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Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Hedgerow Christmas Decorations

One of the things I love about Milton Keynes is that no matter where abouts in it you live, you are always within walking distance of a bit of public open space and greenery. On Sunday morning I took advantage of this and took my girls out into the cold, crisp air for a walk "in the country". I was armed with a plastic bag and a pair of scissors.

We headed out of the top north-west corner of Walnut Tree, towards The Open University at Walton Hall. Running along side the Walton Hall site is Church Lane, which has clearly been there for longer than Milton Keynes itself. Either side of the lane is well established hedgerow which in autumn yields such treats as elder berries, brambles and sloes. No edible fruit at this time of year but masses of ivy. I helped myself to 3 long strands, safe in the knowledge that I was not seriously damaging the ivy crop available here! Further down I snipped off some hawthorn berries and a few remaining rosehips.

At the end of Church Lane there is, no surprise, a church, and just beyond that, a bridge over the River Ousel. I snipped a few clippings from the yew tree then took the girls onto the bridge and gave them the option of either retracing our steps back up the lane home or to continue on our walk and head off to Caldecotte Lake. To my surprise they chose to continue along the river to the lake. So off we headed, spotting a rather cold looking heron along the way.

We paused at the lake to admire the view across to the Caldecotte Arms and before we knew it we had been joined by a flock of ducks, swans and gulls, clearly expecting to be fed. Sadly, it hadn't occurred to me to bring bread. Further round, the lake was frozen slightly. The lightweight gulls were stood on the ice, whilst the fat ducks were too heavy. As they moved towards us in the hope of food the thin ice "twinked" as it cracked around them.

Here the lake is close to the houses of Walton Park, some of which have an enviable view across the lake from their balconies. Rather than ancient hedgerow, the plants here are part of the municipal planting. I have long admired the municipal planting around Milton Keynes because it is clearly well thought out to provide interest and colour all year round. The red and yellow dogwoods may be bare of the leaves but their colours are stunning. Whilst my girls admired the waterfowl and tried to crack the thin ice by throwing sticks at it, I snipped off I few strains of the dogwood to add to my collection.

Finally we returned to the housing of Walnut Tree, admiring as we went the garlands on people's doors, looking for inspiration.

It was lunchtime by the time we returned home, feeling rosy and with a good appetite. Hurriedly I made some cheese on toast which tasted really delicious after our walk then after lunch I set about making use of our "harvest". The ivy, yew and berries I worked around a circular wire to fashion into our Christmas garland. To this I added a bit of red ribbon as a finishing touch.

Then, with the garland on the front door, I set about fashioning the dogwood twigs into star shaped decorations. This was fairly straightforward, just requiring bending or snapping into shape. I found it easiest to hold the twig in shape with sandwich ties then covering up the sandwich ties with coloured curling ribbon later. Well, I think they made lovely decorations.

What a lovely way to spend a Sunday - a refreshing walk rewarded with beautiful natural Christmas decorations.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Making hampers for Christmas

From the first year that I started making jams and chutneys I made hampers for friends and family for Christmas. Back then my preserves were bottled in a variety of reused jars and the labels were handwritten but they were still warmly received. This year my hampers will include a variety of Jammy Cow preserves, some Concrete Cow beer and Virtual Orchard cider as well as home make sweets and biscuits and will (hopefully!) look a lot more professional.

I was leafing through a Freecycled copy of Olive magazine from December 2007 the other day and there was a small section on food gifts NOT to buy for Christmas. This included a wicker hamper of food. What?! How could that be when food hampers are so beautiful and appealing? But on further reading I understood what they meant. They said that by the time you take the basket etc. into account, the food inside it is worth very little. So, all the more reason for making your own hamper, either from carefully selected shop bought items or homemade treats.

There are lots of places where you can get inspiration for what to include in hamper. Leaf through any gift catalogue at this time of year and you are bound to find a page or two dedicated to pre-made hampers to buy. These do always look great and seem to tick the box but don't you always find that the combinations of food and fruit inside just isn't quite right for the person you are hoping to given a hamper to? This is where making your own hamper is so much better because you can hand pick the items that go into it so that your gift is that much more special.

It is perfectly acceptable to individually buy all the items to go in a hamper but you may also like to include a few homemade items. This is a particularly good way to include children into the gift making process. Most kids love being in the kitchen and they can rustle up a batch of biscuits without too much stress. And handmade hampers don't need to be a big complicated deal. A themed hamper with, say, 3 items along a similar line is fine. Things that I have and will include in different hampers are items such as a jar or two of jam or chutney, some gingerbread men or another sweet biscuits, individually iced cubes of Christmas cake, savoury oat biscuit to go with chutney and/or cheese, some spiced seeds and/or nuts, fudge and homemade fruit pastilles, Turkish delight, peppermint creams, chocolate truffles or other sweets, and even granola.

Once you have decided on the contents of your hamper you need to find a suitable presentation container. This may be a traditional wicker basket, a reused decorative container, or an attractive gift box. Other useful alternatives are jute gift bags which you can buy online from companies such as the natural bag company or islepac.co.uk. These are handy because you just need to pop the jars inside and the job is done.

You can source baskets from many different places. I often buy mine from ebay and my last lot my mum bought for me whilst she was in a French hypermarket. The only thing I would say is think about buying baskets in the summer and autumn because the closer you get to Christmas the higher the demand for them so the more expensive and harder to get they are. I would also recommend buying a variety of different sizes and not go for anything too large so that you can fit your food items inside comfortably but you aren't struggling to fill it. If you are thinking of posting your hamper then consider forgoing the basket altogether as it increases the weight of the parcel quite considerably without really adding value to the gift. A cheaper and lighter alternative is a cardboard gift box and more and more companies are offering these now. I bought so lovely jam ones from Lakeland in the sale last January and I'll be filling one up this weekend with gifts to go to my brother- and sister-in-law in the USA.

For the presentation of the hamper you will also need some sort of packing material which can be straw (bedding for small pets from pet supply shops/garden centres), or shredded paper. I have bought shredded paper from ebay before and you can get it from craft supply shops too. This year I have been using gold shred from Lakeland. You will also need to buy some cellophane - extra wide is useful if your hampers are large. This I buy from ebay or Hobbycraft.

To put it all together, put some shred into the bottom and sides of the basket. Place the food items inside, tilting them so that the labels can be read and so that they look attractive. Fill the basket so that it looks full but not crammed, adding more shred around the items as necessary to hold them in place. Next wrap the whole thing in cellophane. Wrap the cellophane completely around the basket, ensuring that the ends meet at the back of the basket rather than underneath it. Tape it in place then make cuts in the cellophane on either side of the handles. Push the flap of cellophane through the handle and gather the cellophane together as if wrapping a present and stick it in place.

Hampers can look so attractive at this point that you may not wish to wrap it further in wrapping paper. If you do decide to wrap it so that the contents are hidden then consider wrapping it in a new t-towel. This can look fantastic as well as adding the t-towel as an additional gift. Use a few pins to keep the ends tucked in neatly then hold in place with ribbon. It's eco-friendly too as there is no wrapping paper to go in the bin or recycling.

Job done - a fantastic looking and well thought out gift that will be well received and for which you can feel proud!

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Preserves for Christmas

Making a batch of Plum and Mulled Wine jam this morning and filling my kitchen with festive aromas, my mind turned to thinking about Christmas. This time of year is always my busiest in terms of sales of my homemade preserves so why do people want preserves for Christmas?

There seems to be two main reasons for this - one is as a gift for someone else and the other is for the Christmas table. It is also a time for straying away from the usual brands and looking for something "a bit different" and "special".

There are certain people who are very difficult to buy presents for - the ones who end up receiving a pair of socks or a monogrammed hanky. When I do Christmas fayres, some people admiring my stall suddenly realise that it does not need to be socks again this year. It seems to me that jam is the ideal gift for pretty much anybody from the secret Santa colleague to Great Aunt Ivy and Uncle Bert. And the small size of my jars makes them particularly appealing for this purpose as they are ideal for those people who live on their own and who have to eat up a whole jar on their own. They also seem to work out about the right price as a gift for these people. For Granny, a gift bag of 3 jams for £6 is perfect!

As for the Christmas table itself, there are a some preserves which seem essential at Christmas. Mincemeat is the most obvious one and, with 3 different varieties on offer, Jammy Cow mincemeat can make a change from the usual supermarket jars. But there are other things too such as redcurrant jelly that go well with a nice joint of lamb or the Christmas goose. Chutneys too are a requirement with the selection of Christmas cheeses on the cheeseboard and for the cold meat meal eaten on Boxing Day. Again, the small sized jars I make mean you can buy a range of different chutneys to suit all tastes and meals.

I did once plant a cranberry bush but sadly it required ericaceous compost to grow and the heavy clay of Milton Keynes is far from ideal. It struggled on in a container for a while but never did bear fruit before succumbing to neglect one hot summer. Fortunately, fresh cranberries are available in the produce department of supermarkets from mid November and they are dead easy to make into cranberry sauce. Not being grown in Milton Keynes, I can't add cranberry sauce to my Jammy Cow range of preserves so instead I shall share my recipe with you - it is very simple. And don't worry that it makes more than you need for your Christmas Day turkey because it keeps well in its jars and can be used as an ingredient in flapjacks and brownies. Remind me in January and I'll share my recipes for those too.

Cranberry Sauce

Makes 2-3 1lb jars
2 Oranges
12 oz (275g) granulated sugar
5 fl oz (150ml) port
1lb 5 oz (600g) cranberries
2 eating apples

Grate the zest from the oranges and squeeze out the juice. Put the juice, sugar and port in a pan and heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Stir in the cranberries, orange zest and grated apples. Cook, uncovered, for 10-12 minutes until the fruit is soft and the juices are thick. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately. Job done!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Chelsea Buns

Years ago I cut a recipe for Chelsea buns out of a magazine, thinking that I would make them some time soon. However, the recipe remained unmade for a long time as every time I came across it I was reminded that I had neither strong white flour nor yeast in my cupboard. I was also somewhat hesitant to move away from the more familiar cake making technique into what was essentially bread making.

Since those days I have obtained a bread machine and indeed mastered the whole mysterious bread making technique with its help. So now, rather than being a slightly daunting recipe, Chelsea buns are something I make when I'm a bit too busy to fuss with making a cake. Thanks to my bread machine, it can get on for an hour and half, kneading, proving, resting and all that stuff whilst I get on with other things.

This weekend was one of those occasions. And having lovely stocks of mincemeat and jam, the whole process is made even less of an effort. All it requires is a few minutes loading the ingredients into the bread machine, then an hour and half later, knocking back the dough and rolling it out. Then I smear it with mincemeat, roll it up and cut into 12 pieces. These are arranged in a square tin and left to rise for another half an hour whilst I get on with jobs. Next into the oven for 20-25 minutes (another chance to do more chores). Finally out of the oven, onto a rack and a quick wipe all over with jam to glaze. Job done.

Today I used a combination of Figgy Pear Mincemeat for the filling and Pear & Vanilla Jam as the glaze, giving a delightfully fruity flavour. It would work equally well with Apple & Cider Mincemeat and Apple & Ginger Jam, or Plum and Orange Mincemeat with Plum & Cinnamon Jam. In my house, mincemeat is not just for Christmas!

Chelsea Buns (makes 12)

100ml milk
1 egg
225g strong white flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp caster sugar
55g butter, diced
1 tsp fast-action dried yeast
2-3 tbsp mincemeat
2-3 tsp jam

Whisk together the milk and the egg and put into the bread machine pan. Put the flour on top to form a complete layer. Put the salt, sugar and butter into separate corners of the pan and the yeast in the centre. Set the machine for dough. Once the machine has finished, remove the dough from the pan and place on a floured surface. Knock back then roll out until about 1 cm thick. Smear a layer of mincemeat over the dough, leaving about 1cm around the edges. Start at one edge and roll up completely. Cut the roll into 12 equal slices and place each slice onto a well greased 20 by 20cm square tin so that the swirl is horizontal. Cover and leave to double in size. Bake in a pre-heated over at 190°C, gas mark 5 for 20-25 minutes until risen and golden. Remove from the tin onto a wire rack then use a pastry brush to glaze the upper surface with jam.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The problem with pears

To look at pears you would think they would be as handy as apples, being so closely related and all, but they aren't. Instead, they are as awkward as their shape. Firstly it is really difficult to catch a pear at its perfect point of ripeness. This is because they ripen from the inside outwards so that by the time the outside is no longer firm to the squeeze, the inside is already going brown and squelchy. And to make matters worse, they continue to ripen off the tree too so there is no hanging about even after they are picked.

So given the need to use them up before they ripen to mush, it would be handy if they could be made into jam or something similar but no! Pears are a low pectin fruit so are very difficult to get them to set when made into a jam. They aren't even the best ingredient for making into chutney as they don't go pulpy the way apples do.

Still, they are a lovely fruit with a beautiful flavour which is worth capturing if at all possible.

One of my favourite ways to capture that lovely pear flavour is in my Figgy Pear Mincemeat. This needs grated raw pear in it and as it doesn't need to reach a setting point the pears can be anything from under ripe to ridiculously overripe. It is then left over night in a bowl with the dried fruit and spices before being cooked and bottled the next day. It is a delightful recipe that fills the house with festive aromas.

I do also love the combination of pear and vanilla flavours and I have used this combination to make ice-cream and cheesecake recipes. And with a little perseverance I have finally come up with a recipe for Pear & Vanilla Jam that actually sets. This is done by including the skin and cores in a muslim bag as a I cook the pears as most of the little pectin that pears contain is found in the skin and core. A little lemon juice helps to extract more of the pectin. Then finally, the addition of pectin I have previously extracted from apples or crab apples adds enough to allow the jam to set.

Of course, all this fiddling about is forgotten when it comes to eating this lovely jam. It is a sweet jam, which probably explains why my daughter loves it, and this lends itself nicely to baking. I have used it for making butterfly cakes, replacing the butter icing with a splodge of jam instead. This week I decided to use some of it to liven up a bread and butter pudding and it went down a storm.

This weekend Frosts Garden Centre are having a Festival of Autumn flavours, featuring pumpkins, apples & pears. I'm pleased to say that my Figgy Pear Mincemeat and Pear & Vanilla Jam will be there, along with my Apple & Cider Mincemeat, Apple & Ginger Jam, All Hallows Marmalade, and two chutneys. I, on the other hand, will be at home, cooking up more of the same from the end of the autumn harvest.

Bread & Butter Pudding

2 eggs
1 tsp caster sugar
2 tsp custard powder
12 fl oz (350ml) semi-skimmed milk
A few drops of vanilla extract
1 oz (25g) butter
4 slices of white bread
1 tbsp spoon Pear & Vanilla Jam (or similar)
3 oz (75g) sultanas

Beat the egg, sugar and custard powder together then add the milk and vanilla. Lightly butter a suitable ovenproof dish (wide and shallow is better than narrow and deep). Butter the bread and then spread with the jam. Cut the slices of bread into 4 triangles then layer two slices worth of triangles into the dish then scatter over half the sultanas. Lay the remaining triangles on top and scatter over the sultanas. Pour over the milk mix and place the dish in the refrigerator until needed or for at least 15 minutes to soak. Preheat an oven to 180°C, gas 4. Bake for 20 minutes then increase the temperate to 190°C, gas 5 for 5-10 more minutes until the bread on top is crisp and golden. Serve hot with custard or cream.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Solar Powered

Doesn't it make a difference when the sun shines! Having a beautiful few days of bright sunshine and warmth at the end of September, beginning of October made a huge difference to all of us I think here in Milton Keynes.

Do you ever think you are solar powdered? It does seem to make us more cheerful, give us more energy and make us want to do things.

There is of course evidence to show that putting your face into bright sunlight for a few minutes (even with your eyes shut) is enough to change your brain chemistry and stop SAD syndrome. But there are less scientific reasons why we feel better when it is sunny. Everything is just easier - we can get about without getting cold and or wet, we can make plans without them being spoilt, we can enjoy the garden and outdoors more rather than feeling cooped up inside.

There is no denying that sunshine is wonderful but it is also extremely important. Without the sun our planet would be a cold, dark and lifeless rock in space. The perfect position of the Earth from the sun allows it to have life upon it. And the most important thing of all, it allows photosynthesis to happen.

Photosynthesis!!! Do you remember that from science lessons at school? That dull equation you had to learn because you knew it would be in the exam.

water + carbon dioxide => food + oxygen

Yeah, yeah, yawny, yawn.

But no, wait! Somehow science lessons managed to turn this absolutely amazing thing in to the dullest thing ever. Just look at what photosynthesis is and what it really means. Plants are able to take the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in water and carbon dioxide and using the energy from the sun rearrange them to create carbohydrates and oxygen. So from water and air they make food and oxygen. That is truly amazing and without it no food chain on the planet would exist. So every time the sun comes up, plants do their magic and grow.

Yep, I am a huge fan of photosynthesis! And of the sun in general for that matter. But now I have gone a step further in my sun worshiping... I have had solar panels installed on my roof. It was good timing to - just before the hottest weekend in October ever. So there I was at the weekend, standing in the garden admiring all that lovely photosynthesis that had produced an abundance of fat pumpkins, squash, broccoli and potatoes. Even the tomatoes where FINALLY getting ripe in the lovely warmth. At the same time, the sun was busily drying my washing for free. And back at the house, the sunlight was being converted into electricity. Now that is almost as amazing as photosynthesis!

So now, as I stand over a boiling pan of chutney I can marvel at the wonders of photosynthesis that made the vegetables, sugar, vinegar and spices in the pan, coupled with the wonders of solar panels that turn sunlight into the electricity powering the hob.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

A crab apple challenge

I suppose in any family we will have our favourite. Well, it is certainly true in the Malus family. There is no doubt that the apple is by far the most popular fruit in this group, and why not when it is so versatile and will sit so happily in your fruit bowl all week without going off, ready to be snatched up for a convenient snack. The pear is probably the next most popular Malus but there is a big gap between the first and second places in this popularity contest. The pear is an awkward fruit, even in its shape, and can go from too hard to too squidgy in the blink of an eye. And then there is the quince... Quince... who on earth eats quinces? And finally the crab apple. Well, there are lots of those in the world. Sure, they look pretty for a short while on the tree before they start dropping in abundance, just to be squished under foot. Such a shame to see all this fruit dropping onto the path, making a mess, but what can be done with them. It's not as if they are nice to eat and even if I went to trouble of making crab apple jelly, it is so out of fashion no one would what to buy it.

But then my friend Jane handed me half a bin bag full of crab apples from her neighbour's back garden. Hmmm... what to do with them?

One of the great things about crab apples is that they are so small and fiddly that you don't even think about peeling and coring them. So where doing anything with apples is a bit tedious because you first have to peel and core every fruit, with crab apples you just bung them straight into the pan and start boiling them up. They don't take long to cook either as they are small and within a few minutes they are soft and pulpy and ready to be strained through a jelly bag. Job done, sit down, cup of tea... walk the dog... cook dinner... have a bath... go to bed... In fact, it needs at least 8 hours to finish dripping through the jelly bag.

But what then? Really, no one is going to want to buy 20 lbs of crab apple jelly!

Well, it took a week to work my way through the whole bag and I did make one batch of crab apple jelly. Towards the end I added a couple of spoonfuls of rose water just to add a bit of a twist to the flavour and when my daughter tasted it she said it tasted like lemon meringue pie. But I also made chilli jam, Jamdelade (sweet orange jam) and blackberry jelly from the crab apples. I also froze several pints worth of the liquid to use in any recipe that uses a low pectin fruit so expect crab apple pectin in the pear jams I shall be making next.

So in the end I was pleased with my supply of crab apples and of the creative challenge they presented. Next year they shall be an essential ingredient that I actively seek.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Food waste

There is a lot of food waste going on at the moment and a lot of talk about it too. Everyday when I cycle the school run I ride past fruit and nuts falling off trees. Firstly it was cherries, then apples and now hazelnuts, elderberries, blackberries and crab apples. If I wasn't quite so over-run with my own supplies of fruit and vegetables I would see about picking this lot. I'm just surprised that nobody else does.

I pondered the reason that hedgerows don't get stripped of their crops these days and I imaged it was mainly due to our familiarity with buying our fruit and vegetables conveniently washed and packaged in supermarkets. But then a couple of things made me wonder if there was more to it than that.

Firstly, whilst flicking through an old-fashioned preserving book I came across recipes using both rowan berries and hawes from hawthorns. I had to admit that I hadn't previously know they were edible, instead stirring clear of these red berries. And then, earlier this week, my daughter found a small, lemon-shaped fruit on a tree in a park and brought it to me for identification. I would guess that this fruit is a mirabelle - a member of the prunus family and related to plums, gages, cherries and apricots. It can be made into a lovely fragrant jam but I wasn't sure that my identification was correct so I left them be. So it was then that I wondered whether it is because we are taught as children to regard all hedgerow fruit and berries with suspicion and not to eat them that we are reluctant to harvest anything from them in case we get it wrong. We just don't seem to have a strong foraging culture anymore so we are not taught what we can and can't safely pick. Instead, we leave well alone and buy our clearly identifiable and well-labelled produce in the supermarkets.

So that is one form of food waste but of course there are huge issues with food waste all over the place in this country and I was heartened to hear this week that the government are considering simplifying food labeling to help reduce the amount of edible food being thrown away (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14925046). The plan is to remove "sell by" and "display until" dates from the food. These labels are there to help shops with their stock rotation but should be meaningless to the customer. Instead, the customer often throws out food which has gone past these dates, despite the food still being OK to eat. I agree that scrapping these labels would be a good thing.

It is also the case, of course, that food is also thrown out when it goes beyond its "best before" date. Best before dates are put there as an indication that the food may not taste so good after this date. Foods with best before dates are not dangerous foods and any deterioration in the food will be one of spoilage rather than of any health issues. Really, the consumer needs to use their judgement to decide if the food is still pleasant to eat and only throw it away if it has "gone off".

"Use by" dates are a different matter and need to be taken seriously. These are put on foods that could potentially cause food poisoning. It is advisable to throw away food that has gone past its use by date.

Currently, the situation is rather confusing and its hardly surprising that people choose to err on the side of caution but hopefully new food labelling can go some way to resolving these issues. Of course, food poisoning is no joke and both off food and inedible berries can kill people but I feel that somewhere along the way we lost our collective common sense and the necessary skills to be identify safe and poisonous food correctly.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Plums & Oranges

When I got back from holiday the plums on my Victoria plum tree were falling off the tree, they were so ripe. Now there is a rush against time to process them as quickly as possible to preserve them before it is too late.

One of the quickest recipes I know for using plums is Plum and Orange Mincemeat. It is a slightly odd thing, to make a Christmas recipe in August but now is when the plums are ripe and by Christmas the mincemeat will be nicely matured. So last night I carefully chopped up 3lb of plums and mixed it together with the oranges, dried fruit, sugar, spices and brandy.

This morning I had the rather pleasant task of boiling this delightful mixture up for half and hour to meld the ingredients together into a beautiful mincemeat. Doing so filled the house with gorgeous smells, with a hint of Christmas that wasn't so out of place on a rather dismal August day. Even the girls in the living room were led into the kitchen by their noses, asking, "What are you cooking, Mummy, it smells lovely?"

The only problem with this was the anticipation it building in your body - an expectation to eat something yummy. But alas, the concoction was to be sealed into jars with no more than the final lick of the spoon before the washing up.

So with my mouth expecting something delicious to eat I decided to have a go at making a plum and orange drizzle cake. This, fortunately, managed to fulfill my expectations - it was delicious! While plums are in season, spare a few and have a go at making this cake.

6 oz soft butter
5 oz caster sugar
2 eggs (beaten)
1 orange
9 oz self-raising flour
1 teaspoon mixed spice
5 Victoria plums (ripe)
2 oz sultanas
4 oz icing sugar

Preheat oven to 180°C. gas 4 and line a 2lb loaf tin. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar then stir in the eggs. Grate the zest off the orange and add this to the bowl. Squeeze out the juice. Set aside 2 tablespoons of orange juice for the drizzle and put the remaining juice into the bowl. Sift in the flour and spice then stir until well combined. Finely chop up 4 of the plums and add this and the sultanas to the cake mixture and fold in. Dollop the mixture into the loaf tin and bake for 1 hour until a skewer inserted comes out clean. Leave to cool completely in the tin. Destone the remaining plum then place it in a blender with the reserved orange juice and blend until smooth. Add the icing sugar and stir. Prick the cake all over with the skewer then pour over the drizzle. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Woburn Abbey Garden Show

The 2nd annual Woburn Abbey Garden Show was held from 12pm Friday 15th July until 5pm Sunday 17th July and this year Jammy Cow preserves joined the other food stalls in the food marquee. The marquee housed a variety of different stalls including cheeses, Indian curry sauces, Texas hot sauces, cupcakes, crisps, stoned ground flour and fudge.

Jammy Cow was slotted between a stall selling cured Continental meats and the local butchers, Woburn Country food. So for two and half days we were teased with the smells of chirozo and freshly cooked sausage samples. Any member of the public wandering through the tent could have foregone lunch after sampling one of everything on offer to taste. A delight of local and exotic flavours.

I often think a weekend inside a marquee at an event like this is like being on the set of a murder mystery drama such as Miss Marple or Midsomer Murders. Thankfully there were no murders but there were definitely the usual mix of eccentric characters and stereotypical gentry. It is all so quintessentially English.

Friday was a warm, dry afternoon but fairly quiet on the custom side of things. Most customers were women of a certain age and retired men. It was a pleasant afternoon, although I had expected to be supplied with a chair as well as a table. I spent most of the afternoon stood up and occasionally sat on the grass behind the stall, resting my aching back. Towards the end of the afternoon my companion Clare went for a walk round the stalls and stopped to chat with the people at the Corkers crisps stall. These are handmade crisps, which easily rival the likes of Kettle or Tyrrells. To my surprise, a moment later the man from Corkers came walking towards our stall with a high stool in his arms. This he gave to me to borrow for the weekend. What a hero! From then on I spent a good many hours perched on that stool, resting my legs and back!

Before leaving on Friday evening, Clare pointed out that the cardboard boxes that housed the extra Jammy Cow stock were getting damp on the ground. For this, we slipped a couple of plastic box lids underneath them and stacked them on top of each other to get as many of them off the ground as possible. This proved to be a particularly fortuitous bit of forethought when the next morning I arrived at the marquee in torrential rain. A few moments after arrival a small trickle of water began flowing in under the edge of the marquee and gradually flowed down the length of the marquee behind every stall on that side of the tent. Then within the next few minutes the trickle turned into a small stream and quickly my canvas boots yielded to the water, soaking my socks. I retreated to the highest piece of ground I could find behind my stall and stood there on the boggy hillock wondering what to do.

As the flow of water became steadily worse a kind of Dunkirk spirit set in amongst the stallholders. Helen from Woburn Country Food lent me 3 large plastic crates to get my stock off the ground, the man at the Indian sauce stall improvised wellies out of two plastic bags and the groundsmen from the Abbey site came in with bags of sand and sheets of hessian to raise the ground level for the worse effected stalls. None of this, of course, stopped us from continuing regardless. Eric merely straddled the steam passing his stall and continued to carve sarroso off the bone and I perched on my borrowed stool, soggy feet resting above the floodwater. What amazed me was that some people actually came out anyway to shop that day.

Sunday was the best day. The weather had calmed down, apart from a playful wind that occasionally tried to whip my cow-print tablecloth away. And the customers were out in force. A busy day, with the stallholders behaving like automatoms in a theme-park ride. Motion-sensitive, as a potential customer walked past we would switch on and play our pre-programmed line:

“Do you know quince?” from ‘Quince Charming’
“Would you like to try a sample of sausage?” from Woburn Country Foods
“Would you like to try some jams or chutneys; all grown in Milton Keynes and made in Milton Keynes,” from Jammy Cow
“Would you like to sample some sarroso off the bone?” from Eric.
And so on down the line.

Then at the end of Sunday it was time to pack it all up and say our goodbyes. I returned the stool and the plastic crates, exchanged business cards and spent a little less money than I took! Hard work, tiring but successful. Many more people aware of the Jammy Cow name, lots of people with Jammy Cow preserves to take away, a few empty boxes for me to take home and pleasant weekend spent in the company of people as passionate about good quality food as I am.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Make your own Ribena

Did you know that Robinsons only use British blackcurrants to make Ribena? I admire them for that but puzzle about how they manage that when British blackcurrants are only available for about a month from late June to late July. Do they just make masses and masses of Ribena at that time of year, store it and dispatch it to the shops throughout the rest of the year? Or do they have massive freezers somewhere and gradually use up frozen blackcurrants through the year?

I don’t know the answer to those questions but for me I use some of my blackcurrants up fresh but freeze others to use through the year, mostly as jam of course. I do, however make one batch a year of blackcurrant cordial, which is, of course, pretty much homemade Ribena. Using lemongrass adds a citrus undertone and adds an air of sophistication to the cordial.

Blackcurrant & Lemongrass Cordial

2 lb 4 oz (1kg) blackcurrants
1 pint (660ml) water
13 oz (375g) granulated sugar
3 lemongrass stems, crushed

Put all the ingredients in a preserving pan and bring to the boil. Boil for about 5 minutes, using a potato masher to crush the berries to release the juices. Leave to infuse for about an hour then bring back to the boil then strain the liquid through a nylon (not metal) sieve. Bottle and refrigerate. Dilute as you would normally for blackcurrant squash. Use up within 3 months.

When I made this cordial last year I bought a bundle of lemongrass stems from the supermarket. The recipe called for 3 and the bundle, annoyingly, had 4 stems. So I decided to try growing the 4th stem. To get it going I placed it in a jar of water for a few weeks until it put out roots then I potted it on into a pot of multipurpose compost. It has sat happily on the windowsill in my conservatory ever since, gradually gaining height and then more stems as the year has passed. I was somewhat surprised to find, a year later, that the plant was actually big enough to stand me harvesting stems from it. Instead of 3 stems, I cut out 2 stems, figuring that fresh stems would probably have more flavour than the slightly dried out ones you buy in the supermarket. I also snipped up the attached leaves too, which although coarse, have a strong smell. Because they are stained out in the recipe the texture is not important. It was very satisfying to make the cordial in the second year from both homegrown blackcurrants and lemongrass.

I have kept one bottle of the cordial but donated another to my friend Clare. She told me she was planning to hold some daytime business events at the end of July and was wondering what refreshments to serve. The type of event would have lent itself perfectly to alcoholic drinks but she figured that most people during the day would not particularly want to drink alcohol, particularly as they would be driving. Good quality, sophisticated cordials seemed like a good alternative, particularly when diluted with a mixture of both still and sparkling chilled water, adding just a bit of fizz. One bottle of homemade blackcurrant & lemongrass cordial and another of elderflower cordial was a welcome gift.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Raspberry Harvest

My raspberry harvest is the longest of the soft fruit harvests. It started this year in mid-June with the first of the yellow raspberries and it will probably still be just about hobbling along until October. Right now it is at its peak and the raspberries need picking every two days and will yield 4-8lb pounds each time.

It is funny how as the season progresses my attitude towards the raspberries change. At first there is great excitement and each raspberry is picked with care and we are anxious to pick enough to make a particular recipe - a cheesecake or a trifle or whatever. Then as the raspberries become more abundant I feel more relaxed and I'm happy to bag up some to freeze for jam making later. Then it all becomes a bit of a chore, taking up an hour or so every two days and needing doing again just as often. It suddenly takes on the feeling of a job like the washing - never done! And should I happen to drop one as I'm picking then I no longer bother bending down and scrambling about looking for it. Later in the season when they become rarer again, once again I hunt around, trying to make up the weight I need for a chosen recipe. And then in winter they are missed, although occasionally remembered by thawing some out and making a lovely jelly or something.

I never set out to grow as many raspberries as I do. Initially I bought 12 canes - that was all. Raspberries propagate themselves by sending up sucker plants a few centimeters from the parent. Sucker is a good term, because that is what I am, a sucker. When I see a new plant I can't help but want to keep it. So over the years we have gradually expanded the amount of space occupied by raspberry plants.

I remember last year when I went on holiday for 3 weeks in August my parents popped by weekly to harvest and water as necessary. On my return my mum told me about all the things they had picked and she described all the different ways she had used the raspberries. "Oh," I said, "do you like raspberries?".

"Used to," my dad muttered.

I know the feeling!

With limited freezer space, I spend the summer making raspberries into jam and desserts as quickly as possible. This year with the purchase of an additional secondhand freezer I am hoping I can relax a little and pace out the jam making for the rest of the year. There should always be plenty in stock!

Raspberry Jelly & Trifle

Raspberry Jelly

3 tablespoons cold water
1 tablespoon or 1 sachet powdered gelatin
8 oz (225 g) raspberries
4 oz (110 g) granulated sugar
15 fl oz (425 g) cold water

Put 3 tablespoons of cold water into a small pan and sprinkle over the gelatin, then stir and set aside for 5 minutes. Put the raspberries, sugar and 15 fl oz of water into a large pan and bring to the boil. Leave the fruit to simmer for 2 minutes until soft then press through a sieve to make a puree. Heat the gelatin over a low heat for a minute or two until clear then stir this into the raspberry puree. Pour into suitable containers/moulds and chill for 2-4 hours until set.

Raspberry Trifle

1 pint (600 ml) of raspberry jelly (see recipes above)
1 raspberry swiss roll
Raspberry cordial, apple juice or sherry
1 pack of ready to make custard powder
100ml whipping cream
100ml creme fraiche
A few raspberries

Make raspberry jelly as shown in the recipes above. Cut the swiss roll into slices and press into the bottom of a suitable dish. Pour over enough raspberry cordial/apple juice/sherry to dampen the sponge. Allow the cake to soak up the liquid and become mushy. You could also add a layer of fresh raspberries too at this point if you wish. Pour the jelly over the swiss roll and refrigerate for 2-3 hours until set. In the meantime, make up the custard as instructed on the packet and allow to cool completely at room temperature. Once the jelly has set, pour the custard over the top and level off. Return to the refrigerator for at least another hour. Whip together the cream and creme fraiche until stiff then spoon on top of the custard. Finish with a few fresh raspberries or glace cherries just before serving.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Strawberry Season

In my garden the soft fruit season always seems to start with strawberries. Usually this is in the first week of June but this year it started in May. There is something amazing about the first of any crop but the first strawberries are fantastic. Not that I get to taste many of them as my girls seek them out and gobble them straight off the plant, warmed and extra delicious in the sunshine.

It takes several days of strawberry harvesting before we have enough to take some home and serve them more formally as a dessert - usually just simply with cream. Then gradually, we are able to harvest several pounds at a time and this is when I start building up my stocks for jam making. By this point the sloppiness of girls' harvesting technique becomes apparent, as they continue to seek out the glorious "monster" strawberries. I follow on behind, meticulously picking the small, extra flavoursome ones that they overlooked. These make the best jam anyway.

It is hard to beat freshly picked, properly ripe strawberries and they are dead easy to grow. If you haven't already got strawberries growing in your garden or on your patio or balcony then go and buy a few plants from the nearest garden centre or DIY shop. They will produce a few fruit even in their first year and will continue fruiting and producing new strawberry plants every year after that. They don't take up much space and can be grown in containers as easily as straight in the ground. They need little attention too, although you may wish to net them to protect the fruit from birds and small children!

If you don't want to grow your own then try a bit of pick your own. Mousloe Farm near Newport Pagnell and Warrington House Farm just north of Olney are two places that you can pick your own strawberries in Milton Keynes. There is also Wakefield Farm in Potterspury, just outside Milton Keynes. Picking your own is fun and it can make for a great family activity too.

It is very easy when picking your own or growing your own to get a bit carried away and to end up with more strawberries than you can reasonably eat in any one sitting. They will store in the fridge for a few days but taste better if you allow them to reach room temperature before eating. You can, of course, pop them into the freezer too but when they thaw out they will be mushy so can only be used in jam and baking recipes. Not that that is a problem as there are loads of great recipes for using strawberries. Before putting any in the freezer, my girls love to help me make strawberry and marshmallow ice-cream with fresh strawberries; a good way to preserve the flavour of fresh strawberries to enjoy at your leisure any time.

Strawberry & Marshmallow Ice cream

1½ lb (700 g) strawberries
5 oz (140 g) icing sugar
1½ tsp lemon juice
8 oz (225 g) mini marshmallows
7½ fl oz (210 ml) milk
½ pint (300 ml) double cream

Puree the strawberries so that you are left with a seedless liquid. Add the sugar and lemon juice and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Put half the marshmallows and the milk into a suitable bowl and heat in the microwave for 2 minutes to melt them. Stir this mixture, add the cream and whisk lightly so that it thickens slightly. Combine with the strawberry puree, mixing until the mixture is evenly pink. Add the remaining marshmallows, pour into suitable containers and place in the freezer for 3 hours. Remove from the freezer and beat the ice cream to introduce air, to break any ice crystals and to distribute the marshmallows throughout the ice cream.

As with all British seasons, the strawberry season is short so get out there and get picking whilst they are at their best.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Elderflower season

One of the things I find frustrating when I flick through preserving recipe books is when a recipe requires ingredients that are not available at the same time when growing your own. Blackcurrant and apple may be a classic combination but I do not have apples ready when the blackcurrants are out. I saw a recipe the other day for a jam using rhubarb and apple. Fail! There are about 4 months between these two ingredients (at least in my world!).

Fortunately, with the use of the freezer it is possible for me to freeze some blackcurrants to use when the apples are ready and so you will find Blackcurrant and Apple Jam in the Jammy Cow product list. Another classic and delicious combination which requires the intervention of the freezer is gooseberry and elderflower. These two seem to miss each other by a matter of days, with the elderflowers finishing by the end of May and the gooseberries ripening sometime from the end of May to July. So rather than risking missing that special moment when both are available (although arguably not at their best), I pick the elderflowers now and freeze them until the gooseberries are good an plump.

I don't grow elderflowers myself but they feature frequently in the hedgerows and municipal planting of Milton Keynes. We pass many bushes on the school run each morning in fact. Once you have your eye in you'll spot them all over the place. Although it may not be your eyes that notice them first, as the heavy scent is often so strong that your nose will notice it first.

There are other whitish cream blossom flowers out at the moment so if you do decide to collect elderflowers please make sure you know what you are doing. The result really won't be the same if you collect the wrong flowers and I guess there is a possibility you may poison yourself! Below is a photo of a blossom that isn't elderflower.

Elderflowers grow on shrub or tree sized plants and have an umbrella shaped blossom made up of numerous of tiny cream flowers. The leaves are typical leaf shaped, fairly large and grow in collections of 5 or 7 leaves on one stem. If you think you have found the elderflower then smell it. It should have a lovely strong sweet perfume. If it has no perfume or stinks like sweaty donkeys then forget it! Below is a photo of what you are looking for.

Most recipes call for 20 large flower heads so aim to collect at least this many. They can be snapped off with sharp fingernails or snipped off with scissors. Back home, give them a good shake to remove any bugs. You may also wish to wash them. I always use my elderflowers in recipes as a flavouring so they usually get strained out of the finished product. This means there is no need to fiddle around with snipping each flower from the head. So, either use them fresh or pack them into freezer bags, squash out as much air as possible and seal. Then pop them into the freezer until needed. They will probably discolour and go brown on thawing them out but they will retain their flavour and this is the key thing. They can be used from frozen to flavour jams (recipe to follow when seasonal) as well as to make things such as elderflower cordial.

If you fancy using them straight away then try making some elderflower cordial now. It is dead easy and tastes delicious. As well as diluting it to make a drink you can use it to flavour other things such as butter icing for fairy cakes. You may also like to try the River Cottage recipe for elderflower panna cotta. My 8 year old made this a couple of weekends ago and it was delicious. Whatever you decide, if you want to use elderflowers then get out there and pick some now because they won't be there next week!

Elderflower Cordial

2lb 4 oz (1kg) sugar
1½ pints (900ml) boiling water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon lime juice
about 15 large elder flower heads
1 lemon, sliced
1 lime, sliced

Put the sugar in a non-metallic bowl with the boiling water and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add the lemon and lime juices. Wash and flick dry the elder flower heads then snip off the flowers into the bowl. Add the sliced lemon and lime. Stir then cover the bowl with Clingfilm and leave to stand for 24 hours. Scald a jelly bag and drain the mixture through it into a clean bowl. Funnel into sterile bottles then refrigerate. Dilute to taste with still or fizzy water. Will keep in the refrigerator for about 3 months.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Tomato - fruit or vegetable?

"Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put it in the fruit salad"

I love this quote and it is so true! In my mind, the terms "fruit" and "vegetable" should be used to describe the way the food is eaten rather than the technical botanical definition. If used in sweet dishes then they are fruit, if used in savoury, they are vegetables. Using this rule, rhubarb is a fruit and tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are all vegetables.

That may be wisdom, but that does not change the fact that tomatoes are in fact the fruit of the tomato plant. So the question is, can you make a jam out of tomatoes? Maybe another question ought to be, would you want to? I can't quite imagine reaching for a jar of tomato jam to spread on my breakfast toast! Maybe wisdom would be to use the knowledge that tomatoes are a fruit to make a preserve that sets like a jam but that can be eaten in a savoury way.

I had 6lbs of tomatoes left in my freezer and with the soft fruit about to ripen, it was time I used the tomatoes up to make some space. So here was my chance to try making some tomato jam.

The jam making technique requires the fruit to be cooked gently to extract the natural pectin from the fruit. With the addition of sugar and by bringing the mixture to a vigorous boil for several minutes the pectin reaches its setting point. When it cools down, the jam will set to something that can be spread. This is quite different from the chutney making process, which relies on simmering the mixture for several hours until enough water has evaporated that it becomes thick. In a way, chutney making is easier because with enough patience it will always become thick but on the other hand after hours of reducing you can end up with a lot less than you thought you might! I figured it would be nice to use the natural pectin in the tomatoes to thicken the preserve rather than having to reduce it to almost nothing to get it thick enough.

Using this technique would make the preserve a jam but I wanted to make something savoury so I decided to add some savoury flavours to the mixture such as herbs, chilli, onion, celery and just a dash of balsamic vinegar. As it was just the flavour of the onion and celery rather than the texture that I wanted, I decided to chop these but wrap them in muslin so they could be removed after cooking.

After 10 minutes or so of cooking to thoroughly infuse the savoury flavours, it was time to add the warmed sugar and to continue as if making a jam. After 15 minutes or so of rolling boil the mixture began to show signs that the setting point had been reached but as I suspected it was only a light set, producing something of a sauce consistency rather than something you could balance on the back of your knife. I was pleased with this - a sort of ketchup feel to it but without the tangy vinegar flavours. In fact, I think I had created a sweet tomato and chilli dipping sauce. Hmm... sounds more appetising than tomato jam, I think! So what shall I use as the official name on the labels?

My new quote is:

"Knowledge is knowing you can make jam from tomatoes, wisdom is knowing not to spread it on toast."

Sweet Tomato & Chilli Dipping Sauce (Tomato Jam)

6 lb of tomatoes
750ml passata
1 tablespoon tomato puree
Juice of 1 lemon
About 1 fl oz of balsamic vinegar
1 onion
1 stick of celery
3 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons of crushed chilli
1 bay leaf
About 3 lb granulated sugar
A bunch of fresh marjoram
A bunch of fresh basil

Puree the tomatoes and pass through a sieve to remove the skin and seeds. Add the passata to the puree and measure it. For every pint of tomato liquid, weigh out 1 pound of sugar. Place the sugar in an oven proof dish and heat in a low oven. Pour the tomato liquid into the preserving pan then add the tomato puree. Squeeze the juice from the lemon and measure then make up to 3 fl oz with balsamic vinegar. Pour this into the tomato liquid. Peel and chop the onions and chop the celery then wrap them in a piece of muslin and place in the pan. Finally, add the salt, chilli and bay leaf to the pan. Bring to the boil then simmer for 10 minutes. Next, remove the muslin and bay leaf and pour in the sugar. Stir well until the sugar has dissolved completely. Bring to the boil and allow it to boil for 15 minutes or so then test for a set. Once set, remove from the heat and add the finely chopped fresh herbs before ladling into warmed jars.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Amazing May

I was so tempted when I was Tescos earlier this week to buy a punnet of strawberries. Usually I have a strict rule about not buying strawberries as I think it is so important to enjoy fruit in season and at its best. But, these were in season British strawberries and it had been MONTHS since we last ate fresh strawberries. But with our own plants already bending with green fruit it seemed silly to spoil the moment by having shop bought ones a bit ahead of time.

And how glad I was that I didn't buy them in the end when on Wednesday afternoon a quick visit to the plot revealed that several strawberries were already beginning to turn red. The girls were very excited by this and rushed round, checking for any signs of redness. Then yesterday, with the girls slopping around the house lethargically, it was the possibility of ripe strawberries that enticed them out of the house. They rushed straight to the ones that had been most promising on our last visit and a moment later they reappeared at my side with a beautiful perfect specimen. After months of waiting, I made them wait just a moment longer whilst I photographed it then they tore it in half and shared it. What joy! We have never had ripe strawberries in mid-May before. There is a lot of promise for the soft fruit this year. It will, however, be a few weeks before we have enough strawberries that they won't be able to eat them all straight off the plant and I'll get to bring some back to the kitchen.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Rhubarb & Ginger Jam

The months between January and June are quiet for the home preserver. Unless you buy Seville oranges in the spring to make marmalade, there is very little to preserve other than rhubarb. Despite my best efforts in the last couple of years, I have failed to get rhubarb to grow on my plot yet I love making rhubarb and ginger jam. As such, I am somewhat dependent on the generosity of others for my rhubarb.

So far this year I have received donations from Simon (who works with Steve), my friend Clare and our neighbour John. Simon and Clare were both happy to receive jars of the finished jam in exchange, whereas John did a straight swap with some of our asparagus. I do love bartering! In total to date I have make 4 batches of jam from 8 lbs of rhubarb and have made 62 jars (55 and 110g). Of those, I think we have eaten two jars as it does go particularly well with toasted hot cross buns!

Rhubarb & Ginger Jam

1 lb (454g) rhubarb
The same weight of sugar as rhubarb
1 small lemon, rind and juice
½ oz (15g) root ginger, bruised
½ oz (15g) stem ginger, finely chopped
1 tablespoon syrup from stem ginger jar

NB: Every pound of rhubarb requires 1 lb (454g) sugar, 1 lemon, ½ oz root ginger, ½ oz stem ginger and 1 tablespoon of stem ginger syrup.

Wash the rhubarb and cut it into pieces roughly 1 inch (2.5cm) long. Layer the rhubarb in a non metallic bowl with the lemon rind and sugar then pour in the lemon juice. Cover the bowl and stand overnight. Tip the contents of the bowl into a preserving pan and add the root ginger, wrapped in a piece of muslin. Bring to the boil then simmer for a few minutes until the rhubarb is soft, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a vigorous boil and boil for 5 to 10 minutes until the setting point is reached. Remove from the heat and discard the root ginger. Stir in the stem ginger and syrup. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Dandelion Jam

At this time of year the dandelions on the verges along side the grid roads in Milton Keynes are a spectacular sight - a sea of yellow, easily able to compete with the daffodils from a few weeks previously.
It's funny how we tend not to appreciate the humble dandelion. If it were a rare or exotic plant it would be considered a thing of beauty. But because it is so common we do not seem to notice its head of bright yellow flowers followed by the delicate perfect ball of silver seeds. Indeed, not only do we not appreciate it, but we seek to destroy it when it appears in our lawns, flower beds or amongst our vegetables. I am no different. Many a time I have dug down... deeply... to remove the long tap root of the dandelion plant from my veg patch, or cursed as I brushed past a dandelion clock, sending future weed seeds across my plot. But, in it's place - as a wild flower - it is beautiful, particularly when flowering en mass.

Having ooh-ed and ahh-ed from the car window at the dandelions last week, I found myself paying particular attention to Pam the Jam helping John the Forger to make dandelion jam on River Cottage Every Day - Bread on Saturday evening. I don't know what time of year they filmed it in but between them they struggled to find the necessary hundred flower heads for the recipe. I looked at my girls and said, "Shall we make that?" They nodded with enthusiasm - my youngest loving the thought of picking her favourite flower, my eldest keen to take up the challenge of making something edible from a weed.

That night I searched the internet for Pam's recipe but I couldn't find it. Instead, I found a variety of other recipes and soon learned that finding enough dandelion heads would be tricky, pulling the petals off fiddly, and getting the jam to set time-consuming. I was not deterred.

So on Tuesday afternoon the girls and I set off to pick dandelions. Quite frankly, it was ridiculous. There were literally thousands of the things! I spent most of my time taking photos but still managed to pick several hundred flower heads. My girls filled their baskets to overflowing yet still they didn't want to stop. It was a thoroughly lovely way to spend an hour.

Back home we spent another hour pulling the petals away from the sepals. This proved less interesting and half way through my youngest sloped off to do something else. My eldest was determined to empty her basket but eventually admitted defeat. We had, however, by then accumulated 500g of dandelion petals!

In the absence of a decent recipe, I was kind of making it up as I went along so I put the petals into my preserving pan with 4 oranges & 2 lemons, 1 lb of gooseberries (from the freezer) and a few litres of water. This I heated up and simmered for an hour. I hoped the gooseberries and citrus combination would provide the necessary pectin as well as mild flavour to compliment the dandelions. Whilst it cooked, the kitchen was filled with a smell reminiscent of honey & lemon.

Once boiled, I poured the contents of the pan into a jelly bag and let it drip for a couple of hours. By then it was late so I left the liquid covered for the night and recommenced the next day. In total I had four and three quarters pints of liquid so I decided to add 4 lb of sugar to it. Once dissolved, I brought it to the boil and attempted to get it to reach its setting point. After nearly an hour of boiling I admitted defeat and added a 250ml bottle of Certo pectin. Then with still no obvious set, I boiled it up again for a few minutes before I finally managed to achieve the tell-tale wrinkle on a cold saucer.

Before bottling I added the petals of a few more dandelion heads to the jam for added texture/appearance. It is a beautiful looking jam - a glowing amber colour as sunny as the flowers it came from. The flavour is admittedly subtle but a sort of perfumed honey flavour with a hint of citrus - perfect on hot cross buns.

So what have I learnt about making dandelion jam?

Collecting enough heads is not difficult if you time it correctly.
Pulling the petals off is fiddly.
Getting it to set is difficult and needs a good source of pectin.
Also, dandelions stain - yellow from the pollen and brown from the stems - so wear old clothes when picking them!
The flavour is subtle but it is satisfying to make jam from a weed.

It certainly is an unusual jam so will that make it more or less likely to sell?

Dandelion Jam

250g dandelion petals (no green parts) + a few extra
2 oranges
1 lemon
225g gooseberries
1.5 litres water
1 kg granulated sugar
225ml Certo bottled pectin

Pull the petals from the green parts of the dandelion heads and place in the preserving pan. Slice oranges & lemons (peel & all) and add to the pan. Add the gooseberries and water then bring to the boil and simmer for an hour. Scald a jelly bag then pour the mix into it and allow it to drip for a few hours. Clean the preserving pan and return the liquid to it. Add the sugar and stir until fully dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil rapidly for about 10 minutes. Add the bottled pectin then return to a rolling boil until the setting point is reached. Remove from the heat, stir in the reserved dandelion petals and ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.