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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Growing Cucamelons (or not!)

Last year I came across "cucamelons" for the first time. Related to the cucumber, they look like miniature watermelons. I'm always up for growing something new so I thought I would give them ago. James Wong certainly recommended doing so, saying that they are easy to grow and a prolific cropper in a blog post http://homegrown-revolution.co.uk/savoury-fruit/growing-cucamelons/

It was easy enough to find some seeds so I ordered those and in the spring I sowed some along with all the usual members of the cucurbit family: cucumbers, gherkins, courgette, pumpkin and squash. Then a friend asked me if I had heard of them so I said I already had some seed and did she want some to try too? I gave her 4 seeds and off we went.

Germination was very slow, especially compared to the other cucurbits but eventually I managed to get 4 of the 6 seeds to germinate and my friend told me she had managed 2 seedlings. In due course, once the risk of frost has past, I planted my seedlings out. Again, in comparison to other cucurbits, the plants looked a bit weedy - thin and straggly - but I didn't know what to expect.

By July the plants had rambled their way up the cane teepee that I had erected for them and they looked like slightly exotic bindweed. They were flowering too, with small yellow flowers, backed with a promising fruitlet. I went away on holiday expecting to come back to a prolific crop.

I was surprised when, three weeks later I still had no fruit. The little fruitlets just seemed to drop off and not develop. Experience with other cucurbits suggested that the flowers were not being pollinated so I tried using my finger to transfer pollen between the flowers.

Several more weeks past and I was still disappointed by the lack of fruit. I checked with my friend and found it was the same story for her. Then, one afternoon, whilst rummaging through the foliage nearby for cucumbers, I found some cucamelons - about 6 to the precise! Excited, I took them inside to show my girls. They were excited too and there is no denying that they are the cutest fruit I've every grown. I felt as if I should find a toy farmer, put a cucamelon in his arms and take amusing photographs of his enormous watermelon! But instead we decided to eat them.

They are supposed to taste like a cross between a cucumber and a lime. Maybe this is a polite way to say that they are not sweet and have a sour note. I would say, rather than the pleasant sourness of citrus fruit, these things are just bitter, like a cucumber that has been left on the plant too long. I honestly had to spit mine out.

So, on the whole I am somewhat disappointed with the cucamelon. It was harder to grow than suggested, although not impossible, and the crop was far from prolific. The taste was unpleasant and, although it is probably possible to make a nice pickle or something out of them, the yield was so low it was not worth trying. They were, however, undeniably cute and in some ways it was fun giving them a go. I can, of course, look to the rather lack-lustre summer and point my finger at the weather and wonder if more sunshine would have helped. Maybe I will try again next year, armed with lower expectations and in the hope of more sunshine.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Pear & Pecan Choc Chip Cake

I popped round to my parents house yesterday and gathered up a bag full of pears from their patio. I usually think of conference pears as a late October/ early November crop but as these were on the ground, it would have been a shame to waste them.

Later I made a "lighter treacle tart" using the recipe from "Good Food Magazine", but using a pear instead of the apple. http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/lighter-treacle-tart. I've been making this recipe for a couple of year now and it's delicious but it only uses up one pear.

Earlier this week I had come across a recipe for pear, hazelnut and chocolate cake from "Good Food Magazine" that I thought might be worth a try when the pears were ready http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/1420/pear-hazelnut-and-chocolate-cake. As that moment seemed to have unexpectedly arrived, I looked the recipe up and decided it looked like a good way to make use of 5 pears. I checked my cupboard and, discovering I had everything else I needed, I set about making the cake.

The first problem I encountered was that the pack of hazelnuts I had in my cupboard were a couple of months past their best before date and smelt past their best. I decided to scatter these under my hazelnut tree in the garden and then enjoyed watching the squirrel returning repeatedly during the course of the day. Clearly Christmas had come early as far as he was concerned and he was busy stashing his unexpected bounty in various places around the garden.

With no hazelnuts, I decided to substitute them for pecans. I didn't actually have 100g of pecan left so I put in the 85g I had then added some oatbran to make up the quantity.

The next issue was the rather weird method for making the cake as it used the breadcrumb method of rubbing the fat to flour, which is decidedly odd for making a cake; being more commonly used for making biscuits or pastry. It didn't work very well and creaming the sugar into the butter first would have been a better method.

Anyway, having made a batter, I got it into the oven, only to discover it needed about half as much cooking time again before it was cooked through. Once cooked, however, it had a lovely golden, slightly crispy finish and, as such, I felt it didn't need to be glazed with jam.

Having made all these various alternations, I realised I had made quite a different cake to the one described in the recipe but it was really delicious so definitely one to make again.

Pear & Pecan Choc Chip Cake

  • 175g butter, softened
  • 140g caster sugar
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 85g pecans
  • 1 tbsp oat bran
  • 140g self-raising flour
  • 5 small, ripe Conference pears, peeled.
  • 50g dark chocolate, chopped into small chunks


  1. Preheat the oven to fan 140C/ conventional 160C/gas 3. Butter and line the base of a 20cm round cake tin. Cream together the butter and sugar then mix in the eggs one at a time. Blitz the pecans in a food processor until finely ground then add this and the other dry ingredients to the creamed mix. Grate two of the pears into the mix then stir in the chocolate chips. 
  2. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the top. Peel, core and slice the remaining pears and scatter over the top of the cake. Press down lightly and bake for about 90 minutes, until firm to the touch. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn out and cool on wire rack. 

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Apple Roses

The other day an image of an "Apple Rose" popped up in my Facebook feed. Curious, I clicked the link and watched the video instructions of how to construct a very pretty looking dessert using a couple of apples and some puff pastry. I really wanted to give it a go but it required red skinned apples and I only have green or yellow skinned ones.

Then, this week, my friend Clare asked me if I would like to pick some apples off her tree. She was a bit busy to pick them herself as she was getting married at the weekend and then going away for two weeks honeymoon. So off I went to pick the apples and was amazed by how beautiful her tree was, laden as it was, with branch bending quantities of red apples. I gratefully helped myself to a couple of big bagfuls.

Now in the possession of red skinned apples, I purchased some ready-rolled puff pastry.That just left some jam to find... not difficult in this house. In fact, I had made Toffee Apple Jam this week so some of that seemed perfect.

The recipe is fairly straight forward to follow, taking about half an hour to complete before cooking and is very effective. There is something almost magical about seeing a rose form from apples wrapped in pastry and without any particular technical skill or tedious faffing. Indeed, the trickiest part of this recipe is the cooking. It requires about 45-50 minutes in the oven and the oven needs to be hot enough to get the puff pastry to rise but not so hot that the apples burn, and it needs to be slow enough to allow time for the pastry in the middle of the spiral to cook. On this attempt I would say that my apples were a little bit over coloured but it did not affect the flavour.

Indeed, the flavour was lovely. It was like an apple pie but less sweet. And everyone liked it, even my fussy daughter who has already requested that I make them again and said I should feel proud of how well they turned out!

Find the recipe here.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Roasted Beetroot

I've had a really good beetroot crop this year. I went out the other day and picked loads of them, mainly to give the remaining ones enough space to grow into something decent too. The next day I boiled up the little ones and created a satisfying 2lb Kilner jar full of pickled whole baby beets for us to enjoy in the winter. I also boiled up some of the bigger ones and ate them cold with salad over the next few days. Then there was the beetroot cake that I blogged about the other day. Fortunately, I love beetroot.

There is a bit of a downside to beetroot and that is, given that it is most often eaten cooked but cold and it takes about an hour to boil a cricket sized beetroot, it does take a bit of forward planning to have some cooked and cooled when needed. It is most annoying when assembling a meal and thinking about the veg that will go well with it to remember that you are all out of cooked beetroot; especially if you have a big bagful of raw beetroot in plain sight!

If I'm having salad and I realise I have forgotten to pre-cook the beetroot then I make some coleslaw with it instead. Some red cabbage, grated raw beetroot and a little bit of red onion, seasoned and dolloped with mayo is both easy to make and tasty. It is probably really good for you too, given all those riboflavinoids!

However, yesterday as I contemplated the best way to eat the sausages I had bought at Wolverton Farmers Market at the weekend, I realised that somewhere along my train of thought I had come to the decision that we would be having mash and gravy and cold beetroot doesn't go well with gravy and nor does coleslaw. Ahhh... but what about having it roasted?! And so in my mind developed the idea of roasted seasonal vegetables.

To hand were red onion, carrots, parsnip, patty pan squash and elephant garlic, along with beetroot of course. I peel and chopped all of them and put them in a bowl (without the beetroot) with some olive oil and seasoning and gave them a good stir. I put them in a roasting tin and then added the beetroot to the empty bowl. There was enough oil and seasoning left in the bowl to coat the beetroot and I put in a splash of Balsamic vinegar for good measure. I put the beetroot down one end of the roasting dish so as not to turn the other vegetables pink then roasted the lot at 190°C for a hour, adding the sausages to the oven after half and hour. They only needed mixing around once and came out of the oven when just beginning to brown. So that is definitely a good way to eat beetroot but now I'm off to boil some more so that I've got some cooked and cooled to eat with our burger and salad tonight!

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Product Review - The Apple Master

As someone who spends a good deal of time during late summer and autumn chopping fruit and vegetables, I'm always keen to find something that does the job faster. I like a gadget but it has to earn its cupboard space. Sometimes this means it is a multi functional tool that can be used for more than one purpose so earns its keep that way. Sometimes it means that it does just one job but so well that it is worth both the cupboard space it requires when not in use and the inevitable cleaning time. I do, for example, like my food processor and wouldn't want to be without if for certain jobs but often I would rather struggle with a bit more elbow grease than spend the time retrieving it from the cupboard, setting it up, dismantling it, cleaning it and then packing it all back neatly enough that it will go back into the space it came out of.

Over the past few months I have seen Lakeland adverts for the apple master, a devise to help speed up the processing of apples. I process a lot of apples so of course I'm was curious about this devise but to be honest from the picture it looked like a gadget just for peeling them. Having peeled hundreds of apples in my time, I am pretty speedy with a knife and I have a simple cutting tool that cores and wedges apples in one pushing action so did I really need this gadget taking up space cupboard for 9 or 10 months of the year? I wondered if the time taken to fix the apple onto the devise would outweigh the time taken to peel it by hand. In the end I decided I did not seem worth it.

Repeatedly I ignored the adverts for the apple master until one day when I was scrolling down facebook and a video clip of someone using it started playing before my eyes. At this point I realised that within that one action, the apple was peeled, cored and sliced. It was then that I started to take more interest in it, especially as at around £15, it was not that expensive as kitchen gadgets go.

Having mentally put it onto my Christmas list, I approached this year's apple season with a sort of smugness, knowing that this would be the last season where I would have to peel apples by hand. However, in a conversation with a friend, it turned out she already had an apple master and she asked me if I would like to try hers out before getting one for myself. With apples in need to attention, I readily agreed.

I was surprised by how compact the apple master is, which is a good thing when thinking about cupboard space. Keen to try it out, I gathered up some windfalls and got going. I was impressed by how easy it was to fix the apple onto it - it being nothing more than a stab. Then with the turning of the handle, it peeled it, cored it and turned it into a sort of apple spring. My girls thought this was amazing and both of them straight away wanted to eat an apple spring so that was a bonus! A spring shape isn't the most useful end result I could think of but it is easy from there to slice it into apple rings or chop it into smaller pieces for something like a pie or a chutney.

I have now used it a few times and have given it some pretty challenging apples to try out as my windfalls are all sorts of shapes and sizes and have various patches of bruising, holes and soft bits. There are limits to what it can cope with. If the core doesn't run straight down the middle of the apple then it doesn't remove the core cleanly but this is true for any devise other than a human expertly wielding a knife. If the apple has become soft within the core area then the spike doesn't get a proper grip on the apple, but again this is to be expected. And if there are soft patches on the side of the apple, it makes the peeling part of the devise sort of skip and miss patches of skin, which can be fiddly to remove afterwards. However, this was never designed with awkward shaped windfalls in mind and when I use a sensible shaped, undamaged apple it works perfectly and significantly speeds up processing time. It is easy and fun to use too, which encouraged my children to have a go, allowing them to process an apple with the speed of someone with impressive knife skills. As for cleaning, it is a straightforward design with no fiddly bits or electrical parts and no dismantling required so it can be cleaned easily with a washing up brush. Suffice to say, it is still on my Christmas list and I'm hoping I can hang on to my friend's one for a little longer too!

Here's a recipe for a delicious apple bread that I made with the aid of the apple master and a bread machine (another gardget that earns its place in the kitchen).

Apple & Cinnamon Buns (make 9)

For the Bread:
175ml milk
1 egg
350g white bread flour
1/2 tsp salt
35g caster sugar
50g unsalted butter
2 tsp dried active yeast

For the Apple Puree
4 apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1 tbsp caster sugar
2tbsp water

For the Cinnamon Butter
75g unsalted butter, softened
1 tbsp light brown sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Demerara sugar for sprinkling

Load the bread machine up with the bread ingredients and set onto the dough setting. In the meantime, put the apple puree ingredients into a small saucepan and cook gently, stirring often, until it mushs down into a thick puree. In a small bowl, cream together the cinnamon butter ingredients. Once the dough is ready, knock it back on a floured surface then roll it out into a large rectangle. Spread the cinnamon butter all over the dough then cover that with the apple puree. Starting at the longest side of the dough, roll up, as tightly as possible. Cut the roll into 9 even sized pieces and place these, cut edge up, in a well greased or lined tin. Cover with greased Clingfilm and leave to rise for 30 to 40 minutes. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Once risen, sprinkle the bread with Demerara sugar and place in the oven to cook for 35 to 40 minutes. Serve warm or cool in the tin and eat later.