14 August, 2016

August - The Wickedly Lazy Month

Pottering and Potting

I'm still cooking away and trying out new recipes, perhaps not as frequently as I might. My excuse: it's August and everyone's on holiday. That said, I made potted shrimps and strawberry ice cream with shortbread biscuits from the Norfolk cookbook for a family lunch earlier this month. I loved the potted shrimps and the ice cream wasn't bad. Would you be surprised to learn there was freshly ground pepper in it?

Strawberry ice cream in preparation

A former colleague presented me with homegrown courgettes quite unexpectedly. They're not my favourite vegetable so I knew I'd have to make something interesting with them: charred courgette with tomato and bean salad from the Riverford Farm Cook Book helped to brighten things up. 

A couple of days ago I got home from work earlier than I'd anticipated and so had time to make a mushroom tart from a Martha Day recipe. (I strayed from Martha's path by making wholewheat pastry and adding bacon to the mushrooms.)

Coffee, cardamon and walnut cake

Coffee, cardamon and walnut cake
I love home-made coffee and walnut cake - and home-made by other people is even better. Not that I come across it very often. For some reason I have been yearning gently for coffee cake with cardamon. I found a couple of recipes but chose this one for coffee, cardamon and walnut cake by Fiona Cairns. Both the cake batter and buttercream are flavoured with freshly ground cardamon. The smell from the ground seeds is rich and exotic and reminds me of my childhood. I was a little surprised by the very small amount of powder yielded from the seeds and I had expected more flavour from the completed cake. It was delicious nevertheless but I will be more heavy-handed with the spice next time. I will also try to caramelise the walnuts more neatly. 

Bee hospitable

The spouse and I enjoy cooking and we enjoy inviting people to our home to share our food and catch up with their news. The rules of hospitality are vague and intangible but my basic tenets include making guests feel welcome and feeding them well. My hospitality extends to the bees who are making the most of the lavender in my front garden. Suck it up, girls, because next month I'll be cutting the plants back. 

In the context of hospitality it's apt to mention that I'm currently reading Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. One of the protagonist lives in a house in Paris called the Hotel of Bees, which had been the home of a wealthy privateer who "gave up raiding ships to study bees in the pastures outside Saint-Malo, scribbling in notebooks and eating honey straight from combs." The Hotel of Bees is described as having crests above the door lintels featuring bumblebees carved into the oak, a fountain shaped like a hive, an hexagonal bathtub and ceiling frescoes portraying giant bees. 

And so back to laziness. 


24 July, 2016

Honeyed Words

Baking and Boasting

Last year I entered a local baking competition for the first time. There weren't many entries and I achieved a couple of seconds and thirds ... out of twos and threes! I decided that I would re-enter this year, having identified that the competition is quite old-fashioned and that the judges don't seem to require anything too fancy. Fortunately, I was on leave in the run up to the competition so had the time to prepare and make seven entries: shortbread, tea brack, scones, gingerbread, cupcakes, apple tart and a deep chocolate fudge cake. 

Shortbread (Norfolk recipe)
I tried out two shortbread recipes: one from Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course, the other from the Norfolk cookbook. Delia's book was first published in 1978 and my copy was a twenty-fifth birthday present from one of my siblings. I have to state that I was not twenty-five in 1978 - I was still a teenager. The Norfolk cookbook was a more recent present from my other sibling J'Zo. In case you're wondering, the Norfolk shortbread was much tastier and that's what I entered in the biscuit competition. Third prize for my shortbread. 

I looked at the tea loaf recipes in Martha Day's Baking before thinking that I should just look up an Irish tea brack recipe. I found one on this Irish website. It turned out really well and ... came first in the tea brack competition. 
First prize for tea brack

Last year I made banana gingerbread for the competition from Paul Flynn's recipe. I have been using this recipe for years and it never goes wrong. This year I thought I would make a plain gingerbread loaf. I don't have any recipes but eventually found this one on the All Recipes UK website. It was very nice and came second.  

Second prize for ginger bread
My cup cakes came second and the three remaining items came third. I was very pleased with myself. 

Blueberry scones
I can't rest on my laurels. My scones need work so today I made blueberry scones using a recipe from my Good Housekeeping Step-by-Step Baking. They tasted quite sweet and were a little soft, but I think I know where I went wrong: too much milk. 

Bees and Verse

Recently I selected a lovely book of poems as a birthday present for one of my brothers-in-law. Windharp: Poems of Ireland Since 1916 is a lovely anthology edited by Niall MacMonagle.

Here are some of the bee references.

The Lost Heifer by Austen Clarke
I thought of the last honey by the water
That no hive can find.

The Stare's Nest by My Window by W B Yeats
The bees build in the crevices 
Of loosening masonry, and there 
The mother birds bring grubs and flies. 
My wall is loosening; honey bees, 
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A Winter Solstice by Peter Fallon
The days will stretch and we survive 
with losses, yes, and lessons too, 
to reap the honey of the hive 
of history.

And with those honeyed words I'll finish for today. 


25 June, 2016

June Journal

Recipe Round-Up

An e-mail went around at work on 1st June: baked goods were being sought for a fund-raiser. Great! I was home early from work but I had to cook the dinner before going out. Somehow I managed to make two batches of scones (one containing sultanas and the other cheese and chives) and a coconut jam slice from Successful Cooking: Slices.

We were planning a quiet bank holiday weekend after the spouse's busy week. Flicking through Doreen Fulleylove's Country Fare I came across a recipe for wine cobbler, the ingredients for which are a bottle of white wine (this book was published in the days when no one was expected to know anything about wine regions), ice cubes, sliced lemon, mint, maraschino cherries (I substituted fresh blueberries), lime juice and a pint of soda water. This quantity was supposed to give you fourteen cups! The spouse and I had about two glasses each before it disappeared. Very tasty and refreshing, all the same.

I also baked a cheesecake. You can't move for designer cheesecakes these days but sometimes all you need is a plain-ish one. I rooted out an old Good Housekeeping recipe, the only flavouring for which is lemon. Topped with soured cream and fresh fruit, it went down a treat, especially with the younger offspring on his return from an evening out.

Almost six years ago exactly I made avocado and rocket soup from The Soup Book recipe. I made it for the second time on 11th June. We didn't have any harissa in the house so I substituted chilli sauce. I also made a parsley and lemon salad from Jill Dupleix's Simple Food. Both were really good. 
Blueberry, lavender & honey cake
just out of the oven

A couple of weeks ago I made banana gingerbread slice from Martha Day's Baking. The younger offspring was away so with only two of us in the house I had to bring the substantial part of the gingerbread into work. It didn't go to waste. 

Cooling down
Five days ago I baked shortbread from Doreen Fulleylove's book in anticipation of the younger offspring's return. However, someone had his flight details wrong, so I ended up bringing the shortbread into work. Not to worry. It gave me the opportunity to make nutty fudge shortbread from a recipe copied from an unknown book. A layer of shortbread, covered with caramel and topped with a mixture of chocolate, hazelnuts and walnuts. I will have to make this again as I am not eating chocolate until September. Why do I torture myself? 

Today I baked a blueberry, lavender and honey cake from Norfolk's Own Cookbook in advance of a lunch party tomorrow. I'm very pleased with it. It's definitely a seasonal cake as you need fresh lavender. Can't wait! 
Sandwiched with fresh blueberries, blueberry jam
and lavender buttercream

Bee Buzz 

Check out this story about bee hives in central Dublin published in The Irish Times (18th June 2016).
 Or this story about a bee hive installation at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (The Guardian, 17th June 2016). 
Here's a story about a farmer in India using bees to keep elephants away from his property (The Times of India, 21st May 2016). 

29 May, 2016

May Fare

Fete-ful Fudge Fest 

Last year I was asked to make fudge for a parish fete. This year I was asked to do so again and invited to assist at the stall where the fudge would be sold. I agreed to both and the fudge-making began five days beforehand (16th May). I decided to try different recipes: one from a recipe book sold many years ago in aid of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, one cut out of a magazine and one downloaded from a commercial website. All three required different types of sugar, or different types of milk (evaporated, condensed or ordinary) or a combination of two. Altogether I made four batches, including one with fruit and nut. What a blissful week that was! 

This haiku by "Amanda in Scarlet" sums up my feelings for fudge: 

Layers and folds yield 
to pressure, tongue sinks - dissolves 
into soft, sweet bliss.
Training Days 

Wholewheat scones: worthy but dull
I am now preparing for another local event: the baking competition component of a forthcoming horticultural show. I entered last year without checking out the standard and typical fare. This year I will be better prepared. The style is old school so I have begun trying out scones using recipes from Doreen Fulleylove's Country Fare. Last Thursday (26th May) I made Doreen's wholewheat scones - worthy but dull - and her Norfolk scone - now that's more like it but I think it might still be too avant garde for the July baking competition. 
Norfolk scone: too avant garde?

The ingredients for the Norfolk scone include self-raising flour, butter, eggs and milk with a filling consisting of butter, currants, nutmeg and demerara sugar. In an effort to use up ingredients in my store-cupboard I substituted dried blueberries for currants, hence the jammy liquid that oozed out. I may have overbaked this scone but it tasted good all the same. I will try out other recipes over the coming weeks and not just for scones. Expect to read about tea bracks, shortbread biscuits, apple tarts and gingerbread. The spouse is working on sweet peas for the horticultural show. 

Cryptic clue: Theatre Cat in Season 

This luxury vegetable is in season so I thought I would make the torte as per the recipe in the Norfolk's Own Cookbook. I'm afraid I cannot guarantee the provenance of the vegetable that I bought but I doubt it was from Norfolk. 

Oven-ready theatre cat
Ingredients: butter, Parmesan cheese, the mystery vegetable, an onion, eggs, yoghurt (I didn't use double cream as listed in the book) and parsley. Quite fiddly but I did the prep work in stages during the afternoon. The husband and I had the torte for our supper. Verdict: delicious, very tangy. 

Rosemary and Rhubarb

Rhubarb and orange cake
What a fruitful weekend I've had. Yesterday I baked a rhubarb and orange cake from Norfolk's Own Cookbook for a 30th birthday celebration. I haven't tasted it yet but it's looking good. 
Ingredients: butter, golden caster sugar, eggs, flour, oranges (zest and juice), ground almonds, rhubarb and flaked almonds. 

And from my Good Housekeeping Step by Step Baking I made an iced rosemary cake. 
Ingredients: sprigs of rosemary - the thrill of using fresh rosemary from my garden-, butter, caster sugar, vanilla extract, eggs, flour and milk; for the glaze: icing sugar, grated orange rind and orange juice (to which is added rosemary-infused water). Result: glorious, not a cake to rue. 

From Sir Thomas Moore: 
Iced rosemary cake: good for the spirit

As for rosemary, I let it run all over my garden walls, not only because my bees love it but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance and to friendship, whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language.

That's all for now. 


02 May, 2016

Roots, Eats and Leaves

Root Vegetable Soup

Chopped vegetables coated in oil and ready for roasting
What else would you do on a cool May bank holiday weekend except make soup? This roasted root vegetable soup from Complete Comfort Food looked interesting. Lots of vegetables to be prepared: butternut squash, onions, leeks, turnip (swede), parsnip (yes, I hate them but surely one parsnip would be overwhelmed by the other ingredients) and carrots. Prep work done and bay leaves, rosemary and thyme interspersed, I popped the vegetables into the oven to roast. I had to leave the house for a few minutes and when I re-entered, the aroma of rosemary rose to greet me. Mmmm! 

Roasted vegetable soup with creme fraiche and cayenne
When softened, I simmered the vegetables in stock and then liquidised them. The soup was a little too thick. We ate it with a dollop of creme fraiche sprinkled with cayenne pepper. A little bland, I thought, but the spouse and younger offspring were very pleased. 

Pea, Ham and Cheese Muffins

This recipe is in the Norfolk's Own Cookbook and I've been itching to make these muffins for weeks. What could you possibly object to in muffins that contain Boursin cheese and chopped ham and are sprinkled with grated cheese? Well, I don't really like peas but I'm ready to endure them from time to time. 

Pea, ham and cheese muffins
 Apart from the cheese, there was no fat in the batter. The consistency was light. The spouse and the two offspring were very impressed but I expected more from the Boursin cheese. Disappointed but not crossing them off my "bake again" list. 

No Peaches, But Plenty of Herbs

The garden was in need of attention. There were weeds to be evacuated, herbs to be replaced and sweetpeas to be planted. The spouse and I took full advantage of the long weekend to review the garden. We don't have much growing space out the front or in the back. The front is exposed to the wind since a line of protective evergreens were cut down several years ago, so the soil tends to dry out. 

I wanted to try transferring a rose in the back garden into a pot and to replace a moribund sage. The sweetpea king wanted to revert to the teepee climbing frame he first set up two years ago. Off we went to garden centre with a short list and returned with more items than intended. 

Happy with my herbs
We managed to get some work done yesterday afternoon (Sunday 1st May) before the rain and this morning before the hailstones. So, in the picture to the left you can see my new sage, parsley and mint. The chives, fennel, lovage and sorrel have been around for some time. And my bee box is still there. 

I don't have much luck with parsley. The slugs tend to get to it before I do. I don't like to use poison pellets and the death by beer method produces bodies to be disposed of. Yuck. I've tried coffee without success. Other ways of killing slugs are too unpalatable to mention so you'll have to look them up yourself on slugfence.com. Those of you with strong stomachs can even find videos on Youtube. I can't look.

That's it for now. 


24 April, 2016

Bananas, Bees and Books

Banana and Cranberry Muffins 

Banana & cranberry muffins
In recent weeks I have been particularly busy at work and yesterday (Saturday 23rd April) I allowed myself the indulgence of going around in my dressing gown all morning. I felt a little guilty about not making much progress on my list of soup and baking recipes and so was easily prompted by the sight of three blackening bananas into baking muffins. In addition some dried cranberries were approaching their "best before" date and I decided to substitute them for the raisins mentioned in the Martha Day recipe. Brown sugar and sunflower oil helped me to feel they weren't too unhealthy. I had one today on return from the gym and a 10k cycle with the spouse. 

Benson Revisited

Another indulgence I'm allowing myself is a re-reading of E F Benson's Secret Lives, which I first bought and read in March 1985. And I have just this minute discovered that it was dramatised for radio by the BBC! Why did no one tell me? Here comes the bee metaphor: 

Plans buzzed in [Mr Heinrich Raphael Cartwright's] head like a swarming hive in May: some were concerned with the honey of distinction, others were equally intent on the flowers of business and the sweet harvests that could reaped by shrewd husbandry. (Chapter V)
Re-activating Ackerman

Back in March 2013 I mentioned in this blog that I was reading Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses and included a few quotes from the sections I had read. I didn't read the entire book and so when I noticed it on my bookshelves a few days ago I picked it out. I dipped in and identified more references to bees in articles that I hadn't read before. 

From In Praise of Vanilla (in the Taste section): 

On a long brass platter sat the kind of pastries we had eaten, buzzed over by hundreds of sugar-delirious bees, whose feet stuck in the syrup; desperately, one by one, they flew away, leaving their legs behind. "Bee legs!" my mother had screamed as her face curdled. "We ate bee legs!"

In the article The Inner Climate (in the Touch section) Ackerman quotes a report about a German bee-keeper who discovered that hives never get very cold because of the way bees cluster together and co-operate to keep warm. 

Further on, in the article Animals (in the Vision section) she describes how bees can judge the angle at which light hits their photoreceptors, enabling them to locate the position of the sun, even on partly cloudy days. She refers to orchids that look so much like bees that bees try to mate with them! A bee's "waggle dance" doesn't just provide visual instructions to other bees on how to find good feeding places but also conveys messages in touch, smell and hearing. Finally, bees can see in ultraviolet and so are more attracted to white and blue flowers than to red ones. That was the science part. 

Now, that's enough self-indulgence. 

Until next time. 


10 April, 2016

You Win Some, You Lose Some

Sometimes Things Go Pear-Shaped

As you know, I enjoy baking and usually things turn out well. Last month (16th March) things went pear-shaped when I attempted to make what should have been a delicious, caramel-flooded sticky pear and ginger cake from my Norfolk cookbook. I carefully weighed the ingredients, I followed the instructions to a T so I'm not sure what caused the problem. First of all, you have to make caramel which will sit in the bottom of the baking tin. Unsalted butter was specified for the cake batter but not for the caramel. As I was short of unsalted butter, I used salted butter for the caramel. The other ingredient was soft dark brown sugar. I melted the two ingredients together and stirred but the mixture seemed too thick and grainy, and it was too salty. 

Once the caramel had set in the baking tin, I placed pear halves over it before getting on with the batter. This contained chopped pears, chopped crystallised ginger and ground ginger. I checked the oven settings - correct - and put the cake in to bake. When the time was up, I tested the batter and it wasn't quite ready. I gave the cake another fifteen minutes, tested it again and it seemed to be okay. I let it sit for twenty minutes and then went to turn it out on to my cake stand. Disaster struck. The caramel had remained hard and the batter hadn't cooked all the way through after all. Disappointed. It was supposed to have been the dessert at our St Patrick's Day lunch. The spouse and I were somewhat under the weather and so didn't have the energy to make anything else. The spouse had to dash down to a local bakery to buy some festive cupcakes. There were some edible parts of the pear and ginger cake and they were tasty, but I think I will associate this cake with disappointment. 

Minestrone for Life

Minestrone: stage 1
The spouse and I have been ill for a couple of weeks and have barely had enough energy for getting through the working week and tending to the younger offspring, let alone having time for trying out new recipes. Anyway, yesterday (Saturday 9th April) I decided to try to shake off the lassitude I've been feeling. I checked my list of recipes that I'd like to try and decided to make minestrone and raspberry Bakewell tart using the recipes from Complete Comfort Food and the Norfolk's Own Cookbook, respectively.

Minestrone: stage 2
I didn't get around to using the minestrone recipe in The Soup Book - I'm not sure why. Complete Comfort Food claims that minestrone is packed full of vegetables to give the system a vitamin boost, as well as being hearty and warming. This version is certainly packed with vegetables: celery, carrot, French beans, courgette, potato, Savoy cabbage, aubergine and tomatoes. Once chopped, the onion, celery and carrot are stir fried together, then the other ingredients are added at different stages. At a later stage you add vermicelli. I couldn't find vermicelli while shopping so used spaghetti. I've just read that in Italy vermicelli is slightly thicker than spaghetti but in the USA spaghetti is thicker than vermicelli! And there's even a National Pasta Association in the States!

Surprisingly, the minestrone recipe called for the addition of home-made pesto (fresh basil leaves, a clove of garlic, pine nuts, grated Parmesan and Pecorino cheeses, and olive oil). The addition of pesto saved the soup from being rather bland.

Minestrone: ready to eat
The younger offspring took himself out to lurk in the locality with friends. I had told him I'd be making minestrone for dinner and, much to my surprise, he didn't know what it was. On his return from lurking, he said to me, "A couple of my friends said that minestrone is quite good." Aah! How sweet. He enjoyed it. 

The husband and I had the left-overs for lunch today. He added spinach to his for an extra vitamin boost. 

Does anyone remember this song - Life is a Minestrone - by 10CC?

Bakewell Tart: Well Baked or Overbaked?

I have loved Bakewell tart since my school days when it featured occasionally on the school pudding roster (other items being milk puddings, jam roly poly, and treacle pudding). For the pastry the Norfolk cookbook's recipe requires flour, sugar, butter, seeds from half a vanilla pod and 1 medium egg yolk. Check. I made the pastry but was alarmed by how dry the dough was after I'd mixed in the egg yolk. After chilling for at least 45 minutes as stated, I knew the pastry would need some further moisture. I was able to roll it out but handle to handle it carefully into the baking tin. Another 15 minutes of chilling and it was time to spread raspberry conserve over the pastry. Then ... there was more chilling. 

Now I was able to start making the frangipane: unsalted butter, sugar, flour, ground almonds and 5 medium eggs. I poured this mixture into the pastry case - no more chilling - and began baking. After 20 minutes I took the tart out of the oven, studded the frangipane with fresh raspberries, sprinkled the top with flaked almonds, and covered the lot with baking parchment. Now, according to the recipe only another 20-30 minutes was needed to finish off. After 40 minutes the frangipane was still soft so I covered the tart with foil and gave the tart another 30 minutes. The end result was a light pudding - a little sweeter than I would have expected but tasty all the same. 

Apparently, Bakewell tart developed as a variant of Bakewell pudding and there is no evidence that it originated from Bakewell in Derbyshire. This article about making the perfect Bakewell tart (by Felicity Cloake in The Guardian, April 2013) is informative. I would like to make Bakewell tart again but I don't think I'll use the Norfolk recipe. 

Bees in Books 

I've been continuing to note references to bees and honey when reading novels. Here's a small selection from my recent reading: 

Dinah Jefferies' The Tea Planter's Wife
Then Naveena had brought in hot goat's milk, sweetened with bee honey as opposed to jaggery, she had explained, before saying goodnight with a charming smile.
Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections
Denise's voice and Enid's voice in the kitchen were like a larger bee and a smaller bee trapped behind a window screen. 
Robert Harris' Imperium
Excusing himself from his bemused guests, [Vibius] led us inside to his tablinum and opened up his strongbox. Among the [items], there was a little packet of letters marked 'Verres', and as Cicero broke it open, Vibius's face bore an expression of utter terror. ...
At first sight, it was nothing much - merely some correspondence from a tax inspector, ... who was responsible for collecting export duty on all goods passing through Syracuse harbour. The letters concerned one particular shipment of goods ... upon which Verres had failed to pay any tax. The details were attached: four hundred casks of honey, ...
Now it's time to finish up for today.