Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Christmas Wishes

Dear Friends,

May this Christmas be full of...

lovely gifts...

cosy sweaters...



 and fun in said snow...


great friends (thanks Sarah - I love it!) and wonderful memories of good times past...


gorgeous edible treats...


 and childhood nostalgia (this one is Rob's).


May Santa bring all you ask for...


may all your Christmas wishes be granted...


may we all stay safe...


and whatever faith you have - or none - may this season bring blessings, peace, joy and goodwill.

 Love from Kate x

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Christmas Approaches... bring on the snow and cake!

"Let it Snow!" I pronounced in my last blog post, and...  sure enough, it has!  You might think I'd be immune to the charms of snow having lived through two Canadian winters, but I still find something magical in it.  I suppose it's that it's always quite unexpected here in England.  I just love how the snow brings so much excitement - on our walk yesterday we saw so many people having fun on sledges. 

The snow has also made everyone so cheerful.  Practically everyone we have passed whilst walking this weekend has greeted us with a cheery 'hello!' and one even offered us a go on their sledge!

Of course, it's only lovely if you have nowhere you need to go.  We haven't really had to drive anywhere this weekend so it's not been a problem.  I didn't much enjoy my snowy commute to work on Friday though... 

So, what better to do on a snowy weekend after a long walk than to enjoy some festive food?  Wherever we are spending Christmas Day itself, Rob and I always like to cook our own early Christmas Dinner, so that's what we did last night.  Turkey, stuffing, bacon-wrapped chipolatas, lots of sprouts - even a Christmas Pudding.  It was gorgeous!

My Christmas baking has also been done.  Having salivated over Nigella's Chocolate Christmas Cake recipe and heard excellent reports of it from my online foodie friends, I decided to go with the version in Feast (very similar to the version in Nigella's Christmas).  As ever the contents of my cupboards necessitated a little tweaking of the recipe (no Tia Maria?  Mix up some Rum and Camp Coffee instead!), and I left out the candied peel because, well, it's gross. 

The recipe made one 20cm cake, as stated, but I had quite a lot of mixture left over so managed to also make 4 cute mini loaf-cakes as well.  These were very handy for giving as Christmas presents, especially when adorned with edible glitter and chocolate stars.

And the cake itself?  Amazing.  Gorgeous.  Better than I ever expected!  Even Rob, who really didn't like the idea of it, and even grimaced in disgust when he tasted the uncooked mixture, is a convert.  You can't really taste the chocolate in it, but the cocoa and the coffee add a deep rich smokiness to the cake.  The texture is not as dense as a traditional fruit cake, but it's heavy with moist fruit, spongy and sticky.  In short, perfect. 

The recipe can be found in many places online, but here's a link on the BBC Food website.  I can't recommend it enough.  I had a large slab of it with a cup of tea this afternoon... and now I'm a little worried about how I'll fit in my 'Boxing Day' supper of cold turkey and fried stuffing!  I'm sure I'll manage.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The Weather Outside is Frightful...

But the scene in front of the fire has been delightful.  What could be nicer than sitting on the sofa, warming up after a brisk walk with a cup of tea and a toasted crumpet, and surrounded by recipe books?   I'm thinking of making the Incredibly Easy Chocolate Fruit Cake, as pictured in Nigella's Christmas book.  It's the phrase 'incredibly easy' that's tempting me... oh yes, and the word 'chocolate'.  I'm also keen to find an excuse to use my 'Hologram Gold Disco Glitter' once again - it looks stunning on top of a dark cake such as this one.

The Jane Asher book is from the local library.  I'm glad I didn't buy it, her writing style really irritates me, although there are some nice-looking recipes that I might just take note of before returning the book.

A little later on and the tea and crumpets are replaced by wine...  and the Christmas socks have emerged!  Ho ho ho.   It's still a little early for us to be decorating the house, although we nearly went to buy the Christmas tree this last weekend - we've decided to go next Saturday instead.  We did however collect some lovely holly.  Last year it was almost impossible to find any with berries on it, so this year we were keen to grab some as soon as we saw it.  We put some behind every picture in the sitting room, and I'll add some ivy too soon.  I like to use as much natural greenery as I can... but leaving plenty of room for some tasteless kitch decorations too!

Talking of kitch, we've also started playing our extensive collection of Christmas music.  Before we went to Canada we had a very tasteful selection of classic Christmas carols and festive choral music.  Now we have a broad range of other 'classics' such as Elvis' Christmas Album and The Beach Boys sing Christmas (thanks to a crazy moment in the cut-price music section of Walmart!).  My favourite album is a double CD I bought - rather oddly - at a Bath and Body Works shop in Las Vegas, entitled Glitter and Glow.  It has a fantastic selection of Christmas hits, some classics, some new recordings.  One of my very favourite tracks is this one from Bing Crosby:

Now if only the rain would stop... let it snow!

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Wondering Around...

Spelling mistakes on printed or published materials really irritate me...  but sometimes they're just quite amusing.  Today we enjoyed a local walk and were pleased to see that we were free to 'wonder around' the area:

Here's Rob wondering.  I was wondering whether he could possibly have found a more embarrassing hat.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Advent Thoughts

I've never been one of those people who gets organised for Christmas months in advance.  I shudder when I hear Christmas carols in November, and I couldn't entertain the thought of having a Christmas tree in the house until the middle of December at the very latest (although I know from my 2 years in Canada that for many people Christmas starts as soon as Hallowe'en ends!).  It's all down to personal preference.

But having said that, I couldn't help feeling a little bit excited when Rob got this box down from the loft last weekend...  I can't quite believe we have enough 'Xmas Decs' to fill a box that big, but no doubt there'll be lots of things I've forgotten about since last year.

As it's now December 1st I'm off to put on a Christmas CD.  We have a self-imposed house-rule that we don't listen to them before now and consequently I'm really looking forward to hearing some festive music.  We went to a lovely Advent Carol service last Sunday and enjoyed singing lots of Advent hymns, which reminded me why I really do love this time of year.

I opened the first door of the Advent Calender with my class this morning and was delighted that - for the first time in the 11 years I have been doing this job - no child moaned about the fact that there was no chocolate inside it!  I also lit an Advent Candle with them; something I had never tried due to an irrational fear of the combination of flames and overly-interested small children.  They were fascinated by it, and we even managed to get in a bit of Science by observing the change from solid to liquid wax, and then liquid to solid as it cooled.  (Fortunately there was no chance to observe the combustibility of exercise books, furniture, thatched roof, etc...)

May your Advent be full of little excitements too!

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Apple Spice Cake

Apple foraging season is over, but if you've still got some cooking apples in store then this is an ideal recipe to use a few.

I made this cake in October, and it was fabulous.  I have been meaning to blog about it ever since.  The recipe came from 'The Week' magazine, and is taken from Mary Berry's Baking Bible which I think is a new publication, bringing together recipes from several of Mary Berry's previous cookbooks.  The official title for the recipe is Apple and Cinnamon Cake, but I renamed it Apple Spice Cake as I used a selection of spices instead of simply cinnamon. 

We took the cake on holiday with us to Yorkshire (and I hasten to add that we were holidaying in a self-catering cottage... we don't make a habit of packing cakes into our suitcases!) and it kept fantastically well.  We ate a generous slice each day along with a cup of tea on return from our hearty walks, and even when we finished it on day 5 or 6 it tasted as good as it had done at the start of the week. 

Mary Berry's Apple and Cinnamon Cake

225g softened butter
225g light muscovado sugar (plus a little to finish)
3 large eggs
100g chopped walnuts (I omitted these as I had none in the cupboard!)
100g sultanas
225g self-raising flour (I substituted 100g of this with Hemp Flour which gave it a lovely nutty flavour and texture)
2 level tsp baking powder (I added an extra tsp because of the Hemp Flour)
400g cooking apples, peeled, cored and grated
1 level tsp ground cinnamon (I used 'Pumpkin Pie Spice' which I had brought back from Canada.  It contains a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, etc)

Preheat the oven to 180C/fan 160/gas 4.  Grease a 23cm deep round cake tin and line the base with parchment paper.

Put the butter, sugar, eggs, walnuts, sultanas, flour and baking powder into a large bowl and beat well until thoroughly blended.

Spoon half the mixture into the tin, smooth it down, then tip the grated apple (which you have mixed with the spices) in an even layer on the top.  Spoon over the remaining cake mixture, level the surface, then sprinkle over a generous amount of muscovado sugar.

Bake for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours or until the cake is well-risen and golden brown.  Leave to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then turn out, peel off the parchment and finish cooling on a wire rack. 

Serve warm or cold.  It's great either way.

I loved the way that the apple layer provided a slightly tart middle layer, which offset the sweetness of the cake.  It also kept the cake deliciously moist.

Monday, 23 November 2009

In Defence of Foraging

Waitrose is the UK's 'posh' supermarket.  I don't often shop there - largely because my nearest one is about half an hour's drive from home, and not on my daily commuting route - but I really enjoy popping in when I find myself in the vicinity of a store.  Although some of the products in Waitrose verge on the scurrilously expensive, it does have an excitingly wide range of stock that you simply don't find in Tescos.  There also seems to be a strong sense of ethics behind the running of the chain, of which I thoroughly approve.

Last week I found myself in Waitrose in Berkhamsted and bought a few little excitements, not least being a copy of the excellent 'Waitrose Food Illustrated' magazine which, as ever, is full of mouth-watering recipes and interesting articles.  (Incidentally, all the recipes from the magazine can be found online here, which is a fantastic resource for cooks looking for inspiration).

One article in this month's magazine really caught my eye.  Written by Tim Hayward and entitled 'Fruits of the Forage?' it is a scathing attack on what he sees as the modern middle class obsession of foraging for food. 

Foraging appeals to the middle classes at a visceral level he begins.  It must be the sense of woolly, green wellbeing, plus the knowledge that they're distinguished from the masses.

He goes on to attack the Yummy Mummy (how I detest that phrase!) he recently spotted picking nettles along the Regent's Canal towpath in a posh area of London, and then the Boden-clad locusts... stripping our endangered hedgerows in the countryside.  (Note to Waitrose: way to go, attacking your core consumer base of Boden-clad yummy mummies..!) 

Now whilst I tend to agree that anyone foraging in a city close to the bars and restaurants of a busy high street possibly deserves all they get (Hayward informed the hapless woman that the previous night he had witnessed a group of drunken city-boys pissing in the very nettles she was lovingly picking for soup) I found the tone of the article pretty patronising... not to mention wrong!

I enjoy foraging because I think that it is a way of getting back to more traditional ways of eating.  Our 21st century norm of plastic-encased, imported food means we have moved away from the idea of seasonality in our diets, and I love the idea of eating what is in season. 

I can't deny that I also like the idea of getting food for free - but I am under no illusion that I am saving a great deal of money...  after all, you may spend a happy half hour foraging for nettles for your soup, but when you consider that you will have paid for the other ingredients - potato, stock, milk, seasoning, cream - it's hardly a 'free meal'. (OK, it's a cheap meal, but then most soups are). 

But you are saving some money.  Buying enough fruit for jam is expensive, so using things like foraged cherries, blackberries and apples make jam and chutney-making a pretty economical option, never mind the fact that it's nice to know exactly what you're eating because, well, you made it yourself. And why on earth, when you live close to the countryside as I do, would you BUY a punnet of blackberries in the supermarket when the hedgerows are full of them?!

It's also a great way of eating things that you would never normally get to eat as they're rarely available to buy.  Hayward quotes chef Rowley Leigh saying: The idea of going out, picking wild leaves and saying they're delicious when in reality they have a nasty, feral taste is nonsense.  Yes, that would be nonsense, but who could argue that Wild Garlic has a 'nasty, feral taste'??  That's something that can only be foraged.  Elderflowers, rosehips, elderberries and crab apples also come in this category, and I'd hate to be without them in my kitchen. 

Hayward's story of author Nicholas Evans serving foraged mushrooms (thinking they were chanterelles) to his dinner guests who then all ended up on kidney dialysis for 2 weeks is a salutary tale, but not one that need label all foraging as 'daftness'.  Personally I'll leave the fungus-gathering to the experts - I'm happy to just photograph them - but if I made the effort to identify them I'd certainly give it a try.

 Yes, there are things that I probably won't bother with again - hawthorn berries, green walnuts (although I have yet to sample either the toxic-looking liqueur or the equally frightening looking pickled walnuts, so maybe I shouldn't judge too hastily...) - but isn't life dull if you don't try new things every now and again?  And surely the chance of creating something utterly delicious from foraged treasures is worth the occasional less-than-stellar result.

So I will continue foraging unashamedly, and encouraging others to do so too. It's just so much fun - and often extremely tasty! 

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Stir Up Sunday

This morning we went to Eucharist in St Alban's Cathedral.  We've started doing this a lot recently actually.  It's a very 'high church' service - lots of 'bells and smells' as Rob puts it - and I find this somehow comforting and reassuring.  I like the inclusivity of the Church of England, and I like that there is a more modern Family Service on Sunday mornings there too, but I also relish the occasion of this Eucharist: sitting in the choir stalls, singing rousing traditional hymns, saying the prayers with all their 'Thees' and 'Thous', listening to the top-class Cathedral Choir, and breathing in the scent of incense.  It lifts my spirit.

However, this morning I was jolted from my reverie by the words of the Collect:  Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people...   Yes, it's Stir Up Sunday, and I haven't even thought about making my Christmas Pudding!  I managed to make it on the 'correct' day last year, but this year I haven't even thought about it.  I'm going to make some effort for it though - I'm sure I have enough sultanas in the cupboard to put them in a bowl to soak in rum for a day or so.  At least then I'll feel like I have made a start with the process, with the added bonus that the kitchen will soon be filled with the comforting scent of rum-soaked fruit!

If you are ever in the vicinity of St Albans I can recommend a visit to the Cathedral.  As well as going to services, we have popped in on several occasions to see the place as tourists.  This is the shrine of St Alban himself, the first English Christian Martyr, killed for his faith in 250 AD.

Earlier this year we did a 'Tower Tour' where we were able to explore the less-visited areas of the Cathedral - the triforia, the roof space above the fan-vaulting, the ringing chamber, the bell-chamber, and eventually the roof of the tower itself.

It's mind-boggling to think of this immense structure being built between 1077 and 1115.  The tower was largely built from Roman bricks, pillaged from the Roman town of Verulamium that predates the city of today. 

It always feels such a privilege to worship in such a historic and beautiful place.   But whatever faith you have - or none - I think that a building such as this can inspire all kinds of spirituality, awe and wonder.  And taking time out to do this can only be a positive thing. 


This morning we were all prompted to deep thought by the words of today's Gradual Psalm, Psalm 93:

The floods are risen, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice.  The floods lift up their waves.

How unintentionally apt that these words should be sung as much of the north-west of England suffers the worst floods in decades, taking the life of a local policeman as a road bridge collapsed into a swollen river.  I can barely imagine how terrible it must be to have your home flooded (let alone lose a loved one in this way).  I'm resolved not to moan about the weather here in the south-east ever again.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Yorkshire Curd Tarts

Our half term holiday in Wensleydale seems a distant memory now, but this week I made an effort to recreate one of the loveliest parts of the experience - Yorkshire Curd Tarts.

Curd Tarts are a pastry case baked with a delicious sweetened filling comprising of cheese curds, beaten egg and currants. The cheese curds may sound an odd ingredient for a sweet tart, but it's no stranger than eating cheesecake... and indeed a whole lot nicer in my opinion.

We always buy curd tarts when we are in Yorkshire - I don't think they're even available outside the county - but as we are in Yorkshire so rarely I thought it was something that would be well worth making at home.

An authentic recipe such as this one calls for you to make the curds yourself, and believe me this is something that I fully intend to do at some point.  However, the shop at which I was buying my ingredients didn't have rennet in stock, so I went for the simpler option of using plain cottage cheese instead. 

This works amazingly well.  Cottage cheese is fairly bland, but provides just the right ever-so-slightly-sour note to the finished eggy filling.  The taste was identical to those we had bought on holiday, so I was very pleased with the finished result.

I chose to make one large tart as I wanted to serve it as a pudding, but individual tarts would also be lovely.  I don't know about you though, but I always prefer the filling of tarts to the pastry, so a bigger tart gives a better filling:pastry ratio for my liking!

Yorkshire Curd Tarts

Shortcrust Pastry Case (make your own or buy one, the Food Police are off duty in my kitchen!)

250g plain cottage cheese
50g caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten
grated rind of half a lemon
50g currants (raisins or sultanas could be substituted)
grated nutmeg

Mix all the filling ingredients together and spoon into the pastry case (I blind-baked mine first but I don't think this is essential).  Add an extra grating of nutmeg on the top.

Bake at 180C for about 20 minutes, or until the filling is set (less time if making smaller individual tarts).  The filling puffs up as it cooks, and may begin to brown in patches, but sinks when taken out of the oven.

Enjoy warm with lashings of cream.

Perfect for enjoying taste of Yorkshire wherever you are in the world.  "Cracking Cheese (Curd Tart) Gromit!"

Friday, 23 October 2009

Apple Chilli Jelly

As I mentioned in my Apple Day post, I have been making Apple Chilli Jelly.  The recipe is here, and I'll say it again, this is a great one.  I made it last year and we enjoyed it so much that making another batch this year was a foregone conclusion.

I was particularly excited to be making it this year as we actually grew our own chillis!  Much of our vegetable-growing was rather less than successful this year owing to the ridiculously shady plot.  I thought I had lost the chillis too due to an infestation of aphids, but spraying the plants with diluted washing-up liquid obviously did the trick.  That or the ladybirds I kept ferrying over to the plant!

We didn't have a huge crop, but it was so satisfying to see them grow, then redden on the plant.  I love that they have grown into such curly quirky shapes.

Having boiled up the apples yesterday and let them drip overnight, today I measured out the resulting juice and added what seemed like vast amounts of sugar...  Still, I am learning that when preserving you have to just stir in the sugar and not worry about it.  Things won't set if you don't use enough.

It took nearly half an hour of boiling to get this to setting point (I suppose I should have added more sugar...), but while it was on a rolling boil I chopped the chillis. 

When I buy chillis they are clearly labelled as to how hot they are, but of course I had no idea about these.  I licked my finger after chopping them and suspect from the tears that sprung to my eyes that they are pretty hot!  However, I decided to chop them all anyway.  Last year's batch was not very hot, and we both like some chilli heat so I thought I'd go for it.

And I'm pleased I did.  I think the jelly looks just beautiful with the slices of chilli suspended in it.  The jars looked particularly lovely this afternoon as the sun was streaming in through the window and making the jelly glow.



We went out for a cycle ride last weekend, taking in some of the Grand Union Canal towpath.  As we were hurtling down a long hill into Berkhamsted Rob suddenly screeched to a halt.  I immediately suspected some kind of problem - most likely a flat tyre (which seemed destined to happen, as I had forgotten to bring the puncture-repair tools with me...) but thankfully there was a much more pleasant reason for stopping - Chestnuts!

And not just a few.  As you can see, the road was covered in them, many squashed to a pulp by the passing cars, but plenty still nestling within their spiky shells.

The UK is home to two kinds of chestnut tree, although confusingly they are not related to eachother.  The Horse Chestnut produces the conker, inedible to humans but much used by children for playing conkers.  The Sweet Chestnut tree was introduced into Britain by the Romans who made much use of its edible seeds.  These chestnuts are available to buy for a few months over the winter (often seen as being symbolic of Christmas - 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire', etc) but those in the shops are usually imported from countries such as Italy.  It seems that few people collect their own nowadays, although I suspect this is in part because the chestnuts you might see growing wild here are often tiny, too small to be of much use. 

These chestnuts however were a great size, the biggest I'd ever seen here, and we proceeded to fill up our rucksack-pockets with them.  Those prickly cases are vicious though, so I soon discovered that the best way to free the nuts was with my feet!

I'm not sure what the people in the passing cars thought of us...  I wonder how many people realised what we were collecting?

We had so many that I wondered how on earth we were going to use them all.  I had great plans for marrons glaces, chestnut cake, chestnut stuffing, etc, etc...

But you know, sometimes the simplest ways are the best.  We have just been roasting them on the glowing embers of the fire, eating them with nothing more than a sprinkling of salt, and drinking a glass of fine English beer while we do so.  

I love the Spring, I adore the Summer, but Autumn is pretty fantastic too!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Happy Apple Day!

I wasn't intending to blog today.  I still have an unfinished post awaiting completion so I didn't think I'd be writing a new one...  but when I found out that yesterday was officially Apple Day I thought that I needed to mark it in some way! 

This might not look like a particularly happy apple, but believe me I was happy when I found it; and the many others that were sitting in a box on a driveway with a plaintive 'Please help yourself' sign. 

I was even happier to put them to use in the kitchen, and today I have made the most of the first day of the half term holiday and used up all the apples that I have collected from the driveways of Buckinghamshire. 

My favourite thing to make is Apple Chilli Jelly.  It's SO easy, the apples don't even need to be peeled and cored!  The recipe I use can be found here, but please note that a chopped red chilli should be added to the apples as they are first boiled (this is mentioned in the comments section below the recipe, but not in the recipe itself).  I made a batch of this last year and we have really enjoyed eating it since then.  I like it with roast chicken, but it's particularly nice with a plain milky white cheese such as Lancashire, Cheshire or Wensleydale.  The pulp is currently suspended in a muslin bag over a bowl as the juice drips out.  I will make it into beautiful red-flecked jelly tomorrow.

Whilst that was underway I set to making my first batch of chutney.  The recipe is from a much-used, well-battered charity cookbook sold in aid of the Alphington Church (in Exeter, Devon) repair fund.  It's one of those lovely fundraising books which is clearly a product of a whole community.  I have several such recipe books as I can never resist buying them.  In this case, several celebrities had clearly been asked to contribute recipes, and this Apple Chutney recipe is credited to the actress Penelope Keith - who starred, appropriately, in the classic 1970s comedy about self-sufficiency The Good Life!  Chutney-making Penelope is clearly a world away from her snobbish character Margot though - this recipe is a winner.  So simple, and a perfect way of using up a glut of windfall apples.  Although peeling, coring and dicing 4lb of them is not much fun...

I had my annual oh-no-the-pan-isn't-big-enough panic as I piled in the ingredients, but after a short time the apples had cooked down and begun to turn pulpy.

3 and a half hours of simmering later and I was able to pot 8 jars of chutney, enough to see us through about 6 months of cheese-and-chutney sandwiches!  Last year I made 2 batches of this and we finished them over the summer.  I think I'll need to collect more apples soon and make another few jars.  It keeps so well.

It's also a great way of reusing all those jars which I can't stop myself saving...  I use the nicer ones for sweet  jams and jellies, but those with the lingering scent of something savoury - olives, capers, curry paste (?!) - I save for chutney figuring that it has such a strong vinegary flavour that it will cover up any other tastes.

The recipe is nothing new, nothing special, but if you want a really good 'basic' chutney then you can't go wrong with it:

Penelope Keith's Apple Chutney

4lb windfall apples, peeled, cored and roughly diced
1lb onions, chopped
1lb sultanas
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 pint malt vinegar
1lb soft brown sugar
1tsp ground ginger
1tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper

Put all ingredients into a pan.  Bring to the boil and simmer for 3-4 hours until dark brown.  (My note - from experience... Keep an eye on it for the last hour as it can stick and burn if left for too long at this point).  Pot whilst hot, in sterilised jars.

I hope you are enjoying apple season.  Excuse me while I clamber onto my soapbox, but I really really really resent the amount of apples that we import into this country.  Apples grow so well in England, and in such an abundance of varieties, that it seems so wrong to buy a bag of them that have been flown half way around the world.  I rarely buy apples in fact (as they are so easily available for free!), but whenever I do I carefully check the labels (so often designed it seems so that it's virtually impossible to find the country of origin...) and make sure that they are grown in the UK.  I've heard it called a mange-tout moment; you know, when you stand there in the produce section of a supermarket and realise that the small plastic-wrapped packet of veg you are about to throw into your trolley has actually come on a 10-hour flight from Kenya...  Well, have an 'apple moment' too!  Yes, I buy imported food - I'd find it hard to cook without such things as lemons that we can't grow in this country - but where there's a choice...  well, just think about it.