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!"