Category Archives: Recipes

Spring celebrations

Spring celebration cake

One thing I am still able to do now I’m a little more mobile is bake – and, as it happened, we’d planned to do some more wedding cake experimentation last weekend by way of a joint birthday cake to celebrate three family birthdays at a picnic down at my friends’ smallholding on Saturday. We’d discussed making another two-tier cake even before I had my accident, but I didn’t see why I shouldn’t be able to go ahead with the bottom tier, especially with the assistance of my trusty KitchenAid. My daughter-in-law took control of the 8″ top layer, as she will for the wedding in July. This time we opted for a simple Victoria sponge with vanilla buttercream and homemade black & redcurrant jam. We had intended to cover the whole thing with buttercream as last time, but we ran out of time on the Saturday morning and opted for a very simple naked cake instead – actually really pretty!

After much research into increasing the quantities of cake mix to fit larger tins, I resorted to calculating the area of a 10″ tin compared to my usual 7″ sponge and multiplying by half as much again to get a three-layer cake rather than the standard 2-layer Victoria cake. Good old πr² – those maths lessons do have their uses after all! My standard 2-layer cake uses 3 large eggs and 6oz of self-raising flour, caster sugar and butter (I use the spreadable kind as it whisks up better in an all-in-one cake), plus one teaspoon of vanilla extract and one teaspoon of baking powder. I used Dove’s Farm gluten-free self-raising flour to great effect this time – no-one could believe it was actually gluten-free! For a larger 10″ cake with three layers, I used 9 eggs, and scaled up the other ingredients accordingly, while my daughter-in-law used 5 eggs and 10oz each of the other ingredients for her 8″ cake.

Spring Celebration Cake

8″ sponge (3 layers):
5 large eggs
10oz caster sugar
10oz self-raising flour (GF works well)
10oz spreadable butter
1.5 heaped tsp baking powder
1.5 tsp vanilla extract

10″ sponge (3 layers):
9 large eggs
1lb 2oz caster sugar
1lb 2oz self-raising flour (GF works well)
1lb 2oz spreadable butter
3 heaped tsp baking powder
3 tsp vanilla extract

I large jar (at least 1lb) red jam – homemade or good quality jam of your choice. Mine was a very large jar, so make sure you have more in reserve just in case!

Vanilla buttercream:
1lb spreadable butter
2lb icing sugar, sifted
1.5 tsp vanilla extract

Dowelling
1x thin 7″ cake board
Garden flowers to decorate

First make the cakes separately. If you have a KitchenAid or freestanding mixer, this makes the whole process a lot easier! I resisted for years, but can’t imagine baking without it now – and for these large celebration cakes they are a real boon.

Weigh out and place all the ingredients for each cake in the mixer and blend until light and fluffy. Make sure you go round the sides with a spatula and scrape right down to the bottom several times in this process to make sure all the dry materials are incorporated properly. Then divide the mixture between three greased and base-lined cake tins. You can do this by eye or for perfect results weigh the mixture and divide by three. Cook in a pre-heated oven at 160°C for 25 to 30 minutes, then allow to cool in the tins before removing to a wire rack.

Repeat for the second cake. I had two deep 10″ tins as opposed to three sandwich tins so ended up dividing the mixture into two, cooking the deeper cakes for 45 minutes  and then halving the resulting cakes with my clever cake slicer. This made a 4-layer cake for the bottom (which of course would have been covered by icing had we proceeded as planned!). It really didn’t matter in the event. but I will get another tin and make three separate layers for the wedding cake proper.

When the cakes are cool, sandwich them with jam and buttercream. I did alternating jam and buttercream layers, but you could equally well use thinner layers of jam and buttercream between each cake layer. Bear in mind that you might need more jam and buttercream if you’re doing this though!

Once you’ve assembled each individual three-layer sponge, cut pieces of dowelling to size so they are just smaller than the overall height of the bottom cake and insert 4 pieces into the cake in a square pattern around the centre. Carefully place the top cake onto the cake board (or assemble on the cake board in the first place) and position on top of the larger cake.

Finally, decorate with garden flowers of your choice. I put more buttercream on the top and placed camellias and primroses in that as a centrepiece, dotting more primroses in the layers around, but the choice is yours – any flowers would work, depending on the seasons. Dust with sifted icing sugar to finish.

I had lots of buttercream left over too, so ended up making old-school butterfly cakes the next day: same basic proportions for a 3-egg sponge, cooked in bun cases, then filled with jam and buttercream – delicious! And actually so much nicer than the ubiquitous and sickly cupcakes…

Butterfly cakes

We had to transport our celebration cake down winding country lanes to the party venue, which really wasn’t ideal, but it survived more or less intact and was very well received: the nicest Victoria sponge ever according to one enthusiastic guest! People really couldn’t believe that it was gluten-free either. We liked the naked cake effect so much that we may well keep to that idea for the wedding – it will certainly be less stressful preparing it on the day! Watch this space…

Spring cake from the top

 

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Spring highs and lows

Hyacinths

Well, Easter has been and gone, and with it some lovely springlike weather last week. Unfortunately, I’m not quite as excited about the fact that spring has finally arrived as I would usually be. I managed to rupture my anterior cruciate ligament on a recent skiing trip in the French Alps and heavy gardening is going to be off the agenda for some while, I suspect. Not a good time of year for a gardener to be out of action!

Fortunately, two and a half weeks in, I now have my leg brace off and have started intensive physiotherapy to strengthen the muscles around my damaged knee. Gentle walking is also allowed, but I’m pretty sure this doesn’t cover long dog walks or heavy-duty gardening jobs like digging the allotment beds, creating new beds or spreading the compost around the garden at home. This last job was something I’d intended to do before going away, but the snow and constant wet prevailed against me, and it just didn’t get done. I’m definitely going to have to bring someone in to do all of that.

On the bright side, I did manage to sow some seeds in the propagator the night before we left (!): aubergines, leeks, chillis, sweet peppers and parsley, so at least they’ve had a head start. All bar the sweet peppers are showing already, and I’ve now sown some tomatoes (my favourite Sungold, Ailsa Craig and a new dark bronze cherry variety called Sunchocola from Mr Fothergill’s seeds), basil, delphiniums and hollyhocks. No problem putting my potting tray on the garden table so I can work sitting down!

I’ve also pottered around the garden dead-heading the hydrangeas now that the risk of frost should be less. I did have to restrain myself from leaping up to the back of the raised beds to the more inaccessible stems, but otherwise all quite doable – and the garden looks so much tidier as a result, plus I can now see the beautiful camellia blooms much better. Next job, also feasible as long as I’m careful, is to cut back my huge lavatera in the bed next to the garage. They need to go down to a foot or so at this time of year to encourage strong new growth and an abundance of flowers in the summer. Another job I should be able to do with a dodgy knee is potting up the dahlia tubers I ordered earlier this spring. I usually start them off in pots in the growframe, then plant them out at the allotment when they are showing strong growth and are less susceptible to slug attack. On the list for the weekend, weather permitting.

I persuaded my sons to take me down to the allotment on Sunday, not to do any work, I hasten to add – and actually things don’t look too bad due to the cold start to the year. Thursday and Friday last week had been particularly sunny, so I was thrilled to find a bumper crop of purple-sprouting broccoli ready for picking – and the first rhubarb of the year too, always a notable event! Parsley and leeks were still growing strong and completed my spring harvest, shared with my son due to the huge quantities! I’ll turn a blind eye to the rest for now, but may need to seek some help planting my potatoes in the not-too-distant future.

Spring harvest

In the meantime, a good old rhubarb crumble was just what the doctor ordered with the first crop of the season – heaven! I’ve given a recipe for a rhubarb & almond crumble elsewhere, but this is just my straightforward, basic crumble recipe, courtesy of my mum and her mum before her. I find it doesn’t work with gluten-free flour, as you lose the crispness. I usually make double the amount of crumble mix and freeze half, uncooked, for a quick pudding when I’m short of time. It can be added straight from the freezer to cooked or uncooked fruit – perfect for busy days.

Rhubarb Crumble – serves 4-6

Rhubarb

500g rhubarb, trimmed and sliced – no need to peel if fresh
3 tbsp Demerara sugar
125g self-raising flour
25g caster sugar
60g butter
1 tbsp Demerara sugar to sprinkle

Place the sliced rhubarb in a covered glass dish in the microwave with the sugar and cook for 4 minutes until starting to soften and produce juice.
Rub the butter into the SR flour and sugar until it resembles fine breadcrumbs and sprinkle over the just-cooked rhubarb to cover completely. Sprinkle over the remaining tbsp sugar and cook in a pre-heated oven at 180-200°C (Gas 5/6) for 30 minutes. Serve warm with custard or a mixture of lightly whipped cream and yogurt. Bliss….

Rhubarb crumble

In the meantime, patience is required in spades – and I’m enjoying the camellias, hellebores and spring bulbs from the window. My garden will have to wait this year…

Tete a tete daffs

Decadent cakes

Sticky toffee wedding cake

The cakes I make in winter tend to be different from the lighter, airier confections of summer. Winter (and spring equinox or not, the current weather still feels very much like winter!) cakes need the warming, stick-to-your-ribs qualities of chocolate, toffee and caramel. Ginger and treacle do it for me too, whereas ethereal Victoria sponges belong much more to the spring and summer months. Think chocolate brownies, sticky ginger or marmalade cake, and marbled energy bars to name just a few…

So when, a few months back, my younger son and his fiancée twisted my arm to make the wedding cake for their July wedding this year, it was no surprise when they mooted the idea of a sticky toffee layer. Despite feeling that it might be too heavy for a summer wedding, I agreed to give it a go for a trial two-tier birthday cake for two family birthdays in February. I already make a sons’ favourite sticky toffee pudding, which is cooked as a square cake, served warm with lashings of sticky toffee sauce, but it wasn’t quite the effect I had in my mind for a celebration cake. My daughter-in-law has offered to make the top layer of the wedding cake and decided to make a gluten-free lemon sponge for the top of this birthday cake, all to be topped with butter cream, so I just needed to track down a suitable toffee version.

Searches online brought up a few contenders, but it was this recipe, by Miranda Gore-Browne, for a gloriously sticky toffee cake, that caught my eye and formed the basis for the bottom layer of my tiered creation. I basically followed Miranda’s recipe for the sponge, but made it in a deep 25cm cake tin, cooked for longer and at a lower heat of course, and sliced it in two after cooking and cooling. I found I had to adapt the frosting, though, adding much more icing sugar than suggested! I was very worried that it would be far too sweet, but actually it tasted divine with the sweet, treacly earthiness of the date cake. My advice is to keep tasting as you make it, and stop adding the icing sugar when it’s sweet enough for you, but the consistency is thick enough to spread, yet not too gloopy. I also added orange zest, which cut through the sweetness beautifully – but you could use orange blossom water/pure orange extract if you don’t want to see the bits of zest in the finished frosting.

Sticky Toffee Cake – serves 12-16

sticky toffee cake slice

375g dates
250ml water
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
4 large eggs
250g light muscovado sugar
2 tbsp golden syrup
200g butter, melted
2 tsp vanilla extract
350g self-raising flour
pinch of salt

Sticky Toffee Frosting

250g butter
up to 1kg icing sugar (!)
4 tbsp Nestlé Caramel (or use dulce di leche)
grated rind of 1 orange (or use 1 tsp orange blossom water/pure orange extract)

Grease and base line a large 25cm cake tin and pre-heat the oven to 150°C / Gas 3.

Place the chopped dates in a pan, cover with the water and bring to the boil. Add the bicarbonate of soda, stir, remove from the heat and leave to cool, then whizz in a food processor until smooth.

Whisk the eggs, sugar and syrup in a large bowl until pale and fluffy, then whisk in the melted butter, vanilla extract and cooled date mixture. Fold in the sieved flour and salt until combined, then transfer to the prepared tin. Cook in the pre-heated oven for 1 hr to 1 hr 5 mins: it should feel just springy to the touch and a skewer inserted in the centre should come out clean. Leave in the tin to cool.

To make the icing, whisk the butter until soft and fluffy, then gradually whisk in the sifted icing sugar – this is where I am very happy to have a pouring shield on my Kitchen Aid as it keeps the clouds of icing sugar to a minimum. (I was surprised to learn that these don’t come as standard with all Kitchen Aids, so do check if you’re tempted to invest in one of these kitchen classics.) Add the caramel and grated orange rind or orange extract. Keep tasting as you add the final quantities of icing sugar and stop when you’re happy with the taste/consistency. This can be prepared ahead and left in the fridge before using.

When you’re ready to assemble the cake, slice carefully into two. I used this fantastic device from Amazon that a colleague had shared on the Foodie Translators group on Facebook – it makes wonky cutting a thing of the past!

cake slicer

Sandwich the cake together with some of the frosting, then spread a thin “crumb” layer over the rest and leave to set so that you don’t get crumbs in the top layer afterwards.

If you’re making a tiered cake, this is where you carefully measure and cut the dowels to size, before placing the top tier carefully on top, on a cake board exactly the same size as the top tier. Cover the entire cake with a generous layer of frosting and decorate as you wish. Breathe a huge sigh of relief and enjoy!

Much as we enjoyed the sticky toffee cake, we were all agreed that this was probably not ideal for a summer wedding, and will revert to variations on the Victoria sponge theme – watch this space!

However, for Mother’s Day last week, I continued with the decadent approach, using the remains of my last huge Crown Prince squash to make a divine chocolate & squash cake: squidgy, dark and delicious! The original recipe is by Billy and Jack in a recent edition of Sainsbury’s magazine. I’ve adapted it slightly as usual, using far less baking powder than they suggested. The chocolate frosting with squash purée is a revelation! It’s also gluten-free to boot, so perfect when you’re trying to ring the changes for gluten-intolerant or coeliac guests.

Chocolate & Squash Cake – serves 12

Chocolate and squash cake

about 400g peeled and chopped squash – I used a large slice of a huge Crown Prince squash, but I imagine you’d need at least one decent-sized butternut squash
75g dark chocolate, chopped
100g butter
200g caster sugar
3 large eggs, beaten
1 heaped tsp gluten-free baking powder
300g ground almonds
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of salt

For the salted chocolate and squash frosting:
150g dark chocolate
100g butter
250g icing sugar, sifted
pinch sea salt
(reserved squash purée – see above)

First make the squash purée. Place the prepared squash, chopped into 2 cm cubes, in a pan of boiling water and cook for 20-25 minutes until tender. Drain off the liquid (I save this for vegetable stock – too good to waste!) and mash the squash with a potato masher until smooth. You should have at least 300g. Set to one side to cool. Melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water and leave to cool slightly.

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C / Gas 5. Grease and base-line 2 x 20cm sandwich tins. Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, then gradually whisk in the beaten eggs. Gently stir in 250g of the squash purée. In a separate bowl, mix together the ground almonds, baking powder, salt and spices, then fold into the wet mixture. Finally fold in the cooled melted chocolate and make sure it is all combined. Transfer into the prepared tins and bake for 25-30 minutes until just firm to the touch and a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tins.

For the frosting, melt the second lot of chocolate as above and set aside to cool. Beat the butter until creamy, then add 50g of the squash purée and continue beating. Gradually add the sifted icing sugar until blended, then finally add the melted chocolate and a pinch of salt, and beat until light and fluffy.

Turn out the cakes when cool and sandwich together with a good third of the frosting. Use the rest to decorate the top in luxurious swirls, then grate over some white chocolate and decorate with blueberries or whatever you have to hand! I can imagine chocolate mini eggs going down a treat at Easter….

Keeps really well in a tin. The height of decadence – while surely providing at least one of your five a day 😉 Enjoy!

Here we go again…

Snow again

I had intended to do some serious spring gardening today, distributing last year’s compost, cutting back lavateras and roses, and weeding the allotment beds before the onslaught of spring, but Nature had other ideas… A bitterly cold wind and more snow from the East made gardening a rather uninviting prospect, so I’ve spent the day doing much-needed admin in the warmth of the house instead. This is clearly going to be a very late start to the gardening year! You can’t fight the elements, though.

At least my sons had managed to take down my rickety old wooden arch last weekend and erect the new, elegant Gothic arch. The climbing roses Ginger Syllabub and Bouquet d’Or have had to be cut back extremely hard, as they were intertwined in the old trellis, but fingers crossed they’ll shoot again when the growing season starts. Likewise the clematis, both late-flowering viticella varieties (Kermesina and Black Prince), were cut back in February as usual and should grow strongly once the weather warms up. I just need to wire between the uprights to give them some more support before the roses provide them with a woody framework. This was the perfect Mother’s Day treat for me: solving one of my garden problems 🙂

New arch

Back to winter today, and a chance to jot down some spicy fish recipes I’ve been meaning to share for quite some time. One, a tuna curry, is another of those store cupboard standbys that I’ve had in my repertoire for years. It came originally from a fellow translator when I worked in-house in Cheshire many moons ago and it always goes down well – and freezes well too, developing even more flavour after a spell in the cold. My sons both took it to university as part of their arsenal of easy recipes, and it’s certainly ideal hearty, yet tasty student fare. It’s one of those recipes where you can vary the vegetables and spices, but I’ll write down the basic, oh-so-easy recipe and leave the rest to you.

Tuna Curry – serves 4

1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 sticks celery, sliced
1 green or red pepper, chopped
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
2 tbsp tomato purée
seeds from 8-10 cardamom pods, crushed
1 red chilli, finely chopped
2 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp garam masala
2 tsp sugar
seasoning
50g desiccated coconut
50g sultanas
2 160g tins tuna (drained)
chopped fresh coriander to serve

Cook the chopped vegetables in a large deep pan for one hour, stirring in the spices after 10 minutes or so once the vegetables have softened and started to turn golden. Add the chopped tomatoes, sugar and seasoning, swilling the can around with water and adding that too, to make sure the mixture doesn’t dry out. After an hour, stir in the drained tuna, coconut and sultanas and cook for another 5-10 minutes until heated through.

Serve with basmati rice, mango chutney and chopped fresh coriander to serve.

Simple, yet delicious!

My second spicy fish dish is adapted from a Sophie Grigson recipe, discovered in a magazine many years ago. While it’s called a biryani, I make no claim to its authenticity, but love the end result of a gently spiced oven-baked rice dish. I often make this with leftover rice, or indeed make twice as much rice one night, with a view to making this the following evening. Just stir in the spices with the cooked rice if you decide to follow suit, as the original recipe cooks the basmati from scratch with the turmeric and cinnamon stick.

Smoked Salmon Biryani – serves 3

Smoked salmon biryani

150g basmati rice
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 cinnamon stick
6 whole cardamom pods, seeds removed and crushed
3 tbsp rapeseed oil (or oil of your choice)
2 tsp black mustard seeds
2 large onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 leek, sliced
1 red or green pepper, deseeded and diced
1 or 2 red chillis, finely chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
100g frozen peas
250g smoked salmon, roughly chopped
juice and zest of 1 lime
1 tbsp chopped dill (or coriander or parsley!)
50g butter, diced
seasoning
halved cherry tomatoes to serve (optional)

Start by cooking the rice in boiling water with the turmeric and cinnamon stick for 8-10 minutes. Drain and set to one side.

Meanwhile cook the onions, garlic and chilli in a large frying pan, or an ovenproof shallow casserole if you have one. When the onion is starting to soften and turn golden, stir in the mustard seeds, crushed cardamom, cumin and coriander, then add the pepper and leek. Continue to cook gently for another 5 minutes or so, then stir in the frozen peas and cook for another couple of minutes. Finally stir in the smoked salmon, juice and zest of one lime, and seasoning.

At this point, you can either transfer the mixture to an ovenproof casserole, or just dot the biryani with the butter in situ, cover with a lid or with foil, and transfer to an oven pre-heated to 160°C, Gas 4 for 30 minutes.

Serve with chopped dill (or coriander/parsley) and cherry tomatoes to garnish if you feel so inclined.

Roll on Spring!

Spring bulbs

Winter warmers

Front garden

This week’s unexpected late snowfall brought the deepest snow to the village that we’ve had in 6 or 7 years. Leo the labrador was a puppy last time we had snow on this scale and consequently very overexcited to see all this lovely white stuff last week! Poppy likes it too, but at 12 1/2, she sometimes finds it a bit cold on her paws, and especially dislikes the patches of salt on the roads.

While I’m extremely glad I work from home at times like this, so don’t need to venture out in the car, I do find that snow brings out all my survival instincts. Despite having a freezer full of soup and casseroles, I have the urge to make more! There’s nothing like a big pan full of simmering soup to warm you up when you get back from a snowy dog walk in the winter wonderland… The suspension of my usual evening activities means I have more time to cook in the evening too, so warming hotpots are definitely the order of the day. The freezer casseroles can wait for another day; the aroma of slow-cooked vegetables and meat is just heavenly on those days where the thermometer is well below zero all day long…

Last week’s soups included old favourites such as tomato & lentil (a good store cupboard standby if you have beef stock in the freezer, as it really only needs red lentils, a tin of tomatoes, a chilli, onion and celery – so good!), and Scottish Country Soup, a true winter warmer chock-full of vegetables with barley flakes and milk for extra nutrients.

Scottish Country Soup – serves 6

Scottish country soup

25g butter or 1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
1 leek, sliced
Handful kale or Savoy cabbage, shredded (I use Cavolo Nero from the allotment)
125g frozen peas
50g barley flakes
sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
1 bay leaf
500ml chicken or vegetable stock
500ml semi-skimmed milk
seasoning

Melt the butter (or oil) in a pan, then gently fry the onions, celery and carrots for 10 minutes, until golden. Add the leeks, peas and cabbage (or kale) and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Stir in the thyme, bay leaf, barley flakes, stock and milk, then bring to the boil, turn down to a simmer and cover. Cook for 30 40 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Remove the bay leaf and serve.

Hotpots are proper winter fare, especially to a Northern lass like me. My tried and trusted recipe is my mum’s and she in turn had it from her mum. I suppose it’s a variation on Lancashire hotpot (although without the sliced potato topping, and always with beef not lamb in my book) or even lobscouse, that traditional Liverpool stew. I’ve always known it simply as hotpot, preferably with a delicious flaky crust and made with skirt steak if you can find it. Traditional butchers should have it and it’s well worth hunting down – it has a flavour and texture all of is own, but you can use shin of beef instead if that’s all you can find). The aroma of a hotpot in the oven, slowly building over the afternoon, takes me right back to my childhood and is just what I fancy on a cold winter’s night….

Hotpot – serves 6

350-450g skirt steak (or shin if you can’t find skirt), diced
4 onions, chopped
3-4 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
1/2 swede, diced
4 large potatoes, chopped into 2cm chunks
handful of pearl barley (or red lentils)
1-2 shakes of crushed, dried chillis (or omit if you prefer)
seasoning
1l hot beef stock (using 2 stock cubes is fine)

Crust:
125g self-raising flour
40g lard
salt

Place the diced meat into a large casserole or traditional ceramic hotpot dish. Add the rest of the vegetables, pearl barley, chilli and seasoning, then pour over the hot stock until everything is covered with liquid. Stir well, and place in the oven at 140-150°C. Cook for 4-5 hours, stirring after one hour, and check towards the end that there is still enough liquid. The idea is for everything to become incredibly tender and to “fall”.

Half an hour or so before you’re ready to eat, turn the oven up to 200°C. Make the crust by rubbing the lard into the flour, then adding water until a soft dough forms. Handle as little as possible, but quickly roll out into a rough circle the size of your pot and place on top of the cooked hotpot. Slash two cuts in the top to allow the steam to escape, then return to the oven for 20 minutes, or until just starting to turn pale golden. Serve in ladlefuls with red cabbage, peas, beetroot or winter relish. The taste of home, for me at any rate 🙂

A variation on the hotpot theme from Jamie Oliver’s “Jamie’s Dinners” uses a more newfangled range of ingredients, including squash and red wine (unheard of for cooking in my grandmother’s day!), but leads to a similar comforting result. Jamie calls this Jools’ Favourite Beef Stew, but I call it posh hotpot. The basic recipe is very similar, and like my family recipe can be cooked without browning the ingredients before cooking, which makes it very simple to prepare once you’ve done all the chopping. I remember my mum dashing home from work in her lunchtime to prepare the ingredients for a hotpot and put it in the oven for later that evening. I don’t suppose we had timers on ovens in those days! You can use any root vegetables you like in this, mixing and matching to suit what you have in the fridge/vegetable rack. Our local Coop’s shelves were bare when I made this last week, so I used carrots, squash, celery, potato and sweet potatoes as that’s what I had – it isn’t a fussy dish. Jamie’s recipe browns the vegetables (but not the meat), but I really don’t think it’s necessary, By all means do if you prefer.

I broached the last of my Crown Prince squashes from last autumn for this, and a veritable monster it was too! I used barely a sixth of it in the hotpot, but it should keep well in the fridge while I work out what to do with the rest..

Jamie’s Posh Hotpot – serves 4-6

4-500g diced stewing steak (I like to use skirt again, but shin or just stewing beef is fine)
2 onions, chopped
3-4 carrots, peeled and diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
250g squash, diced into chunks
2 parsnips, peeled and chopped (or sweet potatoes or swede)
1 potato, peeled and diced
1 leek, chopped
handful sage leaves, chopped
2 bay leaves
800ml – 1l hot beef or vegetable stock (again, use cubes if that’s what you have)
1/2 bottle red wine
1 tbsp tomato purée
salt and pepper
grated zest 1 lemon
few sprigs of rosemary , leaves only
1 clove garlic, crushed

Pre-heat the oven to 140-150°C. Place the diced meat and all the chopped veg in a large casserole or hotpot dish with the bay leaves and chopped sage. Pour over the hot stock, seasoning and tomato purée, then add the red wine and stir well. Place in the oven and cook for 4 hours or until tender. Check the liquid carefully towards the end and top up with more water, stock (or wine!) if necessary.

Just before serving, mix the grated lemon zest, chopped rosemary and crushed garlic together and stir into the hotpot for a hint of je ne sais quoi. Serve with crusty bread, or you could make a pastry crust again (see above) or even herby dumplings.

Jamie's hotpot
The snow has all but gone now, as I write, and we’re coping with the aftermath in the form of no water (or in my case, barely a trickle) as water leaks spring up all over the village as part of the big thaw. Ho hum. It was nice while it lasted.

The next morning

A mixed bag for February

A mixed bag of a weekend, and one in which I’ve been up to London to a delicious wedding food tasting, bought part of my wedding outfit (hurrah!), had a frustrating time on the ‘phone to Apple to try to resolve my quick-draining phone battery, squeezed in some shopping (20% off at the local garden centre!) and household chores, and finally managed to catch up in the garden before next week’s forecast big freeze.

Seed potatoes

Part of my garden shopping haul included some seed potatoes for chitting: I’ve been looking for a few weeks, but most of the local garden centres only seemed to have the same old varieties, and as I now only grow one bed with 10 plants of 2 varieties, I do like to trial different ones each year. These were Colleen, a first early, and Bonnie. a second early, both with good disease/pest resistance and sounding promising. I’ve also discovered one of the nicest potato varieties I’ve ever grown down here in the South-East at an online nursery in Doncaster, so intend to order those too to see if they are as good as I remember. The variety is Ulster Sceptre and I haven’t been able to find them since trialling them from T&M some years ago. It transpires that these used to be widely grown in Cheshire, which probably explains why I liked them so much – they reminded me of the potatoes of my childhood. My mum always said you couldn’t beat new Cheshire potatoes (sorry, Jersey!), although I suspect the good loamy soil has a lot to do with it too. Not entirely sure where I’ll put them, but they come in 5s, so too good to miss….

It’s been a particularly beautiful, cold but sunny weekend, so all the more galling that I wasn’t able to do quite as much gardening today as I’d anticipated. Still, it would have been even more annoying if I’d tried to sort my ‘phone out on a work day, I suppose. No matter, I eventually (by dint of eking out the very last hours of daylight until the sun finally disappeared beyond the horizon and the final rose-orange rays of the stunning sunset faded away), did what I’d set out to achieve: cutting down the autumn raspberries at the allotment, and pruning the late-flowering clematis to a foot above the ground, plus finishing cutting back the perennial grasses and Michaelmas daisies at home. All of which took a surprisingly long time, probably because I allowed myself to become rather side-tracked pruning roses (intermingled with the clematis) and pyracantha (likewise).

Wonky arch

Mission accomplished in the end, though – and another task set up for next weekend: I’ve been aware for a while that my rose arch near the front gate has been leaning at an increasingly drunken angle. Closer inspection as I clipped the roses yesterday showed that the wood has simply rotted in the ground and the whole thing will have to come down. It’s been in situ some 10 or 11 years, so I suppose I can’t complain – and if it’s going to go, far better to happen now, rather than later in the season when everything is in full bloom. New metal arch duly ordered, but the task of unravelling the existing climbing roses and removing the old arch will have to wait until another time – here’s hoping this week’s predicted snow doesn’t do the job for me!

After a busy and successful day in London on Saturday, and lots of delicious food to sample at lunchtime, I only fancied a light meal when I got back home. I hadn’t anything planned, but a small Harlequin squash in the storage basket in the conservatory was just asking to be used. Cue one of my favourite simple suppers: an oven-baked frittata with squash, leeks, feta and sultanas, served with cherry tomatoes quickly roasted in the oven with rosemary, garlic and thyme at the same time. So tasty.

Squash, Leek & Feta Frittata – serves 2

Squash and leek frittata_cropped

1 small round or butternut squash, peeled and deseeded
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 leek, washed and sliced
olive oil
knob of butter
salt and black pepper
few sprigs fresh thyme
1 tbsp sultanas
1 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
50g feta cheese, crumbled
4 eggs, beaten

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Chop the squash into chunks and place in a small baking dish. Sprinkle over the thyme leaves and chopped garlic, then season with salt and black pepper. Roast in the hot oven until golden – about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, sauté the sliced leeks gently in the butter until softened. Stir in the sultanas and toasted pine nuts. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl and season. Stir in the leek mixture and crumbled feta. When the squash is cooked, drain off any excess oil, and combine the squash with the egg mixture. Return to the roasting dish, distribute everything evenly and return to the oven for 10-12 minutes or until set and golden-brown. Cut into squares or triangles to serve warm with a green salad or with roast tomatoes. Also excellent cold (or reheated) the next day for lunch.

I’d made a similar dish, although probably more akin to a Spanish tortilla, last weekend, this time with potatoes, caramelised onions, thyme and cheddar. Served just warm, at a barn dance at the local school where we’d all been invited to bring a dish, it went down a treat. And proves that simple vegetarian food often hits the spot too.

Potato, Onion, Mushroom and Thyme Tortilla – serves 4-6

3-4 potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
2-3 large onions, peeled and sliced
150g mushrooms, sliced
pinch of sugar
large knob of butter
seasoning
few sprigs of thyme
6 eggs (or to taste!)
100g mature Cheddar cheese, grated

Sauté the sliced onions gently in a frying pan until very soft and tender – about 10-30 minutes. The longer you cook them, the more caramelised they become. Add the mushrooms for the last 10 minutes and a pinch of sugar towards the end.

Meanwhile, place the potatoes in boiling salted water and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until just tender. Drain and leave to cool slightly.

Pre-heat the oven to 200180°C/Gas 5. Whisk the eggs in a separate large bowl, season and stir in the grated cheese, thyme leaves, caramelised onions and mushrooms, and the cooked potatoes. Mix well to combine and pour the mixture into a greased 24cm round ovenproof dish (or you can use a rectangular dish if you prefer). Add more beaten eggs at this stage if you’re using a bigger dish or it doesn’t look enough! Make sure that everything is distributed evenly, then cook in the oven for 15-20 minutes.

Best eaten lukewarm, but you can eat it immediately or leave until cold. The Spanish often take their tortilla on picnics, cold, where the flavours really shine through. I hasten to add that this is by no means a traditional Spanish recipe, merely my take on a combination I adore 🙂

Poppy at Tapsells in frost

 

 

When life gives you shreddings, top up your paths!

Where has the time gone since I last wrote a post?! Lots of work, wedding preparations and family birthdays, I suspect… Fortunately, there’s still nothing much doing on the gardening front, but this weekend’s lovely sunny weather – for a change! – suggests that spring might be round the corner.

At this time of year, with mud everywhere and dank, wet days still far outnumbering the fine ones, you have to take your opportunities where you can. I was sitting at the computer in my study a couple of weeks ago, beavering away on my latest translation, when I realised that a couple of vans, one towing one of those heavy-duty shredders had pulled up outside. I watched them disgorge men and chainsaws, who duly went into my neighbours’ back garden, clearly intent on taking down the only large tree, a nondescript specimen that had grown far too close to the boundary and had been casting increasingly large shadows over both our gardens in recent summers. Thrilled at the thought of it being removed, it then occurred to me that this might be a great opportunity to top up the paths at my allotment. Well, if you don’t ask, you don’t get! Out I trotted and asked if they wanted the wood chippings themselves or whether I could have them. Bingo! Tree surgeons are often delighted if you ask them for shreddings, as they have to pay to dispose of them at the dump, and my neighbour certainly didn’t want them. He was removing the tree to make room for a shed cum playroom for his daughters, and tree residues were not foremost in his mind. A few hours later, I had a rather large pile of shredded bark and branches in my spare car parking space, and just the small matter of how to transport it down to the allotment…

Shredding pile

Roll on a few weeks and I’d managed to borrow a large skip bag from a friend, my son and his fiancée were home at the weekend, the sun was shining, and between the three of us and five round trips to the allotment, we managed to transfer the pile of shreddings down to the plot and spread it over the paths between the raised beds and in the utility area between the shed and my compost bins. It must be four or five years since I last replenished the bark and inevitably, as organic matter, it rots down over time and weeds start to germinate and grow. I do try to garden organically as a rule, but figured that pernicious couch grass and buttercups in the paths (on top of weedproof membrane!) were fair game for weedkiller, so sprayed a very targeted jet of weedkiller (which allegedly biodegrades quickly once it’s been absorbed by the weedy green matter) on the paths first, then covered with a very generous layer of my woody haul. So much better – and an excellent workout for us all too. No need to go for a run or the gym when you have an allotment! To say nothing of the savings over buying vast amounts of bark; even those big bales went nowhere last time I did it!

Lauren and Alastair with the barrow

Of course, after all that hard work, it was only fair that we had a reward when we collapsed in front of the fire on arriving home. Lemon & coconut bars were this week’s home-baking treat, and very good they were too. I had extra lemon cheese left over from making a trial run of two tiers of my son’s wedding cake last weekend (of which more soon!), and really didn’t want it to go to waste. A brief hunt online brought up this recipe for lemon curd squares, which sounded promising, and so it proved. Duly adapted, here it is:

Lemon & Coconut Bars – makes 8 large bars or 16 small squares

125g butter
125g plain flour
1 heaped tbsp semolina (or polenta)
100g caster sugar
Grated rind of 1/2 lemon
1/2 jar lemon cheese – use homemade if you can, so much nicer!
25g desiccated coconut
25g flaked almonds
15g coconut flakes (or use more almonds if you can’t find the coconut flakes)

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Whizz the butter, flour, semolina, sugar and lemon rind in a food processor until they resemble coarse breadcrumbs. Press 2/3 of the mixture into a 7″ (18cm) shallow, square cake tin with your fingertips, then bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes or until pale golden brown. Leave to cool for 10 minutes, then spread the lemon cheese on top to cover with a nice thick layer. Add the desiccated coconut, almonds and coconut flakes, if using, to the remaining crumbs, mix lightly and sprinkle over the lemon cheese, pressing down lightly. Lower the oven temperature to 160°C/Gas 4 and bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.

Leave to cool into the tin, but cut into 8 large rectangles or 16 small squares before completely cold. Enjoy with a cup of Earl Grey tea and a very smug grin.

Lemon bars

Just in case you want to try a different lemon curd recipe, or only have egg yolks, as happened to me after the Christmas baking marathon, I recently discovered this Mary Berry recipe, which is, if anything, even simpler than my standard recipe (see link above). This one is possibly slighter richer, but good to know in case you end up with a lot of egg yolks to use up after a pavlova or meringue-making session! Mary’s recipe makes a huge quantity of curd, so I’ve adapted it to make a more manageable amount, which should still leave you some left over after you’ve made the lemon bars. Like my original recipe, it doesn’t need to be cooked over a water bath, so really is easy to make. Even if you’ve been put off the idea of making curd before, do give it a go! Sieving it at the end makes it pretty foolproof.

Mary Berry’s Easy Lemon Curd

4 large egg yolks
160g granulated sugar
Juice and grated rind of 2 large lemons
70g butter, cubed

Mix the egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest together in a medium-sized pan. Cook over a low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, making sure it doesn’t stick. Cook for 5-7 minutes, or until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until it melts. Pass through a sieve into a large jug. Pour into a sterilised glass jar and seal with a lid when cool. Refrigerate until needed: this will keep for several weeks in the fridge.

Shreddings on paths