Quince and apple crumble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also this week:

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

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

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

Plum torte

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

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

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

The white dahlias are phenomenal this year

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

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

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

Japple pudding: jam topped with sponge topped with sliced apple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuscan Plum Torte
Adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

For the caramel:
275g granulated sugar
150ml water

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

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

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

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

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

Also this week:

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

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

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

Jean’s apple plate pie

Matt comes from a family of home-bakers. I’ve written before about how Granny used to make hundreds and hundreds of mince pies at Christmas, selling them to friends and neighbours. Her skills extended to apple pie too – the apple trees in their garden (presumably planted by Grampy) produced a massive crop and so Granny would turn the windfalls into foil-wrapped bakes that she supplied to her loyal following of customers.

Granny and Grampy’s house – note the apple trees and rows of chrysanthemums at the back

Matt’s family playing next to those amazing apple trees. Granny is wearing the blue cardigan.

Granny passed away in 2017, and her house and the apple trees are now sold, but her apple legacy lives on. Matt’s Mum, Jean, carries on the tradition with her perfect, melt-in-the-mouth apple plate pie. She made one at Christmas which Harry practically inhaled, it was so good, and I couldn’t help but compare this masterclass of good, old-fashioned pastry work with my rather clunky attempts. Plate pies are uncommon now, with restaurants and bakeries seeming to prefer the deep-dish American-style pie. If I make an apple pie it’s always deep, and the all-butter pastry that I make is tasty but prone to shrinking and can easily teeter over the edge to toughness. Jean’s pastry (and my Mum’s, come to that), remains crumbly and light. “What’s the secret?”, I asked.

Jean’s perfect pie

Jean replied: “The answer is lard. And margarine.” Marg! I can not remember the last time I had a block of margarine in my fridge. But then I recalled that at school, I was taught to make shortcrust with the combination of lard and margarine, NEVER butter. I had to think that the older generation of bakers may be onto something. And so, in the spirit of honouring the wisdom of our fore-mothers, I decided to have a go at making the famous Apple Plate Pie.

Jean explained that she used the ratio of half-fat to flour in her pastry, and that the fat is 50% lard and 50% Stork. So for one pie, she would use 12oz of flour, 3oz lard and 3oz Stork. In modern language that’s 300g flour, 75g lard and 75g Stork. Incidentally she also texted that I should use self-raising flour, which I instantly forgot, so I used plain. Simply whizz the flour with the cold fat in a food processor until thoroughly combined. This step is important – I have always rubbed fat into flour using my fingers in some mis-guided attempt at authenticity, but it leads to uneven lumps of fat that make for flaky, rather than short, pastry. The food processor gives a far superior result.

Blitz plain flour with Stork margarine and lard, using the food processor

Jean never uses the food processor to mix the water, preferring to use the classic round-knife method. So turn the mixture out into a bowl, add a few tablespoons of cold water and cut in with a table knife. (If you’ve got one of those knives with the white, faux-ivory handle, so much the better.) Once the mixture looks claggy then use your hands to bring it to a dough. It comes together in seconds. Give the pastry a very subtle knead to ensure everything is combined, then flatten out and put to one side. Jean usually uses her pastry straight away but I prefer to chill mine while I make the filling.

Cut cold water in with a round-edged knife and mix to a dough, then flatten and chill

On to the filling. Bramley apples are the thing to use – although one of mine was rotten inside so I substituted a few Braeburns, which turned out just fine. Peel, core and then slice the apples into chunky slices – if you want a smoother filling, like Granny used to, just slice the apples more finely. Two big bramleys should be sufficient for one pie, or 1 bramley and 2 smaller eating apples.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling – chop a few bramley apples to coarse slices

Pile the fruit into a pan with a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon or two of water, then cook over a low heat until pulpy. Give it a taste and if it needs more sugar, add it now.

Cook the apples with sugar and water until pulpy

Remove the apples from the heat and chill for half an hour or so, until cool. I’ve learnt from previous disasters to never put hot fruit on cold pastry so trust me on this one – apples in the fridge. My apples cooked down into a dry-ish pulp but if they turn out very wet, use a slotted spoon to remove the bulk of the fruit from the water.

Chill the finished apple filling

Now we make the pie. Pre-heat the oven to 180c and find yourself an ovenproof plate, about 20cm/8inches in diameter. I use a pleasingly retro white enamel one. There’s no need to grease the plate. Slice the pastry in half, then roll out the first half into a circle large enough to cover your plate. Lay it on the plate and lightly mould down the sides and edges.

Roll out the pastry to cover the base of an 8-inch oven-proof plate

Spread the apple filling on top. Don’t over fill here – any leftover fruit can be used for something else. Keep the fruit level with the sides of the plate, no higher.

Spread your chilled filling on top

Roll out the remaining pastry and place on top. Use your thumbs to press the pastry edges together, then use a sharp knife to trim the edges. Finally, slit a small hole in the centre to allow the steam to escape. Neither Jean nor Granny ever glaze their pie, so I didn’t either.

Cover with remaining pastry, seal and cut a steam vent in the middle

Bake at 180c for about 40 minutes until golden and obviously cooked through. When done remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle with caster sugar, then leave to cool slightly. Any leftover pastry can be used to make tarts, turnovers, cheese straws, cinnamon straws….whatever you fancy.

Bake at 180c for about 40 minutes or until golden, then dust with caster sugar. Use any leftover pastry for tarts or pasties! (Apologies for bad light…the finished pie was not ready until night-time)

The verdict? Excellent attempt! This is the best pastry I’ve made in years. I’m not saying it’s up there with Granny or Jean’s version, but I’m pleased with my efforts. It’s very important to me to take a family tradition and introduce it to my son, even if I’m not a Foster. My mum also makes plate pies though hers tend to have redcurrants in them – for me, this simple, comforting pudding is the taste of Sundays, Desert Island Discs and Antiques Roadshow. Food is such an important part of how families, and memories, are made.

Apple Plate Pie

Makes 1 20cm / 8inch pie

300g plain flour
75g lard
75g margarine (I use Stork)
cold water
2 large bramley apples or 1 bramley and 2 eating apples such as braeburn
caster sugar

To make the pastry, blitz the flour, lard and margarine in a food processor until thoroughly combined. Tip into a bowl. Add a few tablespoons of cold water and draw together with a blunt-edged knife until claggy – add more water as required. Bring the mixture together with your hands. Knead lightly to combine then press into a disk, wrap and refrigerate.

To make the filling, peel, core and slice the apples into thin slices. Tip into a pan with 2 tablespoons of water and 1 tablespoon sugar. Cook on a medium heat until pulpy. Taste and add more sugar if required. Chill for at least 30 minutes, until cool.

Preheat the oven to 180c and have ready your oven-proof plate. Roll out half the pastry and use to line the base of the plate. Spread the filling on top, until level with the sides of the plate. Roll out remaining pastry and place on top, sealing the edges with your fingers. Trip the edges with a sharp knife. Cut a vent hole in the top. (Use any remaining pastry to make tarts, cheese straws etc).

Bake for 40 minutes until golden. Sprinkle with caster sugar when hot. Serve hot or warm with cream, custard or ice cream.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Pheasant braised in spiced orange juice, baked sausage ragu pasta, beef bourguignon pie, go-to chocolate muffins.

Reading: The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson, Today We Die A Little – the biography of Emile Zatopeck by Richard Askwith, a re-reading of The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard for some Cazalet family escapism.

Also: Back to work properly after the pre-Christmas lull. Ordering this year’s cut flower and veg seeds. Using the NHS for my continued hand, foot & mouth issue and Matt’s dodgy chest.

Granny’s apple scone

Life is gradually mellowing into a new rhythm. I am back to my clock-watching habit, but now it’s to calculate feed times rather than dashing to work meetings. Dare I say that the night feeds have become less hideous now that I’m getting my strength back and the baby has a more predictable rhythm to his day…but I don’t want to speak too soon, it could all change again tomorrow.

It’s good to be heading towards some kind of stability or normality; I don’t care for chaos. The other weekend we braved a visit to Quainton in Bucks to catch up with my uni friends – a whole day away from home with no disasters!

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Early evening in Quainton

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First visit to the farm (Harry, not Matt)

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We’re out in a different county…a miracle!

In other news, Matt’s Granny and Grampy (both remarkable people, blessed with long life and good health) have recently moved out of their bungalow into a care home. Granny has spent her entire life baking and I’ve been lucky enough to be given temporary guardianship of her recipe books, handwritten in neat script and with brilliant records of the hundreds (not exaggerating) of mince pies and rich fruit cakes baked each Christmas for friends and neighbours.

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Granny’s recipe book

Obviously I’m going to have a go at some of these classic recipes though I am very conscious that there is danger here – no matter how hard I try, my efforts will never be considered by Matt to be as good as Granny’s, or his Mum’s for that matter. This apple scone recipe is a case in point: Matt grew up on this and I feel I have a duty to add it to my repertoire to keep the family tradition going, though it will probably take a good 20 years of practice before I finally get it just right. Food and cooking carry with them great nostalgic value; the link between generations.

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The famous apple scone recipe

Apple scone is, as the title suggests, a scone with apple in it. In a world of red velvet cakes and beetroot brownies it’s refreshing to work with a recipe that is solidly straight-forward and, dare I say, plain.  The fruit makes the scone slightly more dense and moist than normal and pleasingly it’s not too sweet.

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My effort…not bad for a first timer!

This is a fantastically adaptable bake: Granny suggests to eat with butter; Matt’s sister Claire suggests trying it with custard or ice cream, but I’d have it plain for breakfast with the first caffeine shot of the day. My attempt used apples from Grampy’s trees.

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Have for afternoon tea, pudding, or breakfast after the morning feed.

Granny’s apple scone
8oz self raising flour
2oz unsalted butter
pinch salt
1 level teaspoon baking powder
1 large cooking apple, peeled, cored and finely diced
2oz caster sugar
little milk
demerara sugar

Sift the flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until only the finest lumps remain. Stir in the sugar and apple, then add enough milk to make a soft dough.

Transfer the dough to a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Press the dough to an 8-inch round shape and mark into 8 wedges. Brush with milk and scatter with demerara sugar.

Bake at 180c for about 20 to 25 minutes.

Pear (or apple) pudding cake

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

The Play's The Thing

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

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

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Pink and apricot on one side…

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…pumpkin shades on the other!

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

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

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

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Caramelise the prepared apples or pears then leave to cool slightly

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

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Prepare the cake batter

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

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Arrange batter, fruit, juices and marzipan in the tin

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

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A gooey pear and almond pudding-cake

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