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.