Saturday, 24 September 2011

What use is a conker?

Conkers are funny things, aren't they? What is it that makes them so appealing when they are completely useless? Why do children (big and small) love collecting them with such enthusiasm?

I have pondered these questions this past fortnight as I have sat on my usual spot on the bench in the park whilst my girls have proudly brought me their collected conkers to show me. They are undoubtedly beautiful things, especially when first released from their prickly shells, all shiny and with their grain still showing. They feel lovely in the hand too and if you hold two or three of them you can't help but rotate them round and round in your hands.

There is no question of course that the girls will want to take them home. But what then? What can you do with conkers? With my hazelnut tree producing such a bountiful harvest of edible nuts it strikes me as a shame that conkers are not edible. Indeed, even squirrels don't seem to bother with them. In fact, if it weren't for children collecting them all up, the footpaths would be awash with conkers at this time of year.

So inevitably the conkers accumulate in the corner of the garden, eventually to rot.

But then this week, one of my friends commented on the large numbers of spiders in her house at this time of year. It is the same here, as I imagine it is in everyone else's houses at this time of year - unless you have a cat, as I am told they enjoy these crunching snacks. Generally speaking I'm not that bothered by spiders. Having to remove their cobwebs is a nuisance but their fly catching abilities are useful, particularly in my household where the excessive amount of fruit and veg that passes through my kitchen leads to annoying fruit flies in the kitchen. They really are annoying actually. Within minutes of bringing in a punnet of raspberries from the allotment this afternoon, a cloud of fruit flies were circling above them. Then with the raspberries used up in a crumble, the fruit flies were left circling the kitchen for the rest of the afternoon. I have two sticky fly tapes up (not the most attractive addition to my kitchen, it has to be said) and one of those electric fly traps that kills flies with a satisfying zapping sound, yet still they circle. And right outside my kitchen window lives a big fat garden spider, getting bigger and fatter daily on a feast of flies. So I have a happy relationship with this spider but I'm not so keen on those great, big, enormous black things that suddenly appear from under the bookcase and scuttle across the living room carpet whilst we are watching TV of an evening. Steve has put 4 of them out this week and my eldest was somewhat alarmed to find a shed spider skin on the kitchen floor the other day as she was quick to realise that this merely meant that the spider was now BIGGER!!

So what has all this got to do with conkers? Well... in my friend's discussion about the spiders, I found out that there are quite a few people out there who firmly believe that scattering conkers around your house keeps spiders at bay. Apparently, they don't like the smell. Is this true? I don't know but it sounds like it is worth a try. So one of the jobs on my to-do list this weekend is to dust off the conker pile and scatter them under the book case, on the window sills and under my bed. An end to spiders in my house and a use for the conker - sounds good to me!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Hooray for hazelnuts

During the course of my childhood at various points we had in our garden a rosemary bush (my mum's name), sweet william flowers (my dad's name), and house martins (my brother's name), but we never managed to plant a hazel tree. So when I finally got my own home I planted one. It took it about 10 years before it yielded its first handful of nuts and now, at 13 years old it produces quite a reasonable crop of nuts.

I expect I'm bias, but I do love my hazel tree. I love the way the hazelnuts conveniently drop to the ground when they are ready, without damaging themselves. And how they patiently wait for you to get around to eating them without threatening to go rotten in the meantime. And just a gentle squeeze of the nutcracker lets you through their shell to the nut inside.

Back in 2009 I proudly blogged about using my first handful of hazelnuts; a yield of just a couple of ounces that I turned into hazelnut & sesame florentines. It is a delicious recipe so I started with it this year but it barely made an impression on the nut harvest.

Hazelnut and Sesame Florentines (makes 12-16)

1 1/2 oz (40g) unsalted butter
1 1/2 oz (40g) golden syrup
1/2 oz (15g) plain flour
1 1/2 oz (40g) chopped hazelnuts
1 1/2 oz (40g) sesame seeds
1 oz (25g) glace cherries
1 oz (25g) dried mixed fruit

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and line a large baking sheet. Melt together the butter and the syrup in a pan over a gentle heat then remove from the heat and add all the other ingredients. Stir well and leave for 2-3 minutes. Dollop teaspoons of the mixture well spaced out on the baking paper then bake for 5-8 minutes until golden. Cool on the sheet for 2-3 minutes then transfer onto a wire rack to cool completely.

After that, I scanned my blog archives to remind me what I did with my hazelnut harvest in 2010. Back in October 2010 I made a harvest fruit cake with hazelnuts, courgettes and an apple. With the same ingredients in abundance this year I decided to do the same. A lovely, substantial fruitcake, which lasted us all week but which too did not use up all the hazelnuts.

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.

So, with my eldest daughter's challenge of making a cheesecake recipe book still in my mind, I decided to have a go at making a hazelnut cheesecake.

Chocolate Hazelnut Cheesecake

2 oz shelled hazelnuts
4 oz digestive biscuits
2 oz melted butter

8 oz soft cheese
3 oz caster sugar
1 egg
4 fl oz whipping cream
1 dessert spoon cocoa powder
Few drops vanilla extract

2 oz roasted hazelnut, chopped.

Blitz the hazelnuts, then the biscuits, in a food processor to make crumbs then mix with the melted butter. Press into a suitable ovenproof tin. Refrigerate for 1 hour or more. Preheat an oven to 180°C, gas 4. Cream together the cheese and sugar then mix in the egg and cream. Pour 8 fl oz into a jug and add the cocoa to this portion. Add the vanilla to the remaining portion. Independently whip each portion until thick. Dollop the two portions of cheese mixture onto the biscuit base and gently fold them together to produce a marbled effect. Bake for 20 minutes then switch out the oven and leave for another 10 minutes. Then open the oven door and leave the cheesecake inside to slowly cool to prevent it cracking. Once cool, chill for an hour or so until ready to serve. In the meantime, roast the raw hazelnuts in their shells for 15 minutes at 180°C, gas 4. Leave to cool then whizz in a food processor to chop. When ready to serve the cheesecake, scatter the hazelnuts on top. Serve with cream or ice-cream, if desired.

I'm pleased to report the cheesecake was a success. I'm also pleased to say that I still have enough nuts left to make another one!