Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Christmas food - desserts

I warn you now - this is going to be a long post as it'll contain my Christmas dessert recipes. I hope you enjoy the recipes and will perhaps make them either sometime soon or next year but I shall certainly be checking back to this post next year instead of scratching my head and wondering where the recipe is for this and that!

The other day I was reading a magazine article where a woman had asked her children what the best bit about Christmas was and she was somewhat disappointed that the only response she could get was "presents". As my two were sat with me at the time I tried the same question on them and sure enough my youngest replied, "presents!". My eldest said that she liked present too but seeing the family was good too. Ahh... what a good girl - just like a model pupil who knows what the correct answer should be. But then she asked me what I thought was the best part about Christmas and after a brief thought I decided it was the food.

That is not to say that I'm a greedy-guts but I really enjoy planning, organising and cooking the food over the Christmas period. In a way, Christmas is like the grand final of some competition - a chance to showcase all the best bits. And it is a chance to cook indulgent food that would be simply over the top on a Wednesday evening sometime in March.

I am known for my organisational skills but even so I'm not generally the sort of person who starts buying Christmas presents in August. However, I do start organising Christmas food during the summer. Not because I'm super-efficient but because I like to preserve food from the allotment ready to bring out at Christmas - chutneys for hampers and cold meat leftovers, mincemeat for pies and cherries in brandy for...

Well, to be honest I was never quite sure what to do with the cherries in brandy. Yes, they are great with ice-cream... or straight out of the jar... But then I came across a recipe for Black Forest trifle that I modified for our Boxing Day dessert.

Black Forest Trifle (serves 4-6)

250ml ready-made custard
50g plain chocolate
2 slices of chocolate or marble sponge cake
385g jar of cherries in brandy (or cherries in kirsch)
150ml double cream
100ml creme fraiche
1 dessert spoon of icing sugar
A little extra chocolate for grating
A few fresh or glace cherries

Put the custard into a pan with the chocolate and heat gentle until the chocolate is melted then stir thoroughly. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Place the slices of cake into the bottom of a suitable dish. Drain the cherries from the jar, reserving the liquid. Cut each cherry in half and arrange them over the cake. Spoon 2-3 tablespoons of the reserved liquid over the cake until it is moist. Spoon the custard on top and refrigerate until ready to serve. When ready to serve, mix together the cream and creme fraiche and whip until thick. Spoon over the trifle then grate over a little more chocolate and place fresh or glace cherries on top.

As usual, I had made plum & orange mincemeat, apple & cider mincemeat and figgy pear mincemeat during the summer which I had sold at craft fayres. They had sold well but I had a few jars leftover. So I made two batches of mince pies this year - the first for Steve to take into work and the second for us to enjoy at home. My eldest said that she really wanted to leave a homemade pie out for Father Christmas so he could taste one - which was a nice thought. Anyway, just as I was wondering what to do with the rest of the mincemeat I came across a recipe for making Christmas cake using mincemeat. This is not a new concept to me as I have made fruitcake from my apple and cider mincemeat before but it was a new recipe and one that seemed suitable for using my figgy pear mincemeat instead.

Mincemeat Christmas Cake

150g light muscovado sugar
150g softened butter
3 eggs
200g self-raising flour
450g figgy pear mincemeat
100g dried cranberries
50g glace cherries

Preheat oven to 170°C, gas 3 and line a cake tin. Cream together the sugar and butter then add the eggs. Sift the flour and stir in. Add the mincemeat and fruit and stir well. Spoon into the cake tin and bake for 2 hours or until the middle feel springy. Cool in the tin for 30 minutes then turn out onto a wire rack.

Having made sure my vegan step daughter was provided for with her walnut and mushroom rolls and her vegan chocolate log, I decided this year I would try making normal chocolate yule log. I don't usually get the opportunity to do this because when my mother-in-law comes to stay she brings masses of food with her - sausage rolls, pork pies, ham, cheese, bread, cereal, tea-bags, biscuits, cakes, mince pies, bacon, butter, stuffing, pigs in blankets, chocolate log... This year she got snowed in and wasn't able to get her usual amount of shopping so came without her yule log so there was a vacancy that needed filling. It is a fairly complicated thing to do but satisfying when you get it right.

Chocolate Yule Log

5 eggs
140g muscovado sugar
100g self-raising flour
25g cocoa powder

200g soften butter
200g icing sugar
200g dark chocolate

Heat oven to 190°C, gas 5 and grease and line a swiss roll tin. Separate the eggs into two mixing bowls. To the egg yolks add 2 tablespoons water and the muscovado sugar. Use an electric whisk to beat the mixture for about 5 minutes until pale and the blades leave a trail when lifted. Sift the flour and cocoa into this mix and fold in lightly. Clean the whisk and beat the egg whites until stiff then fold these into the chocolate mix in three batches. Pour this into the tin and level out. Bake for 10-12 minutes until the cake is springy to the touch. Turn out onto a greased piece of baking paper and straight away roll the cake up with the paper into a swiss roll shape. Leave it rolled up to cool completely. Next make the butter icing. Melt the chocolate then mix it together with the sugar and butter until smooth. When the cake is cool, carefully unfold it then spread the butter icing onto it and roll it up without the paper this time. Spread more butter icing over the outside of the cake and draw "bark" texture into it.

So that's dessert sorted... what about the main course...?

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Frozen food - but not in a good way!

For the past two or three years we have stored our allotment crops for long term storage on shelves under a car port shelter that Steve erected in our garden. The flat-packed, self-assembly car port kit just happened to fit neatly between the conservatory and our neighbour's outer wall. Not necessary the most attractive outbuilding but certainly very practical - a large mostly weatherproof storage area for garden toys, bikes and produce. In the corner we have a tall cupboard and high up on the wall are shelves where we put boxes of onions, shallots, garlic and apples and bags of potatoes. Ideal really as it is cool and dry yet warmed enough by the adjacent walls to be frost-free.

Or so it was until this week... with nighttime temperatures getting down to -13°C on Saturday, even the potatoes inside the cupboard and double-wrapped in hessian sacks froze solid. So that's that, suddenly no more potatoes, apples or onions in storage.

Fortunately, I happen to have a bag of potatoes in the fridge which was just enough for Sunday's roast dinner but not quite enough for Monday's. Instead, I decided to use the last of these potatoes with some parsnips and a slightly frozen shallot to make potato and parsnip rostis. These turned out to be quite tasty and probably something I shall make on another occasion when it isn't quite such a necessity.

Potato & Parsnip Rostis

Some potatoes
Half the weight in parsnips
1 small onion or shallot
Salt and pepper to taste
A little oil for frying

Place a clean t-towel into a bowl. Peel the potatoes and grate them into the t-towel. Do the same with the parsnips. Peel and finely chop the onions and add to the bowl. Season well then gather the t-towel up around the mixture. Squeeze the t-towel hard to remove the water. Open up the t-towel and scoop out the ingredients in handfuls, squashing them together between your hands. Heat the oil in a pan and fry the rostis gently for 15 minutes in total, turning occasionally.

Later in the week I used a lightly frozen apple in a pork casserole. I imagine that whilst the weather remains bitterly cold I shall be able to use the onions and apples in certain recipes straight from their slightly frozen state but at some point I will have to empty all the boxes and the bags of potatoes into the compost bin before they turn to rotting mush. It is a little disappointing but at least we don't depend on this food for our survival. I now have 4 bags of supermarket potatoes safely stored in our cool front hall so at least we'll have spuds with our Christmas dinner and maybe next year we'll learn our lessons and rethink our storage solution!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Making hampers for Christmas

From the first year that I started making jams and chutneys I made hampers for friends and family for Christmas. Back then my preserves were bottled in a variety of reused jars and the labels were handwritten but they were still warmly received. This year I have made up 5 hampers for various purposes and I have to admit I think they look great!

I was leafing through a Freecycled copy of Olive magazine from December 2007 the other day and there was a small section on food gifts not to buy for Christmas. This included a wicker hamper of food. What?! But on further reading I understood what they meant. They said that by the time you take the basket etc. into account the food inside it is worth very little. So, all the more reason for making your own hamper. It's probably a bit late to sort out a hamper now if you haven't already been planning one but here is some of my advice should you like to try it next year.

Start first with the contents of the hamper. If this is going to be homemade jams and chutneys then you'll probably be busy making these in the summer and the autumn. If you are stuck for recipes then try getting yourself a copy of my preserves book. You may want to start saving jars from the beginning of the year so that you have plenty to hand. Alternatively, you can buy jars from ironmongers, John Lewis, supermarkets (seasonal), www.lakeland.co.uk or from small holders suppliers such as Ascott or bee keepers supplies such as Thornes. Once you have bottled your preserves, you will need to label them. You can buy blank labels with decorative borders from the same suppliers as the bottles. For a more professional look, I design and print bespoke labels for jams, chutneys or honey.

The next thing you need to source are the baskets for putting the preserves into. A useful alternative are jute gift bags which you can buy online from companies such as the natural bag company or islepac.co.uk. These are handy because you just need to pop the jars inside and the job is done.

You can source baskets from many different places. I often buy mine from ebay and my last lot my mum bought for me whilst she was in a French hypermarket. The only thing I would say is think about buying baskets in the summer and autumn because the closer you get to Christmas the higher the demand for them so the more expensive and harder to get they are. If you are thinking of posting your hamper then consider forgoing the basket altogether as it increases the weight of the parcel quite considerably without really adding value to the gift.

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

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

Hampers can look so attractive at this point that you may not wish to wrap it further in wrapping paper. If you do decide to wrap it so that the contents are hidden then consider wrapping it in a new t-towel. This can look fantastic as well as adding the t-towel as an additional gift. Use a few pins to keep the ends tucked in neatly then hold in place with ribbon.

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

Saturday, 18 December 2010

A week to go - serious preparation for Christmas!

When was the last time you cleaned your fridge? I don't know for sure how long ago I cleaned mine... thorough, deep cleaned that is. It's been a few months I think. Stupid really that we allow ourselves to store food inside a "cupboard" that we clean so infrequently. I wouldn't dream of putting the plates down ready to dish up dinner on a messy work surface yet I put food onto a fridge shelf that I haven't wiped clean for a few days. With the last Christmas food shop planned for a few days time, I decided today would be a good day to tackle the fridge - whilst it was still relatively empty and so that I would have lots of space for my Christmas goodies.

My whole houses needs a good tidy actually. With the hectic rush of the last couple of weeks things have really got cluttered. There are half-finished hampers on the kitchen side, part-done stockings on the living room carpet, toys that need to be put back in their boxes, magazines that need recycling, ironing that needs doing... Mother-in-law is coming in a few days and Santa a couple of days after that so we really need to tidy up and clear some space. But I hate tidying.

It seems to me that there are two main ways to tidy up. There is the proper, sorting out as you go and putting things in their proper place type tidying. And then there is the shove everything in a cupboard and make things look neat on the outside type of tidying. Both have their place but I much prefer the proper type of tidying as it is the only solution in the long term. In our house, I usually start with the proper tidying but then after a few days when I am pooped and fed-up I turn a blind eye to Steve finishing off the last of the tidying with the shoving it in a cupboard method.

Proper tidying up is deathly time consuming and usually results in an intermediate state that is messier than when you started. I also find that doing it solidly for days at a time makes me thoroughly miserable and grumpy. I have decided this time to tidy up in small bursts, interspersed with nice activities that I want to do. So this morning I started by making a batch of mince pies but whilst the pastry was chilling for half and hour I cleaned the oven. Then at lunch time I lazily flicked through food magazines, cutting out recipes I wanted to keep so that I could stick the remaining pages in the recycling. Then I cleared Friday's Christmas shopping off the work surface by wrapping it and putting the parcels into the incomplete stockings. And then I tackled the fridge.

The best way to go about this is to remove everything from the top shelf then remove the shelf from the fridge and clean it in soapy water. Then clean the sides of the fridge that surround that shelf, ideally with an antibacterial spray. I usually wipe the shelf and the fridge sides dry with kitchen towel too before putting the shelf back. Then, put the food back onto the shelf, throwing away anything that is out of date or otherwise spoiled. Personally I hate food waste but sometimes you just have to admit defeat and throw it away! Then continue down the fridge, a shelf at a time, until every shelf is clean, the whole inside of the fridge is cleaned and all the old food is in the bin. Next tackle the door, removing anything that can be detached to clean. Don't forget to wipe clean the inside of the door, the edges of the door and the bits in between the folds of the rubber seal. Finally, clean the outside of the fridge - this is a lot easier to do and maintain if you don't have lots of fridge magnets stuck all over it!

Now that your fridge is nice and clean and all your old food has gone you are far less likely to give yourself or your guests food poisoning over the Christmas period. However, it is important that when you stack your food with Christmas food you do so in a way that minimises the risk of contamination. Try to avoid pushing food to the back of the fridge as fridges work best when air can flow down the back - you know you have done something wrong if food starts to freeze. Always store food in sealed containers or wrapped in clingfilm, foil or bags. Keep cooked food away from raw food and place raw foods towards the bottom of the fridge so that if they drip they will not drip onto cooked foods. Don't forget to wipe the shelf space clean after removing raw food from the fridge. Never place warm food in the fridge as it will cause the fridge to heat up and cause condensation which can drip onto foods, causing contamination. You may like to check that your fridge is at the correct temperate too which is ideally 4 °C but certainly not over that.

With that done, stand back and admire your gleaming fridge! Then go and make a shopping list of all the things you thought about whilst you were doing it. It is rare thing to precisely know the entire contents of your fridge so make the most of it!

Tomorrow the cleaning and tidying will continue... although I expect I shall spare some time to go and play in the snow with my girls and maybe finishing putting those hampers together.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Priceless inheritance

Last week whilst making fudge, I found myself thinking about homemade honeycomb. Fudge... honeycomb... they somehow seem to go together. So I thought, maybe I should find a recipe and give it a go. Actually, I have at least one memory of making honeycomb before; with my grandma and she was definitely the one in charge on that occasion as I think I was probably about 12 at the time. But having dredged up that memory it struck me that rather than googling for a recipe I decided to pull my grandma's recipe book out of the cupboard and see if I could find that very same recipe.

When my grandma had died 17 years ago I had inherited her recipe books. Back then I liked cooking just enough to appreciate these books and to take them into my care. I'm glad I did - they seem to have become more valuable to me with time as I have grown to appreciate them even more. Mostly, the recipe books are ancient published books, including 2 volumes of Delia recipe books from the early 1970s when "The Delia Effect" was slightly less impressive than it is these days. But amongst them is my grandma's handwritten recipe book. This she started as a school exercise book back in her cooking classes, aged about 14. The handwriting was neat and the layout followed strict instructions. The first page has been marked by a now long-dead teacher in red pencil and dated 15/10/1936.

Then, about half way through the book, the now adult version of my grandma continues adding recipes to her old school book but now in her loose, untidy handwriting with little attention to the layout. These are her own recipes for her own use, not to be approved and marked by a teacher. I just love to see her handwriting and the occasional comments such as "lovely" next to a recipe cutting from a magazine pasted onto a page.

And there on page 68 I find the recipe for honeycomb - that very one from my memory. As is so often the case, the recipe is somewhat on the vague side but clear enough for me so I decide to give it a go. It all seems very straight forward but my friends warn me that making honeycomb can be tricky and can result in failures. Nonetheless, with my newfound fudge expertise, I get on with it, following my grandma's written instructions (although wishing she were there to guide me through it as I go).

But then disaster... it turned brown and I took it off the heat but whilst I was fiddling around measuring bicarbonate of soda the caramel continued to cook and as I stirred in the bicarb I could see that it had burnt. Yuk! On cooling it tasted like burnt coffee beans! Ho hum... we learn from our mistakes so I tried again, this time removing it from the heat at an earlier stage, adding the bicarb in a rush and getting it out of the pan as quickly as I could. Aha! Second time lucky!

When it was cooled, we broke it into bits, melted some chocolate and dipped each piece into it. Later, when the chocolate had set we wrapped a few pieces individually in cellophane, doing the same with the pieces of fudge we had made. Then my daughters filled old coffee jars with our homemade sweets and we designs some labels on the computer. Job done, 4 beautiful Christmas gifts for 4 very lucky teachers.

I have to admit that I'm pleased with the result. The jars of sweets look fantastic and the sweets inside taste great too. I am also pleased that I managed to make honeycomb and that I had done so from my grandma's book. My eldest spotted the date in the recipe books and said "Wow, you should take that to the Antiques Roadshow!" I smile, looking at the tatty, heavily stained book and wonder what value an antiques expert would place on it. Well, to me, it is priceless!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Homegrown sweets

I'm busy next weekend at a couple of craft fayres so I decided this weekend I needed to make my annual batches of fudge, in preparation for providing my girls' teachers with Christmas presents before the end of term. Last year I finally cracked the technique and conquered fudge-making so this year I dug out the same 3 recipes I had before. As it happens, on the same page of my recipe clippings scrapbook there was a recipe for blackcurrant pastilles that I'd intended to make last year. I stared at it again and wondered why I hadn't done it last year... probably something to do with it requiring liquid pectin. I don't have any in my cupboard this year either... do you?

What I did have in my cupboard (maybe you don't) was a pack of gelatine and a pack of vege-gel. So I dug out my recipe for Turkish Delight and wondered whether I could adapt that recipe to make blackcurrant jellies instead. So I went to my freezer and pulled out a bag that happened to contain 310g of frozen blackcurrants. These I emptied into a pan with a little bit of water. I cooked these for about 10 minutes until they were breaking up then forced them through a sieve to squeeze out their juice.

Next I scattered a sachet of gelatine over a couple of tablespoons of water and set it aside whilst heated 135ml of water with 225g granulated sugar. Once the sugar was dissolved I added the gelatine and stirred until that was melted. Then I brought the mixture to the boil and stirred it on a simmer for about 15 minutes until it was thick. When I removed it from the heat I realised that I couldn't substitute the usual tablespoon of rose water (for Turkish Delight) with the juice from the blackcurrants without messing up the liquid content and probably stopping the whole thing from setting properly. So instead, I sprinkled a sachet of vege-gel over some of the blackcurrant juice before adding that and the rest of the blackcurrant juice to the gelatine mix. I brought the whole thing back to the boil briefly before pouring it into a plastic food box to cool. It didn't immediately set - like vege-gel does - so I was a bit nervous about the whole thing.

When it was cool enough, I put it into the fridge and left it alone overnight. I was pleased to see the next day that it had set so I cut it into little cubes and rolled each one in granulated sugar to finish the sweets off. I fed one to each of my children and to Steve and they all were impressed by the strong blackcurrant flavour and I'm pleased to say that I had got the sweetness right too. What I wasn't sure about was what would happen if I left them out of the fridge - would they stay set or melt back into a pool of liquid. Not feeling too confident, I put them into a container in the fridge and left one out to see what would happen.

By tea time the lone jelly was still a jelly! I shall now leave it there and see if anything else horrible happens to it at room temperature. In the meantime, I think I may just purchase some liquid pectin - if it hasn't been removed from the supermarket shelves to make way for Christmas cake and mincemeat! And I think I may experiment with raspberry and orange flavours.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Walking with the seasons

As you know I'm always banging on about the joys of eating with the seasons. It struck me this week that is as equally important to get outside and notice the seasons too. Every day I cycle the school run. Being in Milton Keynes we're not exactly in a rural setting but there is plenty of manciple planting, rows of trees in every street and a park on the way - just enough to get a sense of the changing seasons. Back at the beginning of the school year we were cycling without coats in warm sunshine. Then we cycled in thin coats through falling leaves, over conkers and crab apples. Last week we cycled through frosty mornings with bright sunshine breaking through mist in thick coats, hats and gloves. Today I abandoned the bikes and we walked through snow in ski-suits and fluffy boots.

I like the way that my girls have learnt to appreciate what they see each morning. The bright yellows and reds of the autumn leaves, the almost spiritual nature of sunshine through mist. They comment on it with things such as "Mummy, did you notice how beautiful that looked this morning?" I haven't had to teach them to appreciate it, merely provide them with an opportunity to.

I once worked with a man who had recently moved from Nigeria. He was truly amazed by the beauty of the autumn changes and slightly unnerved by shortening of the days. When snow finally fell he wouldn't let his children outside in case they were hurt by the coldness of it. He did, of course, eventually relent under their pressure and got to experience the fun. He made me think again about the beauty and wonder of the changing seasons and not to take them for granted. Last night as I picked my handbag up I accidentally tipped it upsidedown and everything fell out, including an odd combination of "essentials" such as lip balm and factor 50 sunblock. Isn't it amazing that 3 months ago I was stood in the school field, dabbing sunblock onto my children as they ran around for sports day and today I am applying lip balm to protect their lips from freezing temperatures. The best thing is, by and large, we just accept it and cope with it, getting out the appropriate clothes and footwear and getting on with the day.

The only disappointing thing is that some people don't fully embrace it, instead retreating to their cars for the school run for every little excuse. It's raining, it's windy, it's frosty, it's snowing... yes, horray! It is, don't retreat into your expensive metal motorised umbrellas, stick on the appropriate coat and footwear and go out and see how beautiful it is!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

How to sell preserves to the public

I didn't think I'd made that many jams and chutneys this year. That was, until I came to label them all! I spent the best part of last Saturday printing labels and sticking them onto my jars and then I had to do a few of the ones I'd missed on Tuesday evening.

It's funny really that the bulk of my business these days is printing personalised stickers for people because the only reason that happened is because I figured out how to print labels for my jars. Having got over the complexities of printing on circular labels for the lids, I found that there was a market for this sort of thing from people who didn't have the time, inclination or knowledge to figure out how to do it themselves. And from jam labels thing expanded to a all sorts of circular stickers for all sorts of purposes.

When I first started making labels for my jams and chutneys they were very basic and contained little more than "Hazel's Homegrown" and the name of the preserve in the jar (often hand written). This was fine for making sure I knew what I had in my food cupboard or for giving them away as Christmas presents to my family. But when it comes to selling to the public, not only does the attractiveness and professional look of a label help to sell the preserve, but it has to contain, by law, certain information. This is the case whether you are selling at a church coffee morning or a farmers market. Even so, the required information is not too arduous to sort out: the name of the preserve and the weight. It is also advisable to include a list of ingredients in descending order, allergens and a best before date. And that's it - as long as you are standing there next to your preserves when they are being sold, ready and willing to answer any questions the customer may have. This is called direct selling. If you pass on your stuff to a third party to sell then this is called indirect selling and the labeling information becomes a bit more complicated. If this is something that you need to know I suggest you see my trading standard information page and contact your local trading standard.

The other thing people seem not to realise is that if you are selling to the public - yes, even at that church coffee morning - then you need to be registered with environmental health. This isn't as terrifying or tricky as you might imagine and well worth sorting out if you want to go beyond giving your preserves away to friends and family. Have a look at my environmental health page for more information.

On Wednesday this week I went along to a Pre-Christmas shopping evening at my daughter's school to sell my preserves and recipe books. Earlier that morning I had finished labeling the last of my jars, then loaded them into 3 sturdy, stackable lidded plastic boxes. I couldn't possibly shift all of my stock in one go so I had to select 3 or 4 jars of each flavour. Along with these boxes I have a 4th box that I think of as my "shop box". This contains vinyl table clothes to cover the table when I get there, business cards for the enquiring public, paper carrier bags (pre-labelled with my shop details), miniature blackboard price tags, and a pen (I always need a pen!). Then there is a basket full of jute gift bags, my fantastic ex-Usborne Book display stand and finally my folding trundle trolley for transporting the stuff from my car to the table when I arrive at the venue. The very last thing to be loaded into my car is always my money box which I always keep stocked with a £25 float because that is one less thing to have to organise on the day.

I turned up half an hour before the event was supposed to start, unloaded my car, moved the car from the unloading position to a parking space, spread the table clothes onto the table and unpacked the preserves onto the table. Then I erected the book stand to display my recipe books and stickers. Finally, I made sure my price labels were somewhere nice and visible.

And then the customers arrive. Some of them glance briefly at my stall and move onto the next. Some say something like, "Oh, we have jam at home," and keep on walking. Others come up all excited and get even more excited when the see the lovely selection of jams on offer. "Oh," the say, "it's so hard to choose!". Then there are others who stop and chat and ask questions such as, "do you make all these yourself?" "Yes," I reply, "from the fruit and vegetables I grow." They look impressed. And so they should...

Let's review...

Firstly, I grow the fruit and vegetables, then I hand make them into jams and chutneys with all natural ingredients using skills that not everyone has. Then I make and print all my own labels and stick them on by hand. I have been to the bother of being checked by environmental health and trading standards. And I have got off my bum for the event, packed boxes, heaved them into the car, moved them from the car and sorted them out into an attractive display. And now all that is there for the customer to buy for a price that doesn't really do it justice.

So thank you to all those people who have stopped long enough to appreciate even a little of the work that has gone into it, or even just realised when they eat it that it tastes better than the stuff you buy from the supermarket. And pah! to anyone who sticks their nose in the air and whips pass my stall saying, "Oh we have jams at home." Well, so you might, but you won't have Hazel's Homegrown jam at home and that's something you're missing out on!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Handheld food

This weekend was one for celebrating with fireworks and bonfires what with Guy Faulkes night and Diwali. And these celebrations often require us to stand around outside in cold weather, celebrating with food that is both warming and simple to eat in the hand. This is not always easy to achieve.

We started our celebrations on Friday night when my parents came over with a couple of boxes of fireworks. This has become a bit of an annual tradition for us, with all of us, bar Steve, sitting in the relative comfort and safety of our conservatory whilst Steve sets off the fireworks close to the windows. As such, we don't get as cold as we otherwise might and the need for handheld convenience food is less. Nonetheless, there does seem to be the need for a certain sort of food on fireworks night. Personally I would have opted for some sort of tasty sausage in a finger roll with ketchup, mustard and onions but the girls had already had a fireworks night special hot lunch at school that day which consisted of a sausage in a bun with potato wedges.

Instead, I went for the 2nd best option of a burger in a bun, using quarter pounder Aberdeen Angus Waitrose beefburgers. These I grilled then when they were ready, I toasted the sesame seed buns and assembled the base with the burger, smeared on some Dijon mustard, added a spodge of ketchup and a slice of cheese and put them back under the grill for a minute to melt the cheese before adding the top half of the bun. In the meantime, I made some chips and fried some onions and mushrooms together and served the whole lot together with a dollop of homemade red coleslaw.

Red coleslaw

1/4 red cabbage
1 raw beetroot
A small red onion
Salt & pepper
3 tablespoons mayonnaise

Finely chop the red cabbage. Grate in the beetroot then finely chop the onion and add that too. Season to taste then dollop in the mayonnaise and stir until well combined. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

The meal was well received and for afters I handed out homemade apple puffs. These I made as a modification on my Eccles cake recipe - just the same technique but with a cooked apple & cinnamon filling. The great thing about these is you get a lovely consistent mouthful of apple and pastry with every bite... and you can eat them in your hand with no need for custard or cream.

Apple puffs

2 apples
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 block of ready-made puff pastry
Demerara sugar

Preheat oven to 220°C, gas 8 and grease a baking tray. Peel and core the apples and cut into pieces. Place the apples and cinnamon in a pan with just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan then cook gently for 10-20 minutes until the apples are fluffy. Set aside to cool. On a floured surface roll out the pastry. Use a large biscuit cutter (about 10cm in diameter) to cut out circles in the pastry. Place a heaped teaspoon of apple filling into the centre of each pastry circle then bundle to pastry up over the filling. Turn the pastry bundle over and flatten with a oval to make a thick biscuit of pastry with the fruity filling just showing through. Slash the biscuit 3 times with a sharp knife then brush with beaten egg and scatter with Demerara sugar. Gather up the pastry trimmings and repeat until all the pastry is used up. Place the pastries on the baking tray and cook for about 20 minutes until golden brown. Alternatively, place the pastries on a tray and freeze raw. Can be cooked from frozen for about 25 minutes.

After dinner Steve braved the rain and went into the garden to light fireworks whilst the rest of us watched from indoors. Soon, however, it became clear that we would have to abandon the event as the fireworks were proving difficult to light and Steve was feeling cold and wet. So, despite having two boxes of fireworks left, my parents went home and we got the girls to bed.

I do feel that with a burger bun there is the need for only a few chips to go with it because the whole thing is quite filling. Otherwise I think I might have been tempted to serve it with jacket potatoes - another fireworks night classic. Recently I discovered that Charlotte potatoes make the best jacket potatoes ever. This was a surprise as I had always thought of Charlottes as waxy potatoes, perfect for boiling and using in salads. But, inevitably when you grow your own potatoes you never quite manage to dig them all up at the right time and we ended up growing some whopping Charlottes. They looked like baking potatoes so... I baked them! And you know what, they produced the most amazing crispy skin I have ever experienced on a jacket potato. So delicious were they that my fussy eldest daughter even ate the skin and whats more declared it her new favourite way to cook potatoes and nagged and nagged her father to go out and dig some more up. This he did so we had jacket potatoes for our second fireworks night on Saturday.

Whatever variety of potato you manage to get hold of the best way to bake one is to preheat the oven to 200°C. Wash and dry the potatoes then drizzle over some sunflower oil and add a sprinkle of salt then rub it in with your hands. Microwave the potatoes for about 5 minutes then place them in the oven for at least an hour. Remove them from the oven then slice open and serve with your favourite topping.

Nicely full of hot potato it was time to light the remaining fireworks. What a contrast in the weather - a cold, clear and calm night. Steve had taken the precaution of finding the weed wand in the shed - a long handled device that shoots flames out the bottom. This proved a most excellent firework lighting tool. Within minutes the fireworks were over so we wriggled into our thick coats and went outside to light 5 paper Chinese sky lanterns. As each one went up we made a wish and watched them until they were out of sight. Beautiful. Let's hope our wishes come true!

Saturday, 6 November 2010


I came across the term "Samhain" (pronounced Sa:wain) for the first time last week. It is apparently an old Gaelic harvest festival, held between 31st October and 1st November to mark the end of the harvest and the change from the lighter half of the year to the darker half of the year. Mixed into this festival is stuff about the otherworld and the dead being able to come back as well as the use of bonfires as a cleansing ritual. It seems to me to somehow encompass everything apt for this time of year including harvest, Halloween, bonfire night and the clocks changing. No doubt its ancient existence had a great deal to do with the development of Halloween and Guy Faulkes night at this time of year.

I really felt the Samhain mood and change from the one part of the year to another this morning when I decided to embrace the crisp sunny day and get outside. Somehow in the past week the cherry and plum trees in our garden seemed to have dumped all their leaves onto the ground and the lawn was in danger of dying due to lack of light. So I started by racking up the leaves and having a general tidy up in the garden. This included checking the stored boxes of vegetables on the shed shelves. A few of the marrows were going mouldy so I added those to the pile of stuff for the compost heap. Amazingly the cucumbers weren't going mouldy but they had ripened to yellow and I know that when they go like that they taste awful so I cleared them out too. It was slightly sad to trot the last of the summer vegetables back to the allotment in order to dump them into the compost.

I had known earlier in the week that we were onto our last courgette for the year, that the French beans were finished and we were down to the last of broccoli. I briefly contemplated buying some vegetables from the supermarket this week but in the end I figured we may as well eat up the head of red cabbage, the courgette and some frozen peas first. But as I chucked the mouldy marrows into the compost I looked around and realised there was a fair bit to harvest. Not the summer vegetables we had been enjoying but the winter staples: carrots, cabbage, leeks and a like.

Before getting stuck in to the harvesting, I continued the tidying up whilst I was still in the mood. The frosts had taken their toll on the pumpkin, marrow, cucumber and tomato plants and these stood dead and soggy on the plot. So I cleared these first then chopped down the asparagus ferns in order to prevent the crowns being damaged by the ferns blowing about in the winter winds. I confess that the long dead and dried pea plants were still in their bed so I got on and cleared these too, pulling out the twiggy pea sticks as I went. Finally, I dismantled the cane supports for the French bean plants and removed the dead plants from around the canes. The sound of the canes clattering together as I dropped them on the ground reminded me of the sounds you hear when a market or fete is packing up... it is a definite end of something sound.

By this point it was lunchtime so I headed home. The girls had stayed at home all morning with Steve but during my tidy up I had had an idea that I thought might be appealing enough to get the girls outside. I was proved right as both girls were very keen to return to the plot after lunch to build a hedgehog hibernation house. I told them they could use the old pea sticks as well as the dead dried peas plants to build the structure. Then I suggested that they gather leaves and use bits of asparagus ferns to form the roof. Once they had done this they asked me about the eating habits of the hedgehog so that they could provide tempting treats to try to entice a hedgehog inside. Having explained that hedgehogs are omnivores, the girls collected a few dropped apples and damsons to scatter outside the entrance and hid grubs and worms inside. I admit that my main aim had been to encourage them to get outside and be active but by the time they had finished I really thought that a hedgehog could well decide to take up residence.

In the meantime I had planted the garlic, ready to overwinter and Steve had arrived to dig up the potatoes. Now it was time to harvest some fresh vegetables. By the time we headed home as it was getting dark we had two huge bagfuls of potatoes, some carrots, beetroot, leeks, calebrese, romanesco cauliflower, red cabbage, and some haricot beans. How wrong I had been to think we didn't have any vegetables left! It was just a matter a shifting with the seasons, to acknowledge the end of summer and to start harvesting the winter crops. It was time for Samhain.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The perfect combination

You may well think that the perfect flavour combination at this time of year is blackberry and apple but you'd be wrong... that is so last month! Surely right now it has to be pear and vanilla.

I'm not really sure when I first tried the pear and vanilla combination but it is a true winner. I have a preserves recipe book in my cupboard with a cover image that is poached pears in a kilner jar with a pod of vanilla in with it. This very well may have been the inspiration for me first trying this combination. When my eldest was a baby and I was making baby food for the weaning process I used to steam some pears with a bit of a vanilla pod then blend it and thicken it with baby rice and it was her all time favourite food. If you are in the process of weaning a baby right now have a look at my weaning guide All Gone for more recipes for babies. But for me weaning is well and truly over but I still hanker after ways of using this beautiful combination of flavours.

A few years ago when my mum brought round a basket full of pears from her tree I tried making some of them into pear jam. For those of you who don't know, pears are a low pectin fruit so make a jam that is hard to set. It's funny really when you think about it because they are so closely related to apples which are so full of pectin it is hard not to set the jam too firmly. Some people resort to using jam sugar on such occasions because it contains added pectin but I have always thought that is a bit of a cheat and I'm always up for a challenge. So I hunted the internet and came across a recipe for pear and lemon jam, the lemon adding pectin as well as helping to extract pectin from the pears. I tried this and achieved a fairly runny jam and didn't feel particularly satisfied with the result. Pear and lemon... who thought that was a good combo?

So several years later, and now with my own pear trees bearing fruit, I have returned to the issue of making a satisfactory pear jam. One thing I have learnt in the meantime is how to make my own pectin. This can be done quite simply by boiling up apple peelings and cores in some water for about half and hour or so then draining off the liquid. I do this usually when making apple & ginger jam or some sort of apple chutney. The liquid that is created is the apple pectin. You can test the quality of your pectin if you choose by dropping a small amount of it into methylated spirits or rubbing alcohol. If you have good quality pectin the stuff you have dropped in should form a ball. I don't usually bother with this bit as it seems to work out well every time. Instead, I just pour the liquid into an ice-cube tray and freeze it until required.

Now armed with a tray full of homemade pectin, I decided to embark upon the pear jam quest once again but this time with added vanilla. I confess, I still used the juice of a lemon in with the cooking pears to try to extract as much pectin from the pears as possible but I did not want this to be the dominating flavour. Instead, I added half a vanilla pod to the pears whilst they were cooking and for added flavour, half the sugar I used was vanilla sugar. If you are mad enough you can buy vanilla sugar from the supermarket for some ridiculously expensive price. On the other hand, with a little bit of organisation you can make your own: Put a load of granulated sugar in the largest jar you can find, pausing briefly in the pouring process to poke in a vanilla pod. That's it! Even after a few days the flavour of vanilla has begun to permeate the sugar but I always have a jar of vanilla sugar in my cupboard and simply replace the sugar and vanilla pod each time I use the sugar up so I always have some with a good strong flavour.

So this time, with added apple pectin I managed to attain the set of a runny honey! It's never going to set like blackcurrant jam but at least it won't run off your toast. With a flavour reminiscent of fairy cakes, I'm thinking this jam is also going to be lovely in cake recipes and for glazing under icing etc.

Pear & Vanilla Jam

Ingredients (makes 3 to 4 jars)
3 lb (1400 g) pears
16½ fl oz (450 ml) water
1/2 vanilla pod
Juice of 1 lemon
3 lb 6 oz (1570 g) sugar (half of this can be vanilla sugar)
10 fl oz (300ml) apple pectin

Peel, cut the pears into pieces and core. Place in a preserving pan with the water, lemon juice and vanilla pod and bring slowly to the boil. Simmer the pears for about 10 minutes until they are soft and pulpy. In the meantime warm the sugar. Once the fruit is cooked, remove the vanilla pod, cut it length ways and scrap out the tiny seeds and add these to the pears. Discard the remaining bit of the vanilla pod. Add the sugar and apple pectin and stir over a low heat until all the sugar is dissolved. Boil rapidly for 8 to 12 minutes until the setting point in reached. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

How many times have I typed the word vanilla so far? The word vanilla and not once the word ice-cream. How can we consider vanilla without ice-cream?! This is not a new thought for me and back to the time of the basket full off my mum's pears I invented pear and vanilla ice-cream, using the same technique I used for the baby food. So this week I made a batch of pear and vanilla ice-cream too... divine.

Pear & Vanilla Ice-cream (make 1 pint)

3-4 perfectly ripe pears
2 cm length of vanilla pod
2 oz (55 g) icing sugar
4 fl oz (110 ml) milk
5 fl oz (147ml) double cream

Peel, core and chop the pears into pieces. Cut the piece of vanilla pod in half length-ways and scrape the seeds out onto the pieces of pear then add the pod shells to the pears too. Steam the pears and vanilla together for 10 minutes until very soft. Remove the pod shells then blend the pears until totally smooth in a food processor, adding the sugar towards the end of the blending process. Allow the pear puree to cool down then mix the puree with the milk and double cream. Pour into suitable containers and freeze for 2-3 hours. Remove from the freezer and beat then return to the freezer. Repeat over two hours until solid.

Oh, but that's not the end of it.... remember last week when my eldest suggested I wrote a cheesecake recipe book? What could be better that pear and vanilla cheesecake. So yesterday I gave it a go... Baked pear and vanilla cheesecake... yummy! My eldest thinks it tastes strongly of vanilla, my youngest thinks it tastes strongly of pears... both are happy!

Pear & Vanilla Cheesecake

4 oz (110g) crushed digestive biscuits
2 oz (55g) melted butter

4 ripe pears
1/2 vanilla pod
7 oz (200g) soft cheese
3 oz (85g) caster sugar
1 egg
4 fl oz (115ml) whipping cream

To make the base: Crush the biscuits with the end of a rolling pin until finely crushed. Melt the butter and mix it with the biscuit crumbs. Press the mix firmly into the bottom of a flan dish and refrigerate.

To make the filling: Peel, core and chop the pears then place in a steamer with the vanilla pod for about 10 minutes until very soft. Cut the vanilla pod in half length ways and scrape out the seeds and add these to the pears and discard the pod. Place the pears in a blender and blend until smooth then set aside to cool.

Preheat oven to 180 °C, gas mark 4. Cream together the cheese and the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and cream and whisk until thick. Stir in the pear puree then pour the mixture over the base. Bake for 25 minutes the switch off the oven but leave the cheesecake inside with the door shut for another 20 minutes. After that, open the door and leave it to cool for about another 10 minutes before removing from the oven. This process continues to cook the cheesecake gently then stops it cracking as it cools. Refrigerate and serve chilled.

Thursday, 28 October 2010


There I was thinking that this week would be a continuation of the pear saga but instead it turned out to be all about pumpkins and Halloween.

We had a Halloween Treasure Hunt evening planned with friends for Wednesday evening so when the girls started Monday with "I'm bored..." I decided we might as well get the Halloween lanterns carved. My eldest proved last year to be an excellent pumpkin carver so I gave her the honor of carving our single home-grown pumpkin (and to think we grew 19 pumpkins last year!). We had a few monster marrows too so I helped my youngest carve one of these as a Halloween alien head.

An hour later we had a splendid scary alien and a spooky ghost pumpkin. We had also generated a big bowlful of pumpkin flesh. Steve's all time favourite cake just happens to be pumpkin ginger tea bread so half the flesh was destined for a loaf of that... all the tastier for not having it for a year.

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.

The remaining flesh was steamed, ready to make pumpkin pancakes. This has long been a favourite breakfast recipe of my girls and I feel all the more virtuous about feeding them pancakes for breakfast since watching last week's episode of River Cottage Everyday which advocated pancakes for breakfast. They take a bit of effort to make but they can be frozen and reheated from frozen with about 1 minute in the microwave so they are even suitable for a weekday morning breakfast. Better still served with a squirt of cream from a canister!

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
A few sultanas (optional)

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. If you wish, you can scatter a few sultanas into the batter as you cook it. Either serve hot or cool on a wire rack and freeze for use later.

We had a buffet tea planned for dinner after the treasure hunt so I spent Wednesday morning in the kitchen cooking some buffet food such as cocktail sausages and sausage rolls but the great thing about Halloween is the opportunity to get creative and invent spooky food. We made a batch of the chocolate fairy cakes in Halloween themed paper cases then I mixed up some butter icing and dyed it green with a bit of food colouring. The girls then had great fun sticking sweets on top to make monster faces.

Halloween Monster Cakes (Makes 6)

3 oz (85g) self-raising flour
2 oz (55g) butter at room temperature
2 oz (55g) light brown sugar
1/2 oz (15g) cocoa powder
1 large egg
1½ oz (40g) butter
2 oz (55g) icing sugar
A few drops of vanilla extract
Food colouring

Preheat oven to 190°C. Place all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk with an electric whisk for 1 minute. Place a heaped teaspoon of the mixture into petit four cases on a baking tray and bake for 10 to 12 minutes until risen and golden. Cool on a wire rack. Cream together the butter, icing sugar, vanilla and food colouring to make the icing. Spread the icing onto the top of each cake then decorate with sweets to make monster faces.

I also experimented with a mixture of melted marshmallows and rice crispie cereal which I moulded into balls and stuck on cocktail sticks to make "brains on sticks". Not only did this make me chuckle but they tasted great too!

Brains on Sticks

1 oz (25g) butter
2 oz (55g) pink & white marshmallows
3 oz (75g) Rice cereal

Melt the butter in a pan over a low heat. Add the marshmallows and stir continuously until melted. Remove from the heat and add the rice cereal. Stir until well mixed then leave to cool for a few minutes until it can be handled. Whilst still warm, mould into small balls and poke in a cocktail stick. Chill to set before serving.

Then for a few savoury bits I used Halloween cookie cutters to cut out gravestone pieces of cheese and pumpkin sandwiches - or should that be sand-witches? And to garnish the plate, I cut a few fang shaped pieces of cucumber. But the bit the girls loved making most were the "Mummy Mini Pizzas". These proved to be very tasty too.

Mummy Mini Pizzas (makes about 15)

1 pack of pizza base mix
Pizza or pasta tomato sauce
3 "Cheese Strips"

Preheat oven to 200°C. gas 6 and grease a large baking tray. Make up the pizza base according to the pack instructions and roll out the dough. Cut the base into small circles using a large circular biscuit cutter. Spread tomato sauce onto each one. Use the large end of a icing nozzle to cut out circular pieces of ham to make eyes. Use the small end of the icing nozzle to cut out tiny circular pieces of mushroom to make pupils. Break the "Cheese Strips" into its smallest strips and use these to lay across the pizzas for the mummy's bandages. Cook for 10 minutes and serve hot.

I think making the food was almost as much fun as the treasure hunt itself!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Some inspirational ideas

Having had a bit of an apple theme going on recently, my attention has now turned to my pears. Steve popped out to the allotment last Saturday afternoon on a mission to pick some more beans before the frosts arrived so I requested he checked on the pears at the same time. In the end, he came back with a wheelbarrow full of stuff including a couple of enormous marrows, a good deal of broccoli, a few beans and quite an impressive yield of pears. The pears, he informed me, had mostly been on the ground so he had picked all that was left and brought them home. These were the conference pears so apart from the slug damaged ones they should store quite well for a week or two.

Steve stashed most of the pears in a cardboard box in the shed but placed a couple of damaged ones on the draining board. They lurked there through most of Sunday and every time I came to the sink I wondered what I should do with them. I contemplated cutting them up and feeding them to my youngest daughter but to be honest they were so dripping with juice I would have had to have striped her off and sat her in the bath if she was to eat them without making a mess!

Then late Sunday afternoon I was struck with inspiration and decided to add grated pear to an Eccles cake recipe. So there I was rolling out puff pastry with one hand whilst cooking a roast dinner with the other. The kitchen, which often suffers during the production of the Sunday roast, looked devastated by the time I sat down to eat. But looks aren't everything, and as we tucked into our roast turkey the delicious smell of roast dinner was replaced with the equally appealing smell of cooking Eccles cakes.

Just as we finished our main course the Eccles cakes came out of the oven and as they cooled down I asked my daughters if they would like one for afters. My youngest, a huge food fan at the best of times and particularly keen on "afters", agreed readily. In contrast, my eldest, who is naturally suspicious of food and somehow half-expects me to poison her, instead asked me what is in an Eccles cake.
"Eccles," Steve replied, quick as a flash.
She raised her eyebrow and gave him her best "don't be silly, Daddy" expression. Somehow this was lost on my youngest, as later when she saw me spooning the last bit of left over filling into a container she said, "Is that Eccle, Mummy?". So now I have a tub of Eccle in my fridge and it makes me smile every time I see it!

Anyway, the Eccles cakes were delicious. I'm not sure I have ever eaten hot Eccles cakes before but I'm a fan now. Best of all, after cooking 6 on Sunday I froze the remaining 12 and have since cooked 2 more batches this week so we have been eating fresh Eccles cakes all week.

Peary Eccles Cakes (makes 18)

1 oz (25g) butter
9 oz (250g) mixed dried fruit
4 oz (110g) light muscovado sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground all spice
Juice of one small lemon
2 ripe pears
1 block of ready-made puff pastry
Demerara sugar

Preheat oven to 220°C, gas 8 and grease a baking tray. Melt the butter in a pan then stir in the dried fruit, sugar, spices and lemon. Peel the pears and grate them into the fruity mixture and stir well. On a floured surface roll out the pastry. Use a large biscuit cutter (about 10cm in diameter) to cut out circles in the pastry. Place a heaped teaspoon of filling into the centre of each pastry circle then bundle to pastry up over the filling. Turn the pastry bundle over and flatten with a oval to make a thick biscuit of pastry with the fruity filling just showing through. Slash the biscuit 3 times with a sharp knife then brush with beaten egg and scatter with Demerara sugar. Gather up the pastry trimmings and repeat until all the pastry is used up. Place the Eccles cakes on the baking tray and cook for about 20 minutes until golden brown. Alternatively, place the Eccles cakes on a tray and freeze raw. Can be cooked from frozen for about 25 minutes.

Also this week, I turned a few more pears into my lovely Figgy pear mincemeat. This has got to be my favourite mincemeat recipe. Do I say that for all my mincemeat recipes? Then, with half a pack of dried figs left I decided to convert a date slice recipe into a Figgy Finger recipe instead.

Figgy Pear Mincemeat

1½ to 2 lb (680 – 900g) pears
2 lb 4 oz (1 kg) mixed dried fruit
9 oz (250g) dried figs
1 lb (454g) Demerara sugar
1 lemon, zest and juice
2 teaspoons mixed spice
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
5 fl oz (150ml) sherry

Put the mixed fruit in a non-metallic bowl, grate in the pear and use scissors to snip in the figs. Add the remaining ingredients, stir well, cover and leave overnight. Heat in a preserving pan until boiling then simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Figgy Fingers

8 oz (225g) dried figs
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 tablesoons water
5 oz (150g) oats
2 oz (55g) self-raising flour
2 oz (55g) wholemeal flour
2 oz (55g) light brown sugar
4 oz (110g) butter

Preheat oven to 190°C (gas 5) and grease a shallow tin or baking tray. Snip up the figs and place them in a saucepan with the water and lemon juice. Bring the fruit to the boil and simmer for 10 until soft. Place in a blender and blend until smooth. You may wish to force the mixture through a sieve to remove the seeds. In a bowl, cream together the sugar and butter then add the flour and oats and mix until it just binds together. Press half the oat mixture into the tin. Spread the fig paste onto the oat base then cover with the remaining oat mixture and press to form a sandwich. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden. Mark out the biscuit whilst still hot then allow it to cool completely in the tin.

Then on Thursday, my eldest daughter brought home a homework sheet that included a recipe for banana and marshmallow cheesecake. I was quite excited about what appeared to be an interesting and unusual piece of homework until I realised that the task was merely to read the recipe and answer comprehension type questions on it. Still, not one to pass up an opportunity, I suggested to my daughter we should also make the cheesecake... I mean, banana and marshmallow cheesecake... who could resist? Having then read the recipe through I began to wonder if someone had just made it up for the sake of producing a worksheet but by now I was committed to the task so decided to do my best to adapt the recipe into something that might actually work. I'm glad to say that I managed this, even if it did look a bit like a clown's custard pie when we were done. It tasted good and the slightly melting pieces of marshmallow in it added interesting texture. Having produced that my daughter then told me it was time I wrote a mini-guide to cheesecakes book to add to my collection of other mini recipe books. Well, you know, that's not a bad idea.

Banana and marshmallow cheesecake

115g (8 biscuits) crushed digestive biscuits
55g (2 oz) melted butter
142ml (4 fl oz) whipping cream
75g (3 oz) cream cheese
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 very ripe bananas
25g caster sugar
6-9 large pink and white marshmallows, cut into small pieces
A little chocolate

Crush the biscuits and mix with the melted butter then press into the base of a flan dish and refrigerate. Slowly beat together the cream and the cheese and whisk until thick. Mash the bananas and mix in the lemon juice to prevent it browning. Carefully fold the bananas, sugar and marshmallow pieces into the creamy mixture. Spoon over the biscuit base then finish by grating some chocolate over the top. Return to the fridge to set and serve cold.

With quite a few pears left in the box in the shed I'm thinking I might try my hand at some sort of pear jam tomorrow and whilst I'm at it I might just see if I can invent a pear cheesecake!

Saturday, 16 October 2010

A Harvest Festival

When I was a kid I loved our school harvest festival. We would all be asked to bring in some food for the celebration and this was all gathered together in the school hall along with some traditional corn dollies. There would be piles of stuff ranging from tins and packets to freshly baked cakes and bread and fresh fruit and vegetables. Come the celebration we would all troop into the hall and sing appropriate hymns about seed sowing and gathering crops and all feel jolly good about it. Then the next day a few of the more sensible children (which always included me, of course) would walk around the local area delivering boxes of this food to the elderly and needy.

I'm sure this "traditional" harvest festival that I remember was far removed from how they first started when it was all about giving thanks to God for the crops they had grown in order to please God and ensure that He would provide the appropriate weather to allow it all to happen again the next year. But having attended my daughter's harvest festival this week it seems we have all moved a little further away from what it is all about.

I'm not a religious person and I know that whether crops grow or not isn't decided by some divine entity but I am still glad that my daughter's school hold their festival in the church across the road. We were asked to donate food but now it all has to be tins and dried foods that can be stored for months if necessary. These are then all given to the Food Bank who distribute the food to identified needy families in the area. So gone are the days when the gathered food is stacked at the front of the festival for all to see and gone are the days when beautiful loaves of bread and fresh fruit and vegetables were piled high for everyone to admire. It was certainly a sight that it felt appropriate to rejoice about.

At this time of year I can come off the allotment with a wheelbarrow loaded up with vegetables and for a moment I feel like bursting into song about seed sowing and gathering crops! In a culture where we can buy any fruit or vegetable at any time of year I think the whole concept of a "harvest" has somehow been lost. Personally I would love to see a room somewhere stacked with pumpkins, marrows, potatoes, apples, pears, onions, tomatoes, beans, broccoli, carrots, cabbages and adorned with corn dollies. Yes, I think the Food Bank are doing a fantastic job and the tinned, dried food is a very practical solution but let's rejoice in all things fresh and seasonal, homegrown, homemade and communal. Let's for once appreciate that we aren't facing starvation and uncertainty and not take this for granted. Let's gather together our seasonal produce and be proud and thankful for it!

Harvest Fruit Cake

2oz (55g) shelled hazelnuts
8oz (225g) unsalted butter
8oz (225g) light muscovado sugar
8oz (225g) self-raising flour
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons mixed spice
1 teaspoon baking powder
6oz (175g) courgette or marrow
1 apple
9oz (250g) mixed dried fruit
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon demerara sugar

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and grease or line a 20cm round cake tin. Place 1 oz of the hazelnuts in a food processor with a spoonful of sugar and a spoonful of flour and blitz until the nuts are finely ground. Add the butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour and baking powder and process until a smooth batter forms. Remove the blade and grate in the courgette or marrow and the apple then add the dried fruit. Stir thoroughly and spoon the mix into the cake tin. Coarsely chop the remaining hazelnuts and mix these with the cinnamon and demerara sugar. Sprinkle this mixture onto the top of the cake. Bake for 45 minutes then cover with foil and continue to bake for a further 25-30 minutes. Test with a skewer. Cool in the tin for 20 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Apple week

At this time of year there are numerous "Apple Day" events on around the country. They are lovely events, usually along the lines of a farmers' market or country fairs but with an emphasis on apples. They are a celebration of the humble British apple, of which there are over 1200 different varieties. With all these varieties available, it is possible to eat British apples between August and May but October is the prime apple season. So if there is an apple day event near you why not go along and have some fun as well as enjoying this lovely fruit. But if you can't manage that then at least try to find a bag of apples with the union flag on (rather imported apples) to buy and enjoy.

On our allotment site, every allotment plot was pre-planted with an apple tree in one corner when they were first established. We have two allotment plots, hence two trees, of different varieties. I don't know the names of either variety but one ripens from the end of August, producing soft, sweet eating apples. The other is ripe by October, producing firm cooking apples that store well for months. Together they supply us with more than enough apples.

When I went out onto the plot in a brief break in the rain last Sunday I discovered yet more of the eating apples blown to the ground. I scooped up as many as I could that weren't already rotting. They don't store well anyway but with bruises and nibbles they last only a few days so would need immediate attention. Then I went and checked on my pears. I only planted the pear tree two years ago and this is the first year that we have had any fruit. It is a dual pear, with two different varieties grafted onto a single trunk. One variety is clearly a conference pear which should be ready towards the end of October, but the other was already looking almost ready when I had been to the plot the previous weekend. Now, with the wind howling around my ears, I discovered nearly all of this variety on the ground. I gathered these up, harvested the last of them from the tree, feeling especially pleased with myself for having my first ever homegrown pears.

With October now with us and the first frost surely just around the corner I snipped off all the remaining trusses of green tomatoes and took them home. You may remember that last year with strung them across out conservatory and in our kitchen as an autumn garland and tomato chandelier. They provided us with fresh tomatoes all the way to Christmas so it was well worth it.

Back at home I made another batch of apple and cider mincemeat since it is such a quick recipe. On Monday, I used some of the green tomatoes along with the apples to make my grandma's green tomato chutney recipe. Just the smell of it took me back to holiday picnics with cheese and chutney sandwiches! Then on Tuesday I made cucumber and apple chutney. Wednesday was apple flapjacks, Thursday was pork and apple casserole and Friday apple, pear and plum jam.

So not just an apple day for me but a whole apple week... maybe an apple month!

Grandma's Green Tomato Chutney

Ingredients (makes 2-4 jars)
2lb (900 g) green tomatoes
1lb (450 g) cooking apples
8 oz (225 g) onions
1 oz (25 g) salt
4 oz (110 g) sultanas
1 pint (600 ml) malt vinegar
½ tsp ground ginger
1 tbsp pickling spice (e.g. cloves, cinnamon, allspice berries)
8 oz (225 g) light brown sugar
(optional) 1 tbsp 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 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 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.

Cucumber and Apple Chutney

Ingredients (makes 1 jar)
For every 1 lb cucumbers:
8 oz (225 g) apples
1 large onion (8 oz; 225 g)
1 to 2 sticks of celery (depending on size)
½ pint (300 ml) white wine vinegar
8 oz (225 g) light brown sugar
1 tbsp salt
¼ tsp turmeric
Pinch of ground allspice (Jamaican pepper)
2 tsp balsamic vinegar

Cube but don’t peel the cucumber then finely slice it in a food processor. Peel the onion and core, but don’t peel, the apples. Use the food processor to finely chop the celery sticks, apple and the onion. Place the vegetables in the bowl and place a small plate on top. Press down on the plate to squeeze the water out of the vegetables, and discard. Place the vegetables in the preserving pan and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring to avoid sticking. Pour in the vinegar, sugar and other flavourings and bring to the boil. Simmer, stirring occasionally until the liquid has almost gone. Ladle into a warmed jar and seal immediately.

Apple Flapjacks

1 lb apples
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon demerara sugar
4 oz light muscovado sugar
1 tablespoon golden syrup
4 oz butter
2 1/2 oz flour
8 oz oats

Preheat oven to 200°C, gas 6 and grease a suitable shallow tin. Peel, core and chop the apples then toss with demerara sugar and cinnamon. Melt together the butter, sugar and syrup then stir in the flour and oats. Spoon half this mix into the bottom of the tin then layer the apples on top. Finish with the rest of the oats mix and press down lightly. Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes then cut into pieces before leaving it to cool completely.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Birthday buffet

It was my eldest daughter's 8th birthday yesterday and in the afternoon she invited 4 friends over for a Science party. As an ex-science teacher myself, I ran the party, guiding the children through a series of exciting science experiments for an hour and half, followed by a buffet tea, jelly and compulsory cake. It was a lot of hard work and the kitchen looked trashed by the end of it but I'm pleased to say the children had a great time and they went home bubbling with excitement and telling their parents all about it. Any parent of children of that age will know that things have to be VERY exciting for a child to voluntarily tell you anything about it!

Knowing I had this party at the end of the week, I had to get myself organised at the beginning of the week. My youngest daughter had a cake sale at school on Friday and I knew that by then I would be too busy with party preparations to make cakes for that. So last Sunday, with plenty of apples harvested from our trees, I made some individual apple pies and instead of cooking them I popped them in the freezer until Thursday then baked them fresh for Friday. I had a few spoonfuls of the apple filling left over so I put some into the bottom of foil tart cakes and made a little bit of crumble topping to go on top. These I cooked after taking the Sunday roast out and we had one each, served with whipped cream on top.

Individual Apple Pies (makes 12)

1 lb (450 g) apples – peeled and sliced
¾ oz (20 g) light brown sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon water
4 oz (110g) plain flour
4 oz (110g) wholemeal flour
4 oz (110g) butter or margarine
2 oz (55g) caster sugar
A little milk
A little extra brown sugar

Placed the apples, sugar, cinnamon and water in a pan and cook with the lid on for twenty minutes until fluffy, stir occasionally. In the meantime, preheat oven to 180°C (gas 4). In a bowl, sift together the flours and rub in the butter/margarine to make a breadcrumb consistency. Add the sugar then bind with a little water to form a dough. Roll out the dough and cut out circles to form the bases. Place the base circles into foil tart cases or a suitable pie tin. Add a heaped teaspoon of the filling to each base. Cut lids out of the pastry and place a lid on each pie, crimping the lid and base together between finger and thumb. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes until almost cooked. Remove the pies and turn the oven up to 190°C (gas 5). Brush each lid with a little milk and sprinkle brown sugar over then return the pies to the oven for a further 5 to 10 minutes until golden. Cool on a wire rack.

Whilst we were at it, we used some of the smaller apples to make horrible shrunken heads to go on the shelf in the science party "lab". To do this, we peeled the apples then cut faces into them, similar to Halloween lanterns. Then we stuffed them into Kilner jars of brines for several days. After that, we rinsed them off, patted them dry and put them in a warm place to dry out for a few more days. By then they were ready to sit on the shelf, the brining and drying process stopping the usual apple browning long enough to serve their purpose. I expect we may make some more of these for Halloween.

One of my daughter's favourite restaurants is Red Hot World Buffet and she asked if we could make her party food similar to what you can get there. That's a big ask but I did my best with a selection of savory buffet food but it was the desserts I had most fun with. The girls love the desserts at Red Hot because they are tiny and they can eat lots without getting full. So I made some tiny little jellies, teeny blackcurrant cheesecakes, bite size pots of popcorn and some homemade iced-gem biscuits.

As you might imagine, these all went down very well with the children. Although when Steve tucked into a large version of the cheescake later that evening, slumped on the sofa in post-party exhaustion he said, "This cheesecake is really good... I mean REALLY good." I guess he was all out of adjectives by that point but I appreciated the sentiment!

Blackcurrant Cheesecakes

1 and half oz butter
6 digestive biscuits
250g tub marscapone cheese
1 and half oz icing sugar
3 tablespoons blackcurrant and lemongrass cordial (or something similar!)

Melt the butter. Crush the biscuits in a blender or in a bag hit with a rolling pin. Mix together the biscuit crumbs and butter then press the crumbs into 4 small dishes or large glasses. Refrigerate the dishes whilst you make the topping. Mix the cheese and sugar together until smooth then add the blackcurrant cordial a spoonful at a time, stirring between additionals. Dollop the cheese mixture onto the biscuit bases and smooth. Refrigerate and serve chilled.