Gardening as distraction therapy?

Chaenomeles

I’m sure I’m not the only one finding my garden a wonderful haven to take my mind off the dreadful news all around us. Gardening is such a distraction: even though many of the jobs we have to do, especially at this time of year, are fairly basic, they require us to concentrate on what we’re doing and live for the moment. The perfect definition of mindfulness – and thank goodness for that! Today I’ve mowed my lawn (second cut of the year, on a slightly lower setting than last week’s on a still slightly boggy lawn), painted a fence panel between me and my neighbour having taken out an overgrown pyracantha this winter, finished dead-heading my hydrangeas and sowed my first batch of seeds in the propagator for the season to come: tomatoes Sungold, Black Cherry and Tigerella, all old favourites, plus a new variety recommended by an American colleague, Rosella. I also sowed Hungarian Black chillis, sweet peppers California Wonder and Corno di Torro Rosso, aubergines Long Purple and Prosperosa, sweet basil, leeks Musselburgh, Tornado and Below-Zero, and flowers including lobelia Sapphire, Cobaea (cup and saucer plant) and marigold Strawberry Blonde. Despite the chilly wind, it was a delightful way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon in the garden – and my mind didn’t turn to coronavirus even once!

Painted fence

Tomorrow’s task is to spread last year’s compost – well, strictly speaking, the year before’s compost as I have two compost bins, filled in rotation. When I empty the one that’s now ready, I’ll stop adding things to the current bin and leave that to rot down for a year before it gets spread around the garden in its turn. Distributing it is hard work, but eminently satisfying. This year I intend to use most of it to extend a flower bed in the front garden near my Katy apple tree. The lawn that’s currently there always goes brown in summer and has root suckers from my neighbour’s beautiful but vigorous ornamental cherry, which probably take up all the available water in the dry season. Better by far to abandon the lawn and grow plants that won’t mind being dry for part of the year – any excuse to grow more plants! Although sourcing them may be a challenge with the garden centres being closed at present….

First PSB

Then I can turn my attention to the allotment, which we’re also allowed to visit and tend despite the current restrictions. Such a blessing to have green space to enjoy and keep busy in – and we may possibly be even more grateful than usual for the extra fresh food if the crisis continues into the summer, although I fervently hope it doesn’t. I’m currently picking purple-sprouting broccoli, flowering sprout leaves, leeks, spinach, chard and parsley – not bad for the hungry gap! Plus rhubarb just coming (I’ve had a couple of small pickings so far) and the early tulips about to come into flower to cut for the house. Just what we need to brighten us all up. I’ve been picking posies of camellias to keep me going until mine start, but they go over very quickly inside – better than being caught by the frost outside, though!

Jempsons tulips, hellebores and daphne
Bought tulips from my local independent supermarket eked out with daphne and hellebores from the garden

Parsnips – the unsung heroes of the winter vegetable plot

Parsnip

Parsnips are a very underrated vegetable in my opinion; indeed, many of our fellow European countries regard parsnips as animal fodder, not fit for human consumption. They clearly haven’t enjoyed the delights of a roasted parsnip with their Sunday lunch or a mound of creamy mashed carrot and parsnip accompanying virtually any meat, but particularly the slightly gamey cuts of venison or lamb. I wouldn’t be without them, in the kitchen or in the plot. They are in the ground a long time, admittedly, but they also come into their own in the dog days of winter/early spring, when there are very slim pickings to be had from the kitchen garden. What’s more, you can leave them in the ground all winter and dig them up as you require – unless you live in a very cold area, when you might struggle to break through the frozen soil in the winter months! In these cases, you can lift your root crops and store in sand in a cool place like a garage or shed. Temperate Britain doesn’t usually warrant such extreme measures, though.

I usually sow my parsnips in late March/early April, depending on soil temperature. If you can remember to cover your chosen bed with enviromesh or fleece for a few weeks beforehand, that can give you a start too. Just weed the bed and rake thoroughly to a fine tilth, removing any stones; don’t add manure as this can cause root crops to fork, reducing your crop significantly. I usually plant parsnips in a dedicated root crop bed as part of my 4-year rotation scheme, sowing three rows of parsnips along with successional sowings of carrots and beetroot. Parsnips take a long time to germinate – up to three weeks – so if they don’t germinate for whatever reason, it’s often too late to plant more. Germination isn’t normally an issue, however – I rarely have a complete crop failure with them, unlike carrot seedlings which can get annihilated by slugs overnight if you’re not careful. Interplanting the rows of parsnips with fast-cropping radish can be a good idea, as it reminds you that the parsnips are there, but the radish can be done and dusted by the time the parsnips are big enough to need the space. As they start to grow, thin out as you would with any root crop, and remember to water them occasionally in dry weather. Then just (!) wait until after the first frosts to enjoy them in their full glory. The cold turns the starch into sugar, enhancing the taste in the process. You can eat the thinnings or young roots earlier on, but they taste very mild at that stage. Parsnips may be huge, they may be scabby, but, after you’ve peeled and chopped them, the flesh is always delicious. You’ll be glad you made the effort in December when you can serve your own roast parsnips with your Christmas dinner.

Christmas parsnips

Most of the parsnip recipes I’ve shared here have been side dishes such as the unctuous Parsnip & Leek Dauphinoise or parsnip scones based on my trusty Cheese & Apple Scone recipe. I’ve always struggled to find a good parsnip soup recipe, as they can be quite cloying unless you add a lot of spice – and then the spice can overpower the taste of parsnip. However, I recently discovered a delicious parsnip soup recipe in an American cookbook called Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden. As ever, I’ve tweaked it based on my years of soup-making experience, but what gave this one the edge was the delicious, zingy garnish, which really lifted the soup to a whole other level. Try it and see!

Parsnip Soup – serves 4-6

Parsnip soup

Olive oil (or butter if you prefer)
1 large onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
500g parsnips, peeled and chopped (you can add potato if you don’t have enough parsnips)
2-3 celery sticks, chopped (reserve the leaves for the garnish)
1 litre vegetable stock
Freshly ground nutmeg
1 bay leaf
Seasoning
Milk (or water) to taste

Garnish:
50g currants (or sultanas)
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
50g sunflower seeds, toasted (or pine nuts, almonds or cashews if you prefer)
handful parsley, chopped (or coriander)
1 tsp lemon zest, finely grated
1 tsp lemon juice (or lime, if that’s what you have!)
1/4 fresh red chilli, finely chopped (to taste)
seasoning
olive oil

Add a glug of olive oil (or a knob of butter) to a large soup pan and add the chopped onions, garlic, celery and parsnips. Cook gently for about 10 minutes until starting to soften. Add the freshly ground nutmeg, seasoning and stock, bring to the boil and cook for 20-30 minutes or until all the vegetables are tender. Remove from the heat and purée with a stick blender, or transfer to a liquidiser and blend until smooth. Return to the pan if necessary and adjust the consistency by adding milk or water if too thick. Reheat to serving temperature.

While the soup is cooking, prepare the garnish: put the currants or sultanas in a small bowl and pour over the red wine vinegar. Allow to soak for at least 15 minutes. Then toss the currants and their soaking liquid, toasted pine nuts, chopped parsley (or coriander) and reserved celery leaves, lemon zest and juice, finely chopped chilli and seasoning together. Add a glug of olive oil to finish and apply to your soup with a decorative flourish!

My final parsnip recipe comes from the same book, heavily adapted to adjust the US cup measurements for an English audience! It’s a parsnippy take on a carrot cake and quite delectable: lusciously soft, yet decadently crumbly at the same time. Even confirmed parsnip haters won’t detect its presence…

Parsnip, Date & Hazelnut Loaf

Parsnip loaf, slice

250g parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
150g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
100g chopped dates
100g hazelnuts, coarsely ground in a food processor
150g caster sugar
50g dark brown Muscovado sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp cinnamon
150 ml olive oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon zest

For the icing:
100g icing sugar, sifted
Juice and grated zest of half a lemon, setting aside some zest for the cake

Grease and line the base of a standard loaf tin. Pre-heat the oven to 150°C fan (Gas 3).

Put the chopped parsnips into a food processor and process until finely chopped, or grate if you prefer. Place the sifted flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Add the chopped dates and finely chopped hazelnuts (you can chop these by hand if you haven’t got a food processor, but they have a habit of rolling all over the board because they’re round!).

Place the eggs, caster and Muscovado sugar, vanilla extract and 1 tsp lemon zest in a large stand mixer, or beat with a hand mixer. Add the finely chopped parsnips, then gradually pour in the olive oil until well mixed. Fold the parsnip mixture into the dry ingredients until completely incorporated.

Transfer to the prepared loaf tin and cook in the pre-heated oven for 1 hr to 1 hr 10 minutes. This will vary considerably depending on the age/texture of your parsnips and your oven temperature. The original recipe said 35 to 45 minutes, but mine was nowhere near ready by that time (homegrown parsnips perhaps?) and took nearer 1 hr 10 minutes. Do keep checking with a skewer (it should come out clean when inserted in the centre of the loaf) and touch with a finger to make sure it springs back to the touch, rather than still looking soft.

Meanwhile, prepare the lemon glaze by mixing the sifted icing sugar with the remaining lemon zest and a tbsp or so of lemon juice until the consistency is thick enough to coat the cake. You can add more icing sugar or lemon juice to adjust if necessary. Set aside.

Cool the loaf in the tin for 15 minutes, then carefully turn out onto a cooling rack, place greaseproof paper beneath (to catch drips) and pour over the glaze, making sure it covers the top surface and runs prettily down the sides.

You could, of course, go down the traditional carrot cake route and top with cream cheese frosting, but bear in mind that frosting won’t keep as long out of the fridge if it’s not all going to be eaten straightaway.

I found the glazed version keeps for a good week in the tin – the perfect afternoon treat!

Parsnip, date and hazelnut loaf

The February Blues

When I booked a trip to visit my son and daughter-in-law in Boston at the end of January, I envisaged snow and arctic conditions across the pond, followed by a return to early spring in the UK when I got home in February. But no. It was not to be. New England was experiencing its mildest winter for some years, with temperatures hovering around freezing, but brilliant blue skies and sunshine – a far cry from the wettest autumn/winter on record (or so it seems) we’ve experienced at home. So far, so welcome – and a delightful break, lovely to be reunited with family and spend time together, of course. Plus we got to see some snow in a trip to beautiful Vermont, so that satisfied my snow longings.

Unfortunately, my son had a nasty cold while I was there and my throat was starting to feel suspiciously tickly on my night flight back. It quickly developed into a decidedly croaky voice, followed by a full-blown stinker of a cold – just what you want when you get back from holiday. Nearly two weeks on, and I’m gradually shaking it off, although now my 86-year-old father has it and I’m feeling bad about passing it on to him in the brief time I saw them between landing and picking up my car.

Needless to say, gardening has been off the agenda over the past two weeks, even had the weather been kinder, but no, we’ve been battered by storms, mirroring my mood. I did manage to venture out to the allotment last weekend, while Storm Chiara (my name in Italian – how apt!) was doing her worst, and my poor shed is definitely on its last legs. Only the clematis is holding it up, I suspect – a new one will have to be on the agenda very soon, when I feel up to doing the research, that is! More torrential rain is on the way this weekend in the shape of Storm Dennis, so we’ll see whether that finishes it off – it hasn’t been as bad as last weekend so far, although the main road to Tunbridge Wells is flooded again. For the time being, my tools – and, more importantly, my little stove! – are covered and I daren’t try and rescue them in case the whole thing collapses on my head!

Poorly shed

Cooking from scratch is another thing I haven’t really felt up to, most unusually for me, but this is where a well-stocked freezer and all those soups transformed from bumper harvests last season come into their own. Tomato soup, carrot & coconut and turkey broth have gone down particularly well: all those vitamins doing my throat good on their warming way down, even if my sense of taste and smell isn’t all it should be either. Hot drinks have been my salvation: copious amounts of tea (even more than usual, which is pretty good going, even for me!), hot blackcurrant and lemon, plus Lemsip at bedtime. I’ve even gone off coffee and alcohol – it must have been a really nasty bug! Herbal remedies from my friend have really helped, though: andrographis compound, plus eucalyptus and thyme for my chesty cough and eyebright (euphrasia, who knew? Augentrost, or eye consolation in German, which is also rather nice) & calendula for my streaming eyes. Oh, and beetroot juice to boost my immune system.

Carrot & Coconut soup

Before I lost my sense of taste and appetite, however, I did manage to make a batch of chocolate chip oat cookies – having returned post-holiday to a house with empty biscuit and cake tins! That would never do… As it happened, we’d made some American-style choc chip cookies in Boston from a new cookbook borrowed from their excellent local library. They were very good (especially when we’d halved the amount of sugar in the original recipe!), but it reminded me to dig out my old recipe, adapted from a magazine many moons ago. Mine are definitely more traditional crispy biscuits than the American softer cookie-style ones, but try both and see what you think:

English Chocolate Chip Oat Cookies – makes 24

Choc chip oat cookies

4oz butter, softened
3oz soft light brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
3oz oats
3oz self-raising flour, sifted
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
4oz dark chocolate, roughly chopped

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C fan (Gas 4) and grease two baking sheets, then line with baking parchment.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and creamy, then gradually beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Stir in the remaining ingredients and mix well. Place heaped teaspoons of the mixture on the baking sheets, spaced apart to allow for spreading during baking. Bake for 15 minutes, cool for a minute on the trays and then remove to wire racks to finish cooling. Enjoy with a steaming hot cup of tea.

And the American version appeared in this book, duly adapted for a less sweet English tooth:

Book cover

American Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Cookies – makes 24

8oz butter, softened
4oz caster sugar
4oz soft brown sugar
1 large egg, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp golden (or maple) syrup
4oz self-raising flour
4oz oatmeal
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
6-8oz dark chocolate, roughly chopped
4oz oats

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C fan (Gas 4) and grease three to four baking sheets, then line with baking parchment.

Cream the butter and sugars until light and creamy, then gradually beat in the egg, syrup and vanilla extract. Stir in the remaining ingredients and mix well. Place heaped teaspoons of the mixture on the baking sheets, spaced apart to allow for spreading during baking – these will spread more than their English cousins! Bake for 12 – 15 minutes or until just cooked: American cookies are usually softer than their British counterparts. Cool for a minute on the trays and then remove to wire racks to finish cooling. Enjoy with coffee (if you must!) or still excellent with a steaming hot cup of tea.

American choc chunk cookies

The suggestion in the original recipe is for these to be served as ice-cream sandwiches, with homemade raspberry ripple ice cream – now there’s a thought for the balmy days of summer at the height of the raspberry season…

In the meantime, I think I need another holiday to recover from my horrible decennial cold – just as well I have a restorative week in the Alps (not skiing this year, sadly) lined up in March 🙂

Frozen blackcurrants

 

 

 

 

Harbingers of Spring

Hellebore Party Frock and snowdrops

January is the time to consider cutting back last year’s hellebore leaves to reveal the promising new shoots and flower buds unfurling beneath. In fact, when I ventured outside this afternoon, taking advantage of a rare lull between translation projects, the new flower stems were much taller than I’d expected, up to 8″ above the ground. If I’d left it any longer, it would have been tricky to distinguish between the new and old stems! I’d cut half my plants back on Sunday morning in a brief glimpse of sunshine, while waiting for my parents to arrive to go over to my son’s for an early birthday lunch, but managed to finish the job today. Very satisfying: the haircut seems to encourage the strength, which would otherwise have sustained the parasol-like leaves, into the developing flowers, allowing them to come on in leaps and bounds over the next few weeks. The dense leaf cover often conceals emerging snowdrops too, as the two go wonderfully together. Newly released from their leafy prison, they can now open up their faces to the elements, especially if the weather continues wet and mild.

Hellebore orientalis cross unfurling

Accompanying me as I worked was the heady scent of Daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill, now a huge bush in the back garden, but its delicious fragrance carries all the way to the front – an extra incentive to get outside and blow away the winter cobwebs! I hadn’t even realised it was flowering until a week ago, when a chance comment about favourite scented plants on Instagram prompted me into the back garden to check up on it – and there it was in full flower! Just shows how awful the weather has been that I hadn’t noticed… Considering I absolutely hacked this shrub back in the summer, it clearly thrives on being treated mean. It’s now about 6-7 feet tall and would be much bigger if I didn’t prune it so severely after flowering. Although the cuttings I took in 2018 all perished in the end, despite looking promising initially, last year I noticed that the plant has sent up strong suckers in about four places. I’m going to leave it until the springtime and then try and lift them – wish me luck!

Daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill

Isn’t it amazing how just 30 minutes or so in the garden at this time of year makes you feel SO much better? Despite my twice-daily dog walks, there’s really no substitute for the mindfulness of just being out in the fresh air, with your hands in or near the earth, messing about with plants…. Maybe spring isn’t that far away after all?

 

 

 

Carrots to brighten up a dreary day

carrots 2

As the New Year gets underway, and the Christmas decorations go back in the loft for another year, it’s only too obvious that January can be a dreary month, a full 31 days long and often with grey, gloomy weather and nothing much to look forward to… (I’m in the lucky position of flying out to Boston again at the end of the month to visit my son, but I’m aware that’s hardly standard!) On grey days, there’s nothing like a bowl of brightly coloured soup to warm us up, and carrots are not only seasonal, but perfect for their zingy orange colour. I already have a couple of favourite carrot soups in my repertoire: the perennially popular carrot & coriander and a fresh-tasting carrot, orange & ginger soup, both already on the blog, but I’ve also been making a satisfying simple carrot & lentil soup for years, and it’s about time I shared that here too. Finally, catching up with the stack of food magazines that had built up in the pre-Christmas rush, I came across a delicious-sounding recipe for a carrot & coconut soup in the Waitrose Kitchen magazine and had to try that too. With a hint of chilli heat, fragrant spice and the sweetness of coconut, it passed my taste test and my slight variation on the original deserves to be recorded here for posterity.

I was given a Braun stick blender for Christmas and used it for the first time to blend my soup, rather than the freestanding liquidiser I usually use. What an improvement on the hand blenders of yesteryear! My old yellowing model dates back over 30 years to when my elder son was a baby and I used to purée fruit and vegetables for him. It hung above the window ledge of our sunny kitchen window in the Peak District and the white plastic soon took on a faded, yellowish hue. It was never very efficient at blending whole pans of soup, whereas this new one is super powerful and produced wonderfully smooth results. I can see I’ll get a great deal of use out of it!

Carrot & Coconut Soup – serves 6

Carrot & Coconut soup

a good glug of olive oil
a 3cm piece of root ginger, grated (I keep some in the freezer and grate from frozen)
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
5 spring onions, chopped (or use a couple of leeks)
600g carrots, peeled and chopped
bunch of fresh coriander
700ml vegetable stock (or use chicken or turkey stock if you’re not vegetarian)
400g can coconut milk
juice and zest of 1 lime
seasoning
Coconut flakes, lightly toasted, to garnish

Heat the oil in a large pan and add the ginger, two-thirds of the chopped chilli and the chopped spring onions or leeks. Cook over a low heat for 5-10 minutes until softened. Add the chopped carrots, coriander stalks and seasoning, cook for a further 5 minutes, then add the stock. Bring to the boil and cook for 15-20 minutes, or until the carrots are tender.

Add the coconut milk and the zest of the lime and simmer for a further 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and blend until smooth with a stick blender or in a liquidiser goblet and add the lime juice. Serve with coriander leaves, the remaining chopped chillis and the toasted coconut flakes as a decorative garnish.

The carrot & lentil soup recipe below originally came from an old M&S vegetarian cookbook (Vegetarian Feast) in the early 1980s. I often make it with chicken stock, but it tastes just as good with vegetable stock – just avoid stock cubes, or even bouillon powder, if you want the authentic taste of homemade soup!

Carrot & Lentil Soup – serves 6

a knob of butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4 carrots, chopped (about 250g)
150g red lentils
1 litre vegetable stock (or chicken if you prefer)
seasoning
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
150ml fresh milk
handful of finely chopped fresh parsley

Melt the butter in a large pan and sauté the chopped onion, garlic and celery gently for about 10 minutes until softened. Add the chopped carrots and cook for a further few minutes, then add the lentils. Pour in the stock, bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 40 minutes until the vegetables are cooked.

Blend with a stick blender or in a liquidiser until smooth, then season to taste and add the milk and lemon juice. Reheat gently, then stir in the finely chopped parsley, saving some to garnish the serving bowls. Freezes beautifully.

Sadly, I don’t do well with growing carrots myself. I thought I had a good crop this year, when I decided I’d grow them without the protective environmesh. This seemed to help with germination as it stopped the slugs sheltering in the warmth under the protective covering, but also meant that the carrot root fly were free to lay their eggs, ruining much of the later crop. Sigh. Back to the drawing board. I still grow them for delicious baby summer carrots, but I’d love to do better with the main crop. Heavy clay isn’t ideal for carrots, unfortunately…

 

An apple a day….

An apple a day – or more, actually. At this time of year, I still have bags full of apples in the garage and overflowing fruit bowls in the house, so my thoughts tend to turn to apples when baking or making desserts. All my apples are long since safely gathered in, but they still need monitoring every so often to make sure that any rotten ones don’t spoil the rest. With so many creamy and/or chocolatey desserts in the run-up to Christmas, apple-based dishes are the ideal antidote to all that excess, nice though it is – think a simple mincemeat-stuffed baked apple, or apple compote topped with a refreshing oatmeal yogurt cream, to say nothing of a simple apple pie or a good old apple crumble, perhaps mixed with mincemeat or cranberries for a festive touch – or an added banana just before it goes in the oven is a nice twist too.

Earlier this autumn I made some dried apple rings, a perfect addition to my bowl of breakfast granola, and easy as pie to make, especially if you have a mandoline for ultra-thin slices – but hand-cut is fine too, if you haven’t.

Dried Apple Rings

Apple rings pre-cooking

Eating apples
Lemon juice
Ground cinnamon
Vanilla extract

Wash and core the apples and cut away any damaged areas. Slice into even rings about 2.5mm thick – a mandoline makes this extremely quick and easy, but you can do it by hand too.

Fill a large bowl with water, add a squeeze of lemon juice and a teaspoon of vanilla extract, then let the apple rings soak for 5 minutes to stop them discolouring.

Place the apple rings onto a clean tea towel and pat dry, then transfer them to baking trays lined with greaseproof paper making sure they don’t overlap. Sprinkle with a dusting of cinnamon powder, then transfer the trays to a cool oven (90˚C) for one hour, then turn the slices over before returning to the oven for a further hour and a half. Finally, turn the oven off and leave the rings to cool inside the oven.

When cool, store in an airtight jar, where they should keep for a good few months to brighten up your breakfasts.

apple rings in jar

Another favourite recipe that I can’t quite believe I haven’t shared here before is the nutty apple cake I’ve been making since time immemorial. This recipe is a hand-written scrawl in one of my very first recipe notebooks – so old, I can’t even remember where it came from in the first place, and of course the measurements are imperial, always a bit of a giveaway! The only thing I would add is that, as with other cakes containing fresh fruit (or veg), it does go off if you don’t eat it within 3-4 days, so either freeze half or make sure you serve it for a crowd.

Nutty Apple Cake

Nutty apple cake

1 large cooking apple
1 tsp lemon juice
1oz walnuts
6oz caster sugar
8oz self-raising flour, sifted
6oz softened butter (I use the spreadable variety)
1 rounded tsp mixed spice
3 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp milk
1 heaped tbsp demerara sugar

Pre-heat oven to 150˚C. Grease and line a round, deep 8″ cake tin with a loose base. Peel and core the apple, and cut off 6 even slices, placing these in cold water and sprinkling with lemon juice to prevent discolouring. remove the core and roughly chop the rest of the apple. Finely chop the walnuts.

Place the sugar, butter, sifted flour, mixed spice, beaten eggs and milk in a large bowl and beat with a hand whisk for several minutes until the mixture is smooth, creamy and lighter in colour. Fold in the chopped apple and walnuts, then transfer to the prepared tin. Level the top, then place the reserved apple slices neatly around the edge and sprinkle with the demerara sugar. Bake in the preheated oven for 1 hr 20 – 1 hr 30 mins, checking towards the end as ovens vary. A skewer inserted in the centre should come out clean. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then eat in generous slices with a lovely cup of tea.

My final offering is an adaptation of a gooseberry & pecan flapjack recipe I discovered earlier this year. I’d thought for a while that it would work well with apples, and sure enough, it did. You can ring the changes with walnuts or hazelnuts rather than pecans here, of course. Blackberries would work nicely with the apples too.

Apple & Pecan Flapjack – makes 12-16

Apple & pecan flapjack

200g butter
3-4 large cooking apples
1 tsp ground cinnamon
150g light soft brown sugar
200g spelt flour
150g oats
1 tsp cinnamon
100g pecans, chopped (or walnuts or hazelnuts if you prefer)
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180°C fan (Gas 5) and grease and line a rectangular baking tin – mine measures 28cm x 18cm x 3.5cm, but the original recipe from Waitrose uses a 20cm square tin.

Peel, core and roughly chop the apples, sprinkle with lemon juice, then place in a pan with 50g of the sugar (or to taste), a tbsp or so of water and 1 tsp ground cinnamon. Cook over a low heat until the apples start to fall. Turn up the heat and continue cooking, stirring regularly, for 10-15 minutes until you have a thickish, jam-like mixture.

Take off the heat and set aside.

Mix the flour, ground ginger, oats, salt and chopped pecans (or nuts of your choice) in a large bowl. In another pan, melt the butter and remaining 100g sugar, then pour over the flour mixture. Mix together until you have a rough dough.

Press half of the dough over the bottom of the baking tin, then spread the apple mixture on top. Sprinkle the remaining dough on top – I found it easier to crumble it with my fingers, so it didn’t cover the jam layer entirely and was quite chunky.

Place in the preheated oven and cook for 25-30 minutes until nicely browned. Cool in the tin, then cut into 12-16 bars (depending how hungry you feel!) and enjoy with your morning coffee. Delicious! They should keep well in an airtight tin for several days.

 

 

 

Pumpkin party

At this time of year, the amount of fresh stuff coming back from the allotment is much more limited: leeks and parsnips certainly, rocket and parsley of course, plus spinach and chard too. I even managed to pick a few side shoots of calabrese, but the main purple-sprouting broccoli won’t be ready until the New Year and the kale is slow this year, not helped by being attacked by caterpillars in the mild September weather. I haven’t checked on my flower sprouts (kalettes), and have only just realised that they grow up the stem like Brussels sprouts, so I really ought to look. However, the Crown Prince squash I harvested in October are still going strong in their basket in the conservatory and make a beautiful addition to autumn recipes, sweet and savoury. That said, I actually used a tin of pumpkin purée in the recipe I’m going to share today, mainly because my son and daughter-in-law brought a couple of tins over from the US when they visited in November, which just happened to coincide with this recipe appearing in the Weekend magazine.

I’ve made carrot, courgette and even beetroot cakes before, but never pumpkin, so I was pleasantly surprised by the texture and taste of this one. I tweaked the recipe slightly, mainly by using a different frosting to the rich double cream version suggested in Martha’s original recipe. Unless you’re catering for a houseful, I’d suggest you want something that keeps a little longer than a cream-based topping. In the end, I adapted an Ottolenghi cream cheese frosting – and froze half the cake (unfrosted), as the end result was quite large! I think it would also be good made as a traybake, adapting the cooking time accordingly. Here’s what I did:

Spiced Pumpkin Latte Cake – serves 10-12

Spiced pumpkin latte cake

½ x 425g can pumpkin purée (you could use steamed and puréed fresh squash too)
2 large eggs
100ml vegetable oil (I used groundnut, but sunflower would be fine)
100ml strong coffee
125g caster sugar
125g light brown sugar
250g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp salt
1 tsp mixed spice
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger

Coffee syrup:
50ml strong coffee
50g caster sugar

Frosting:
180g cream cheese
70g butter, softened
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
50g icing sugar, sifted
2 tsp espresso powder (for dusting)

Preheat the oven to 180ºC, gas mark 4, and line a 900g loaf tin with baking parchment. In a large mixing bowl, beat together the pumpkin purée, eggs, oil, coffee and both sugars.

In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and spices. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and mix until a smooth batter forms, with no flour visible. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 50 mins to 1 hour or until a skewer comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in the tin while you make the syrup.

Stir the coffee and sugar together in a small saucepan and warm over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Turn the heat up and simmer for 2-3 minutes until thick and syrupy. While the cake is cooling, brush the top with the warm syrup.

To make the cream cheese frosting, whisk together the cream cheese, butter and vanilla extract using an electric whisk until smooth. Add the sifted icing sugar gradually until soft and fluffy. Pile on top of the cooled cake and dust with a fine sprinkling of sifted espresso powder (or more cinnamon if you prefer, as used in the original recipe).

Having made the cake, I was left with half a tin of pumpkin purée, but what to do with it? While I was deliberating, Rebekka Gross, a breadmaking colleague on Foodie Translators, suggested pumpkin bread and passed over her tried and tested recipe. It makes a huge loaf, so once again, I froze half – it freezes beautifully and is good fresh or toasted. Quite delicious with today’s carrot and coriander soup. Leave out the spices if you don’t want quite such a savoury taste, although I served it with peach and basil jam for breakfast and it worked really well. I proved it in a basket overnight in the fridge, according to Rebekka’s instructions, but it deflated when I turned it out, so I suspect it had overproved. Fortunately, it still rose again in the oven and tasted great, but I think it needs to be moulded and put in its baking receptacle first if you’re going to go down the overnight proving route! I also chickened out of baking it in a Le Creuset casserole, as suggested, but here’s what I did instead:

Spiced Pumpkin Bread – makes one large loaf

Pumpkin bread

200g wholemeal spelt flour
400g strong bread flour
1.5 tsp dried yeast (I like Dove’s Farm)
280ml lukewarm water
1.5 tsp salt
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp olive oil
200g puréed butternut squash (or 1/2 x 425g tin)
1/4 tsp ground cumin (optional)
1/4 tsp ground coriander (optional)
Pinch ground cloves (optional)
Grated nutmeg

Mix the dough using the dough setting of a breadmaker – or mix in a KitchenAid or by hand if you prefer. Shape and place on a baking tray or in a large bread tin, then prove overnight in the fridge (or at room temperature for 1-2 hours). The following morning, remove from the fridge, allow to stand at room temperature for 30 mins or so while you heat the oven to 180ºC, Gas 5 (it should have risen quite dramatically!). Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the bread is nicely brown and sounds hollow when you tap underneath. Cool on a rack and enjoy!

(Rebekka suggested the Le Creuset method: heat a large Le Creuset casserole at full whack for 20 minutes – only heat the lid if it has an ovenproof handle. Bake for 50 minutes altogether: 30 minutes at 225ºC with the lid on, 20 minutes at 180-200ºC (depending how brown it is) with the lid off.)

Pumpkin bread, cut

Baking aside, I even managed to snatch an hour up at the allotment on Sunday afternoon: finally planting out the tulip bulbs from last year’s containers in the new cutting garden beds. Of course, I had to clear the beds of the spent sunflower stems and cosmos plants from the summer first – surprisingly tough to get out of the ground! Those sunflowers must have been well over 15 feet tall and had extremely thick stems that required a pruning saw to cut through them, to say nothing of the effort required to extract the roots… All done at long last, with two strenuous treks up to the bonfire site pushing an overladen wheelbarrow over muddy ground – phew! I cut back the blackened stalks of this year’s new dahlias too, and mounded them up with compost from some of the tomato pots from home – waste not, want not. Hopefully, it will help the tubers come through the winter, whatever the weather….

Crochet workshop
Crochet workshop in Tenterden – a lovely way to spend a December afternoon

 

 

Thoughts from a gardener/cook…

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