Tag Archives: dates

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.

 

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Using your Loaf

In this age of healthy, “clean” eating, is it wrong of me to confess that I always like to have cake in the house?! As I’ve said many times before, my motto is everything in moderation and a piece of cake with your afternoon tea is good for the soul – well mine, at any rate. Now there’s just me at home, though, I do have to be careful to make things that don’t go off before I have time to eat them. Loaf cakes can be the perfect solution: I often make the mixture, then cook it in two loaf tins and freeze one, or even cook just one cake and freeze half. Such a luxury to know you have cake already in the freezer when you return from holiday or have a particularly steep workload. They’re usually very quick to make too, so you can knock them up in no time.

Two of my favourites are adapted ever so slightly from Nigel Slater’s first Kitchen Diaries, both in the winter months, which is precisely when I like to cook them. They just suit the grey days at the start of the year somehow: a spicy double ginger cake for the chilly days of January and a frosted marmalade cake to make the most of the peak citrus season. My final loaf offering is one I stumbled across by chance in Waitrose’s Weekend newspaper: a “healthy” date, walnut & banana loaf.

Frosted Marmalade Cake

frosted-marmalade-cake_slice

6oz butter, softened
6oz caster sugar
1 large orange, zest and juice
3 large eggs, beaten
3oz orange marmalade
6oz self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder

For the frosting:
4oz icing sugar

One 2lb loaf tin, greased and lined

Preheat the oven to 160°C, 350°F or gas mark 4. Beat the butter, sugar, orange zest, beaten eggs, marmalade, flour and baking powder in a large bowl until pale and fluffy. Finally, gently stir in the juice of half the orange. (Nigel uses the classic sponge method and mixes these separately, butter and sugar first, then eggs, then folding in the flour – I find my method works just as well!)

Spoon the mixture into the loaf tin and bake for 40-45 minutes until cooked. Leave the cake to cool in the tin – it may sink slightly – then remove from the tin and cool on a wire rack.

Sieve the icing sugar and mix in as much of the remaining orange juice as required to produce a smooth, slightly runny consistency, then drizzle icing over the cake, letting it run down the side, and leave to set.

Double Ginger Cake – makes 2 loaf cakes (or 1 large square cake)

ginger-cake-cooked_cropped

250g self-raising flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
pinch of salt
200g golden syrup
stem ginger in syrup (3 lumps, finely chopped)
2 tbsp syrup from the ginger jar
125g butter
2 heaped tbsp sultanas (optional)
125g dark Muscovado sugar
2 large eggs
240 ml milk

Grease and base-line either 2 loaf tins or one 8″ square deep cake tin. I usually make two loaves and freeze the second.

Set the oven to 160°C, 350°F or gas mark 4. Sift the flour with the spices, bicarb and salt. Put the golden syrup, ginger syrup and butter in a small pan and warm gently. Add the chopped stem ginger, sugar and sultanas (if using – I find they ALWAYS sink to the bottom of the cake as the mixture is so wet, and they really don’t add anything to the cake, but if you like them, leave them in!). Bubble gently for a minute or so. Break the eggs into a bowl, then add the milk. Remove the syrup mixture from the heat and pour over the flour. Then add the eggs and milk, stirring gently until no traces of flour remain. The mixture will be very sloppy!

ginger-cake-pre-cooking

Pour into the prepared cake tins and bake for 35-40 minutes or until firm to the touch. Leave to cool before turning out, then serve in chunky slices with a good slathering of butter. Perfect teatime fare….

As I said, my final loaf recipe was adapted from a Waitrose recipe and is actually for a “sugar-free” cake, not that I was seeking to make any such thing. It is, of course, free from refined sugar, not sugar in any form, as it contains fruit and fruit nectar – but if you’re keen to cut down on refined sugar, do give it a go.  I happened to have a blackened banana in the fruit bowl, which was why it called out to me. The original recipe uses date nectar, which I didn’t have, so I used agave nectar instead, and two ripe bananas – there again, I only had one in the house, so I added an overripe pear – great way to use up the stragglers in your fruit bowl! I must admit, I was dubious before I made it, but it really is very light and delicious – well worth a try.

Date, Walnut & Banana Loaf

40g butter, softened
2 tbsp agave nectar (or date nectar if you have it)
1 egg, beaten
100ml semi-skimmed milk
150g wholemeal SR flour (or spelt flour if you prefer)
1 tsp baking powder (may need 2 if using spelt)
2 tsp mixed spice
2 ripe bananas, mashed (or 1 banana + 1 pear)
50g walnuts, chopped
60g chopped dates

Grease and base-line a loaf tin. Set the oven to 160°C, 350°F or gas mark 4.

Cream the butter and agave nectar together in a bowl, then add the egg and milk and combine with a hand mixer. Sift in the flour, baking powder and mixed spice. Stir to combine – it will look very odd at this stage! Add the mashed bananas/pear, dates and walnuts and mix again. Transfer to the prepared tin and bake for 40-45 minutes or until firm to the touch. Cool and serve in slices, with butter if preferred. This won’t keep for long because of the fruit content, especially in warm weather, so do freeze half if necessary.

date-walnut-banana-loaf