Diary of a Wedding Cake

The finished cake - in the fridge_cropped

I know, I know, it’s been a long time since I last posted: just the small matter of my younger son’s wedding at the end of July, and the accompanying cake to make for what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year! I have to confess there were times as the day approached and the weather got hotter and hotter, that I wondered what on earth I’d let myself in for. The venue, Grove House, an old manor house, now part of Roehampton University, was precisely that, an old house with a lot of glass, no air conditioning, and no proper kitchen facilities. The caterers bring in their own kitchen equipment and use a (south-facing) converted lecture theatre as their kitchen for the day. Ho hum.

Let me rewind to the initial idea, though. Having made the top tier (a coffee sponge) and provided the flowers for my elder son’s wedding last July, I’d been persuaded that it would be a mere hop, skip and a jump from there to make the whole cake, with my other daughter-in-law’s help. Gulp. We’d had two trial runs, or even three if you count the top tier last year, although one of the bride’s friends, who’s an experienced celebration cake maker, had assembled the structure then, so making the cake itself really was a piece of …. cake. It rained cats and dogs all day long, so temperature wasn’t an issue – and the beautiful country house school hosting the wedding celebrations had an extensive kitchen and refrigeration facilities for the coffee mascarpone filling.

Wedding cake

Back in February, I’d made a sticky toffee cake (at my son’s request – it’s his favourite pudding!) in two tiers for a family 21st birthday; no problem with assembling the tiers, but we decided that sticky toffee, delicious though it was, would be too heavy for a summer wedding and that we preferred the effect (and not too sickly taste) of a naked cake.

Sticky toffee wedding cake

Roll on to April and we had another go, this time making a two-tier Victoria sponge, each tier having three layers, to celebrate a clutch of family birthdays. For an added challenge, I’d ruptured my ACL a couple of weeks before and was still wearing a leg brace, and the entire cake structure had to be transported down to my friends’ smallholding where we were having an impromptu outdoor barbecue feast! Despite all the constraints, it worked beautifully, and tasted delicious, so we decided to work on similar lines for the wedding cake proper.

Spring celebration cake

As the big day approached, I started to make lists of all the equipment I’d need and worked out quantities of ingredients based on the amounts I’d used last time, multiplied up for a bigger bottom tier. Quite a military operation, but it didn’t all go exactly to plan, needless to say. Fortunately I’d taken the week before the wedding off to allow myself plenty of time for cake-making and other preparations, so I had time to adapt – just as well!

The first obstacle came in the shape of cake tins: my existing 8″ sandwich cake tins have sloping sides and I only have two of them, so I’d decided to order more online. Likewise last time I’d used two deep 10″ cake tins and halved each cake, but had decided to order three proper 10″ sandwich tins this time. I already had one 12″ tin, but ordered two more. What amazed me was that some of the tins that arrived, allegedly the size I’d ordered, or their equivalent in cm, were not actually the right size! Either the dimensions had been taken from the outside of the tin, which had a lip, so the internal diameter was wrong, or they quite simply didn’t measure what they said! Motto: always double-check the tin dimensions before you bake! Fortunately I did, and was able to return the offending items and order all the same make (more expensive, but excellent quality): Silverwood. Sometimes, it doesn’t do to cut corners.

Check that you have the dowelling for the cake too – I used 4 pieces per lower tier, but took extra just in case. Having had issues cutting the wooden dowelling when we experimented in February, I’d had the brainwave of asking my father, a former joiner, if I could borrow his junior hacksaw. It may sound a bit extreme, but scissors or a carving knife won’t cut the mustard (let alone the dowels), and you really don’t want to be panicking on the day! I’d bought plastic dowelling this time, probably thinking it might cut more easily, but actually found it quite slippery in the heat of the day and ended up returning to the tried and tested wooden dowels – which fortunately I’d also taken with me – glad I’d prepared for every eventuality! Even with a sharp saw, they take quite a lot of effort to cut, so allow enough time. Thin round cake boards 1″ smaller than each tier of cake are also essential; again we learnt from our first experiment that the boards show if you don’t have them slightly smaller than the cake.

Then there’s the ingredients: 30 eggs, 6lb icing sugar…. – there’s nothing half-hearted about these quantities! I didn’t use gluten-free flour this time, but the cake worked perfectly well last time with Dove’s Farm gluten-free SR flour, so feel free to swap if you prefer. My daughter-in-law made a separate cake for the few gluten-free guests on this occasion – a much easier solution 🙂

Eggs

My cake had to be transported from home to the wedding venue near Clapham, so I had to make sure I had everything I needed – cue more lists! Other things to take included spatulas for spreading icing/jam, a cake lifter – invaluable piece of kit; we really couldn’t have managed without it! Palette knives for additional support, spoons, extra knives, flower scissors, large plastic box for transporting everything, and boxes for transporting the cakes, of course. I left mine in their individual cake tins for transport purposes, and took the jam (at least 8 jars of homemade raspberry jam!) and vast quantities of buttercream separately too.

This is the recipe I used for the cakes – I made them on the Wednesday for the wedding on the Friday, travelling up to London on the Thursday with my precious cargo:

8″ sponge (3 layers):
6 large eggs
12oz caster sugar
12oz self-raising flour (GF works well)
12oz spreadable butter
2 heaped tsp baking powder
2 tsp vanilla extract

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

12″ sponge (3 layers):
13 large eggs
1lb 12oz caster sugar
1lb 12oz self-raising flour
1lb 12oz spreadable butter
4 heaped tsp baking powder
4 tsp vanilla extract

Cakes

8 large jars homemade raspberry jam. I didn’t use it all, but always better to have too much rather than too little, especially if you’re assembling far from home!

Vanilla buttercream:
3lb spreadable butter
6lb icing sugar, sifted
4.5 tsp vanilla extract
(2-3 tbsp cornflour if very hot, to stabilise – optional!)

Buttercream

Dowelling
1 x thin 7″ cake board, 1 x 9″ cake board and 1 x 11″ cake board
Garden flowers to decorate – I used dahlias, lavender, cornflowers, eucalyptus leaves
Iglu florist’s foam (again if hot!)

First make the cakes separately, preferably using a KitchenAid or freestanding mixer.

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 ensure 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/Gas 4 for 25 to 30 minutes, then allow to cool in the tins.

Repeat for the second and third tiers. I wasn’t sure what the KitchenAid’s maximum capacity was, so for the final large tier I made one 10-egg mix and did a 3-egg mix by hand, then combined the two – I really didn’t want to overload my trusty machine at that juncture! These will take longer in the oven, but not that much longer, maybe 40 – 45 minutes, so keep checking and testing to see that the sponge springs back when a finger is pressed gently onto the cake.

Make the buttercream in 3 batches for this large quantity. Again I used my KitchenAid, blending the butter first, then adding the sifted icing sugar and vanilla separately. Add more icing sugar if necessary to adjust taste or consistency, but these quantities should work as they are. I added a couple of tbsp of sifted cornflour in a bid to stabilise the mixture because of the extreme heat; it was still quite soft once out of the fridge for any length of time, but I wouldn’t have wanted to add more as it would affect the taste.

When the cakes are cool, sandwich them with buttercream and jam. I applied the buttercream first to avoid the jam seeping into the cake on such a hot day.

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 assemble the middle tier on the cake board and position on top of the larger cake. Repeat with the top tier.

This, of course, is a counsel of perfection. It’s what we intended to do, but I started to worry about the temperature when making the buttercream on the Wednesday. Frantic googling brought the not very comforting news that buttercream should stand happily up to 25°C, but after that, there’s no knowing… With temperatures that week already in the early 30s and forecast to go up to 37/38 on Thursday/Friday, it was all rather worrying…

Yet another concern was the flowers: I had hoped to just add the flowers around and on top of the cake as we did last year and in April, but with much cooler temperatures. I decided that I’d have to use oasis on top of the cake to give the flowers at least some water and stop them wilting in the heat. Between the tiers I could use lavender and eucalyptus, which were already dried, or wouldn’t mind the lack of water. After picking the flowers from the allotment on Thursday morning and immersing them in deep buckets of water for their journey, I nipped into the village and sought the advice of the florist who did the wedding flowers last year. I knew I only had a 5″ plastic saucer for oasis, which was rather on the large side for what I had in mind, but she hadn’t anything smaller, so that would have to do. I also double-checked with the other florist in the village, who suggested an Iglu, a marshmallow-shaped piece of florist’s foam with an integral plastic base. At first glance, this looked far too small, but I decided to take one in any event, just to be on the safe side – I’m so glad I did! I’m by no means an expert flower arranger and had forgotten how heavy it goes after you soak it in water for a couple of hours. Even after cutting the small piece I had in half, the oasis itself would have been far too heavy for such a delicate cake, already fragile in the heat, whereas the Iglu, just 2″ tall and across, was perfect. It just meant I had no second chances when arranging my flowers for the top of the cake, as you can’t reposition once you make holes in something that’s already so small! No pressure then….

Back to the cake itself… When I arrived at the venue on Thursday afternoon to meet Ellie, my daughter-in-law and partner-in-crime in this crazy cake venture, she was cock-a-hoop because the caterer’s equipment had arrived and included two huge fridges, currently completely empty. At least that meant we could assemble the cakes that afternoon (before going on to the church rehearsal and dinner) and leave them to chill overnight, rather than worrying about them slowly melting…. I had thought we might have to postpone the assembly process until the crack of dawn the next morning if we hadn’t had access to refrigeration – thank goodness for technology!

I was concerned that refrigerating the sponge might affect the texture, but my worries were thankfully unfounded – not that we had a choice! Do be careful, though, if you’re making gluten-free cakes; they tend to have a drier texture and to go even drier after refrigerating. In any event, faced with that or melting, there’s no contest :-).

As the sun streamed through the windows into the already-roasting temporary kitchen, it was soon apparent that this was going to be no easy task. The buttercream was very soft, which meant that as soon as we tried to assemble the three layers of each cake, and then the tiers, the whole thing started to ooze and lean. Disaster! The jam and cream were also running into each other, so in the end we decided to assemble each tier separately, apply a thin crumb layer of buttercream to each one and chill in the fridge overnight. At this stage, I have to admit I was panicking; Ellie remained very calm throughout (must be her psychologist’s training!). As we left for the evening, taking all our equipment to wash up back at the AirBnB as we didn’t even have a sink in our makeshift kitchen, I had visions of the cake having to be left as three separate cakes, without stacking…. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night, although that was doubtless partly due to the unaccustomed London airlessness and sub-tropical temperatures…

Things looked much more optimistic the next morning when we got there bright and early, with the cake having chilled nicely in the fridge overnight. Still no sign of the caterers, thank goodness, so we had the kitchen to ourselves to finally assemble the tiers. It was obvious by now that we’d have to ice the whole cake – good thing I’d made industrial quantities of buttercream on the off-chance! Ellie, clearly a plasterer in a former life, got on with doing that while I recut the dowelling after the sinkage the previous afternoon. I then addressed myself to the flowers for the top, which turned out to be quite easy in the end – once I’d decided I had to be positive and just go for it! Fortunately, I’d picked way more flowers than I needed, both from my allotment and a neighbour’s, so I was able to choose some truly choice blooms. That done, we assembled the tiers in the fridge (to avoid any more melting!), and then Ellie arranged the eucalyptus leaves and lavender around each tier to finish it off. Phew! We left it on the cake lifter in the fridge for the caterers to transfer to the cake stand as late in the day as possible. Not perfect, by any means, but I was so happy that it was still standing and tiered as we dashed off to have our hair and make-up done – possibly not the most relaxing morning for the mother of the groom and bridesmaid, but what can you do?!

I’m pleased to report that it did survive being manhandled by the caterers onto the cake stand, although they did take it out of the fridge rather sooner than we’d have liked. Once the day was underway, there was nothing we could do in any event – nor any time to worry really! It was leaning slightly for the cutting ceremony, but still looked good – and most importantly of all, tasted delicious. No official photos yet, hence the photo of the cake in the fridge still at the top of this post – I wanted to record it for posterity in case it all came tumbling down! As you can see from the picture below from one of the guests, I (far right) was praying that it didn’t fall over as they cut it….

Cutting the cake_cropped

One last postscript in this diary of a wedding cake: when we came to collect all our stuff the following day, lots of my equipment, mostly what had been in the fridge with the cake, was missing and still hasn’t come to light, although the caterers have said they definitely have some items which were swept up with their stuff by mistake. They are based in North London, so we’ve had to arrange a mutually convenient time and place to hand over. I’d tried to tidy up as we went along, but it’s not easy on someone else’s premises, especially when there’s another function the following day. In hindsight, I should have double-checked before leaving the reception, but it really isn’t at the top of your agenda after such a lovely and full-on day.

Two sons married, two wedding cakes made (or contributed to) – I think that’s me done with tiered cakes for a while!

A & L under arbour

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Gooseberries Galore

Gooseberries bumper crop

I couldn’t finish this megaseason for the humble gooseberry without sharing a few of the recipes I’ve tried this year – as well as the usual pies, crumbles, fools and shortbreads, of course, and stowing far too many in the freezer, to say nothing of giving lots away. I have two gooseberry bushes at the allotment, one green variety, Invicta, a highly prolific and viciously prickly, mildew-resistant form, which never fails to produce excellent crops, and a red dessert variety, Pax, less prickly, but not as prolific. Despite netting, it’s always a race to get to the berries when they turn red before the birds do! This year, though, I was onto them and have picked the berries red, rather than waiting for them to turn black – result! They made a divine cloud-like fool, with just puréed gooseberries (500g), cooked with a dash of elderflower cordial and 75g sugar, cooled, sieved to remove the seeds and skins, then folded into 150ml softly whipped cream. Heavenly.

Pink gooseberry and elederflower fool

The Invictas, on the other hand, are so prolific that I didn’t know what to do with them all. Picking them is a challenge (especially with a wedding coming up, and trying to keep my hands and arms scratch-free!), so I decided to be brutal and prune the bush drastically in the process. This had the added advantage of allowing me to sit in the shade of my established apple tree, out of the scorching sun, to take the individual berries off the branches – much less risky!

Gooseberry branches picking

So what to do with all this fruit? Online research suggested a gooseberry chutney courtesy of Nigel Slater, not cooked to death as with many chutney recipes, but a lighter preserve, perfect for spicing up cold meats and cheese – definitely worth a try.

Gooseberry Chutney

Gooseberry chutney

 250g granulated sugar
2 large onions
300g tomatoes
1 kg gooseberries
200g raisins
150ml cider vinegar
150ml white wine vinegar
15 cardamom pods
12 black peppercorns
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp salt

Peel and chop the onions, then put in a large pan. Add the chopped tomatoes, raisin and vinegar ( I used all cider vinegar as that’s what I had). Open the cardamom pods and crush the seeds with the black peppercorns, then add to the pan with the coriander seeds. Simmer gently while you top and tail the gooseberries.

Add 750g gooseberries to the pan and 1 tsp salt, then cook over a gentle heat for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. After 30 minutes, stir in the sugar until it dissolves , then cook for a further 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining gooseberries and cook for another 2-3 minutes until the added gooseberries are just cooked. Pour into sterilised jars, cover and seal. Set aside for at least a week before serving with cold meats and/or cheese.

My final gooseberry suggestion for this season is a delicious gooseberry & elderflower yogurt ice cream. I suppose it’s not unlike a frozen fool, but this time with yogurt to cut through the richness – mmmmm…. don’t mind if I do.

Gooseberry & Elderflower Yogurt Ice Cream

500g gooseberries, topped and tailed
75g elderflower cordial
125g granulated sugar
150 ml natural yogurt (full-fat)
150ml double cream

Cook the gooseberries over a gentle heat with the elderflower cordial and the sugar until softened – about 5-10 minutes. Allow to cool completely, then purée in a blender and sieve to remove the seeds.

Stir in the cream and natural yogurt and mix well. Transfer to an ice cream maker and churn until it resembles soft ice cream. Transfer to the freezer to finish.

Serve with gooseberry pies or crumbles, or just as it is, in a bowl, with a big grin on your face. This is so good….

Soft fruit harvest

 

 

 

 

Back to breakfasts

New arch

It really has been an outstanding year for soft fruit: raspberries and gooseberries in particular. Overwhelming at times! I’ve been enjoying fresh raspberries on my breakfast granola for weeks, desserts have been a cinch with fresh berries, panna cotta and red berry compote, and raspberry ice cream (same as my recipe for strawberry ice cream, but with puréed and sieved raspberries – the seeds are quite obtrusive otherwise), and some have gone in the freezer along with pots of raspberry coulis.

Panna cotta with red berry compote

I’ve also made two large batches of raspberry jam with an eye to making my son’s Victoria sponge wedding cake at the end of July – next week in fact! One was my favourite easy raspberry jam, boiled for just 2 minutes after adding the sugar. For the last batch the raspberries were tailing off slightly (I only managed to pick 1kg at a time!), so I added 500g redcurrants and made raspberry & redcurrant – equally delicious and perhaps a firmer set with the extra pectin from the redcurrants.

Raspberry & Redcurrant Jam – makes 6 jars

Raspberry redcurrant jam_cropped

1kg raspberries
500g redcurrants, strigged
500ml water
1.5kg granulated sugar

Put the raspberries, strigged redcurrants and water in a large preserving pan and simmer gently for 15 minutes until the fruit is very soft and the juice is running. Stir in the granulated sugar until it dissolves, bring back to the boil, then boil quickly for 7-10 minutes or until drips run together when you hold up the spoon, or use the chilled saucer test by turning off the heat, adding a blob of hot jam to a saucer straight from the freezer, and leaving for a few minutes to see if the surface wrinkles when you gently push it with your finger. Pot into hot, sterilised jars and cover immediately.

I must share a new granola recipe I’ve tried recently too – I love my coconut granola, but my local wholefood store in the village had run out of one of the essential ingredients, coconut flakes, recently, so I was forced to look around for a different recipe. This one, by Rachel Allen, majors on nuts and makes for a delicious alternative. I’ve replaced the original honey with maple syrup, but feel free to use whichever you prefer:

Nutty Granola

125g butter
150ml maple syrup
1tsp vanilla extract
500g oats
100g cashew nuts
100g flaked almonds
100g desiccated coconut
100g pumpkin seeds
100g sunflower seeds
250g dried fruit (dates, sultanas, apricots, etc.)

Preheat the oven to 150°C / Gas 3. Melt the butter, maple syrup and vanilla extract in a pan over a gentle heat. Add the remaining ingredients apart from the dried fruit to a large mixing bowl and stir in the melted butter mixture. Divide over two large baking trays, and bake for 15 minutes, changing the position of the trays halfway through. Then remove from the oven, tip back into the bowl and mix well. Return to the baking trays and cook for a further 10 minutes to brown and crisp all over. Allow to cool completely before adding the dried fruit, then storing in a large container.

Serve with yogurt and fresh fruit of your choice – raspberries are the perfect accompaniment, of course.

Still a very busy time of year in the garden with the prolonged dry spell and hot weather, making daily watering at the allotment and my pots at home an absolute must. I’ve resorted to doing home in the morning and the allotment in the evening in an attempt to lighten the load – while watering standing on one leg to try and incorporate my ACL physio in the process! Yet everything is coming on in leaps and bounds; I’ve even had to repot my aubergines into supersize pots, so triffid-like was their growth! The brassicas – purple-sprouting broccoli, cavolo nero and calabrese – were planted out last weekend, so I should be able to concentrate on harvesting and watering from now on. Roll on the season of plenty…

Aubergine triffids

Not enough hours in the day!

Sissinghurst house June 2018

I’m only too aware that it’s been ages since I posted here: I can only claim busy social weekends, work events, pressures of work, and not enough hours in the day to do everything else! Plus the hot weather over the past couple of weeks (not that I’m complaining, honest!), means that watering becomes a daily requirement not only at home, but also down at the allotment, especially for relatively new plantings. Then the prolonged warm spell has brought all the soft fruit to fruition at once, so harvesting is also in full swing  and a huge harvest at that! A few extra hours each day really wouldn’t go amiss…

So what’s been happening on the plot? Well, May/June are always the busiest months for gardeners, so going out to Berlin for a translation workshop at the end of May, lovely though it was, was bound to put a spanner in the gardening works! Spring containers at home have had to be planted up with their summer contents (begonias and lobelia as ever, although very slow to get going this year), tomatoes had to be planted outside (and are now going great guns), and beans, courgettes, squashes and sweetcorn had to be planted out at the allotment. Today I finally managed to plant out my leeks, several weeks later than usual, but there just hasn’t been time before – hen party at a retro ice cream parlour in Broadstairs for my soon-to-be-daughter-in-law last weekend, plus a visit to nearly Sissinghurst (white garden at the peak of its glory – always a good time to visit), and up to London the weekend before for another translation event. Anyway, the leeks are finally in situ, so it just remains for me to water them very well for the next few weeks while they get established, especially if this heat persists.

My allotment neighbour has had a very late delivery of spent mushroom compost, so I transferred six barrowloads up to my plot to replenish the soil in some of the beds. Not easy with everything planted, but I focussed on the peas and beans, which didn’t get their annual manure fix this year, as we had hoped the mushroom compost would arrive earlier. I also topped up the asparagus bed, as it is a hungry feeder and the asparagus has finished cropping for the season now – some extra nutrients should build the ferns up nicely over the summer. Probably not the best thing for my knee, but hey ho, needs must!

Everything is coming on apace, apart from my French beans, which are stubbornly refusing to germinate. I can only imagine it’s too hot for them – or the seed is too old. I’ve planted more this evening, so fingers crossed. Sweet peas too are ridiculously slow this year, but finally look as though they’re starting to get going. My allotment neighbour on the other side has masses, so kindly said I could help myself – so lovely to have fragrant sweet peas in the house again. With any luck I can return the favour in late summer when mine are in full bloom…

In other news, the rhubarb gin is ready after its month’s infusing – and very good it is too! I’m very impressed: it makes a delicately pink-tinged long drink with tonic, ice and a sprig of rosemary if you feel so inclined. You can really taste the rhubarb, with just a slight kick of ginger. Definitely my favourite drink of the summer so far!

Rhubarb gin finished product

I’ve also made two batches of elderflower cordial and ventured into rhubarb & ginger cordial production too. Also very good. I couldn’t find one recipe online that really appealed, so adapted several, including one from Sarah Raven, and one from Saga. Take your pick! Again, a gorgeous colour, even from garden rhubarb rather than the vivid (although in my view not as tasty!) forced stuff. Here is the result:

Rhubarb & Ginger Cordial – makes approx. 1.5 litres

Rhubarb and ginger cordiaal

1,750 g rhubarb, chopped into chunks (no need to peel)
750 g granulated sugar (or to taste)
1 litre water
1 orange
1 lemon
1 tbsp citric acid
1 knob of root ginger (about 5 cm)

Place the chopped rhubarb in a large preserving pan with the root ginger, also roughly chopped, and the juice and rind of the orange and lemon. Cover with water and bring to the boil, then simmer gently until the fruit is soft and pulpy – about half an hour. Leave to cool for an hour or so.

When cool, pour into a jelly bag suspended over a large bowl or jug, and allow to drip through overnight. Don’t press, as it will make the cordial cloudy. Discard (or compost) the rhubarb pulp.

Straining rhubarb cordial

The next day, place the resulting juice into the preserving pan again and add 750g granulated sugar (or to taste). Bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Finally add 1 tbsp citric acid; you can omit this, but it will help to preserve the cordial for longer. It should keep for several months in a cool, dark place, but refrigerate once opened.

Pour into sterilised bottles and serve with sparkling water or soda for a refreshing summer drink.

 

 

Scaling the rhubarb mountain…

Alliums and tulips

It’s at this time of year that the rhubarb goes into overdrive: sunshine one minute, heavy showers the next – perfect growing weather! Despite cutting back my rhubarb bed when I downsized from a full allotment to three-quarters, the two smaller beds I created seemed to have expanded beyond all expectations. Every time I go up, I cut armfuls of strong stems, but it still looks just as abundant the next time I arrive. I give lots away, of course: I sent my son and his fiancée home with loads this weekend, and thrust yet more at my mum when we called in for lunch on Sunday. I even took some up to a friend in Cheshire when I went to my goddaughter’s wedding over the beautiful May Day holiday weekend.

Needless to say my menus feature rhubarb pretty intensively at the moment: roasted rhubarb & orange compote with homemade granola and natural yogurt is my breakfast of choice. You can’t beat a good old-fashioned rhubarb crumble or a traditional rhubarb pie with its mandatory (and delicious) soggy bottom either. Sometimes, however, you fancy a change, and I recently revisited a recipe from one of my first ever cookbooks, Jocasta Innes “Pauper’s Cookbook” from my student days, still my original dog-eared, much bespattered paperback version from the 1970s. The original recipe calls itself a rhubarb pie, but to my mind a pie has to have a top, whereas this is more of a tart with just a pastry base. It’s delicious, whatever you call it, and reminded me almost of the delicious Rhabarberwähen I sampled in Basel during my year abroad – heaven on a plate! I must track down a Swiss recipe for one of those too…. In the meantime, here’s my take on an open rhubarb tart. I often make enough pastry to make a spare case; they keep for a good couple of weeks in a tin in a cool place.

Rhubarb & Cinnamon Tart – serves 6

Rhubarb tart

1 part-baked 24cm shortcrust pastry case (see this recipe or use your own)
750g rhubarb, chopped
1 lemon, grated rind and juice
150g brown sugar
1 heaped tbsp cornflour
1 tsp cinnamon

Mix the sugar, grated lemon rind and juice, cinnamon and cornflour in a bowl and sprinkle half this mixture over the bottom of the tart case, top with the chopped rhubarb, then sprinkle the rest of the sugar mixture on top. Bake at 200°C, Gas 6 for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the rhubarb is tender. Cover with foil if it starts to get too brown at the edges. Serve just warm or cold with whipped cream or crème fraiche.

A chance conversation on Facebook led to my next rhubarb solution: rhubarb & ginger gin. I’ve yet to taste the results, of course, as it will have to steep for a month before it’s ready, but I can’t see why it shouldn’t taste divine: rhubarb, ginger, gin & tonic – what’s not to like? I’ll let you know in a month’s time whether it’s as good as it sounds – fingers crossed! Sarah Raven’s recipe for rhubarb & ginger vodka appealed most after my online searches, adapted for gin and tweaked to fit my 2 litre Kilner jar. I used Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell London Gin, which gets excellent reviews and won a gold medal in the International Wine and Spirits Competition earlier this year.

Rhubarb & Ginger Gin

Rhubarb and ginger gin

800g rhubarb, chopped into small chunks
1 litre gin
400g granulated sugar
5cm piece root ginger, peeled and sliced
thin strips of orange peel from 1 orange
1 vanilla pod

Put the rhubarb, sugar, ginger, orange peel and vanilla pod into a 2-litre Kilner jar and pour over the gin to cover completely. You probably won’t need it all; I reckon I used about 900 ml. Shake vigorously, then put in a cool place for 1 month, shaking every day to dissolve the sugar.

After 1 month, strain into a jug and decant into bottles. Serve with tonic and ice for a perfectly pink long drink for the summer months. Roll on June!

Garden flowers with alliums and tulips
Tulips and alliums from the garden

Another weekend, more progress…

Allotment evening sun

Another weekend comes around, very different from the soaring temperatures of last weekend, but dry at least today, so I’ve finally ventured out into the allotment to do something other than harvesting. My gardening helper came in again on Thursday and did the heavy weeding and lawn mowing, which meant it was a much easier proposition to go up today and get started with the interesting bits! As it was, I still spent over two hours up there, preparing beds and soil – all very enjoyable, but I can certainly feel it in my knee now…

Carrots, parsnips and beetroot are duly sown, along with salad crops: spinach, Swiss chard, rocket, lettuce, oriental mustard, parsley, coriander, dill and chives. I also planted red onion sets around the outside of the bed where the leeks are due to go: currently still containing healthy-looking parsley and chard/spinach that’s about to go to flower, but should be good for a few more pickings. I had intended to plant my peas too, sweet and mangetout, but common sense prevailed and I’ll save that until tomorrow – weather permitting!

I returned home with vast amounts of rhubarb – clearly loving the typical April weather of sunshine and showers – and yet more purple-sprouting broccoli. Most of my meals this week have featured broccoli one way or another, not that I’m complaining. It’s a real delight to have something so fresh and tasty at this time of year, before the asparagus and the broad beans come into their own in a few weeks’ time.

Tonight I simply had it steamed served with salmon fillet, a cream and herb sauce, paprika-dusted chunky chips and a garlic mushroom. So good. Other uses during the week were my standby broccoli and anchovy pasta, a tuna, leek and broccoli pasta bake, and a broccoli and feta frittata. Nothing very taxing, but nice to ring the changes by cooking the broccoli in different ways. And just think of all those vitamins! A and C for starters, but it also contains calcium, iron and folic acid, to name but a few of its nutritional goodies. Let’s hope it goes straight to the knee….

Broccoli & Feta Frittata – serves 2

Broccoli frittata with sorrel mint salad

1 onion, chopped
1 medium potato, diced and parboiled for 5 minutes
1 handful of purple-sprouting broccoli, steamed or microwaved for 2-3 minutes
8-10 cherry tomatoes, halved
a glug of olive oil
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
100g feta cheese, cubed
4 eggs
Salt and pepper

Cook the chopped onion gently in the oil for 10 minutes until starting to soften. Stir in the cooked potato, cherry tomatoes and thyme, and cook for a few more minutes.

Meanwhile beat the eggs, add salt and pepper, then stir in the cubed feta. Tip in the onion, potato and tomato mixture and finally add the drained, cooked broccoli. Pour the mixture into a greased 7″ square roasting dish and make sure everything is evenly distributed. Cook for 12-15 minutes in a pre-heated oven (200°C / Gas 6) until just set to the touch.

Leave to cool for a few minutes and then cut into quarters to serve, preferably with a fresh green salad: mine was fresh red sorrel and mint, as they are both plentiful in the garden at home at the moment, with a handful of red grapes. The frittata re-heats beautifully the next day for lunch if you have any left over.

This next recipe isn’t a looker (are pasta bakes ever?), but it is a really tasty and comforting way of serving broccoli when you have it coming out of your ears… It also contains leeks, another vegetable I’m trying to use up at this time of year, before they flower, and to free up the beds for next month’s courgette and sweetcorn plants. You can still eat them when they go to flower, but they start to develop a hard central tube, so best to use them before if at all possible.

Broccoli & Pasta Bake – serves 2

1 x 160g tin tuna, drained
60g pasta (I used penne, but use whatever you have)
1 generous handful purple-sprouting broccoli
1 large or 2 small leeks, sliced into rings
25g butter
1 heaped tbsp plain flour
250ml milk
1 tbsp parsley, chopped
Freshly grated nutmeg
100g Cheddar cheese, grated
2 tbsp breadcrumbs (I keep a bag in the freezer and use from frozen)
Salt and pepper

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside. Steam the broccoli over the pasta for the last 3-4 minutes.

Meanwhile, gently cook the leeks in the butter until starting to soften. Stir in the flour and cook for a few minutes, then gradually add the milk. You may need to add more milk if the consistency is too thick – this is a matter of personal taste, so use your discretion! Grate in some fresh nutmeg, and stir in the chopped parsley and half of the grated cheese. Then stir in the flaked tuna and season to taste.

When the pasta is cooked, stir the pasta through the sauce, add the cooked broccoli, and turn into a greased ovenproof dish. I use a 20 cm round Pyrex dish. Mix the reserved grated cheese with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle on top. Bake at 200°C / Gas 6 for 25 – 30 minutes until golden brown. Serve with peas or a green salad.

Finally, to use up the feta left over from the frittata, I turned to yet another pasta dish, featuring one of my favourite pasta sauces and one my boys took away to university as easy student fare. I find it’s only too easy to forget about half a packet of feta in the fridge once you’ve opened it, so this is a delicious way of using it up before it goes off. I think the original recipe came from renowned Italian food writer Anna del Conte, but I’ve tweaked it over the years as usual. You can add sweet peppers, or omit the onion: it’s always good.

Spicy Sausage Pasta – serves 2-3

Sausage pasta_rotated

1 x 400g pack good sausages (I like to use Sainsbury’s Sicilian sausages, but any will do)
200g pasta (penne or rigatoni)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tin chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato purée
2 tbsp capers, drained
12 black olives
120ml white wine
2 tbsp parsley, chopped (or basil in season)
100g feta cheese, crumbled
salt & pepper

Cook the chopped onion gently in the oil in a frying pan. Use scissors to cut the skin off the sausages and discard. Chop the sausage meat into chunks and add to the frying pan after 5-10 minutes, then add the chopped garlic and chilli. Cook until the sausage is no longer pink, then add the tomato purée and the wine. Let it sizzle and die down, then add the tinned tomatoes, capers and olives. Season to taste. Simmer uncovered for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside, reserving a few tbsp of cooking water to add to the tomato mixture if it looks to be getting dry. Alternatively add more wine!

After 15 minutes, add the pasta to the sauce, toss thoroughly and serve topped with the crumbled feta cheese and the chopped parsley.

Poppy in bluebells 2018

Getting stronger…

Cherry blossom front garden

Me, and growth in the garden, that is! An unexpectedly warm and sunny week in mid-April is just what the doctor ordered, encouraging me out to ever longer dog walks (dry and less treacherous underfoot, thank goodness) and also spurring the gardens into heavenly spring growth: tulips, daffodils, camellias, magnolias, epimediums, bluebells – all flowering at once…. Stunning!

I took the opportunity of a trip over to my son’s near Sevenoaks at the weekend to visit a garden I’ve always meant to visit: Riverhill Himalayan Gardens, perched on a fabulous vantage point above the A21, overlooking the Kent and Sussex Weald. It didn’t disappoint with intoxicating bluebell walks, stately rhododendrons, magnificent magnolias and fantastic views everywhere you looked. Dogs were allowed (on leads), a rare treat in these days where dogs seemed to be banned outright in many of the classic National Trust gardens. A sorry tale of the few cavalier dog owners spoiling it for the many who do pick up after their dogs and keep them under control in public places. For the odd child who veered away from our three (on their leads, good as gold). there were lots of others who were keen to come and coo and stroke them, especially my daughter-in-law’s working cocker spaniel, Ollie, who basks in all the attention, true therapy dog that he is.

Ollie in coat

Part of the reason I was able to have such a relaxed weekend was that I’d taken the plunge to get a cleaner back in to clean my house, partly because of my accident, but also to free up precious leisure time. I’d also, for the first time ever, paid for help in the garden, to do the heavy jobs I’d struggle to do with a weak, though recovering knee. A very good move: my overgrown lawn is now neatly mown, hard-to-access areas under trees and shrubs weeded, garden compost distributed around the hungry beds and my potatoes (Ulster Sceptre, Colleen and Bonnie) duly planted at the allotment. Such a relief!

On a side note, Ulster Sceptre is a variety I trialled from T&M some years ago and absolutely loved. I haven’t been able to find them since, but tracked them down to a grower in Yorkshire this year, only to see them described as the variety often grown as early Cheshires – no wonder I loved them, if they are the new potato taste of my childhood!

This left me free to spend a lovely afternoon just pottering on Sunday. I sowed more seeds in the propagator as others germinate and are moved out onto the conservatory windowsill: sweetcorn Ambrosia, courgette Defender and squash Crown Prince (from my own seeds saved from last year) and Early Butternut. Oh, and I’ve tried more celeriac this year (Monarch), having enjoyed it so much in cooking last year: so good with venison. It’s always been a martyr to slug damage whenever I’ve tried it before, but we’ll see…

I also got around to potting up my dahlia tubers, to get them going in the protected environment of my growframe before they go out in the open. Somehow or other I must have gone crazy at dahlia ordering time and have ended up with 10 new varieties! Six from Sarah Raven: purple Ripples, Shooting Star (cream tinged with mauve), Genova (mauve), Snowstorm (white of  course), Wizard of Oz (baby pink) and Daisy Duke (copper). The cream and purple shades are admittedly geared to my younger son’s July wedding, when it would be nice to have at least some blooms to accompany their lavender theme – weather permitting! I have bought a new raised bed kit to be dedicated to cutting flowers, but need help to install it: one for my gardener’s list, I think.

I had also succumbed to a Gardener’s World/Thompson & Morgan dahlia offer: four tubers for the cost of postage; who could resist?! These included Arabian Night, a deep red black cactus variety I’ve had before and loved – and since my favourite dark dahlia Rip City finally disappeared last year, this was an ideal chance to re-introduce that burgundy shade. The others were My Love (cream), Orfeo (another deep red) and Mingus Toni (speckled rose). I’m sure I’ll manage to shoehorn them all in somewhere… It may even be that some of last year’s, all left in the ground to overwinter as usual, haven’t survived the very cold temperatures we had earlier this year. Time will tell.

TM dahlia offer

Most of the tuberous begonias I’d overwintered in the shed had perished in the extremely cold temperatures, but two of my monster tubers still feel quite solid and have been duly potted up. I’ve had them all for a good couple of years, so they owe me nothing; we’ll see if they shoot, and if not, I’ll start again with fresh plants and new varieties. Such is the joy of gardening 🙂

My final task of the weekend, still from a gentle sitting position with my potting tray moved to my garden table, involved pricking out the fibrous begonia seedlings my parents had brought over the previous weekend from Dove’s Barn, a nursery near them in East Grinstead, always very reasonably-priced for a wide range of seedlings and young plants. These are very tricky to grow from seed yourself unless you have a heated greenhouse, so I usually buy them at the tiny seedling stage and prick them out myself. These were one stage further on as mini plug plants, but it’s still a lot cheaper to buy them like this than to buy trays of garden-ready plants in a month or so’s time. And while it may seem unadventurous to always have begonias in my garden tubs, I know from experience that these are such good doers: come sun or rain, slug epidemic or drought, these do well whatever the season throws at them.

Bluebells at Tapsells April 2018

 

 

Thoughts from a gardener/cook…

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