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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.