Category Archives: Something sweet

Parsnips – the unsung heroes of the winter vegetable plot

Parsnip

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

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

Christmas parsnips

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

Parsnip Soup – serves 4-6

Parsnip soup

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

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

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

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

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

Parsnip, Date & Hazelnut Loaf

Parsnip loaf, slice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parsnip, date and hazelnut loaf

The February Blues

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

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

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

Poorly shed

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

Carrot & Coconut soup

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

English Chocolate Chip Oat Cookies – makes 24

Choc chip oat cookies

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

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

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

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

Book cover

American Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Cookies – makes 24

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

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

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

American choc chunk cookies

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

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

Frozen blackcurrants

 

 

 

 

An apple a day….

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

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

Dried Apple Rings

Apple rings pre-cooking

Eating apples
Lemon juice
Ground cinnamon
Vanilla extract

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

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

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

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

apple rings in jar

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

Nutty Apple Cake

Nutty apple cake

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

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

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

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

Apple & Pecan Flapjack – makes 12-16

Apple & pecan flapjack

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

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

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

Take off the heat and set aside.

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

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

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

 

 

 

When things go wrong in the kitchen…

Wisley Oct 2019 lake
RHS Wisley – on a rare fine Sunday

With a crazily busy working schedule throughout October, wet weekends have at least afforded me the opportunity to bake, and using up windfall apples has been high on the agenda, with lots of apples falling off the trees much earlier than I’d usually expect. I made my go-to apple favourites including spiced apple shortbread, traditional apple pie, apple juice and apple compote in various guises, but when a colleague on the Foodie Translators Facebook page posted a recipe for apple cider doughnuts similar to the ones we’d tasted in an apple farm in New England back in September, I was tempted to experiment. Unfortunately, the recipe was an American one and, despite using proper measuring cups, I somehow came unstuck. It’s not often I have culinary disasters, but this was one such day. I used self-raising flour with only 1 tsp baking powder, rather than the 1 1/2 tsp the recipe recommends, so that could have been an issue, as could the dilemma of how to measure solid butter in tablespoons. Turns out (thanks to my American daughter-in-law for enlightening me later) that the American ‘sticks’ of butter (so-called because they are long narrow sticks, half the weight of our 250g (8oz) slabs) are marked in tablespoons – of course they are! Whatever I did wrong, the mixture rose like a soufflé, then promptly sank again, spreading all down the sides of my muffin cases and ring moulds. It steadfastly refused to set, so I ended up leaving it in much longer than the recipe suggested – with the upshot, when they finally came out and cooled, that they were nothing more than crumbs! Tasty crumbs admittedly, but crumbs nonetheless. Reluctant to throw them away, I scraped them out of the tins and these are the two recipes I salvaged them in – very satisfying that my disaster actually turned into two delicious creations and another bag of crumbs in the freezer – waste not, want not :-).

The first was a vaguely remembered childhood treat: chocolate rum truffles, but made with cake crumbs rather than the more decadent ganache truffles you buy from upmarket chocolate shops. These are not dissimilar to the inside of that Viennese classic, the delightfully pink Punschtorte, but without the lurid pink icing. I scoured my cookbooks and the internet, without finding exactly what I wanted, then cobbled together something along the lines of what I remembered and hoped to achieve – success!

Chocolate Rum Truffles – makes 12

Chocolate rum truffles

6oz cake crumbs (any sponge cake will do – mine were spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, but that’s not essential)
4oz ground almonds
2 heaped tbsp good jam (I used gooseberry, but plum or apricot would work too)
1 tbsp cocoa powder, sifted
1 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp dark rum
4oz dark chocolate, to coat (or use chocolate vermicelli)

Blitz crumbs in a food processor, then add the ground almonds, caster sugar and sifted cocoa powder. Warm the jam and sieve to remove any lumps, then stir into the mixture with the rum – or mix on a low speed if using a food processor. Mould into 12 balls and place in cake cases. Leave to set in the fridge before melting the chocolate (I do mine in the microwave at 80% for 1 minute, followed by 30-second blasts, stirring each time, until just melted, but you can melt in the traditional way in a bowl over a pan of simmering water if you prefer). Coat the truffle balls by dipping in the melted chocolate using a fork, or kitchen tongs, then set on baking paper before returning to the cases. Enjoy – all the better if you’ve rescued the crumbs from a culinary disaster in the first place!

My next crumb salvage operation was inspired by a suggestion from another colleague on Foodie Translators, although I have had this recipe in one of my ancient cookery leaflets for a while. This particular glossy leaflet was a forerunner of the popular dairy cookbooks that came out in the early 80s, and was given to me by another translator colleague and good friend many years ago. Called “Clever with Cream”, it is, as you’d expect, all about using cream in many different ways. This recipe comes under the “Crème Continental” page and has the enchanting name of “Danish Peasant Girl with a Veil” (Bondepige med Slor in Danish!). As ever, I ended up adapting the recipe to suit what I had on hand, but it worked very well – can’t think why I haven’t made it before!

Danish Peasant Girl with a Veil – serves 2-3

Danish Peasant Girl with Veil

2-3 large eating apples
Juice and rind of half a lemon
1 tsp cinnamon
sugar to taste
4oz cake crumbs
1oz butter
1 tbsp Demerara sugar
1/4 pint double cream, whipped

Slice apples, sprinkle with lemon and cinnamon and cook gently with a dash of water in a pan (or in the microwave) until tender. You can add sugar if you like, but this will depend on the sweetness of your apples. I used a Cox variety and they really don’t need any extra sugar. Stir in the lemon rind. Set aside to cool.

Set oven to 180°C fan/Gas 5. Melt the butter in a small frying pan and fry the crumbs until crisp and golden, stirring continuously. Watch them like a hawk as they can catch very quickly! Stir in the Demerara sugar.

Place half the crumb mixture at the bottom of a small greased ovenproof dish – I used a straight-sided soufflé dish about 6″ in diameter – then add the cooled apple compote, straining off any excess liquid beforehand. Finish with another layer of crumbs, then place in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes, checking to make sure it doesn’t get too brown. Remove from the oven and allow to chill before topping with a swirly layer of whipped cream. Decorate as you wish – I used dried apple rings, but you could also use toasted flaked almonds or spare toasted crumbs.

Wisley Oct 2019 orange tree
RHS Wisley again – so glad the sun shone for once

 

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

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

 

The Big Chop

Iris K Hodgson

It’s that time again: Valentine’s Day, or just after, when I usually try and chop down my late-flowering clematis to encourage new growth and a splendid crop of flowers later in the summer. The clematis were superb last year, loving the intense heat, and not seeming to mind the prolonged draught, even though they had minimal or no extra watering. It was a lovely sunny day too today, with the heady scent of Daphnes aureomarginata and bholua (Jacqueline Postill) filling the air as I worked – just heavenly! And a few sunny days this week means the early bulbs have started to flower: Iris Katherine Holdgson (above) was nowhere to be seen last weekend, but flowering away when I spotted it on Friday morning.

Daphne aureomarginata
Daphne aureomarginata nestling snugly beneath the apple tree

Today was the first time since my ACL reconstruction op on Christmas Eve that I’ve ventured out into the garden to do any real gardening – so nice to get some fresh air and get my hands dirty again :-). I was mindful that I needed to be careful: 8 weeks in is still relatively soon after the op and there’s considerable potential for damage if I overdo things or twist my knee. As it was, I’d already overstretched the boundaries the day before when pushing a shopping trolley in the sloping car park of my local Waitrose. Who knew that shopping could be counted as a dangerous pursuit?! Lots of ice, ibuprofen, a hot bath and healing cream, plus an evening of rest helped, but I was ultra-careful today, needless to say.

 

After chopping the clematis to within a foot or so from the ground – amazing how much old top growth there is! – I turned to my roses and gave them all a severe haircut as well. They had all reached triffid-like proportions at the end of last year, even the climbing roses I’d cut really hard when replacing the arch in the front garden last March. They suffered no harm at all from being butchered last year, although they did flower a little later. I’m looking forward to an excellent performance from them again this year now they’re restored to their normal size and vigour.

It’s too early to cut down any perennial growth I’d left on over winter to protect new shoots; we could still have a repeat of last year’s Beast from the East, which brought snow and freezing temperatures well into March. However, I did cut Hydrangea Annabelle down to 6″ or so from the ground. It’s a paniculata species and they can happily take being chopped back hard to encourage huge flower heads later in the year. This one also spreads (in the nicest possible way), so I managed to divide a piece for my son’s newish garden now they’ve started to make new beds and take out the existing (boring) shrubs they don’t like. The remaining hydrangeas (mop head and lace cap) I’ll leave until after the danger of frost, as last year’s flowers protect the emerging shoots – as I found out to my cost one year in Scotland, when I trimmed them early, only to have a very late frost in early May, losing all that year’s flowers…..

All in all, a very satisfying couple of hours. And I was definitely ready for a slice of date & walnut cake with my cup of tea when I came back indoors…. This is based on a very simple recipe from my old Be-Ro leaflet. I wonder how many homes have one of these knocking around somewhere, and how many are still in use?!

Date & Walnut Cake

Date and walnut loaf

8oz chopped dates
pinch of bicarbonate of soda
1/4 pt boiling water
3oz butter
3oz light brown muscovado sugar
1 large egg, beaten
8oz self-raising flour
2-3oz walnuts, chopped

Heat oven to 160°C fan/Gas 4 and grease and base-line a 2lb loaf tin.

Place the chopped dates in a bowl with the bicarbonate of soda and add the boiling water. Stir well and leave to stand while you prepare everything else.

Cream the butter and sugar, then mix in the beaten egg. Fold in the flour and walnuts, then finally mix in the date mixture. Transfer to the lined loaf tin, level the surface, and bake for 45 mins – 1 hour, or until nicely risen and no mixture adheres to a skewer when inserted in the middle. Leave to cool and enjoy slathered with butter and accompanied by a piping hot mug of tea.