partly because my first set of plants were zapped by that late April frost so these are Maytime afterthoughts. The runner beans, incidentally, have completely vanished, which makes me wonder if I planted any in the first place. I’ll pop some seeds directly into the ground next time I visit, in hope of an autumn bean surge.

The long view, with bean sticks, squash plants, sweetcorn and amaranthus. Also plenty of self-sown ‘weeds’ – borage, nasturtium and poppy.

The things that we leave alone often do the best. The dahlias were over-wintered in the allotment, I never water them, and they are now the biggest plants on the plot. There is something to be said for leaving tubers in situ. They are just now beginning to give a crop, as are the new tubers planted last month on the gritty thin soil at the top of the path.

The March-sown corn plants with dahlias behind

The onions have become fat, their leaves beginning to flop, and next to them – miraculously – we have a line of pale green parsnip seedlings that finally germinated on the third attempt.

onions, leeks and tiny parsnips plus some hastily planted zinnia to plug the gaps

August’s cut flowers will be dominated by cosmos, chrysanthemums, ammi and sunflowers. The sweet peas are fading now, their velvet shades become mottled as they give up the ghost.

Ammi visnaga and cosmos, with chrysanths and strawflower behind plus the inevitable self-seeders mullein and poppies
sweet peas, nasturtium and cornflower
Sunflowers are romping away now

The hop is one of those plants that is hidden in plain sight. It’s so part of the furniture that I rarely see it these days, only to look up last week and notice that one bine has collapsed under its own weight.

A bine has collapsed on the hopolisk

Because of my transformed attitude to weeds, plus the success of this year’s planting plan (every inch of ground is covered with something), the July allotment is a pleasure rather than the burden that it was threatening to become. The crops are coming weekly but in small number, which doesn’t make for good photos but does make for a more manageable life. We’re talking a courgette and a bag of broad beans a week, leaves from the trug at home, plus a few berries and two or three vases of flowers. Come August all this will change of course and the glut will hit.

The regular haul of sweet peas, cornflower, nasturtium plus first dahlias and cosmos

Do you remember when it was warm? No I don’t either but I have pictorial evidence that, just a few weeks ago, the sun shone. At these time I become one of those highly irritating super women who produces home-made ice lollies for her offspring. (Don’t be fooled by this, because the rest of the time he exists on chocolate buttons and Aldi’s own-brand Ritz biscuits.) These chocolate mini milks are really easy and use up those smushy black bananas that are always lurking in the fruit bowl. They’re also a good way of getting milk inside him disguised as a treat.

You’ll need a blender and some lolly moulds. Little hands can join in, but make sure they know which end of the lolly handles to put into the moulds…

Remember to put your lolly sticks in the correct way up

Chocolate mini milks

In a blender, whizz together 1 banana, 1 tsp cocoa powder, 2 tsp icing sugar and about 200ml milk. Pour into lolly moulds and freeze.

Chocolate mini milks

Also this week:

Harvesting: last broad beans, first courgette, lettuce, rocket, blackcurrants, blueberries, alpine strawberries, cornflower, sweet peas, dahlia, first sunflower, nasturtium, poppies. Also finding peaches, nectarines, plums, strawberries and red/white currants in the shops and farmer’s market.

Cooking and eating: Nectarine, plum and strawberry crumble. Inevitably, pasta prima vera with courgette and broad beans. Chicken marinated with Moroccan spice mix, yoghurt and garlic, roasted in a HOT oven and served with chopped salads, yoghurt and chips. Toscakaka. Black banana cake.

Also: Reading the biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Working back at full tilt without ever feeling any richer. Slow but steady progress on the office renovation. Taking Harry for his first hair cut since February, and then only because his fringe had become and health and safety issue.

Barabrith

I am writing from the bliss of a quiet house. This week I had a birthday (a big one, but the least said about that the better) and it turns out that birthdays in lockdown are tricky. It’s not like you can have loads of friends over for pizzas and aperol spritz as we would in normal times, or pop to the spa for a pick-me-up. So tea and cake in various gardens it is and rather than dwelling on the parties-that-never-were, I’m grateful to have parents who bring flowers and in-laws that make cracking Victoria sponges. Incidentally, let it be committed to print that my dear other half has promised to make me a new desk for my birthday, and now that it’s public, he has to deliver the goods.

This birthday I had not one cake but two (actually I had three but the third one came a week later)

In baking news, the cinnamon buns continue, this time with a new shape (the twisted knot) and also with chunks of dark chocolate folded into the layers, for a cinnamony-chocolatey-south-american flavour.

Cinnamon bun twists with chunks of chocolate

The parched earth of spring has now been nourished with days and days of rain. The allotment is grateful for it – the sweet peas in particular are now galloping away – and of course the fat hen, thistles and buttercups are thriving. Last year the weeds drove me bonkers but this year I’m just seeing them as part of the ecosystem of the land, their place as much as mine. As long as the flowers and veggies are still cropping, not too much harm is done by their existence. Meanwhile Matt’s made a new brassica cage, sturdier than my efforts of last year, and so I have finally planted out three types of kale plus chard and beet spinach.

This year’s brassica cage has come into operation
Harvesting redcurrants, broad beans and sweet peas

The broad beans are giving two crops weekly and I also now have a few diddy purple pea pods, planted for their shoots but left to mature just for the fun of it. Thankfully I have a helper to assist with all the processing of pods and stalks, a necessary but (to my mind) excessively enjoyable June task.

I have a helper to pod all those beans…

On to a recipe. Harry’s obsessed with Fireman Sam at the moment, and I took the view that if we can’t get to Pontypandy, then Pontypandy can come to us. Meaning, if we can’t go to Wales, then I can at least do some Welsh baking in the form of Barabrith. This one is a tea loaf made with self-raising flour, though it’s more common to find recipes that rely on yeast. Yeast cookery holds no fear for me but sometimes I prefer to take the easy option, which this definitely is: soak fruit in sugary tea, add flour and an egg, than bake. Unashamedly old-fashioned, it keeps for weeks and somehow manages to be simultaneously plain, nourishing and a special treat. My only stipulation is that it must be served plastered with plenty of salted butter.

Barabrith, Wales’ great contribution to baking culture

Barabrith

450g dried mixed fruit – I used sultanas, raisins, currants and cranberries
250g light brown sugar
300ml boiling water
1 tea bag
2 tsp mixed spice
450 self-raising flour
1 egg

In a big bowl, place the fruit, sugar, water and tea bag, give it a stir, then leave to soak. This can be for an hour or overnight, which ever is most convenient.

When ready to bake, prepare a 900g loaf tin with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 170c.

Fish out the tea bag from the fruit, then add the spice, flour and egg to the mixture. Give it a good mix with a wooden spoon to combine, then dollop it into the loaf tin. I like to smooth the top then make a slight dip so that the end loaf comes out flattish.

Bake for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until a skewer comes out clean. You may need to put foil over the cake to prevent it browning too much. Leave to cool in the tin for ten minutes or so before turning out onto a wire rack. This is a big cake but it keeps for weeks in a tin. Serve in thick slices toasted with butter.

Also this week:

Harvesting and growing: Harvesting lettuce, broad beans, peas, red currants, sweet peas, first cornflower. Planted out dahlias, chard, beet spinach, kale. Given a lovely apricot rose in a pot for my birthday from Mum and Dad, which is sitting happily next to the pink lilies (I like a colour clash).

Cooking and eating: Amazing lamb and chicken kebabs, rice, bulgur, bread and salads from the new Turkish grill in Bearwood. Baked lamb with capers, garlic and rosemary, served with potatoes boulanger. Birthday party at Claire’s with two Victoria sponges, and another at our house with one chocolate sponge, crab sandwiches, fresh prawns on the shell and the inevitable party rings. Lots of new season broad beans, lettuce, and a few peas.

Reading: Yin Yoga by Norman Blair. European Peasant Cookery by Elizabeth Luard. Feast by Nigella Lawson.

Almond (and chocolate) crescents

You know how you get Instagram food and then you have real life food? Instagram is usually style over substance but the home-made stuff, whilst not being pretty, is actually where we can find real heart-warming soul-bolstering cooking. It’s the same with cookbooks – the things we covet on paper somehow don’t carry the true essence of what is real. The expensive images can’t give the impression of the kitchen filled with the fug of bubbling chicken stock, or the furtive treat of stealing the first biscuit off the tray before anyone’s noticed. They can’t give the life-preserving feeling that you get from a slice of proper toast slathered in salty butter. Nor do they give room for the truth that some of the best cooking actually happens when we mess it up a bit.

On that note, I’ve been tinkering about my cinnamon bun recipe (yes, it is an obsession), thinking it would be fun to try something else that’s Scandi and calorie-laden, and my eye was drawn by these, Gifflar med kanel, or cinnamon crescents, from The Nordic Baking Book. Have you ever seen a thing of such dough-based beauty? Look at the swirl! Look at the shine! Look how NEAT they are!

What a Crescent is meant to look like…

So obviously I had a go and, inevitably, my version look utterly crap. Big and puffy, with all the filling oozed out, like I’ve made some cheesy sausage roll from my Mum’s 1970s M&S Picnic Cookbook. But do not be deceived, for this swirly ugly mass is a thing of caramelised unctuous gorgeous heaven.

…and the homemade version!

Instead of the cinnamon filling that is traditional, I used an almond version called remonce, the type used in Danish pastries and Mandelbullar (almond buns). The almond actually comes from marzipan, creamed with heart-stopping quantities of butter and sugar, so imagine this: Sweet dough baked golden in a puddle of marzipanny-buttery caramel. Then think of the illicit pleasure of peeling the leaked caramelised butter-almond off the paper in shards, shovelling them in your mouth before your 2 year old sees and wants them for himself.

Then imagine a chocolate version. Dear God.

Roll your dough out more thinly that you’d expect, and you might succeed in making crescents that are slightly better looking than mine. These freeze well so any that don’t get eaten can be stashed for future breakfasts, brunches or midnight feasts.

Almond crescents
Makes 32 crescents. Recipe adapted from various things in The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson.

For the dough:
320ml milk
150g unsalted butter
1 heaped teaspoon ground cardamon
15g dried yeast
1 egg
125g caster sugar
1 teaspoon fine salt
750g strong wheat flour

In a jug in the microwave, melt the butter into the milk then leave to cool slightly. In a large bowl, place the salt, the flour, the yeast and cardamon (in that order so that the yeast and salt don’t come into contact with each other) and mix thoroughly with a scraper. Whisk the egg into the milk mixture, then tip the lot into the flour and mix to combine. Once you have a sticky mass, tip onto the work surface and knead for a good 10 minutes until you have a soft, elastic dough. Or you can use a stand mixer if you have one. Don’t stint on the kneading, this dough needs it! Shape the dough into a ball, put back in the bowl and cover with a tea towel. Leave to prove for about 2 hours or so, until really risen and puffy. Meanwhile, make your filling:

Lys remonce – Danish pastry filling
125g unsalted butter, very soft
125g caster sugar
125g marzipan

Place the butter and sugar in a bowl, then grate the marzipan over using a box grater. Cream together thoroughly and set aside.

For the crescents:
Preheat the oven to 220c. Prepare three or four (depending on their size) baking sheets or roasting trays with baking parchment. Tip the dough out onto the work surface with the tenderness that you would treat a newborn baby. Gently shape it into a circle then divide into 4 pieces.

To make crescents, roll each piece into a circle using a rolling pin. They should be quite thin, about 1cm deep or thinner. Spread a quarter of the filling over the circle using an off-set spatula, then cut into 8 equal triangles. Roll each triangle up from the thick edge to the thin, then place on a baking sheet. Repeat and repeat until all the dough is used up. Leave to prove for another 30 minutes or so, until puffy.

If you want, at this stage you can egg wash the crescents, or simply leave them plain as I do. Bake for about 10 minutes until risen and golden. You may need to turn the trays around mid-way through baking to avoid burnt bits. Leave to cool before tucking in but take every opportunity to munch on the crunchy almondy caramelised bits that have leaked from your buns.

Variation: Almond & chocolate buns
To make a sinfully good chocolate version, break up some shards of 70% dark chocolate and scatter on top of the dough after you have spread it with the remonce filling. Either shape as crescents or make into traditional cinnamon or cardamon bun shapes, as I have done here. Bake as before.

The chocolate almond version. Ugly but mind-blowingly good.

Copenhagen Cake

The hot weather over Easter meant that the outside world felt a million miles away. Tulips bloomed, baby leaves and pea shoots were ripe for picking, birds scouted for nesting sites. Harry scooted and I sat. Dear God we even cleaned out the sun room, chucked out a load of decade-old paint tins and moved the barbecue to the shed. Those were days of glory.

Since then we’ve had perpetual rain and dank, grey skies, work has reared its head again and I’ve had one too many Zoom meetings for my liking. But as ever, there is solace in the garden, in the allotment and in the kitchen. Every morning and evening I wander outside for a few minutes’ solitude where I can admire my tulips and tend to my seedlings. And look at Matt’s shed in all its glory!

Bar the window, the shed is finally in a useable state!

Before the rain hit Matt found time to put up all the support structures on the allotment – it’s his favourite job, obviously – and so I think the sweetpeas and climbing beans will be planted out within the next week or so. Whilst there I found another bonus crop – lilac and cow parsley – which, if you sear the stems in boiling water, will last for a week or so in the vase.

Supports are up for beans, sweetpeas and sunflowers
Cow parsley and lilac

But easily the most exciting thing to happen this week is the tracking down of actual real life BREAD FLOUR. It’s been weeks since I’ve seen this stuff. Flour is harder to come by than Class A drugs these days (I am told). Morrisons are flogging 1 kilo bags from their bakery, which they’ve packed themselves in their paper bags normally reserved for doughnuts and sausage rolls. Good for them for their entrepreneurial spirit. It means that we can finally stock ourselves up with cinnamon buns and pizza again, staple foods in this house.

Finally scored some bread flour in Morrisons, so it’s nearly cinnamon bun and pizza time again

The whole nation is baking now to get them through Lockdown. Wise people. This time last year we were in Copenhagen, for a blissful few days of pastries, bread, pastries, bread, coffee, cake, pastries and bread. First (and only) time we’d been aboard since having Harry. It was one of the best weeks of my life. But despite all those hand-made artisan cinnamon snails and rye breads, it was actually a basic vanilla sponge with pink glace icing bought from the supermarket that sticks in the memory. We called it Copenhagen Cake and refer back to it often, with longing. Plain yet buttery. Basic yet iced. Elegant yet brashly pink. Cheap and yet not THAT cheap, for we were in Copenhagen after all, where a pint costs a tenner. It was a thing of joy.

Copenhagen Cake, the original, May 2019

I’ve tried to replicate Copenhagen Cake at home a few times, referring to Scandinavian cook books and making my own food colouring from squashed raspberries. This time, with the help of The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson, I think I’ve nailed it. Copenhagen Cake isn’t really a ‘thing’, but if you match a Swedish-style plain sponge with a tangy raspberry water icing, it’s close enough to the original. The trick is to whisk the hell out of the eggs and sugar, and fold in the butter and flour with comparatively great tenderness. Then go large on the icing and sprinkles. Enjoy.

Copenhagen Cake, the home-made version, May 2020

Copenhagen Cake

125g unsalted butter
50ml milk
2 large eggs
175g caster sugar
160g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the icing:
a scant handful raspberries, fresh or frozen
icing sugar, about 5 tablespoons
water
sprinkles or dried raspberries, to decorate

Preheat the oven to 175c. Butter and line your cake tin – I used a 7inch spring-form round pan.

Melt the butter and milk together in the microwave or on the hob, then leave to cool slightly.

Using an electric whisk, whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla together until thick and at the ribbon stage – this will take at least five minutes, probably more.

Measure out the flour and baking powder into a bowl and have your sieve ready to go. You also need a large metal spoon.

Very gently pour the milk and butter mixture down the side of the bowl with the eggs in, then fold in with the spoon. Sieve the flour on top and fold to combine – be really gentle to ensure the air stays in the sponge, but make sure no lumps of flour remain.

Pour the batter into the tin, smooth the top then bake for about 30-40 minutes until risen and golden, and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to sit for ten minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.

To make the icing, squish the raspberries through a sieve to make a scant spoonful of bright pink juice. Add icing sugar and water, drop by drop, to make a spoonable icing.

When the cake is quite cold, spread your icing over the top and decorate with sprinkles or dried raspberries. Leave the icing for half an hour or so to set before cutting.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Asparagus, tomatoes, strawberries, baby salad leaves, duck eggs – heaven. Matt’s tagine. Apple crostata.
Allotment and garden: The garden tulips are out and glorious, such a happy addition. Picking lilac and cow parsley. Baby leaves from the veg trug. Hardening off some seedlings. Planted out 30 strawberry plants.
Life: Just staying at home. Week 7 now. I leave the house only to go to the park, allotment, supermarket and the farm shop. Matt goes to the workshop. Apart from too much Cbeebies, it’s been OK.

Viennese fingers

Helen Stallard Communications is 15 years old today! That’s one and a half decades of solvent self-employment, also known as not having a proper job. The fates have been kind. I really do remember the date 1 April 2005 for it marked the day when I decided to be bold and take a really massive leap into the unknown rather than stick it out in a miserable commute that was too long, a job that seemed ultimately pointless and, most importantly, the ludicrousness of having to spend 8+ hours every day in an office regardless of how much work I actually needed to produce. The world of work, to me, seemed (and still mostly seems) off its rocker. So I “went freelance”, which is what people in the cultural sector say when they don’t really know what they’re going to do with themselves, but it turned out to be absolutely the best choice to me and since then I’ve worked with artists, composers, musicians, dancers, festivals, major events… There have been plenty of downs and uncertainty of course, but ultimately, flexibility and self-direction are the cornerstones to me of gainful employment. That plus the ability to work on worthwhile projects with interesting people. 15 years is quite an achievement and I don’t take it for granted.

I say this now because I wonder if the disruption to the workplace caused by Coronavirus will lead many people to reconsider how they organise their lives. Working from home doesn’t mean slovenliness…far from it, in my experience it leads to greater productivity. Working around caring for children or relatives doesn’t mean that you’re uncommitted, it shows that you have a full life and are adept at juggling responsibilities. Really, it’s about time that the world of work caught up.

I was due to mark today’s anniversary with a day out to London, a trip to the V&A and shopping at the fancy bakeries in Marylebone and Soho. Obviously that plan got scrapped and instead, I stayed home and made a batch of Viennese Fingers from my favourite 1970s cookbook, The Dairy Book of Home Cookery. My mum has this book and I’ve known it all my life, although the copy I use now actually belonged to Matt’s Granny. If you ignore such delights as Sole with Bananas and Potted Kipper Creams, and stick to the basics of cakes, puddings, batter puddings, scones and pastry, then you can’t go wrong.

The Dairy Book of Home Cooking, a classic that deserves its place in any cookbook collection
The Viennese Fingers have been re-named as Butter Whirls, but the basic principle is the same

Viennese fingers are one of my favourite ‘traditional’ bakery items; I still choose them when I go to Cooks Bakery in Upton On Severn. They are a basic butter biscuit dough, which is piped into either a finger or a whirl, depending on how you feel, then sandwiched with buttercream and topped with chocolate. Given that the principle ingredients are butter, sugar, flour and chocolate, this is great store-cupboard cookery, but still feels suitably celebratory. If it wasn’t for the lockdown I would never have dreamt of making these – but I’m glad I did.

Viennese Fingers
Adapted from the Dairy Book of Home Cooking

For the biscuits:
150g softened unsalted butter
50g icing sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
150g plain flour

For the butter icing:
50g softened unsalted butter
50g icing sugar

For the topping:
100g dark chocolate

Preheat the oven to 160c. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

Beat together the butter, sugar and vanilla until the mixture is incredibly soft and whipped. You may need to zap the lot in the microwave for a few seconds to reach the desired level of softness, but be careful not to let it melt completely. Stir in the flour to make a soft dough.

Using a piping bag with a meringue nozzle, pipe lengths onto the baking paper – mine are about 6cm long – or alternatively you could make whirls. (Ideally you need a star nozzle but I only have a plain one.) Place in the oven and bake until lightly golden brown – between 12-15 minutes, depending on your oven and the size of your biscuits. Check them often to be sure that they do not burn. Remove from oven and leave to sit for five minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool.

For the buttercream, beat the butter and sugar together until very pale and fluffy. For the topping, break the chocolate into chunks and melt in the microwave – I do this by turning the microwave on in 30 second bursts.

To finish the biscuits, match your fingers up so that each pair is roughly the same size. Spread buttercream onto the inside of one biscuit and press the other half on top into a sandwich, then either dip one half in chocolate or drizzle over the top. Place on greaseproof paper to firm.

Makes about 10, depending on how big your piping is!

Viennese Fingers

Also this week:
Garden and allotment: The ‘lockdown’ (does anyone else really LOATHE the lexicon of this pandemic?) means that work continues on the shed, which I am delighted by. Sowed beans, sweetcorn, watercress and delphiniums.

Eating and cooking: Not been shopping for days given the lockdown, which means that eggs and flour have become luxury items. I am still in storecupboard mode. We’ve made some dodgy but edible bread, plus hummus, chicken and ham pie and more muffins. Matt’s had a go at potato farls.

Also: Crafting, farms, trains and play doh with Harry.

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.