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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Prawn Toast

As you know, I am all in favour of eating with the seasons and wish that supermarket stocks would reflect the seasons more than they do. Having said that, there is one food item that disappears from the supermarket shelves for several months of the year that I wish would be available all year round. That food is prawn toast. It first appears in January, in time for the Chinese new year and stays on the shelves until the barbecue season, when it disappears to make way for barbecue meat. Then Christmas fare replaces the barbecue foods, preventing the prawn toast from reappearing until January.

As you may have realised, I like prawn toast and it makes a nice little addition to our home cooked Chinese meal that we have probably about once a fortnight. It is therefore a little annoying not to be able to buy it all the time. So, the other day when I was thinking that I really fancied a couple of triangles of it, I wondered how hard could it be to make my own. To be honest, I didn't have much of a clue as to what might go into it, other than bread, prawns and sesame seeds. Still, a short internet search soon gave me some ideas and various recipes. Most of them used 8 slices of bread, making a whopping 32 triangles... I only wanted 8!

So, I jotted down a few ideas for ingredients, quartering what had been suggested and then went off into the kitchen to give it a go. It is at times like this that it is really handy to have homegrown garlic and shallots available because they come in all sorts of different sizes and I just needed one tiny shallot and one tiny garlic clove for my scaled down recipe. The other consideration was that, when cooking a stirfry, the last few minutes of the meal preparations can become a bit hectic when you feel as if you need about 4 arms as everything is on the go at once. So, ideally, I wanted to just pop my prawn toast into the oven to reheat - like the frozen ones I usually buy - rather than having to create them in addition to everything else I would be doing. I decided, therefore, to make them in advance, leave them to cool and just pop them back into the oven to reheat before serving. I figured too that this would probably give them the nice crisp texture that I like.

The recipe was surprisingly straightforward to make - really just an exotic fried bread. They reheated perfectly too and, as for the flavour, let's just say I won't be bothering with the shop bought ones anymore!

Prawn Toast (makes 8 triangles)

50g cooked prawns (thawed if frozen)
A little egg white - about 2 teaspoons
1 tiny clove of garlic
1 tiny shallot
3/4 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp sweet chilli sauce (optional)
1 tsp cornflour
2 pinches of five spice powder
2 slices of bread
Sesame seeds

Put the prawns and other ingredients (except for the bread and sesame seeds) into a blender and blend briefly until a slightly lumpy paste forms. Cut the crusts off the bread then spread the paste over the 2 slices. Heavily sprinkle over the sesame seeds and press down lightly. Cut each slice of bread into 4 triangles. Heat some oil in a frying pan and shallow fry the bread for about 2-3 minutes on each side then set aside on a baking tray (or serve at this point). Reheat in an oven at 180C, gas 4 for 5 minutes then serve hot with a Chinese-style meal.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Dried Tomato Focaccia

We have had a bumper crop of tomatoes this year. I usually sow lots of tomato seeds which readily grow into numerous tomato plants. However, sometime in August blight usually strikes and that is the end of that. A good excuse to make green tomato chutney but a bit of a shame in terms of getting lovely ripe red ones. When you realise that blight flourishes when the temperature doesn't drop below 10°C and the humidity is high, it is hardly surprising it usually arrives in August, along with the thunderstorms. However, this year, August was cool and September was the driest on record and so blight has had pretty much no impact on my tomato harvest. So, all the tomato plants have cropped nicely... abundantly actually!

I have made several batches of various tomato chutneys so far and have also shoved some tomatoes in the freezer and generated 24 pints of puree! Now I have harvested all the tomatoes, ahead of any frosts likely to arrive in October. I have strung the trusses up in the greenhouse to continue to ripen. , However, I'm in no hurry for more ripe tomatoes right now as my freezers are groaning under the weight of the tomatoes already in them.

So, when my new food dehydrator was delivered this week I wondered if dried tomatoes would be a nice thing to create. Would make a change from chutney or puree, I thought. I sliced one large tomato thinly, arranged the slices on a rack of the dehydrator and seasoned them with "pizza and pasta seasoning" then set the dehydrator off for hours for the magic to work.

Wow! What a taste sensation - bursts of flavour in the mouth, several of them, in turn, and all intense.

So, having created these wonders of flavour, what could I do with them?

The next morning I set off a batch of focaccia dough in the bread machine, chopped up the dried tomatoes with some scissors and threw that in whilst it was kneading. A couple of hours later we were tucking in to some amazingly tasty, freshly baked bread, which, honestly, you could not have bought in a shop or gourmet restaurant.

With new found enthusiasm, I sliced up 10 of the largest ripe tomatoes from the greenhouse and restacked the dehydrator. Mmm... looking forward to lots of yummy bread now!

Dried Tomato Focaccia (makes 8 individual ones)

240ml (8 fl oz) water
2 tbsp olive oil
450g (1lb) strong white flour
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp yeast
4 tbsp (approx. 1/2 oz) dried tomatoes, chopped (sundried tomatoes could be used)
Coarse sea salt

Put the water and oil into the bread machine pan then add the flour, salt, sugar and yeast and set the machine to dough. After 10 minutes of kneading, add the dried tomato pieces to the machine. Once the dough is ready, take out the dough and knock it back and divide it equally into 8 pieces. Roll into a ball then flatten each piece and place on a greased baking tray. Cover with oiled clingfilm and leave for half an hour. Preheat oven to 200°C/gas 6. Poke the surface of each piece of bread with the end of a wooden spoon to indent all over. Drizzle over a little olive oil and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden and serve hot or cold.

We ate these hot the first day but had some left over so the next day I placed them under the grill with some grated cheese on and had them as a very tasty cheese on toast.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Blackberry Fruity Oat Bars

Last week I asked my youngest daughter if she fancied using some blackberries to make some Blackberry Fruity Oat Bars. She'd just come home from school and was pretty tired and she clearly hadn't planned to do baking with her mum when she got home so she wasn't overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Still, her big sister was at an after school club so we had about an hour of one-to-one time if she wanted it and that clearly appealed to her. She also loves getting her fingers messy, rubbing fat to flour and this recipe started with that. She's also pretty keen on anything involving fruit so the recipe ticked that box too. In fact, she loved the part of the recipe that involved squashing the blackberries and decided that her fingers were the best tools for this job. She said that being allowed to squish blackberries with her fingers felt really naughty.

Ultimately, it worked out well We had some quality time together, we made good use of a small quantity of seasonal fruit and the end result tasted good too. So, this week, when her sister was again at her club and the biscuit tin was in need of refilling, I asked her if she fancied making them again. This time she was enthusiastic from the start and was particularly looking forward to squashing the blackberries again! 

With blackberries readily available right now, this is the perfect recipe to make with children. It doesn't need a huge quantity of blackberries, which is handy if enthusiasm for picking quickly wanes. Best of all, it doesn't matter if the fruit gets squashed!

Blackberry Fruity Oat Bars (makes 12)

4 oz (110g) plain flour
3½ oz (100g) oats
4½ oz (125g) butter
3 oz (85g) caster sugar
2 oz (55g) chopped pecans
4½ oz (125g) soft fruit

Preheat oven to 190°C (gas 5) and grease a small tin. Using fingertips, rub the butter into the flour and oats until it forms a sticky breadcrumb consistency. Add the sugar and pecans and mix with fingers. Spread half of this mix into the bottom of the tin. Layer the blackberries on top and squash them gently then sprinkle over the remaining mix and press down lightly. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes until golden. Cut into bars whilst still hot and allow to cool completely in the tin.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Hazelnut Harvest

Regular readers of my facebook page will know that I have been doing battle with squirrels this year. No sooner had I removed all my cherries from the tree in order to keep the birds from having them all than the squirrel arrived in the hazel tree to start pinching the hazelnuts. Fearful that I would lose them all, I started to collect any hazelnuts that fell from the tree. I think the squirrel helped with this, dislodging some in his haste to feast.

However, some of these "nuts" shriveled to nothing on my windowsill so I cracked open some of the fresher ones I'd picked up and found that there was no nut inside. However, as this was still June/July, it seemed likely that this was the hazelnut version of the "June drop", dropping the duff nuts. So, I had to wait patiently for the nuts to develop... although the squirrel was not so patient and continued to raid my tree. I think too, that he was fully aware that some of them were empty and was discarding them, dropping them onto my patio to tease me.

Eventually, towards the end of August I became increasingly fed up with the squirrel. Every time I was sat at the table, I saw him coming to the tree to collect more nuts. He was brazen too and not at all easily put off. Opening the back door was not sufficient to scare him off and on one occasion I went right up to where he was sat in the tree and he leapt over my head and into the cherry tree to escape. I think he scare me on that occasion more than I scared him! It stood to reason to that he must be in the tree on many occasions when I wasn't aware of it. At this rate there would be no hazelnuts left.

I thought about this for a while and tried to think of some way to stop him getting the hazelnuts. As inventive as I am, I couldn't think of a sensible and humane way to put him off. So, instead, I decided to put monkey nuts out in the garden. I figured that he would come along and find the monkey nuts first, eat these and leave. And you know what, it worked too! Over the next couple of days I topped up the monkey nuts two to three times a day in order to keep my hazelnuts safe. However, after a couple of days of this I decided it would just make a whole lot more sense to harvest what was left on the tree and bring them safely inside to finish ripening.

Of course, out of this little collection of nuts, I had no idea how many of them were empty and how many contained nuts. So this weekend I decided it was time ti find out how big the 2014 harvestnut harvest really was. I armed my daughter with a nutcracker and set her on a mission to reveal our hazelnuts. Off she went with the enthusiasm of... well, a child armed with a nutcracker and soon all our nuts were de-shelled. All 50g of them!

There was nothing more for it than to turn them into Hazelnut & Sesame Florentines; a recipe I had devised 5 years ago when we got our first hazelnut harvest (30g on that occasion). A tasty, simple recipe that very nicely makes use of our piffling hazelnut harvest. And you know what... I have no intention of sharing them with the squirrel!

Hazelnut and Sesame Florentines (makes 12-16)

1 1/2 oz (40g) unsalted butter
1 1/2 oz (40g) golden syrup
1/2 oz (15g) plain flour
1 1/2 oz (40g) chopped hazelnuts
1 1/2 oz (40g) sesame seeds
1 oz (25g) glace cherries
1 oz (25g) dried mixed fruit

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and line a large baking sheet. Melt together the butter and the syrup in a pan over a gentle heat then remove from the heat and add all the other ingredients. Stir well and leave for 2-3 minutes. Dollop teaspoons of the mixture well spaced out on the baking paper then bake for 5-8 minutes until golden. Cool on the sheet for 2-3 minutes then transfer onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Appreciating the Moment

My girls don't watch Tom & Jerry. When I was a kid I watched Tom & Jerry at every opportunity I had... which wasn't very often. But that, I think is the whole point. Occasionally, on a Saturday afternoon, I would be inside long enough, with the TV on at just the right moment to catch the 5 minutes of Tom & Jerry filling a space before the next installment of sport or other adult-orientated telly. It was a special moment, one to relish. Tom & Jerry is still on the TV but it no longer holds a special place in children's hearts because if they want to watch some children's telly they can switch to one of many dedicated channels at any point in the day. And it is not just children's TV that it like this. What with themed channels to suit every taste and hobby, "plus one" channels for when you are running late, iplayer for when you missed the episode completely and Netflix for when you missed the entire series, it is now impossible to miss anything. Although, weirdly, despite all these channels, I somehow find it harder now to find anything on that I actually want to watch!

You may be wondering what all this has to do with jam. The way that TV has been turned into something for our own convenience is reflected in other parts of our lives. A similar feel now runs through our food and drink and shopping habits. Rather than living with the seasons, we can buy whatever it is that we fancy whenever we want it. So now, instead of enjoying, say, the strawberry season for the few months of summer, we can eat strawberries whenever we feel like it. And what about picking some apples off a tree... meh! Maybe later... who cares if they all fall to the ground when we can go and buy some instead if that happens.

It is odd really that if asked if you would want things to happen for your convenience you would, of course, say an emphatic yes. Yet, now we have achieved this with so many parts of our lives, I feel we are now missing something. Like a spoilt child, given everything he whims, we have lost interest in what we receive. If strawberries were only available from June to August, would we not wait, with eager anticipation for the start of the strawberry season? If gathering food from trees made the difference between eating or not during the winter, wouldn't we make more of an effort to pick fruit?

I do my best to live with the seasons. I don't buy strawberries out of season and by June my girls are willing the strawberries to ripen. At this time of year I do my best to gather as much as I can of the abundance and get it stored for later use. Even so, when I say to my girls, "Shall we go out for a bit of foraging?" I'm met with a groan of indifference. "Meh! Maybe later."

The weekend before last I managed to persuade them (ok, I insisted) to go out with me to forage from the hedgerow. It does them good on so many levels. It was sunny, the air was fresh, they were learning what is edible and what is not, we were out as a family, away from technology and aware of the season. We picked sloes, blackberries, rosehips, haws, elderberries and crabapples. When they got bored and I wasn't finished, I sent them into the long grass to play with the grasshoppers that were chirping away merrily. They broke off rose thorns and stuck them on their noses to be rhinoceroses, they picked bindweed flowers and imagined the fairies that would wear them as hats. And then we returned home, pink cheeked, pleasantly tired and with bagfuls of fruit.

This morning I went out foraging again. It was a Monday morning, it was chilly and drizzling. I went back to the same spot we had been last week to find that the hedges had been trimmed and the long grass mowed. There was just enough sloes left for the recipe I had in mind but not the easy bounty of the previous week. Everything was different actually: the weather, the company (or lack of), the smells, sounds and outcomes. As pleasant as it was to start my week in this gentle way, it was not the same as the way I had ended the previous week. To me it demonstrated the need to just get out there when things are happening rather than putting things off, accepting that some things do move on, are not available on "catch-up" or possible to purchase online. And when you are in that moment, enjoying it, take a breath, step back and appreciate it, for next week it will be gone.

The sloes have nearly finished now but if you are quick you can still get out there in time to pick enough to make some sloe gin. Don't think that you'll do it later or you'll miss the moment and come Christmas, when the weather is cold, the trees are bear and you fancy a special tipple to sip you'll wish you'd done it!

Sloe Gin Recipe (courtesy of Good Food Magazine)


Preparation method

  1. Prick the tough skin of the sloes all over with a clean needle and put in a large sterilised jar.
  2. Pour in the sugar and the gin, seal tightly and shake well.
  3. Store in a cool, dark cupboard and shake every other day for a week. Then shake once a week for at least two months.
  4. Strain the sloe gin through muslin into a sterilised bottle.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Corn on the Cob - My new favourite microwave food

My sweetcorn is now ready for harvesting and of all the things I grow, this has got to be my favourite. I have always loved sweetcorn and eat it pretty much every day but corn on the cob is my favourite way to eat it and freshly picked, home grown corn is beyond comparison.

There are lots of good reasons to eat sweetcorn, with flavour having to be high up on the list. However, there are a few downsides too - such as, having to pick it out of your teeth afterwards! It is also a bit fiddly to prepare, especially removing all those "silks", which inevitably end up all over the kitchen floor. And when you grow lovely long corns, finding a pan big enough to boil them in can be a bit tricky.

Recently, I came across a tip on the internet for cooking corn that took away some of the hassle associated with preparing and cooking corn and now I love corn on the cob as much for its convenience factor as for its flavour. So now corn on the cob is my favourite microwave food.

Firstly, having freshly picked your sweetcorn, leave it wrapped up in its greenery. You need only trim off the bottom and top of the leafy jacket so that it fits more easily into the microwave. Our corn is lovely and long this year and I can only fit 2 into my microwave at a time.

Simply place them on the plate and microwave them for 5 minutes then take them out and leave them wrapped up in their leafy coat for a few minutes to keep warm and to continue cooking. When ready to serve, split open the leaves and pull them and the silks away from the hot corn. You may need to protect your hands from the heat whilst you do this and you may need to trim off the base from the corn with a sharp knife but removing the leaves and silks come away easily.

This done, put a spike in the base end and serve hot with salted butter or olive oil and black pepper.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Making a meal without going shopping

We got home from a 3 week holiday on Friday and within a few moments of uncurling our stiff bodies from the car, we were stood on the plot, aghast at how much stuff had grown whilst we were away. Fortunately, my parents and my friend Sue help keep an eye on things whilst we are gone and keep picking the French beans, courgettes and other things that would otherwise go over. Between them (with a hand from Mother Nature), they had done a good job and everything was looking impressive. Within minutes we were picking French beans, courgettes, cucumbers and tomatoes. Tempting as it was to stay longer, it was late and we needed dinner. It was, however, lovely to return home from holiday and yet still have fresh veg with dinner (homemade pies from the freezer, by the way).

The next morning I found myself staring into a mostly empty fridge and wondering if I could get away with not shopping until Tuesday. Tuesday is the day I usually get my shopping delivered, having prepaid for a mid-week delivery pass. If I needed shopping before then I would either have to go out in person and wrestle with the weekend crowds (I hate shopping and I had piles of laundry, unpacking and gardening to do!), or I would have to pay for delivery. Quite often when I get my shopping delivered I then struggle to put it away because there is so little space in the cupboard and fridge and I wonder why I felt the need to do the shopping in the first place. The answer is, possibly partially habit, but also because some key ingredients are required such as milk and bread. We had bought a couple of pints of milk in the service station the day before so that was OK and I had all the ingredients in to make bread so by lunchtime we had some freshly baked bread, which we enjoyed with some tinned soup. There was plenty in the freezer and homegrown fresh potatoes and other vegetables.

In the end I concluded that I we could probably manage. Indeed, I always enjoy a bit of "making do". There is definitely something to be said about having a good rummage in the freezer and reminding yourself what's in there anyway. It's easy to think that things in the freezer keep indefinitely but of course they don't so having a purge every now and then and using stuff up is a good idea. My freezer rummage on Saturday resulted in finding a packet of diced chicken breast and some duck breast strips. That to me looked like the basis of a Chinese style meal. All I needed now was some rice, some veg to stirfry and some Chinese flavours.

The great thing about a stir fry is that you can generally add whatever veg you have to hand. From the garden we had onions, courgettes, carrots and garlic and there were sweetcorn and peas in the freezer. I usually like to chuck some celery into mix for a bit of crunch and flavour but I didn't have any. What I did have was some overly large leaf beet. I've not grown this before but my daughter likes baby leaf beet leaves in salads so we had sown some onto her little plot. Whilst we had been away the leaves had romped away and were about the size of the sole of my shoe and the stems had turned into something that looked like celery - some white and some red. I picked a few of these and chopped up the stems to throw in with the other vegetables. I then shredded up the leaves to add to the duck dish as a substitute for green leaf veg such as pak choi or spinach.

So for the meal, I boiled up some rice, fried the chicken pieces in one pan, the duck pieces in another pan and the vegetables in another. Once the rice was cooked, I drained it and added it to the vegetables with a dash of soy sauce to make some special fried rice. I would have added some sweet and sour sauce to the chicken once it was cooked but when I went to get it I realised I didn't actually have any in the cupboard. Instead, I rustled up a sauce using about 1 tablespoon of tomato puree mixed with a splash of hot water, about 75ml pineapple juice, a tablespoon of onion chutney, a dash of soy sauce and a splash of Balsamic vinegar. This I added to the chicken once cooked then left it to bubble away for a minute or two until it had reduced and thickened. Once the duck was cooked, I added some oyster sauce to the pan and diluted this with some hot water, then I chucked in the leaf beet leaves and let it cook for another couple of minutes until the leaves were cooked.

The family tucked into the meal with enthusiasm and even commented on how tasty the chicken sauce was and how much they liked the leaf beet in with the duck. They say that necessity is the mother of invention and being too lazy to go shopping had certainly made me more creative with what I had to hand.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Tasty pork belly from basic ingredients

We were out food shopping the other day whilst on holiday and my husband happened to be stood near to the meat counter when the butcher mentioned that he was about to reduce a few bits by 75%. Always keen to grab a bargain, he asked him what he had on offer and a few minutes later he returned to the trolley with some sausages, 2 beef burgers, 2 slices of black pudding, a tiny lamb shoulder joint and 4 pork belly slices.

The lamb we ate that evening, roasted with some potatoes. The next day the sausages, the black pudding and some bacon and eggs made a rather satisfying “all day breakfast” type of dinner with some potato scones, baked beans, mushrooms and tomatoes.

The following day I was faced with cooking the 4 pork belly slices. It may have been a bargain but it was not something I would normally chose to cook whilst on holiday, and wrapped only in the white plastic of the meat counter, it did not come with cooking instructions. I figured that they would probably taste best if treated like barbecue ribs but without the bones. This would require some slow cooking initially and then some crisping up flavoursome final cooking. Straightforward enough but we were, of course, on holiday with limited equipment and few food cupboard essentials.

Having preheated the oven to 160°C, I went about creating some sort of stock to slow cook the belly pieces in. Hot water from the kettle was a given, but what else? We’d previously made some gravy with some Onion Bisto so I scattered a couple of teaspoons of Bisto into the bottom of a Pyrex dish. To this I added a chopped up bit of celery (which had previously been pushed too far to the back of the fridge and had been frozen), a couple of chopped up slithers of red pepper, a dash or two of soy sauce and some black pepper. To this I added the 4 pieces of meat, put on the lid and popped it in the oven for a couple of hours whilst I went off and had a bath.

After two hours, it was time to remove them from the stock and to smear them with some sort of tasty glaze that would give them a lovely savoury flavour. Again, time for a little head scratching before deciding to mix together two teaspoons each of soy sauce, mustard and tomato ketchup. This I smeared onto the pork before placing them on a baking tray and returning them to the oven at 200°C for about 20 to 25 minutes.

As it turned out, they were amazingly delicious; a lovely, melt in the mouth texture from the slow cooking, coupled with a tasty crispiness from the hot blast in the glaze. Definitely one to chalk up as a success and Steve was so impressed he said I should make them again when we get home. Well, maybe I will, but he needs to go out and lurk at the meat counter for another bargain first!

Saturday, 19 July 2014

What to do at the end of the broad bean season

Our broad beans are getting to the end of their season now. When you first harvest broad beans, the little "hats" that attach the beans to the pod stay on the bean when you pod them and they cook to have beautifully tender skins. As they mature, the little hats come off as you pod the beans and then, later, under the hats the "scar" becomes black. At this point, it is inevitable that the beans will have tough skin, no matter how long they are cooked, and will taste better if this tough skin is removed before eating - a fiddly job!

It is best to harvest all your broad beans before they reach the black scar point. It is easy to prepare them for the freezer. Just pod them and then drop them into a pan of water on a rolling boil. Boil them for 2 to 3 minutes, until you see a colour change then drain them and run them under a cold tap to cool them quickly. Lay them onto open trays and place them in the freezer. Once frozen, remove them from the tray into labelled bags to use in the autumn or winter.

When you have harvested all your beans, chop your broad bean plants down so that there is about 10 cm of stem left above the ground and give them a good watering. If you are lucky then the plants will regrow from these stems and flower again to give you a second small crop of late broad beans before the season ends.

Of course, you may by now have past the point of perfect maturity for freezing your beans and only have old beans left that will be unpleasant to freeze. If this is the case then you might like to try making broad bean pate or hummus. These recipes requires cooking the beans first and then removing the tough outer skin to use the middle of the bean only. It's a bit fiddly but it does make use of beans that might otherwise go to waste.

Bean and Pea Pate

260g broad beans
100g peas (frozen are fine)
¼ teaspoon each ground cumin and coriander
Salt and pepper
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons of natural yoghurt or soya alternative

Boil the broad beans for 5 to 10 minutes then drain and allow to cool. Remove the outer skin from the beans and place in a food processor. Boil the peas for 3-5 minutes and allow to cool before putting them in the food processor too. Finely chop the garlic and fry in a little oil for about 3 minutes then add to the peas. Add the spices and salt and pepper to taste, along with the yoghurt. Blend all the ingredients until a smooth pate forms. Decant into suitable containers. Refrigerate for up to 4 days or freeze.

Broad bean hummous

650g podded broad beans
100g tahini
½ teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
Good pinch salt
Pepper to taste
Clove of garlic

Cook the broad beans then drain, cool and remove the outer shell. Put all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Can be frozen.

If you have reached this stage of maturity, it is also possible that your broad bean plants are past their best too and there is probably no point cutting them down for a second flush. Instead, if you can afford the space, leave at least some of the plants to stand until they die back and turn into dead, dried stems. Broad beans are one of only a few plants that grow hollow stems so come the winter you can chop them up into short lengths, pack them tightly into a cut off drinks bottle and hang them up in a tree so that insects can crawl into them to overwinter.

One thing that is worth bearing in mind at the end of broad bean crop is that they are part of the legume family. This family has nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in nodules on their roots. These bacteria can do something quite amazing that humans can only do by complex chemical process that require a great deal of energy; they can extract nitrogen from the air. As a result, nitrogen levels in the soil increase and this in turn improves the fertility of the soil. It is therefore important when clearing away old broad bean plants to leave the roots in the soil so that you leave these nodules (and the associated nitrogen) in the soil too. It is very easy to pull a broad bean plant out of the ground completely, roots and all (I sometimes do this by accident when trying to harvest the beans!), but instead, you should chop the plants down to soil level and fork the roots over into the soil to help improve the soil.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Making an elephant

Back in February, I got a couple of Lakeland hemisphere cake tins for my birthday from my parents. As much as I love to make cakes, I'm not at all keen on making elaborate, highly decorated cakes, made to resemble something else. I'm much more concerned about how a cake tastes and whether it is nutritionally worthwhile rather than its appearance. If a cake "looks too good to eat" then it's probably best not eaten anyway as it will be smothered in icing and maybe marzipan as well as being an overly sweat, spongy affair. Nonetheless, I was now the owner of a pair of cake tins, the shape of which means their purpose is to make a decorated cake. Who, after all, would make a hemisphere cake when a normal shaped cake would do?

I "like" Lakeland on Facebook and have seen other Lakeland customers posting pictures of the cakes they have made with these cake pans on their page. There is no denying that there are many talented cake decorators out there and a huge amount of imagination. One cake that particularly caught my attention was an impressive 3D affair in the shape of an elephant money box. My youngest daughter is elephant-mad and she reckons she now owns over 100 of them in various forms, including 2 elephant money boxes. Oh, how I would love to make a cake like that for her birthday but, having never made a decorated cake before this was clearly too ambitious, particular as all I had to go on was a photograph!

The thought of the cake stayed with me over the next few weeks and every now and then I would bring it back to the front of my mind and mull it over again until eventually I decided that I just had to give it a go. I read the Lakeland webpage instructions on how to make hemisphere cakes into owl cakes, I watched Youtube videos on the subject and I discussed it with my friend until I felt confident that I could do this. So here I shall share with you my experiences, not because I am some kind of experienced, all-knowing expert, but because I'd never done anything like this before but I did manage it and I hope it would encourage you that you could try it too.

My original plan was to use a basic Victoria Sandwich Cake recipe. However, at the beginning of June, as the soft fruit suddenly became available, I found myself with 6 over-ripe bananas on the windowsill, rejected in favour of fresh strawberries. So I made a batch of banana and maple syrup muffins to use up two of these bananas. My youngest daughter particularly loves the flavour of these cakes so I found myself wondering if the same recipe could be used to make the hemisphere cakes. Although my daughter's birthday was still a month away at this point, I was not deterred as the muffins do freeze very well. So one afternoon I made a batch of muffin recipe and spooned it equally between the two hemisphere cake tins. To my surprise, it didn't file the cake tins enough so I used the last two remaining bananas to make another batch of batter. This was more than enough so I got on and baked the cakes (using fried egg rings to keep the tins level in the oven). The remaining batter I cooked up in my cake-pop machine to make 7 little spherical cakes. I didn't have any particular ideas for those so I just popped them into the freezer. The main cakes took 75 minutes to cook in the end, which was longer than I expected, so I was glad I wasn't trying to go out. Once cooled, I  trimmed the top of each cake until it was flat (and ate those bits just to be sure the cake was tasty!), wrapped them in greaseproof paper and put them into freezer bags and froze them.

Banana & Maple Syrup Cake (half this recipe makes 12 muffins)

8 oz soften butter
8 oz caster sugar
1 lb plain flour
4 tablespoons maple syrup
4 eggs
4 over-ripe bananas, mashed
2 tablespoons baking powder

Preheat over to 180°C, gas 4 and lightly grease two hemisphere tins, Cream together the butter and sugar then add the eggs, one at a time, and then the syrup. Stir in the mashed bananas. Sift in the flour and baking powder and stir until just combined. Spoon into the cake tins until two thirds full. Bake for 75 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool in the tins on a wire rack.

The next step was to shop for the other things I would need to make this cake. After a bit of research, I determined my cake would need approximately 750g of icing to cover it and the cheapest place to buy icing seemed to be ebay. So I purchased 4 (just to be safe) packs of 250g Renshaw ready to roll out lilac icing, plus a pack of white. I also bought, from ebay, 10 chocolate coins. I already had a cake drum/board left over from another project so I didn't need to buy that too. Finally, whilst doing a jam delivery to Woodstocks Artisan Bakery in Stony Stratford, I popped into the party supply shop next door and bought a "1" and a "0" candle.

My daughter's party was on a Saturday so on the afternoon of the Wednesday before I took the cakes out of the freezer to thaw. After I'd got my girls to bed, I then made up a batch of butter icing, following the Lakeland instructions (minus the cocoa powder) and spread this evenly over the two hemisphere cakes to make an anti-crumb layer that would stop crumbs coming off the cake and getting into the icing. I sat each cake on a saucer, flat side down whilst I did this and then put them both into the fridge, uncovered, over night to harden. There was still a bit of butter icing left so I kept that.

Butter icing anti-crumb coat

125g softened butter
250g icing sugar

Mix 100g of the icing sugar into the soften butter in a small bowl then add the remaining icing sugar and beat until smooth.

In the morning the anti-crumb layer had set beautifully so it was now time to sandwich the two halves together with butter icing and jam. Deciding what sort of jam to use had been a big decision that I had contemplated for days! If it had been a Victorian Sandwich cake then I would have used raspberry jam but I thought that would clash with the banana flavour of this cake. I considered using mirabelle jam as this is a mild jam and similar to apricot jam, which is often used in cake decorations. But in the end I decided that my orchard fruit jam would work best because the slight spice flavour would complement the banana and maple syrup flavours in the cake.

So I spread the flat surface of one hemisphere with jam and the other one with the remaining butter icing then stuck the two halves together and placed them on an upturned side plate. Unfortunately, there was a big gap all the way round the middle of the cake where the two halves met and I figured this would show when I iced it. So, I made some more butter icing and cemented in the gap with this and put the whole thing back the fridge to chill for a bit.

At this point I took out the cake board and started to wonder how I would make 4 stumpy legs for the elephant's body to rest on. I had originally thought I would do this with solid balls of icing but at this point I realised that if I did that I wouldn't have enough icing to finish the job and that the icing was too soft to support the weight of the cake. I then wondered if I should just ice something non-edible but suitably sturdy but on discussing it with Steve, he thought the whole things should be edible. So I decided to retrieve from the freezer the 7 cake pop cake balls I had made from the leftover batter. They seemed to be the right size so I quickly covered 4 these with butter icing and put them in the fridge to chill.

About an hour later I came back to the task, took the cake balls out of the fridge and unwrapped the first block of lilac icing. From what I had ready on the internet, I was expecting to have to knead this stuff like plasticine to make it workable but it was already nice and soft. It did say on the packaging that it was ready to roll so maybe that was why. So I rolled some out and, without too much care, I cut out rectangles that looked about the right size for each ball cake and wrapped it around the cakes, trimming and smoothing as I went. It was surprisingly easy to wrap each one completely in icing. I then made up a small amount of icing sugar in water "glue" and dolloped this onto the board and then stuck each leg down, placing them so that they were touching each other.

The next step was to ice the main sphere. I removed it from the fridge, still on its upturned side plate. Then I put 3 of the blocks of icing together and rolled it out until it was about 5-8mm thick. Carefully I draped this over my rolling pin and then moved it over the top of the cake. At this point I felt that I needed to put on some thin vinyl disposable gloves so as not to leave sweaty fingerprints all over everything. Then slowly and gently I smoothed the icing down and around the ball until I couldn't reach any more and felt as it I needed to turn it over. So I took a cereal bowl out of the cupboard, lined it was a soft t-towel and then some Clingfilm and then put the sphere upside down into it.

I was then able to carry on using two hands to bring the icing up and around, trimming and smoothing as I went, until the cake was completely encased in the icing. I put a few splodges of the icing glue onto the top of each leg then I took the sphere out of the bowl and carefully placed it on top of the legs.

The next jobs were to mould a trunk, tail, eyebrows and ears out of the off-cuts of lilac icing. These I stuck on simply by brushing with a little water. Then I made some flowers using a tiny flower cutter. And I made eyes using a tiny lid as a cutter and just slightly reshaping it to make ovals. The pupils I made from white icing, coloured with blue food colouring. Having got blue colouring on my gloves, I decided now was a good time to throw those away and continue without them. Next I cut a slot out of its back and push one of the gold coins into that then I used little bits of icing glue to stick the remaining coins to the board. Finally I stuck a block of white icing to the board and pushed the candles into it.

It was at this point that I noticed that the whole thing was collapsing under its own weight. I seemed that I had positioned the main sphere slightly off centre on the four legs, putting more weight on the back legs. The cakes that made these legs had then compressed under the weight and the elephant now appeared to be slowly trying to sit down. I hoped that as the icing dried and hardened it would strengthen but in the meantime I needed to stop the sagging. This I managed by firstly sliding my wedge-shaped cheese grater under the board from the back so that the cake was tilted forward, shifting the centre of gravity, and secondly, by gently supporting the elephant's bottom with my rolling pin. I then quickly took some photos of it just in case the whole thing had collapsed before my daughter got to see it!

I left the cake where it was for the rest of the day, expecting the icing to harden. By the end of the day it was still quite soft and it remained softer than I had expected all the way through Friday too. I noticed too that over time the icing gently sagged downwards due to gravity so that the "skin" on the elephant's body hung over the top of the legs. This was actually a pretty good look for an elephant but I think I would have been disappointed if I had made a football cake and that had sagged. I'm wondering if this ready to roll icing is just a little too soft. It does make it easy to use but it could do with hardening up more quickly.

By Saturday lunchtime I had to remove the supports and carefully package the cake into a box so that I could move it to Chiki Ceramiki, the ceramic painting cafe where the party was being held. It was certainly nerve-racking and added to my list of stresses that generally go with organising a kid's birthday party. However, it survived the journey and unpacking and my daughter was really pleased with it. I'm pleased to say that the cake inside tasted great too and was still ok to eat a couple of days later too.

So there you go, I hope my experiences are helpful should you wish to make an elaborate cake too. I would say it's not something I intend to do again but of course my other daughter is now hugely jealous of the cake I made for her sister and seems to think I should go to a similar amount of effort for her birthday in October!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Raspberry & White Chocolate Cheesecake

It was my daughter's 10th birthday this Wednesday. Wednesday is an awkward day of the week for celebrating your birthday, being not closer to one weekend than the other, making it difficult to decide when to have the main celebration. Last weekend we held a party of her, at Chiki Ceramiki, ceramic painting with her school friends. For this I made a rather spectacular birthday cake. Then this weekend I invited my parents over for a meal, but having already done the whole birthday cake and candles bit, it didn't seem necessary to make another one for this occasion. Instead, I made for her her favourite cheesecake recipe - Raspberry & White Chocolate. With the raspberries in full swing it seemed only appropriate. And to make it birthday-special, I topped it with a 10 made out of freshly picked raspberries. Needless to say, it went down extremely well all round.

White Chocolate Raspberry Ripple Cheesecake
For the base
150g digestive biscuits, crushed
75g butter, melted

For the topping
200g white chocolate
30g butter
1/4 vanilla pod
250g cream cheese
90ml whipping cream
100g raspberries
25g caster sugar

For the biscuit base combine the crushed biscuits and the melted butter in a bowl then press into the greased base of a 20cm circular tin or dish. Place in the refrigerator for at least half an hour to solidify. Next, melt the chocolate, butter and the seeds from the vanilla pod in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Leave to cool. In another bowl, mix together the cream and cheese and beat until smooth. Once the chocolate mix is suitably cool add it to the cream mix and stir thoroughly. Spoon onto the biscuit base. Reserve a few raspberries and place the rest in a saucepan with a couple of tablespoons of water and the caster sugar. Heat gently, squashing the raspberries with a spoon to break them down. After about 5 minutes remove from the heat and strain through a sieve to remove the seeds. Spoon the raspberry sauce over the cheesecake then gently swirl it through the upper surface of the creamy layer with a skewer or spoon handle. Return to the refrigerator to chill for a few hours or over night then place the reserved raspberries on top before serving.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Indulgent Strawberry Chocolate Desserts

We've got into a sort of routine on a Saturday morning which I'm coming to rather enjoy. My husband takes my youngest daughter out to her dance class, leaving me at home with my eldest daughter. Whilst I make a batch of jam, my eldest practices her guitar for a while then pulls out the "Colossal Cookie Cookbook" and decides which recipe she's going to make. With such an enormous book to work through, it'll be a while before we have the same thing twice!

Fortunately for her, I keep in my cupboard 6 different types of flour and 7 different types of sugar, along with a variety of other baking essentials so it doesn't matter too much which recipe she decides upon; we have probably got everything we need already. This week she was undecided between a triple chocolate chip cookie and a chocolate filled shortbread. Scanning the ingredients of both, I determined we had everything we needed for either recipes but the chocolate filled shortbread required double cream and the cream I had in the fridge was in need of using up before it went past its date so I suggested she made those and saved the triple chocolate chip cookies for next weekend - looking forward to that!

So, off she went and made the biscuits, which didn't turn out at all how they looked in the photo, mainly due to them spreading considerably more in the oven than suggested and completely losing the lovely heart shaped she'd carefully cut them into. Next she made the chocolate filling which was a straightforward case of gently heating up 5 tablespoons of double cream in a small pan and then melting 2 oz of dark chocolate into it. This produced a liquid not dissimilar to melted chocolate ice-cream but not all suitable for sandwiching between two biscuits. Despite no instructions in the recipe to do so, I decided that giving it a good whipping would create a spreadable texture. This worked and my daughter sandwiched her odd shaped biscuits together and then we popped them into the fridge. By the time we were ready for a snack in the middle of the afternoon, the biscuits were nicely chilled and stuck together perfectly.

We polished the biscuits off over the weekend but we hadn't needed all of the chocolate cream filling so I had put it into a container in the fridge. Today I took it out to examine it and found it had set to a lovely mousse consistency and this gave me an idea - a simple dessert with some fresh strawberries from the allotment. So, I gently reheated the creamy mix for a few seconds in the microwave and then poured it equally between two containers and popped them into the fridge to set whilst I went out to get some strawberries. I decided 4 strawberries would enough for these two little desserts so I washed them and sliced them. In a bowl I added a drop of hot water into a heaped teaspoon of some of the Strawberry & Vanilla Jam I had made on Saturday morning then added the sliced strawberries to this. Once the chocolate cream had chilled enough to return to its thick consistency, I spooned the strawberry mixture on top. Dead simple really but definitely not a health food despite the strawberries!

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Weapons in the Cherry War

Those of you who follow my facebook and twitter feeds will know that this year the birds have been particularly determined to strip our cherry tree of cherries before I have chance to pick them. We usually have a few take an interest but as our garden backs onto the allotment site and this is lined with a hedgerow full of wild cherries, we usually find that there is plenty of other sources of food to keep them occupied. I can only assume that this year's increase in bird activity is due to our neighbour being particularly keen to feed the birds. I think this has probably increased the number of birds in the area and, as they fly over to reach this reliable food source, they couldn't help but spot our cherries.

As a principle, I don't mind feeding the birds, and I wouldn't mind too much if they helped themselves to the odd cherry or two. What I find somewhat annoying is that they start to peck at them well before they are ripe and that they take one bite and then discard the rest of it, coming back later to peck another perfect one. Usually it is just a blackbird or two but this year we had blackbirds, a whole troop of starlings, a couple of magpies, some pigeons, blue tits and a jay!

There isn't an awful lot that can be done about this. The tree is too big to cover with netting and I have heard that birds can get themselves tangled up in the netting anyway and I don't much fancy dealing with that. We have strung a load of CDs into the tree as bird scarers but, given that the young starlings wouldn't even budge when I was in the garden, unless I threw a bit of gravel in their direction, it is hardly surprising that the CDs don't make much of a deterrent. Instead, we spent a fair bit of time dashing out into the garden, clapping our hands and shouting. Steve even rigged up a few empty plastic bottles with some gravel in the bottom into the tree which could be jiggled up and down from the conservatory and greenhouse thanks to several meters of string.

Despite all this I have managed to bag about 4 or 5 pounds of cherries from the tree this year but I am relieved that there aren't any on the tree anymore so I can relax. Mind you, this morning I had to chase a squirrel out of the hazelnut tree. Here we go again!

Anyway, given all this, we have a tendency to hoard old CDs and DVDs and a while ago I came across a lovely idea on the internet for making CDs owls and I have fancied making them ever since. So, today, when the weather was too wet to allow me to pick the soft fruit that would otherwise be demanding my attention, I decided to use the CD owls as a perfect excuse to sit down with my girls for a bit of crafting. We used 2 CDs per bird, cutting one up to form wings, plus some jam jar lids (I've got plenty of those!), crown caps from beer bottles and some old buttons.

My girls are 10 and 11 and pretty skilled with their hands but should you be doing this with younger children, there are certain parts that need to be done by an adult. Because they are intended for outdoor use, you will need some suitable glue - I opted to use a glue gun but care needs to be used when using these as they get hot. CDs are quite hard to cut too but can be done with sharp scissors and strong hands, although they can crack unexpectedly when doing it so it is handy to have some spares. So really, allow your child to arrange all the bits to make their owl but then assemble it yourself. The hardest part was deciding what to use to make the beak. I opted for an old toggle off a coat, but we also tried a piece of plastic cut out of a margarine tub, and a bit of broken CD. Unless you particularly like using a drill, I would recommend leaving at least some of the central hole clear so that you can thread the string through it so that you can hang up the finished owls.

We made an owl each in about half an hour and by the time we had finished, the sun had come out for a brief show so I strung them up in the cherry tree. They are certainly more fun and more attractive than the other CDs hanging from it and who knows, it might just fool the birds into thinking they are being watched by those big eyes... or maybe not!

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Individual Focaccia

I always aim to eat homemade bread with dinner once a week as an alternative to potatoes, rice or pasta. Tonight I whipped up a batch of individual focaccia bread. I say "whipped up" as if it something you can do in 5 minutes but of course it takes about 3 hours to make bread from scratch. Although that sounds like a long time, there is very little of that time when I'm actually needed, particularly as I use a bread machine for the first hour and a half for mixing, kneading and resting. It does mean a bit of forethought and planning and being around at key points but whilst the bread was making I managed to make a cake, do the washing up, pick some strawberries, bring in the washing and have a bath.

I made the focaccia bread recipe for the first time last month, adding a spoonful of my green garlic pesto to it for a bit of flavour. One way or another it must have worked because the family raved about the bread. The recipe had made 8  individual portions of bread and so I served up one each, thinking I might freeze the other four to reheat for another meal at a later date. However, having eaten her bread with enthusiasm, my daughter eyed up the remaining bread and asked if she could have another. I explained my plan to her but she looked at me with her big eyes and said, "But it is always best when it's fresh." This sentiment was quickly supported by her dad and between them they decided it was a good idea to eat another one each. Personally I was satisfied with just having the one with the meal and my youngest daughter was full up with her portion, so I was left with 2 pieces at the end of dinner. What was I to do with those when there was no longer enough for another meal? Hmmph!

The next day, come lunchtime, I contemplated the remaining focaccia and wondered how to make a sandwich out of it. I quickly dismissed this idea and wondered about turning it into cheese on toast instead. Even better, why didn't I smear on a bit of passata first, sprinkle on some herbs, top with cheese and call it a pizza? This was a brainwave and was delicious... so much so, that I went back for seconds and made the last focaccia into another mini pizza and scoffed that too!

So tonight when I made the recipe again I was quite determined not to eat two for dinner so that I would at least have one for tomorrow's lunch even if the rest of the family pigged themselves on two. I'm pleased to say that one and half weren't eaten and I'm rather looking forward to tomorrow's tasty lunch.

Individual Garlic Focaccia (makes 8)

240ml water
2 tbsp olive oil
1 dessert spoon garlic pesto (or use a total of 3 tbsp olive oil if you prefer)
450g strong white flour
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp quick action dried yeast
Coarse sea salt

Put the water, oil and pesto into the bread machine pan then add the flour then the salt, sugar and yeast. Set the bread machine onto the dough setting. When ready, remove the dough from the bread machine and knock back on a lightly floured surface then divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball then flatten slightly and roll out a bit with a rolling pin. Place on a greased baking tray and cover with oiled clingfilm and leave for half an hour. Preheat oven to 200°C, gas 6. Poke the surface of each piece of bread with the end of a wooden spoon to indent all over. Drizzle over olive oil and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden and serve hot or cold.