Thursday, 22 October 2009

Hot (and spicy) in the kitchen!

Having grown up in a house where the only spice in the cupboard was ground ginger (for home baking purposes only) I still find it hard to eat and enjoy spicy food. Having said that, there was no garlic in my home as a child either but now that is an essential ingredient in my kitchen. I have slowly increased my tolerance for spicy food but you are never likely to see my in a curry house. My husband is much the same, although he enjoys a good dollop of mango chutney on a baked potato and will splash sweet chilli sauce on the occasional meal.

My husband's favourite version of mango chutney is the one with lime, which sadly is difficult to find in most shops. Knowing this, last year I found a recipe for lime chutney and thought this would make a good alternative. How wrong I was! I don't know whether there was a typing error in the recipe or something but it contained 4 limes, a variety of spices and no sugar. The next baked potato was rendered inedible by a dollop of this stuff on it. Not one to give up nor to throw food away, I decided to try to tone the chutney down a bit, first by adding sugar, and secondly by adding one and half pounds of pumpkin to it (nice and bland). And it worked. So this year with pumpkin to spare I popped down to my local Lidl's where you can buy limes at the moment for either 20p each or 5 for 50p (no brainer!). To moderate the lime flavour a little more I decided to peel two of the limes this year and use two more with peel and all. Of course, I need to wait 6 weeks for the flavours to mellow before tasting it as it should be but so far it seems to be a very promising chutney and a good one to use with Indian food.

Lime Chutney

Makes 2-3 jars
4 limes
1 small onion
2 handfuls of sultanas
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
½ teaspoon crushed chillies
4 crushed garlic cloves
1 inch (2.5cm) grated root ginger
2 teaspoons peppercorns
7 cardamom pods, seeds extracted
1 teaspoon turmeric
A dash of olive oil
1½ lb (680g) pumpkin
8 oz (225g) light brown sugar
1 pint (660ml) white wine vinegar

Peel two limes and leave the others unpeeled. Finely chop the limes, onion and sultanas in a food processor. Heat the oil in a frying pan and cook the spices until they start to pop. Add the ginger and garlic and fry for 1 minute. Put the lime mix in a preserving pan, add the spices and 12 fl oz (350ml) of vinegar. Simmer until thick. In the meantime, peel and dice the pumpkin then cook in the remaining vinegar for about 30 minutes until soft. Stir the sugar and the lime mix into the cooked pumpkin. The chutney should be thick at this point but it can be simmered to reduce it further if necessary. Lade into warmed jars and seal immediately.

On a similar note, I decided that rather than buying sweet chilli sauce I should try to make some. We don't usually grow chilli peppers because they can be tricky without a greenhouse and because we generally don't like them. However, this year I was given some seed so popped them into pots to see what would happen. I grew them for several weeks in our conservatory with some tomatoes but put them outside in their pots when we went away on holiday for 3 weeks. We never did bring them inside again but amazingly they managed to ripen and there are still a few green ones on the plants.

Not being a huge fan nor connoisseur of chilli peppers I took a friend up on her offer to try one for me and she declared them tasty but not at all hot. With that established, the next step was to work out a recipe for sweet chilli sauce. I started by examining the ingredients on the open bottle in my fridge. This proved alarming as it seemed that 95% of what was in the bottle was sugar water, leaving room for some thickener and a bit of chilli and colouring. Then I examined the more expensive version of the sauce that was still unopened in my food cupboard. This one had a few more ingredients, including 11.5% plum paste but the only chilli in it was 1% chilli powder. So then I decided to google for a recipe (or at least some ideas) but this proved just as difficult as it seems that everybody who makes some has their own idea about what should go into it and how to make it. None the wiser, I returned to the bottle in my cupboard and decided to work out something based on that and the ingredients I had to hand - principally 4 oz of chilli peppers and some frozen plums.

So the recipe below is my version of sweet chilli sauce. I would say that anyone making a sauce like this needs to be fairly flexible with their ingredients because the strength of chilli varies enormously and so does our tolerance for them. Anyone wanting to add more heat to their sauce could add crushed chillies from a jar or chilli powder or cayenne pepper. If on the other hand you need to reduce the heat then cut the peppers open and remove the seeds and white bits inside the peppers as this is where the heat is contained.

1 pint (660ml) water
1 lb (454g) granulated sugar
8 oz (225g) chopped plums (Victoria are best for colour)
4 oz chilli peppers
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons cornflour

Put the chopped plums in a saucepan with 2 oz (55g) of the sugar and 5 fl oz of water. Bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes until soft. In the meantime, remove the stalks from the chilli peppers and roughly chop. Mix about 2 tablespoons of the water with the cornflour to make a white liquid. Once cooked, place the plums into a blender and blend until smooth. Add the chilli peppers and blend again to finely chop the peppers. Return this mix to the pan and add the remaining water, sugar, salt, paprika and lemon juice. Bring to the boil, adding the cornflour just as it starts to bubble, stirring as it goes in. Continue to stir it as it boils until it thickens. Ladle into warmed bottles and seal immediately. The sauce should keep well in the bottle until opened then keep refrigerated.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Pumpkins still

I had another pumpkin themed day again today. I still had a bit more than a pound of pumpkin left over from the large one I cut into last Friday and to that I had added a bit whilst making the bird feeder on Sunday. There was only one slice of the pumpkin and ginger tea bread left in the cake box, my husband having declared it the best cake I had ever made (wow, now that's a complement!). So, having stocked up on ingredients I set about making pumpkin and orange tray bake this morning to refill the box. This proved a deliciously moist and fruity cake which my daughter declared the best cake I had ever made (not quite such a complement as she is only 7 and says "best ever" at the drop of a hat!).

Pumpkin & orange tray bake

200g butter , melted
4 eggs , beaten
zest & juice of 1 orange
300g self-raising flour
300g light muscovado sugar
3 tsp mixed spice
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
175g sultanas
½ tsp salt
500g (peeled weight) pumpkin, grated

200g pack soft cheese
100g icing sugar , sifted
zest & juice of 1 orange

Heat oven to 180°C, gas 4. Butter and line a 25 x 25cm square tin. Beat the eggs into the melted butter, stir in the orange zest and juice, then mix with the dry ingredients till combined. Stir in the pumpkin. Pour into the tin and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until golden and springy to the touch. Cool for 10 minutes then turn it out onto a cooling rack. Whilst still warm, prick it all over with a skewer and drizzle with the orange juice from the second orange, retaining 1 tablespoon of juice for the icing. Leave to cool completely. To make the frosting, beat together the cheese, icing sugar, orange zest and 1 tablespoon of the juice till smooth and creamy. Add a little cornflour to stiffen if necessary. When the cake is cool, spread the frosting over the top of the cake in peaks and swirls. Store the cake in the fridge but return to room temperature to serve.

With the cake still warm and the smell of delicious home baking filling the house, I dashed off to gardening club where the theme was... you guessed it... pumpkins! We had managed to grow one little pumpkin which this afternoon we turned into two bird feeders. I also took one large pumpkin in from home and showed them how to make a pumpkin lantern and we baked pumpkin muffins so that they realised that pumpkins can be eaten too! A packed afternoon but a lot of fun for all.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

More pumpkin stuff

How am I doing on the 101 things to do with pumpkins? Is it 5 or 6 so far? Well, this morning I made some of my delicious pumpkin and butternut squash soup.

Pumpkin and Butternut Squash Soup (serves 3)

1 lb (450g) pumpkin flesh
1 lb (450g) butternut squash flesh
Olive oil
10 fl oz vegetable stock
2 tablespoons tomato puree
4 sage leaves
Salt and pepper

Peel and chop the vegetables then fry them in some olive oil for about 5 minutes in the bottom of a large saucepan. Pour in the stock, add the tomato puree and sage leaves and simmer for 30 minutes until soft. Pour into a food processor and blend until smooth. Return to the pan. Season to taste and bring back to the boil then either serve it hot or pour into warmed jars, seal and put in the fridge until needed.

Then after my hearty lunch, I made one of my mini pumpkins into two bird feeders. For this I just chopped it in half and scooped out the inners to make two dishes. Adding Vaseline to the cut surfaces helps to preserve them for a few more days. Next I plaited 12 pieces of string into 4 cords (it helps that I just happen to be super speedy at plaiting!). Then I secured two cords to each pumpkin dish using a drawing pin underneath. Finally, I filled the dish with seeds (including some of the pumpkin seeds) and hung them up outside. This is a lovely simple idea and could be the perfect thing to do with my gardening club gardeners this week with our one small pumpkin.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

101 things to do with a pumpkin!

I'm not sure I'll find 101 things to do with a pumpkin but I need to find quite a few; after all, I have 19 of things to use up!

Whilst my yellow tomato and pumpkin chutney was happily bubbling away, I chopped up a fair amount of the remaining pumpkin and put it into the steamer to cook for a while. When soft, I put it into a bowl and mashed it. Once pureed, pumpkin is very versatile and can be used in a number of sweet recipes where its presents can pass unnoticed. Some of these, such as muffins and pancakes, I have made before and have become family favourites. But others remain untried but interesting.

One such untried recipe was pumpkin ice-cream. I saw something written by James Martin in a magazine the other day suggesting stirring pumpkin puree through vanilla ice-cream. I thought for a moment he had lost the plot but on further consideration it sounded like it had potential. I was still surprised, however, when I googled it to discover something like 240,000 hits for pumpkin ice-cream. The one thing about pumpkin is that it goes very well with spices such as ginger and cinnamon. I think vanilla is a bit wish-washy to go with pumpkin so when I saw a recipe with cinnamon, ginger and pumpkin I decided to give it a go.

Pumpkin Ice-cream

450g fresh pumpkin
300ml whipping cream
120g light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch ground cloves
Pinch of salt

Peel and chop the pumpkin then steam until soft. Mash until a smooth puree is formed. Put all the ingredients in a blender and blend for about a minute until well mixed. Pour into suitable containers and put in the freezer. Take out of the freezer after 2-3 hours and whip up with a fork to break up the ice crystals before returning to the freezer.

It makes an interesting ice-cream, unlike anything you are likely to find in the shops. As you can imagine, the spices are the dominate flavour with a slight toffee flavour from the sugar. No hint of pumpkin! I think it would go very well dolloped next to a hot winter pudding such as apple pie or sticky toffee pudding.

After that I immediately froze a pound of pumpkin puree to make into pumpkin muffins at a later date. They are a good one to have in the cake tin in the run up to Halloween.

Pumpkin muffins

1 lb (450 g) pumpkin
3¼ oz (90 g) wholemeal flour
6½ oz (180g) self-raising flour
½ teaspoon mixed spice
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
3¾ oz (95g) dark brown sugar
2 oz (55 g) sultanas
2 eggs
4 fl oz (115 ml) sunflower oil
4 fl oz (115 ml) whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Peel, chop and steam the pumpkin for 20 to 30 minutes until very soft. Squash until smooth then allow to cool. Refrigerate overnight if desired. Preheat oven to 210°C, gas 7. Sift the flours and spices into a bowl, adding any bran remaining in the sieve. Whisk the eggs, oil, milk and vanilla together and add to the dry mix then add the pumpkin. Combine until just mixed. Spoon into paper cases in a tin. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until a skewer comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

The next day, I grated some of the remaining fresh pumpkin into a recipe to make pumpkin and ginger tea bread. What a delicious recipe this proved to be - a lovely moist cake with a yummy ginger flavour. I had a piece mid afternoon and when my husband had a slice for his dessert after
dinner I couldn't resist having another slice!

Pumpkin and Ginger Tea Bread

175g melted butter
140g clear honey
1 egg, beaten
250g fresh pumpkin
100g light muscovado sugar
350g self-raising flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon Demerara sugar

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and line a 2lb load tin. Mix together the butter, honey, egg and pumpkin. Add the muscovado sugar, flour and ginger and stir until well combined. Pour into the tin then sprinkle over the Demerara sugar. Bake for 50-60 minutes until risen and golden. Leave in the tin to cool for 10-15 minutes before turning out to cool on a wire rack.

With some of the remaining pumpkin puree I made a batch of pumpkin pancakes. These are similar to Scotch or American-style pancakes. My daughters like to have pancakes for breakfast every now and then so it is nice to be able to make some rather than buy them. They can be frozen, thawed and reheated in the microwave for the ultimate in convenience food. As it happened, my daughters were hugely enthusiastic about them whilst I was making them and they both wanted a freshly cooked one right there and then despite only having just eaten their lunch!

Pumpkin pancakes (makes 16-18)

250g plain flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of salt
1 tsp mixed spice
55g light brown sugar
3 eggs
284 ml carton buttermilk
175 g pumpkin puree
4 teaspoon sunflower oil

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, salt, raising agents and spice. In another bowl, mix together the sugar, egg, milk, pumpkin and oil. Make a well in the centre of the flour and gradually mix in the wet ingredients until a batter forms. Heat a little oil in a frying pan and add 60ml (2 tablepoons or 1/4 cup) of batter at a time. Cook until the base is set then flip and cook until the second side has set and browned. Either serve hot or cool on a wire rack and freeze for use later.

After this I still had a bowlful of puree so I weighed it out into bags for other recipes I want to try and put them into the freezer until we have eaten our way through the tea bread and I have stocked up on a few ingredients.

So, how many of my 19 pumpkins have a worked through so far... not quite one! Maybe I will find 101 things to do with them after all!

Tomato chutney

My mum has to be the only person I know who likes it when blight strikes my tomatoes. This is because she loves my green tomato chutney. I say 'my' but in fact the recipe is my grandma's - that's my mum's mum. I grew up with the flavour of this chutney in cheese and chutney sandwiches both from visits to my grandma's house and also because my mum had jars of the stuff in her cupboard too. I don't think that my mum has ever made it herself so not only does she love the flavour of it but also the memories it holds. So when blight strikes I end up harvesting my tomatoes whilst still green - thus green tomato chutney.

Unfortunately, from my mum's point of view, I sprayed my tomatoes this year with copper sulphate at fortnightly intervals and managed to go the whole season without a single plant succumbing to the dreaded disease. From August to October I harvested ripe tomatoes every week and despite my youngest daughter's attempt to eat every tomato available, even she couldn't keep up and I have had pounds and pounds of tomatoes off the plot. Most of them have ended up in my freezer with the intention of turning them into chutney at a later date. What I hadn't realised with this slow accumulation was exactly how many pounds of tomatoes I had stashed away. And then, with the final harvest last weekend, I had pounds more tomatoes strung up in my kitchen.

Over and over again you hear people on the telly and read stuff in gardening magazines saying that if you have to pick tomatoes green just put them in a bag or drawer with a ripe apple or banana and the ethylene released from the fruit will cause the tomatoes to ripen. Well, in my experience, this isn't the case. If a tomato has started to ripen, no matter how slight, then this method will work but if it hasn't then it will stay green. It can sit happily on a sunny windowsill for weeks and weeks neither going mouldy nor turning ripe. So, even without the dreaded blight, at this time of year there are always enough green tomatoes to make green tomato chutney.

Green tomato chutney

Makes 2-4 jars
2lb (900 g) green tomatoes
1lb (454g) cooking apples
8 oz (225g) onions
1 oz (25g) salt
4 oz (110g) sultanas
1 pint (660 ml) malt vinegar
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon pickling spice (e.g. cloves, cinnamon, allspice berries)
8 oz (225g) light brown sugar
1 tablespoon black treacle

Coarsely chop the tomatoes then peel, core and chop the apples (weigh after preparation). Peel and chop the onions and tie the spices in a piece of muslin. Mix all the ingredients except the sugar and treacle in the preserving pan and bring to the boil. Drop in the spices. Simmer gently, uncovered, until the pulp is tender (20 to 30 minutes). Add the sugar and treacle and stir well until it has completely dissolved. Bring back to the boil and continue to boil until thick. Pour into warm jars and seal immediately.

From the strings of tomatoes hanging in my kitchen I managed by mid week to pick enough red tomatoes to make the very tasty red tomato and ale chutney.

Red tomato and ale chutney

Makes 4-5 jars
4 lb (1815g) red tomatoes
12 oz (340g) onions
2-3 cloves garlic
12 oz (340g) sultanas
12 oz (340g) soft light brown sugar
12 fl oz (350ml) malt vinegar
6 fl oz (175ml) ale
1½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1 teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Puree the tomatoes to remove the skin and seeds. Plunge the tomatoes in hot water and then into cold then pinching off the skin. Roughly chop and blend in a blender then sieve to remove the seeds. Pour the puree into a preserving pan. Finely chop the onions and garlic and add these and the rest of the ingredients to the pan. Bring to the boil then simmer for 2-3 hours until thick, stirring occasionally. Ladle into warmed jars and seal.

Then to complete the set, at the end of the week, I thawed out 2 pounds of yellow tomatoes for my yellow tomato and pumpkin chutney.

Yellow Tomato and Pumpkin Chutney

Makes 3-4 jars
2 lb (900g) chopped pumpkin flesh
2 lb (900g) yellow tomatoes, skin and seeds removed.
12 oz (340g) onions
2 tablespoons of salt
2 teaspoons of ground ginger
3 teaspoons of turmeric
2 teaspoons of ground allspice
Freshly ground black pepper
5 garlic cloves, crushed
20 fl oz (500 ml) white wine vinegar
1 lb (454g) granulated sugar
2 oz (55g) stem ginger

Put all the ingredients except the sugar and stem ginger into a preserving pan and mix well. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 45 minutes until very soft. Stir in the sugar and stir until dissolved then simmer until the chutney is thick (about one and half hours). Add the freshly chopped stem ginger to the chutney and ladle into the jars and seal immediately.

What a satisfying week that was but with two drawbacks. The first is that I have made jars and jars of chutney and hardly touched the pounds of frozen tomatoes in my freezer. And the second is I had to cut into a pumpkin to make the yellow tomato chutney. So, now I have most of a huge pumpkin to use up. Well, folks, tune in to the next exciting installment to find out what I did with the pumpkin!

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Chutney poisoned the lettuce

Currently we have our stored fruit and vegetables in a covered area in our back garden between our conservatory and our neighbours wall. It is sheltered from the rain and warmer than the garden but still open to the weather. We have our potatoes in sacks, our pumpkins, squash, courgettes and cucumbers in boxes, onions, shallots and garlic in trays and apples in a box too. Last weekend when I went to fetch some potatoes for dinner I noticed that two of the potatoes in the bag had nibble marks in them. I concluded this was probably from mice so I moved the bag up to a higher shelf. Unfortunately, the next morning I noticed nibble marks in the apples instead! And there was no more room on the higher shelf. My husband had two more shelves to screw to the wall but I figured it would be quicker to use up the apples instead so I decided that this week would be my use up apples weeks.

I started on Monday by making summer fruit jam - apples with strawberries and raspberries from the freezer. This is my youngest daughter's favourite jam and I have to admit that it is delicious! On Tuesday I made apple and blackcurrant jam with a pound of blackcurrants from the freezer. Unfortunately, also on Tuesday I was struck by a cold. Don't you just hate them...? They make you feel lousy but you still feel obliged to carry on as normal.

I had a bad day on Wednesday. It started cold and I was a bit worried that there might have been a frost and I wondered if my tomatoes were OK. But I had no time to go and check. I had to wait in for an important parcel so decided that it would be a good day to make a batch of brown sauce. By now my cold was taking its toll so I wasn't feeling my usual cheery self. Brown sauce isn't too tricky to make but it does need time to evaporate to the correct thickness. That meant I had to start shortly after dropping my girls off at school if it was to be finished before I had to collect them again at the end of school. However, my husband had worked until the early hours of the morning and was still in bed. I don't like to cook chutney when there is anyone else in the house because they tend to moan about the smell. I can imagine it can be unpleasant if you are trying to tuck into your cornflakes in a kitchen filled with vinegar fumes. He appeared in the kitchen for his breakfast shortly after I added the vinegar to the sauce. I had opened the conservatory doors but he complained that it was freezing and closed them again whilst he ate. Eventually he sloped off to work and I opened the doors again.

The sauce bubbled and the day past but the parcel didn't turn up and it was time to pick up the girls but the sauce wasn't thick enough. I bottled it anyway, hoping it would be thick enough when it cooled (it didn't!). Then later that day I noticed that the lettuce, French beans and peas on the conservatory windowsill were looking a bit droopy but when I went to water them they were still damp. It took a couple of hours for me to slowly realise that I had poisoned my plants with the vinegar fumes!

What a day! No parcel, brown sauce that is too thin and poisoned plants!

Still, by this weekend my cold was all but gone and I was feeling my usual level of optimism. But I was still wondering if there had been a frost on Wednesday. Around on the allotment it was clear that there hadn't been a frost. However, we decided it was time to bring in the remaining tomatoes. I cut all the tomato trusses off and composted the plants. Back home, my husband rigged up a "line" using bungees and clips across the conservatory and we strung the tomato trusses up on it. My daughters thought this looked a little strange but we decided they made a lovely harvest festival garland and they liked that idea.

As for the apples, the mouse hasn't been back since and now all that this left is just enough apples to add to a big batch of green tomato chutney. Guess what I'll be making next week!

Summer fruits jam

1 lb (454g) strawberries
4 oz (110g) raspberries
1 lemon
2 lb (900g) apples
16 fl oz (450ml) water
3 lb (1350g) sugar

NB: Every pound of apples requires 8 oz (225g) strawberries, 2 oz (55g) raspberries, half a lemon, 8 fl oz (225ml) water and 1 lb 8 oz (680g) sugar.

Cooked the strawberries and raspberries with the lemon juice and about 4 fl oz (100ml) of water for a few minutes until soft. Pour into a jelly bag and allow to drip until cool then squeeze the juice through. Peel, core and chop the apples and cook with the remaining water until soft and pulpy. Add the red fruit puree then the warmed sugar and stir until dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil vigorously until set. Pour into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Apple and Blackcurrant Jam

2 lb (900g) apples
1 lb (454g) blackcurrants
15 fl oz (425ml) water
3 lb (1350g) sugar

Bring the blackcurrants and water to the boil then simmer whilst you prepare the apples. Peel, core and slice the apples then add them to the pan. Cook until the fruit is soft and pulpy (roughly 40 minutes for the blackcurrants and 20 minutes for the apples). Add the warmed sugar and stir thoroughly until dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil rapidly until set. Ladle into warmed jars and seal.

Brown Sauce

4 lb ( 1815g) apples
1 lb (454g) plums
2 large onions
2 pints (1300ml) water
3 pints (2000 ml) malt vinegar
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 oz (55g) salt
2 lb (900g) light brown sugar

Peel and core the apples and cut into pieces. Halve and remove the stones from the plums and cut into pieces. Peel the onion and finely chop. Put the fruit and vegetables into a preserving pan and pour in the water. Bring to the boil then simmer for 10-20 minutes until the fruit is soft and pulpy. Blend in batches until smooth in a blender then return the puree to the preserving pan. Add all the other ingredients and bring back to the boil then simmer until thick. Remove from the heat and transfer into warmed bottles and seal immediately.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Courgettes for dinner again, dear

This week saw the beginning of October. Whatever you use to determine the beginning of autumn it must now surely be here. And yet it hasn't rained for about 3 weeks and the days have been sunny. The possible frost didn't come, I'm pleased to say so my tender crops continue unharmed, if less vigorous than a month ago.

This week also saw yet more chutney making. Is there no end to my stored supply of courgettes and overgrown marrow courgettes? How many different ways can I use courgette in a chutney? And how many different ways can I serve it up for dinner? When you think that they first started to appear in July you begin to realise that this is the 4th month we have been eating them now. I won't complain. After all, I eat potatoes and carrots for 12 months of the year and never grow tired of them. It is so simple to slice a few and saute them with some garlic, ginger, mushroom and shallots. Yum.

This week was also my eldest daughter's birthday. It is funny how in general people are fond of the month in which their birthday falls. I have to admit it is a bit tricky for me because February can be so miserable but hey, as well as the highlight of my birthday, there is also Valentine's day and pancakes to look forward to as well as snowdrops to promise the arrival of spring. My youngest is born in July and she loves that month and who can blame her with warm, sunny days. She loves strawberries so her birthday tea usually involves strawberries in some way. For my eldest, October holds not only the excitement of her birthday but also the pumpkin harvest and Halloween. She is a huge fan of pumpkins and she much more a baked potato, carrot and apple sort of girl than her soft fruit, green vegetable loving sister. So when it came to making her a birthday cake what else could I do than make it a chocolate and courgette cake? It is her favourite after all and uses another courgette from the store. I simply made up the recipe as for the chocolate and courgette muffins but split the mixture between two sandwich tins. They needed half an hour in the oven and then I cooled them completely before sandwiching them together with chocolate butter icing. Later my daughter decorated her own cake with chocolate chips and sprinkles.

On the same day as her birthday, my daughters' school held a vegetable lantern competition. The only rule was that it could be anything other than a pumpkin. As the topic at school for my eldest this half term is dinosaurs we decided to turn a spiky old cucumber into a T-rex head. For my more girlie youngest daughter we hollowed out a marrow then used pastry cutters to push out heart and flower shapes. I have to say I was pleased both with the simplicity and effectiveness of this technique. I was also rather impressed by the creativity shown by all the entrants - very inventive and a huge range of fruit and veg were used. We didn't win but at least that was one less marrow to make into chutney!