Category Archives: Recipes

From plums to peaches

Perfect plums

This season’s bounties just keep on giving. My early Opal plum, which tends to be a biennial bearer, producing a good harvest every other year, surpassed itself this year with an amazing crop of sweet reddish-purple plums for a couple of weeks at the end of July/early August. Sadly, they often coincide with the arrival of the first wasps and once the striped devils discover the plums, I know their days are numbered… Even hanging a glass beehive trap filled with lemonade only delays the effect, but is definitely worth doing to distract them from their juicy targets.

Wasp trap

I still managed to harvest plenty of perfect plums – not a maggot in sight this year, thank goodness. The grease bands I put around the trees last autumn and the pheromone trap I hung in the orchard in May seem to have done the trick in deterring the dreaded plum moth. Extremely successfully, judging by the number of moths caught in the trap! Here’s hoping the later Marjorie plums, which were virtually inedible last year as every last one contained a maggot, are as good.

Plums are always a delight in the kitchen and many of my standby plum recipes came out again: sticky upside-down plum & almond cake, a heavenly plum frangipane tart and roasted plum compote, to say nothing of plums eaten straight from the fruit bowl, or sliced on my breakfast granola. Needless to say, I gave loads away too. Every year I try and experiment with at least one new recipe when I have glut situations: this year, I adapted my gooseberry flapjack recipe to make a plum & almond flapjack, which was good, but perhaps missed the tanginess of the gooseberries despite using much less sugar. Try it and see – but be careful, as bakes made with fresh fruit go off very quickly at this warm and humid time of year: freeze half if you know it’s not all going to be eaten within a few days!

Plum & Almond Flapjack – makes 16 bars

plum flapjack

200g butter
450g plums, stoned
125g light soft brown sugar
200g wholemeal spelt flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp almond extract
150g oats
100g whole almonds, chopped (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.

Stone and halve the plums, then place in a pan with 25g of the sugar and cook over a low heat until the sugar melts and the juice starts to flow. Turn up the heat and continue cooking, stirring regularly, for 15-20 minutes until you have a thickish, jam-like mixture. Take off the heat and set aside.

Mix the flour, cinnamon, oats, salt and chopped almonds in a large bowl. In another pan, melt the butter and remaining 100g sugar, then pour over the flour mixture. Add the almond extract. Mix together until you have a rough dough.

Press half of the dough over the bottom of the baking tin, then spread the plum 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 still quite chunky.

Place in the pre-heated oven and cook for 25-30 minutes until nicely browned. Cool in the tin, then cut into 16 bars.

I also experimented with plum ice cream, although I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the results and will tweak further before I share my recipe here. I’d tried Jamie Oliver’s quick plum sorbet before (from Jamie at Home), where he just freezes the stoned plums, skins and all, then blitzes them in a food processor with orange and sugar before serving, but found the skins far too obtrusive, if not downright unpleasant! This time I found a recipe for Plum Ripple Ice Cream, but again it wasn’t quite right: it takes far too long to reach a scoopable consistency, although if you can wait an hour, the taste is delicious! Watch this space…

Unfortunately, the plums are no more, but just as I’d resigned myself to the end of the Opals this year, friends brought around some delicious English peaches from their glasshouse – just superb! The skins are suprisingly fuzzy and are in fact better peeled – perhaps shop-bought specimens have had the fuzziness bred out of them?! Suffice to say that these peel easily and the stone pops out with ease too, making them ideal for serving on crackers and cream cheese for a light lunch, in salads with feta or halloumi, and lightly roasted with maple syrup and thyme or lavender (and a dash of Amaretto if you’re that way inclined – which I usually am!) to create a fragrant compote.

Peaches

This week’s treat to take to an open-air theatre production of Ikarus Inc. (by the excellent Rude Mechanicals) on the village school playing fields was a cobbled-together invention to make the most of my unexpected bounty. Based on my rhubarb shortbread recipe, this peach and marzipan shortbread tray bake is quick to make and simply divine – peaches and almonds are a match made in heaven.

Peach & Marzipan Shortbread Bites – makes 16 small squares

Peach and marzipan shortbread

Shortbread:
125g butter, softened
125g plain flour
25g cornflour
2 level tbsp icing sugar, sieved
1/2 tsp almond extract

 Topping:
3-4 peaches, stoned, peeled and roughly sliced
Juice of half a lemon
2 tbsp Amaretto
125g marzipan, preferably homemade
Few sprigs of lavender flowers (optional – to taste)
Icing sugar to dust

 18cm square tin, 4cm deep, lined with foil or baking parchment

 Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas 5.

 To make the shortbread, mix the butter, flour, cornflour, icing sugar and almond extract together in a food processor or by hand if you prefer. If the mixture seems very soft and sticky, you can add 1 or 2 tbsp ground almonds at this stage. When it comes together to form a dough, press evenly into the tin, prick with a fork and cook for 20 mins until starting to look pale golden brown.

 Combine all the topping ingredients in a bowl and tip onto base. Return to oven and cook for 35-40 mins until the topping is set and golden brown. Allow to cool, then cut into 16 small squares and dust with icing sugar just before serving. These are very rich, which is why I serve them as bitesize squares – you can opt for bigger bars if you prefer though!

Finally, the arrival of another crate of peaches had me reaching for the ice cream maker to concoct a peach sorbet – just peaches, sugar, lemon juice and Grand Marnier – what’s not to like?

Peach Sorbet

Peach sorbet

4-6 ripe peaches, peeled and stoned
125ml water
3 tbsp granulated sugar
Juice of one lemon (or lime)
1-2 tbsps Grand Marnier (optional)

Put the water, sugar and lemon juice in a small pan and simmer gently for 5 minutes or so until the sugar has dissolved. Leave to cool.

Roughly chop the peeled and stoned peaches, then put in a blender with the cooled sugar syrup and blend until well mixed. Add the Grand Marnier if using – this helps make the sorbet easier to scoop when frozen. Pour into an ice cream maker and churn until starting to freeze, then place in the freezer to complete the process. Of course, you can also make this the old-fashioned way by freezing for an hour or so, then whisking in the ice crystals and repeating until softly frozen.

Apricot begonias

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The Rampant Raspberry

Achillea and artichoke

This has to have been one of the best years for soft fruit I’ve known in a long while – and probably explains why my blog posts have slipped by the wayside. Keeping up with the fruit harvest has been rather a mission in the evenings and weekends of late. Starting with an early strawberry harvest from mid-June, the raspberries kicked in towards the end of the month and I’ve only just stopped picking them this last week or so – crazy! I’ve frozen them, jammed them, made raspberry juice and coulis, given lots away and turned them into divine puddings like raspberry cheesecake, or just eaten them as they are with granola for breakfast, or with ice cream for a quick and delicious dessert.

Despite the dry weather, and the fact that I never water any of my soft fruit, the harvest has been incredible! I’ve allowed the raspberries to sucker underneath the apple and plum trees in my allotment orchard and those bushes produce excellent quality fruit, despite competing with grass, a lack of sunlight and presumably battling with the apples for water. Permaculture in essence, quite unintentionally I should add! The currants weren’t quite as productive, mainly because I was slightly too late to net them, so the pigeons had a fair few before I got there, but the gooseberries have also been excellent. My plot neighbour also has a huge jostaberry bush (and when I say huge, it must easily be 12 feet across, if not more) so I’ve had pickings of those too – always good for a tangy compote on a cheesecake or to replace blackcurrants in a jostaberry & liquorice sorbet.

Each summer I try, as a point of principle, to make at least a couple of new recipes with my produce. Where’s the fun otherwise if you always make the same things, delicious though they are? This year’s new offerings were a divine raspberry sorbet and a melt-in-the-mouth raspberry and whitecurrant roulade. Try them and see!

The raspberry sorbet is a variation on a Nigel Slater recipe I found online, but I used Chambord raspberry liqueur rather than the Crème de Cassis he suggests. I also sieve the raspberry mixture after blending to remove the seeds; I don’t know whether it’s my variety (name unknown, lost in the mists of time as my original summer raspberry plants came from my uncle and have suckered/been transplanted around the plot ever since), but I find the seeds rather obtrusive if you leave them in, but you can by all means try it.

Raspberry Sorbet

Raspberry sorbet

500g raspberries
75-100g caster sugar
100ml water
6 tbsp Chambord raspberry liqueur (or Crème de Cassis)

Put the sugar and water in a saucepan and simmer gently until the sugar dissolves. This will probably take about 5 minutes or so, but do not stir. Leave the syrup to cool, then refrigerate until cold.

Place the raspberries, sugar syrup and liqueur into a blender and whizz until smooth, then sieve to remove the seeds. Spoon into an ice cream maker and churn until set, then transfer to the freezer to chill properly. Eat with little sighs of joy – the very essence of raspberryness.

My last raspberry creation is based on a recipe in my tattered recipe scrapbook, torn out of a magazine from way back. Roulades are one of my favourite quick and easy desserts, but it’s good to ring the changes every now and again and try a different take. I often serve raspberries with a chocolate roulade, or a meringue roulade can be the perfect summer treat, but this one is an almond version, nutty and gooey all at the same time. All my roulade recipes are wheat-free, so ideal for gluten-intolerant guests too. You can, of course, omit the whitecurrants if you can’t find them, or use a different soft fruit instead. They add a nice tangy touch and look pretty as decoration, but are definitely not essential.

Raspberry & Whitecurrant Roulade – serves 8

raspberry and whitecurrant roulade

5 eggs, separated
125g caster sugar
50g ground almonds
Few drops almond extract
Red food colouring (optional)
300ml double cream
100ml natural yogurt
I small jar raspberry jam (preferably homemade)
250g fresh raspberries
100g whitecurrants
Icing sugar to dust

Grease and line a 20 x 30cm Swiss roll tin with baking parchment. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/gas 5.

Whisk egg yolks and sugar until thick and mousse-like, then fold in the ground amonds and almond extract. Whisk the egg whites until stiff and fold into the mixture.

The original recipe suggested dividing the mixture and colouring one half pink, then piping alternate stripes into the tin at this point. I didn’t pipe, but did colour half the mix, then put spoonfuls into the tin and marbled them together with a skewer, but to be honest you couldn’t tell the difference when it was cut, so unless you have a very strong red food colouring, I wouldn’t bother! The end result is perfectly pretty enough.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes in the preheated oven until risen and just firm to the touch. Immediately cover with a damp tea towel and leave to cool.

Whip the double cream until the soft swirl stage, then gently whisk in the natural yogurt until you have a good spreading consistency.

Sprinkle another piece of baking parchment with caster sugar, then turn out the sponge onto the paper and remove the lining paper from the top. Spread the raspberry jam generously over the surface. Then spread the cream mixture over the surface, going right up to the edges, and finally sprinkle with most of the raspberries and whitecurrants, setting aside some choice berries and strigs of whitecurrants to garnish. Get hold of the paper at the far (short) end of the roulade and use it as a guide to gently but firmly roll the roulade towards you until you have a fat roll. Use the paper to gently help you lift the roll to a serving plate, then remove the paper. Chill in the fridge until ready to serve.

To serve, decorate with reserved raspberries and whitecurrant strigs, then dust with icing sugar just before serving. Cut into generous slices and enjoy the gasps of delight!

rasp roulade inside

Ready, Steady, Grow!

Elderflower blossom

A wet week and a busy social weekend over Father’s Day saw me dodging the showers and downpours in a desperate bid to finish planting out my summer veg and flowers at the allotment, later than I’ve ever done it before. It seems to be one of those rules that when work is on the quiet side, the weather refuses to play ball, so you can’t get outside and make the most of the extra free time. I did, however, manage to find a dry (and blustery) day to pick some elderflowers at last for my annual cordial making ritual. I even picked more than enough for a change, so decided to experiment with some of the week’s crop of gooseberries and make gooseberry & elderflower gin. I enjoyed last year’s rhubarb gin so much – my favourite drink of last summer – that if the gooseberry & elderflower is half as nice, it will still be eminently drinkable. Like last year, I used Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell London Gin, which gets excellent reviews.

Gooseberry & Elderflower Gin

Gooseberry and elderflower gin

1 litre gin
500g gooseberries
strips of orange rind, peeled thinly from 1 orange using a vegetable peeler
250g granulated sugar
6-8 elderflower heads

Top and tail the gooseberries, then cut in half and place in a large 2 litre Kilner jar. Add the granulated sugar, orange rind and elderflower heads. Put on the lid and shake the jar well. Leave to stand in a cool, dark place for at least 6 weeks, then strain into another bottle. Serve with ice, tonic and lime for a refreshing take on the ubiquitous G&T.

But back to my allotment: after working in my garden at home last weekend, I was determined to finish sowing my French beans and planting out my squash this weekend. Sunday was dedicated to a family lunch for Father’s Day, so that left Saturday afternoon. It had looked promising weatherwise, but the skies were looking very ominous when I headed up there after lunch. The rain held off for the first couple of hours, giving me time to prepare the beds (more bags of manure!), erect the wigwam bean structure, sow the beans (Cosse Violette and Neckarkönigin this year), and plant out the Crown Prince squash. I also took out the last remaining purple-sprouting broccoli plants, long since gone to seed, and did some essential weeding. So far, so good.

Netting the soft fruit was my next priority: the fattest pigeons in the village have already made inroads into my redcurrants, despite them still being green, so I was keen to net them before I lost the lot! Having unearthed last year’s net from the darkest corner of the shed, I managed to cover the bed, gooseberries and blackcurrants included, without too much ado and only needed one peg to seal the inevitable hole. Fingers crossed that this keeps the birds out and the fruit in…

My final job of the afternoon was potentially the most time-consuming and typically the rainclouds were gathering by this stage. No matter, I was determined to complete my list! Bit firmly between my teeth, I set about the task of removing the weedproof membrane from the final stretch of the newly reclaimed flower beds at the top end of the plot, and digging over the soil to remove any stubborn traces of perennial roots, and especially couch grass and the dreaded bindweed. Inevitably, that took longer than I’d have liked, so by the time I was ready to apply another two sacks of farmyard manure, the drizzle was coming down quite steadily.

Undeterred, I carried on, planting my six new dahlias: Penhill Dark Monarch, Emory Paul, Perch Hill, Rip City and Café au Lait Royal, all from Sarah Raven, and Marble Ball, a purple-speckled variety I picked up for 50p at my local garden centre a few weeks ago – who could resist?! The same garden centre’s discount bin also had some striking purple and cream gladioli Dynamite – they were clearly selling off all their bulbs and tubers at the end of the planting season, but definitely not too late to plant out! In too went another dwarf mulberry tree (Charlotte Russe) to match its twin planted a few weeks ago, a large helianthus Lemon Queen picked up at a plant stall near my parents’ house in Copthorne, and a peony I’d moved from the garden at home where it steadfastly refuses to flower and clearly doesn’t get enough sun. A couple of chrysanthemums I’d ensnared at the village Open Gardens day also went in; the pink variety I acquired from the same source last year had come through the winter, somewhat to my surprise, and had been great for later autumn flowers, even after the dahlias had stopped.  I also planted out some seed-sown Antirrhinum Royal Bride to accompany the Callistephus chinensis King Size Apricot (Chinese aster) I planted a few weeks ago and the zinnias I sowed direct one evening (Mazurkia, Purple Prince and Envy). They could do with some more warmth to take off properly, but fingers crossed the slugs don’t get them first…

Allotment top end, Leo and the new beds

A couple of spare squashes and an unknown cucurbit seedling that had appeared in the garden compost distributed around my roses completed my afternoon’s work. This will be a bonus plant – could be a melon, cucumber, squash or courgette – who knows?! If it survives, I’ll be sure to let you know :-). By this time the rain was coming down in stair rods and I resembled a drowned (but satisfied) rat.

New bed unknown curcurbit on frame

Just some harvesting to do before I could escape from the rain – my parents were coming for dinner to stay the night before we drove together to my son’s the next day. Asparagus, broad beans, dill, lettuce, strawberries and another kilo of gooseberries later, I was done. Four hours of very hard and soggy work, but at least I’d accomplished what I’d set out to achieve.

My parents had already arrived and let themselves in when I finally got home, dripping, exhausted, but happy. And my mother’s voice as I opened the kitchen door, saying “I’ve just made a pot of tea”, was balm to my gardener’s soul and just what I wanted to hear. You can’t beat a nice cup of tea after a long session at the plot…

New bed delphiniums

Sweet somethings

It’s that time of year when everything suddenly starts to take off, especially after the torrential rain we’ve had over the last few days. You turn your back for a minute, and tiny shoots one day are full-blown weeds the next. Or gooseberries that were mere dots are suddenly jostling for position in twos or threes, clamouring to be thinned so the smallest of the bunch can swell in their turn. My asparagus bed, weeded meticulously not a couple of weeks ago, is now chock-a-block full of dill and poppy seedlings and any number of thuggish weeds. Today wasn’t a day for weeding, that’s for sure, with non-stop rain, but it’s definitely on my To Do list for the not-too-distant future, along with sowing my French beans (so late this year!), planting out my squash, and finishing off my new cut flower bed.

Where does time go on this cusp of spring to summer? One minute you’re bemoaning the lack of water and muttering about how slow things are to take off, then whoosh – all hell let loose! Added to which I’ve had a hectic workload in recent weeks, a translation conference up in Sheffield, and grandmotherly duties to boot. Yesterday, when I should have been tending to my jobs on the allotment in a break from the rain, was our Open Gardens Day in the village. I couldn’t resist going to visit a couple of new gardens, including a couple with views to die for and the most impeccable kitchen garden you’ve ever seen, along with a fruit cage designed as a bird cage – so beautiful. Gardens of dreams indeed – not for us lesser mortals with a pocket handkerchief garden and no staff to tend that immaculate greensward…

While the rain comes down, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some recipes, including one I made a few weeks ago to use up the rhubarb glut. In actual fact, the rhubarb has slowed down considerably in recent weeks, although the rain may give it a second boost! Gooseberries are my second port of call, as I picked my first kilo out of nowhere one evening last week. Let’s gloss over the fact that I still have some in the freezer from last year – the new season’s crop are always very welcome and these two new recipes went down very well.

First the rhubarb: I wanted to make a rhubarb cake to take on a family visit and a friend’s mention of the Gugelhupf cake she’d made for her daughter’s birthday inspired me to search the web for a rhubarb Gugelhupf. A colleague on the Foodie Translators’ group had mentioned a rhubarb and chocolate version she’d made the previous year and that’s what I had in mind. I eventually came up with a couple of German offerings, one of which I adapted to fit the ingredients I had. The original recipe is here for those of you who read German.

Rhubarb & White Chocolate Gugelhupf – serves 8-10

Rhubarb Gugelhupf

250g butter
200g caster sugar
50g vanilla sugar (if you have it, otherwise just use all caster sugar)
1 tsp vanilla paste (or extract)
pinch of salt
3 eggs, beaten
300g self-raising flour (I used Dove’s Farm gluten-free)
1 tsp baking powder (GF if necessary)
1 tsp cinnamon
120ml natural yogurt (or buttermilk according to the original recipe)
300g rhubarb, chopped into small pieces, but not peeled (unless really tough!)
150g white chocolate

Grease a deep Gugelhupf or ring mould – I used a silicone mould from Lidl, of all places, and sprayed it lightly with an olive oil spray, then used a pastry brush to make sure every crevice was greased, and sprinkled in some sieved flour for good measure. Much better than the metal ring moulds I’ve used in the past!

Lidl ring mould

Preheat the oven to 160°C fan (Gas 4).

Mix the butter, sugar (both kinds) and vanilla extract in a large bowl (or stand mixer) until light and fluffy. Add the beaten eggs gradually and mix well (adding a tbsp or so of sifted flout if it shows signs of curdling). Sift over the baking powder, cinnamon, pinch of salt and the rest of the flour and fold into the mixture. Finally fold in the chopped rhubarb. Transfer the mixture to the mould and level the top. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 50 mins to 1 hour, testing with a skewer to check whether it’s done.

Allow to cool completely in the mould before gently inverting and removing the mould, If you try and remove the mould while it’s still hot, you are liable to leave bits of the sponge behind! Melt the white chocolate in 30 minute bursts in the microwave, or over a pan of simmering water if you prefer, then pour artistically over the cooled cake.

Decorate as you wish – I used rosemary, but edible flowers would have been good too.

Rhubarb Gugelhupf slice

My gooseberry recipes were inspired, as my recipes often are, by ideas in the Waitose Kitchen magazine, although this time from a couple of years ago. For some reason, I’d seen the flapjack recipe, but never made it as it looked quite unprepossessing, beige and claggy in the original magazine (here if you want to check it out!). With such delicious ingredients, I decided to give it a go anyway and was extremely happy with the results – beautifully tangy with a jammy gooseberry filling, but oaty and nutty at the same time. Mmmmm. I opted for a larger tin than the recommended size, so that might account for the different texture. I used the tart early-season cooking gooseberries (my variety is Invicta, very prolific – and resistant to gooseberry mildew). If you make it with dessert gooseberries, or later in the season, you might like to reduce the sugar content in the gooseberry filling.

Gooseberry & Pecan Flapjacks – makes 16

Gooseberry flapjack

200g butter
400g gooseberries
175g light soft brown sugar
200g spelt flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
150g oats
100g pecans, chopped
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 uses a 20cm square tin.

Top and tail the gooseberries, then place in a pan with 75g of the sugar and cook over a low heat until the sugar melts and the juice starts to flow. 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, cinnamon, oats, salt and chopped pecans 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 gooseberry 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 pre-heated oven and cook for 25-30 minutes until nicely browned. Cool in the tin, then cut into 16 bars and enjoy with a nice cup of tea or coffee. So good.

Gooseberry flapjack slice

My final recipe is a simple lemon posset served with a roast gooseberry & orange compote, which is an adaptation of the roasted rhubarb compote I’ve shared many times before. Possets are so quick and simple to make, I can’t think why we don’t make them more often! The Waitrose recipe that gave me the idea made elderflower creams by adding elderflower cordial to the cream, but I opted for a lemon posset, as I haven’t made any elderflower cordial yet this year: also on my To Do list, but definitely not in wet weather. That’s a sure way to end up with mouldy cordial…

Lemon Posset with Gooseberry & Orange Compote – serves 4

Lemon posset with gooseberry compote

500g gooseberries
Juice and grated zest of one orange
3-4 tbsp brown sugar (or to taste)
300ml double cream
75g caster sugar
Grated zest and juice of 1 large lemon (or 2 small)

First make the compote by topping and tailing the gooseberries and putting in a rectangular shallow baking dish with the juice and zest of the orange and sprinkling over the brown sugar. Cook in a pre-heated oven at 160°C fan (Gas 4) until tender, but still whole, for about 30-40 minutes. Leave to cool. You can add 1 tbsp elderflower cordial at this stage if you feel so inclined – or even elderflower liqueur if you have it!

For the posset, place the double cream, lemon zest and sugar in a small pan and gently bring to the boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Then boil for 3 minutes before removing from the heat. Stir in the lemon juice and sieve the cream mixture to remove any large pieces of lemon zest. Pour into small glass dishes, leaving room at the top for the compote, and put in the fridge to chill for 3-4 hours or overnight. It’s quite rich so don’t be fooled by the relatively small amounts!

To serve, gently spoon some of the compote onto each set dessert. These are also good served on their own, or they’re delicious with sliced strawberries instead of compote. Any fruit would work, in fact – and a dash of elderflower cordial would make a nice addition to the posset too, before the setting stage, if you felt so inclined.

Gooseberries

 

Yet more rhubarb….

Shed under clematis

Another holiday weekend, and while the weather hasn’t been as glorious as the Easter weekend, it has at least been dry and sunny in parts, if cold for the time of the year, so limited gardening has been on the agenda. Having mown the lawn – and neatened the edges with a half-moon spade – last week, and paid someone to cut the over-long grass and edges at the allotment, I’ve been able to concentrate on weeding the raised beds and potting on my chilli and aubergine seedlings at home. For some reason, my sweet pepper and basil seeds have failed to germinate in the propagator this year. While I can sow more basil (from a new packet), it’s too late to sow pepper seeds in May. I’ll either have to do without, or buy a couple of plants. Strange how the chilli and peppers seem to germinate better in alternate years… I also dead-headed my hellebore flowers to give other plants more room and stop the plants putting energy into producing seed. I have quite enough self-sown hellebores around the garden after all!

At the allotment, I spent a good hour yesterday painstakingly prising the dreaded couch grass out of my existing strawberry bed, where it has really taken hold. I’ve already planted up a new bed earlier this year, so if I can just keep this one going this season, I can empty the whole bed over winter and really blitz this pernicious weed. I also cleared my sprouting broccoli beds: most of the plants have gone to flower by this stage and I need the tunnel structure to protect my peas, sown last weekend, from the pigeons. The sprouting broccoli has done amazingly well this year, so the individual plants took some removing – four-feet tall triffids with yellow flowers everywhere! The stalks are too chunky for the compost heap, so up to the communal bonfire pile they went. I still have a couple of plants with edible shoots, but I suspect they won’t last more than a couple of days. Just in time for the asparagus to come on stream 🙂

Needless to say, the rhubarb is still going strong and more experimentation has been in order to keep up with the flow. I hosted another four-generational lunch this weekend with my parents, my elder son and his wife, plus my granddaughter of course, and inevitably rhubarb had to feature on the menu, this time in the guise of a rhubarb & ginger trifle, perfect for my gluten-intolerant daughter-in-law. You could also make it with plain sponge if you felt so inclined, or, if you are catering for coeliacs, make sure you check that the Amaretti really are gluten-free – homemade macaroons would fit the bill in that case too.

Rhubarb & Ginger Trifle – serves 8

Rhubarb and ginger trifle

500-600g rhubarb, trimmed and chopped into 1cm slices
3-4 tbsp demerara sugar
Juice and rind of 1 large orange (or 2 small)
2 tbsp syrup from a jar pf preserved stem ginger
2 pieces preserved stem ginger, finely chopped
2 tbsp rhubarb gin (or Grand Marnier / liqueur of your choice)

4 egg yolks
2 tbsp caster (or vanilla) sugar
2 heaped tsp cornflour
300ml milk
few drops orange blossom water
Rind of 1 orange

15 or so Amaretti biscuits, plus extra to garnish
300ml double cream (or mix whipped cream and mascarpone)

First, trim and cut the rhubarb (unpeeled unless really thick and woody – shouldn’t be necessary with early-season produce) into 1cm pieces, halving the stems first if really chunky. Place in a shallow, rectangular baking dish and sprinkle with the brown sugar (to taste), orange rind and juice, plus the chopped preserved ginger and 2 tbsp syrup from the ginger jar. Roast in a pre-heated oven at 180°C (Gas 5) until tender, but still whole, for about 30-40 minutes. Leave to cool, then add the rhubarb gin (or alcohol of your choice)

Combine the egg yolks, 2 tbsp caster sugar and cornflour in a small bowl. Stir in the cold milk, then strain into a small pan. Cook gently until the mixture starts to thicken, stirring constantly. Add the grated orange rind and orange blossom water to the custard. Allow to cool slightly.

Place the cooked rhubarb into a trifle bowl and place the Amaretti biscuits on top to cover, pushing partly into the liquid to allow them to take up the juice. Pour over the cooled orange custard and place in the fridge to set for a couple of hours.

Whip the double cream and spread carefully over the custard, making generous swirls with a large spoon. Crumble a few extra Amaretti and sprinkle on top, adding pansies or other spring flowers to garnish if the mood takes you! Trifle fans will be in seventh heaven…

You’ll have four egg whites left over from this recipe, so you can either make macaroons or, as I did, lemon & almond ricciarelli, which conveniently use precisely 4 egg whites and are also ideal for gluten-free guests. In actual fact, I adapted the recipe to make lime & almond ricciarelli and they were equally good.

lime and almond ricciarelli_landscape

Then again, if you decide to turn the egg whites into meringues, either one large pavlova, or smaller rounds or individual cases (using 225g caster sugar to 4 egg whites) to keep for another day, you could consider combining crushed meringue and rhubarb to make a wonderful Rhubarb Eton Mess.

Rhubarb Eton Mess – serves 2-3

300g rhubarb, chopped
Juice and rind of 1 orange
2-3 tbsp demerara sugar
150ml double cream, softly whipped
2-3 tbsp natural yogurt
2-3 meringues, roughly crushed

Place the rhubarb in a shallow ovenproof dish and add the grated rind and juice of the oranges, then sprinkle with the demerara sugar. Roast in the oven at 180°C (Gas 5) for 30-40 minutes or until tender. Leave to cool.

Whip the double cream until soft peak stage, then fold in the natural yogurt, followed by the roughly crumbled meringues – aim to leave some big chunks for texture.

Spoon into 2-3 glass dishes and swirl the top, decorating with toasted flaked almonds or crushed biscuits depending what you have at hand.

A variation on this theme when you haven’t any rhubarb is a Blueberry Mess: Sainsbury’s had large punnets of blueberries on offer recently, so I stirred a large handful, washed but uncooked, into the cream and yogurt mixture above along with 1 tbsp Chambord raspberry liqueur and crushed Amaretti rather than meringue. Grated white chocolate and blueberries to decorate – to die for…

Blueberry mess_cropped

Rhubarb rules – OK?

Blossom

This time of year used to be known as the hungry gap because of the dearth of fresh produce available in the garden. I’ve just lifted the last of my leeks and (now very fibrous) parsnips, and the purple-sprouting broccoli, which has been incredibly prolific this year, is going to flower faster than I can harvest and eat it. The asparagus is just showing, but won’t be ready for a week or so yet – especially if we don’t have any much-needed rain! But there’s one crop you can always rely on in an English garden in the springtime: good old rhubarb.

Both my early and late varieties are now in full swing, giving me ample pickings for pies and other desserts several times a week – and plenty to give away to family and friends too, of course. There are so many ways to ring the changes with rhubarb, other than the ubiquitous compotes, crumbles, pies and fools, and I make it a personal challenge to experiment with new recipes each season. I’ve been trying for some time to recreate the delicious Swiss rhubarb tart, or Rhabarberwähe, I tasted in Basel on my year abroad, so this year I finally tracked down some authentic Swiss recipes and experimented: result! By combining a couple of the recipes I unearthed (see here for the originals: Rhabarberwähe and again here – only in German, I’m afraid, I made a tart that closely resembled my Proustian memories. It’s not dissimilar to my favourite rhubarb shortbread recipe, but creamier, with added double cream, although one of the original recipes I found used quark – if you can lay your hands on the proper full-fat version, rather than its poor relative, the 0% fat offering which is often all that’s available in UK supermarkets. I imagine crème fraîche would work just as well. I used a shortcrust pastry tart case in my experiment as I had one lying around (as you do), but a sweet shortcrust pastry would be even better – and more authentic. I halved the recipe for my trial, but this is the full quantity – just halve everything for a smaller tart.

Swiss Rhubarb Tart – serves 6

Rhabarberwahe

Sweet pastry:
5oz plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1oz caster sugar
pinch salt
2 tsp milk
2 1/2 oz butter
1/2 beaten egg

Filling:
Generous 1lb rhubarb (5 or 6 stalks), trimmed and chopped into 1/2″ chunks
3 tbsp ground almonds
2 tbsp demerara sugar
2 eggs, beaten
150 ml double cream (or quark)
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 tbsp vanilla sugar

First, make your pastry case: sift flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Stir in sugar, egg and milk until evenly mixed, then work in butter (I find it easier if you grate it from cold) using fingers. Knead lightly to form a smooth dough, then chill in fridge for 30 mins. Do not leave too long, as it will set really hard and be impossible to roll!

When chilled, roll out on a floured surface (it will be very fragile, but can be patched if necessary!). Line a 9″ tart tin, then bake blind at 200°C/Gas 6 for 10 mins, then remove foil and beans and cook for another 5 mins until just set and golden.

For the filling: sprinkle the ground almonds over the base of the part-baked tart case, then scatter the rhubarb pieces on top and sprinkle with sugar. Return the tart to the oven for 15-20 minutes until the rhubarb starts to soften.

In a separate bowl, combine the beaten eggs, cream (or quark), vanilla sugar (you could just use caster here if that’s all you have) and vanilla extract, then pour over the part-baked rhubarb in the tart. Return the oven and bake for 20-25 mins until just set. Leave to cool and dust with icing sugar to serve – so good.

Another rhubarb-based pudding I discovered this year came originally from the BBC Good Food magazine calendar, often an excellent source of inspiration, if only as the pictures tantalise me every morning as I walk past! This is a posh take on a bread and butter pudding, and very comforting and delicious it is too. Again, I halved the ingredients and it still lasted several meals – warms up beautifully in the microwave too.

Rhubarb & Ricotta Brioche Pudding – serves 8

Rhubarb brioche pudding uncooked

500g rhubarb, trimmed and chopped into 3cm pieces
150g caster sugar
300ml whole milk
300m double cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs, plus 1 egg yolk (I just used 2 eggs when halving the mix)
250g brioche, thickly sliced
35g butter
200g ricotta
25g icing sugar
zest of one lemon
zest of one orange

Heat 100 ml water in a small pan and add 50 g of the caster sugar. Bring to the boil, then add the rhubarb. Simmer for a couple of minutes, then lift out with a slotted spoon and arrange on a single layer on a tray or plate. Set aside to cool.

Put the milk and cream in a large pan and bring to the boil, than add the vanilla. Beat the eggs, extra yolk and remaining sugar in a large bowl, then pour over the warm cream and milk mixture. Set the oven to 160°C fan or Gas 4.

Slice the bread and butter, then spread the ricotta thickly on top of the buttered bread. Cut into triangles. Sprinkle the bread with the citrus zest, then layer the slices with the rhubarb in a large 20 x 30cm baking dish – a lasagne-type dish is perfect. Pour over the egg and cream mix and leave to stand for 30 minutes (this makes the end result lighter).

Place the dish in a large roasting tin and pour boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the baking dish. Bake for 45-50 mins until puffy, set on top and golden. Remove from the oven, but leave to cool in the dish for about 10 minutes before serving.

Dust with icing sugar and serve with pouring cream or crème fraîche for a lusciously lovely spring treat.

rhubarb brioche pud cooked

My final variation on a rhubarb theme is an adaptation of a cake I usually make in September with my plum harvest: plum and almond cake, equally good as a dessert or a cake with tea. I do a different rhubarb upside-down cake, where the fruit is all piled on haphazardly, but this was inspired by a colleague on the Foodie Translators’ group on Facebook, who posted a picture of a rectangular rhubarb tart with the rhubarb immaculately laid out in a chequerbord design. Very smart.

Rhubarb Lattice Cake – serves 8

Rhubarb lattice cake

9 1/2oz caster sugar
7oz butter
400g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into equal 4cm lengths
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 1/2oz self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
3 1/2 oz ground almonds
1 tsp cinnamon
Grated rind of one orange
2 tbsp fresh orange juice
2 tbsp milk

Grease and line an 8″ solid-bottomed cake tin with baking parchment – I use a heavy tarte tatin tin.

Put 4 1/2oz sugar and 3fl oz water in a small pan and simmer gently until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and cook to a golden caramel colour, watching like a hawk so that it doesn’t burn! Remove from the heat and add 2oz butter, stirring well. Pour into the prepared cake tin and place the rhubarb pieces on top in a neat lattice pattern. If you use a round tin, as I did, you’ll need to trim the outside pieces as you go to fit the tin.

Beat the remaining butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, then gradually mix in the beaten eggs and vanilla extract. Add 1-2 tbsp flour if it shows signs of curdling. Then fold in the dry ingredients and orange zest, alternating with the milk and orange juice.

Spoon the mixture onto the plums and bake for 45-50 minutes at 160°C / Gas 4 until golden brown, spongy to the touch and a skewer comes out clean.
Cool for a few minutes, then, while still warm, run a knife round the edge of the cake, place a large plate on top of the tin and firmly but gently turn the whole plate and tin upside down. Shake a little and the cake should just turn out of the tin onto the plate. Remove the parchemnt to serve.

Serve warm with cream or crème fraiche for a delicious dessert or cold as cake – delicious either way! You could also add chopped stem ginger and 1 tsp ground ginger instead of the cinnamon in the sponge, substituting 2 tbsp stem ginger syrup for the orange juice.

Leo watching bluebells Tapsells 2019

 

In praise of the humble chickpea – and goodbye to a very special dog

It’s been a strange and sad few weeks: I returned from a much-needed post-op holiday in the Austrian mountains at the end of February to unprecedented high temperatures in the South-East of England and a very sick dog. I’ve written her story on my other blog, so I won’t go into it again here; suffice it to say that I had to say my farewells to her soon after arriving back from the airport and the house has been indescribably sad and quiet without her ever since. RIP, Poppy – we’ll miss you enormously… and Leo will miss his partner in crime.

Poppy and Leo something's up

Inevitably, life must go on, and although I’ve managed to immerse myself in piles of work since getting home, I hadn’t had time to go to the allotment. I’m still not supposed to walk on rough ground after my ACL operation at Christmas, and am restricted to pavement walking. However, I figured that, since it’s been dry recently, and if I was very careful, I could walk Leo down to the allotment on Sunday afternoon and just see what was growing. Imagine my surprise to see everything doing very well indeed: purple-sprouting broccoli busting out all over, the first spindly pink sticks of rhubarb already up to a foot tall, and fresh spinach and kale in abundance, plus the usual late winter / early spring suspects of leeks and parsley.

Allotment haul Mid-March 2019

After the excesses of Austria – far too much Kaffee und Kuchen in the afternoon and a five-course dinner every evening – I’ve been yearning for salads since I arrived home. Not doing my usual quota of exercise and activities, and a relatively sedentary lifestyle since Christmas, have also meant I’m having to be much more conscious of what I eat for the first time ever. Ho hum – I’m definitely cutting down on cake and desserts for the time being, although I did experiment with a healthy banana & date flapjack at the start of the week as an alternative snack. I tweaked the recipe (see link above) with maple syrup instead of honey and added 75g dates, but although they were tasty the first day, the flavour seems to diminish on subsequent days and they just taste rather worthy! This recipe for fridge fruit & nut bars is a tasty sugar-free treat in the meantime – and I’ll report back when I eventually find a healthy flapjack that really hits the spot. A friend also posted a recipe for vegan tiffin, which sounds worth a try, but certainly isn’t low-calorie or sugar-free if that’s what you’re after.

Salads, on the other hand, are easier to get right. I wrote about delicious winter salads a few weeks ago, and another I’ve made a couple of times recently is a Sarah Raven recipe from the Christmas issue of Good Housekeeping. It was intended as a vegetarian alternative for the Christmas feast, but I’ve tweaked and experimented with it a couple of times since and found it to be a fantastic and filling main course salad for any time of the year. Chickpeas and lentils are such comforting ingredients, and mixed with a spicy dressing, nuts, dried fruit and peppers, they really fit the brief. The original recipe served 6, and I’ve cut it down considerably for one, but still find it makes about three meals – always a bonus to have leftovers for lunch!

Warm Puy Lentil & Chickpea Salad

Chickpea & lentil salad
2 tbsp sultanas, soaked in 2 tbsp dry sherry or white wine
50g Puy lentils
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic
1/2 can chick peas, drained
Olive oil
1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cut into bitesize chunks
1 large red onion, peeled and cut into eighths
1 sprig rosemary, woody stem removed, chopped
1 red pepper, cut into chunks
Handful of cherry tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1″ piece of root ginger, grated
1 red chilli, finely chopped
2 tbsp dried cranberries
50g cashews, toasted
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1/2 tsp sugar
Handful of kale or cavolo nero leaves, thick stems removed, shredded (young calabrese or purple-sprouting broccoli leaves work just as well)
50g feta cheese, diced
Seasoning
Handful of fresh coriander or parsley to serve

Pre-heat oven to 180°C (fan)/gas 5. Put the squash, onions and garlic in a roasting tray with the rosemary leaves, drizzle with olive oil, season and cook in the oven for about 20 minutes. Then add the chunks of red pepper, chillis, root ginger and cherry tomatoes, toss everything together, and cook for a further 20-30 minutes until nicely soft and roasted.

Meanwhile cook the Puy lentils, bay leaf and 1 clove garlic in just enough water to cover for about 20-25 minutes. Drain off any excess water and remove the bay leaf and garlic. Place in a large salad bowl with the drained chickpeas and season.

Stir in the sultanas and sherry, add the contents of the roasting tin and the toasted cashews and dried cranberries. Make a dressing to taste using three parts olive oil to lemon juice, plus 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp wholegrain mustard and seasoning. Stir into the salad. Finally add the chopped kale or cavolo nero leaves and sprinkle with diced feta, then garnish with chopped coriander.

Good served warm, but equally delicious served cold the next day. You can also add cooked chicken for extra protein if you feel so inclined, or throw some chorizo into the roasting tin for the last 20 minutes or so – it’s an extremely flexible dish.

Of course, this recipe leaves you with half a tin of chickpeas, not that this is in any way a hardship! I like to use them in a tomato & chickpea pasta sauce with or without spicy chorizo and paprika, but last Tuesday, which just happened to be Pancake Day, I used a variation on the sauce as a tasty filling for pancakes. Extremely good it was too. If you’re only making enough pancakes for one or two, keep back half the sauce to serve with pasta for another day, with added feta and coriander, or just with the traditional Parmesan.

Tomato and chickpea pasta

Tomato, Chickpea & Fennel Pancakes – serves 4

Pancakes:
125g plain flour
pinch of salt
1 egg
300ml milk
Butter for frying

Sauce:
I onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
Glug of olive oil
1 fennel bulb, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tbsp paprika
1/2 can chickpeas, drained
75g chorizo or bacon lardons (optional)
Red wine (to taste – or use water if you prefer)

To assemble:
200ml natural yogurt
1 egg, beaten
Seasoning
Cheddar cheese (or Parmesan) grated

Chickpea, tomato and fennel pancakes

First make the pancakes in the usual way by sifting the flour and salt into a roomy bowl. Break the egg into the centre, then gradually beat in the milk and incorporate the flout until all mixed and little bubbles start to form on the surface. Leave to stand for 30 minutes or so if you can, but it’s not critical if you can’t. This mixture should make at least 8 pancakes in an 18cm frying pan. Stack the finished pancakes on a plate as you make them and set aside until you’ve made the sauce.

Cook the chopped onion, garlic and chilli in olive oil in a frying pan until starting to soften and turn golden, than add the chopped fennel, red pepper and chorizo (or bacon), if using, and cook for another 5-10 mins. Stir in the tomato purée, canned tomatoes, fennel seeds, chickpeas and seasoning and simmer for 30-45 minutes until nicely reduced. If it starts to reduce too much, you can add some red wine or water to stop it drying out.

Assemble the pancakes by putting a generous spoonful of the sauce on one edge of each, rolling up and placing in a rectangular ovenproof dish. Then mix the natural yogurt and the beaten egg and spoon over the top of the pancakes. Sprinkle over grated cheese and cook in a hot oven 200°C (fan)/gas 6 for about 25 minutes until nicely browned.

Serve with a green salad and enjoy!

Poppy sad