The last of the apples from storage…

Party Frock

One of the things that amazes me most about writing this blog is how often I come to write about my gardening activities, only to find that it was exactly the same weekend the previous year I did the same jobs! Certainly not by design; I don’t have a gardening calendar I slavishly refer to, or follow any particular rules. I can only think that after 30 odd years of gardening, seasonal chores become deeply engrained and automatically come to the top of your brain at the appropriate time!

Last weekend was the turn of spreading my home-made garden compost around the beds, targeting those plants that needed it most and particularly any new plantings or extended beds. Yet again I’ve been nibbling away at the lawn in the front garden, so the newly extended bed in front of my house windows was one of the main beneficiaries, as well as receiving the contents of my tomato and pepper pots last autumn to loosen up my sticky clay soil. I also managed to mow the front lawns after a couple of weeks of dry weather – unheard of in March, but I was glad I did as it rained mid-week – cue very smug sensation!

Double white hellebore Hellebores in compost

Sorting out the compost bins caused me to check on the last of the overwintered apples hanging up in the garage and, sure enough, a good number were starting to show signs of brown rot. I threw the offenders into the newly emptied compost bin, in the knowledge that they have a good two years before being used as compost, and brought the remaining few in to use up this week. These were the last of the Bramley cooking apples and still deliciously flavoursome, although much mellower and sweeter than when freshly picked. I used them in a number of ways: for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in fact, although not all on the same day! Breakfast saw them grated into a scrumptious Bircher Muesli, one of my all-time favourite breakfasts, and so easy to prepare the night before you want it. Lunch saw them transformed in a hurry (no-bread-to-accompany-my-lunchtime-soup panic!) into cheese & apple scones, and dinner incorporated them in Apple & Almond Pudding, a Delia classic I’ve been making for years. Not bad to still be eating your own harvest six months after picking (and apple purée still in the freezer, of course!).

Bircher Muesli

Bircher muesli

100g porridge oats

150ml apple juice

4 tbsp natural yogurt

1 tbsp flaked almonds

3 tbsp sultanas

Freshly grated nutmeg

1 apple, grated

Squeeze of lemon juice

Handful of blueberries

1 banana, sliced

Mix together the oats, apple juice, yogurt, flaked almonds and sultanas. Add a generous grating of fresh nutmeg, stir, cover and chill overnight in the fridge. In the morning, peel and grate the apple, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to prevent oxidation, and stir into the oat mixture with the blueberries. Add the banana and serve. This should serve at least two hungry people – however, if I’m just doing it for me, I find it makes at least four servings!

Cheese & Apple Scones

Cheese and apple scones

300g self-raising flour, sifted

½ tsp baking powder

75g butter, chilled and diced

125g mature Cheddar cheese, grated

1 tsp fresh thyme leaves

1 apple, grated

1 large egg

About 100ml milk

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C, Gas 6, and grease a large baking sheet.

Rub the diced butter into the sifted flour and baking powder until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir 75g of the grated cheese, thyme and apple into the mixture. Break the egg into a measuring jug and add enough milk to make up to the 150ml mark. Pour the liquid mixture into the dry mixture and bring gently together with your hands until a soft dough forms. You may not need all the mixture depending on the juiciness of your apple, so add the last part carefully! Transfer the dough onto a floured surface and pat out gently, then roll until 2cm thick. Cut out 12-15 scones with a 6cm cutter, then space well apart on the greased baking sheet. Brush the tops with the remaining milk mixture and sprinkle with the reserved cheese. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 12-15 mins until well-risen and golden.

Serve with butter as an accompaniment to soup or as part of a ploughman’s lunch – delicious!

Baked Apple & Almond Pudding

serves 4-6

2 large cooking apples, peeled and sliced

2 tbsp demerara sugar (or to taste)

125g butter

125g caster sugar

2 large eggs, beaten

125g ground almonds

Pre-heat oven to 160°C (fan), Gas 4. Grease a shallow round or oval dish, about 1-litre capacity.

Cook the apples gently in the serving dish in the microwave for 4 – 5 minutes with 1 tbsp water and the sugar until soft. (Or stew gently in a pan if you prefer – they should retain their shape, not reduce to a purée.)

Cream the butter and sugar together in a separate bowl until light and fluffy, then gradually add the beaten eggs. Fold in the ground almonds. Transfer this mixture onto the cooked apples and cover the fruit as much as possible. Bake in the oven for 50 minutes – 1 hour until golden brown.

Serve warm with cream or crème fraiche.

This recipe is from Delia Smith’s original Complete Cookery Course, one of my kitchen bibles, and is perfect for gluten-free guests too.

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Sowing the seeds of summer

Gerrie Hoek

Despite the chill winds of mid-March, now is the time to start off those early seeds for summer crops. I sowed my chillis (Apache), aubergines (Bonica) and sweet peas and lobelia just over a week ago before escaping to the Alps for a sunny ski break. The lobelia (dark blue Crystal Palace) are up already, but no sign of the chillis and aubergines – not that I expected there to be! They can take up to 3 weeks, even in a heated propagator, so all the more reason to get them in early. You can, of course, buy young plants later on, but that’s much more expensive and I find they are more prone to disease and aphids if you buy them in, presumably because they are hot-housed in great numbers…. The sweet peas (Singing the Blues) are sitting 5 to a pot on the sunny conservatory windowsill and usually take around a fortnight to germinate. I soaked the seeds in warm water overnight this time before sowing; this used to be recommended practice, but advice seems to have changed in recent years, resulting in much worse germination in my experience – so back to the old tried and trusted methods! I usually sow another batch of seed straight out in the open in April too, and they invariably catch up by mid-summer, and extend the picking season too.

Today I’ve planted parsley (Champion) and basil (British Basil), both in small pots in the propagator, and also three kinds of leeks : Nipper for early baby leeks from September onwards, Pandora for mid-season leeks and the blue-green Bandit for late winter leeks. Last year’s plantings are still going strong; in fact, I’m probably going to have to lift and store them in the next couple of weeks to make room for the new-season crops! Yes, they are in the ground a long time, but such a good-value crop for very little outlay and effort…. I would hate to be without my leeks! Each packet of seed usually contains plenty for two years of sowing – watch out for parsley, though, as fresh seed usually gives best results.

I’ve also potted up some new dahlias from Sarah Raven, ordered a few weeks ago: I love browsing through her catalogue (www.sarahraven.com) and try and experiment with new ones each year, if I can find room! I jettisoned some single yellow dahlias I’d grown from seed last year, which didn’t go with my deep red, white and pink colour scheme down on the allotment, so just room to shoe-horn in a couple more! I’ve gone for a white and purple bicolour collection: Edge of Joy and Alauna Clair Obscur, as well as two pinks: a spikey cactus type, Sugar Diamond, and Gerrie Hoek, a pale salmon pink waterlily type – can’t wait! I find it’s best to start them in pots in my grow rack, allowing them to get going away from the harmful effects of slugs, then transfer them out when the shoots are growing well. Once they’re established, I usually leave them out to overwinter as they’re planted deep enough in the raised beds to withstand the worst of the winter weather, even when we had sustained periods of ice and snow a few years back.

Alauna Clair Obscur dahlia Sugar Diamond Edge of Joy

My final task of the day was to pot up the tuberous begonia corms I bought last year and had overwintered, well-wrapped in brown paper bags, in the shed. The corms had tripled in size since last spring and seem firm enough, so I’ve potted them up in large pots and put them in the grow rack with the dahlias – just hope we don’t get any severe cold spells now!

Just time after all that for a brisk walk down to the allotment with the dogs to bring back some leeks and purple sprouting broccoli to accompany my duck breast and parsnip purée for dinner. Sublime…

Lemon cheese – the perfect winter treat

Lemons

Whether you call it lemon cheese or lemon curd, a pot of this zesty home-made spread is one of the nicest things from the winter kitchen. I call it lemon cheese, because that’s what my mother and her grandmother before her always called it. In our book, lemon cheese was the proper home-made delicacy, whereas lemon curd was the horrible, often bitter, and sticky, bought stuff! I don’t know whether there is a formal difference, but my recipe, handed down from my grandmother, is definitely lemon cheese!

Winter is the season for all things citrus: I’m loving the blood oranges in their all-too short season just now and the grapefruit, my standard morning breakfast, are always at their best at this time of year. When local seasonal fresh fruit is thin on the ground, it only seems right to turn to citrus-inspired puddings and treats, and they are usually cheaper in the winter months too, as they are in season in their natural habitat. I’ve tried growing lemon bushes in the conservatory, but given up as the dreaded scale insect always took over, causing the poor shrubs to lose most of their leaves and take on a very sickly hue… My conservatory is too small to struggle on with ailing plants, so I’ve resigned myself to shop-bought – and very good they are too. Lidl, in particular, is a fabulous source of those elusive blood oranges; the big supermarkets and local greengrocers rarely stock them, or if they do, at such an exorbitant price that I’m sure no-one buys them! Yet I managed to buy a huge 1.5 kg net from Lidl yesterday for under £2 – a real treat and delicious for freshly juiced ruby orange juice this morning…

Anyway, back to my lemon cheese: it has become a family tradition for me to make this at Christmas (lovely with fresh stollen!), but I make it whenever I have a glut of lemons too. It keeps for ages in the fridge and, as well as being scrumptious on toast, crumpets or with fresh baked rolls, it also transforms many a pudding.

 Nanny Lowe’s Lemon Cheese

3 large lemons, grated rind (of 2) and juice of all 3

4oz butter (or margarine)

8oz granulated sugar (or 1 cup according to Nanny’s (non-American) recipe!)

3 eggs, beaten

Melt butter and sugar gently in a large pan, taking care that the sugar doesn’t catch and burn. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl, then gradually add the juice and grated zest of the lemons, whisking as you go. Add the eggs and lemon mix to the pan, stirring constantly, and keep stirring until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a wooden spoon – 10-15 mins. I sieve at this stage for a perfectly smooth result and then pour into 2 small jars or 1 large. There is often a little bit left over from 1 large jar, but I just keep it in a small bowl in the fridge and use that up first.

Recipes for lemon curd often use a bain marie to cook the mixture over a saucepan of simmering water, but my mum never did that, and it seems to work perfectly, so try it and see.

Having made your delicious lemon cheese, here is one of my favourite recipes for using it up. Be warned, though, you may want to make twice the quantity of lemon cheese as this recipe uses almost the whole jar in one go!

Lemon Roulade

Lemon roulade

3 large eggs, separated

4oz caster sugar

Grated rind and juice of 1 lemon

2 1/2oz ground almonds

1/2oz semolina (or use more ground almonds)

Filling:

Homemade lemon cheese (as above)

¼ pt double cream

¼ pt natural yogurt

Grease and line a 10×15” Swiss roll tin with baking parchment.

Heat the oven to 150°C/Gas 3.

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar until the mixture is thick enough to leave a trail on the surface when you raise the whisk. Stir in the lemon rind and juice, then fold in the ground almonds and semolina.

Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl until stiff enough to stand in peaks. Fold the whites gently into the lemon mixture until blended, then transfer into the prepared tin, smoothing the surface evenly.

Cook in the pre-heated oven for 15-20 mins until golden and springy to the touch. Leave to cool, covered with a sheet of baking parchment and a damp tea-towel to keep it moist.

When cool, sprinkle a sheet of greaseproof paper with caster sugar and turn the roulade out onto the sugared paper. Carefully peel away the lining paper.

Meanwhile whip the cream until it forms soft swirls and fold in the natural yogurt. Spread the lemon cheese generously over the roulade and top with the cream and yogurt mix. Then, using the paper as a support, roll up from one short side and transfer carefully to a serving platter.

Dust with icing sugar to serve, decorated with fresh fruit of your choice, or just as it is.