A Cake to Eat by the Fireside

a delicious slice of cakeOne of the many things I love about autumn is the return of cake. Long, hot summer days don’t really lend themselves to an afternoon in the kitchen, beating cake mix and icing buns. Sweet treats tend to be fruit, ice cream or perhaps and Eton Mess or Pavlova for lucky visitors. Autumn is the perfect excuse to rediscover cake. As the afternoons get darker, I find myself heading indoors, lighting candles, cosying up by the fire and leafing through recipe books. I’m not a huge fan of chocolate cake, although you’ll find a couple in my list of favourites here. My current favourites are dark, sticky, heavily spiced and flavoured with ginger, cardamon and honey. Jamie Oliver has a delicious orange and polenta cake in his new book, and I’m waiting for the blood oranges to appear so I can test it out.

Last week, Mr T and I had a small party to celebrate our birthdays. The perfect excuse to try a new recipe on a group of hungry friends. It was a cool, clear night and Mr T lit a fire, I decorated the garden with candles and outdoor lights. This year I baked a  sticky gingerbread with a sharp lemon icing from Miranda Gore Browne’s book “Bake Me a Cake As Fast As You Can”. It struck just the right balance between sickly sweet and a hit of sharp citrus.  In previous years I’ve turned to Nigella for my winter bakes, “How to Be a Domestic Goddess” is well thumbed –  covered in splashes of cake mix and icing – always a sign of a much loved book. I like “last minute” cakes,  the ones that don’t need butter brought to room temperature, so Miranda’s gingerbread is perfect. It’s made using the melting method, so treacle, syrup, butter and sugar are warmed in a pan and added to the flour and spices. It keeps well, lasting several days in an airtight tin.

Of course, cake is an indulgence, a treat to be savoured in small slices with a steaming mug of tea or coffee. It may not be fashionable to celebrate the alchemy of butter, sugar and eggs, but I sit firmly in the “everything in moderation” camp.  (Full disclosure: that rule doesn’t always apply here, where cake is often eaten in huge doorsteps).  I swapped the self raising flour in the recipe for Spelt and a couple of tea spoons of baking powder, and used slightly less milk for the batter. Real, local butter and organic eggs from a friend are non negotiable baking essentials for me and  please don’t use butter replacements unless you have to, the flavour is never the same.We don’t have cake every day, so when we do I go ” all out”, choosing the best, local ingredients. I light a candle, switch on radio 4 and indulge myself in joy of baking. I even have a favourite apron, it hangs on the back of the kitchen door, and when I tie it tight around my waist I feel terribly professional and in control of my kitchen!

One of my greatest pleasures is being able to offer visitors a slice of something home made. Almost as indulgent, I will happily spend an afternoon perusing old favourite recipe books and websites in search of the perfect weekend bake. It’s an autumn activity I highly recommend, write a list, use post its, bookmark your favourites on Pinterest. Or, like me, you could stick your list on the fridge. A  promise to the family of good things to come and a reminder of items you need to add to the shopping list.

To get you started, here’s a few of my recent favourites, all available online. You can’t beat a real cook book though, so if your shelves are a bit bare, head off to your local library and explore the cookery section. Charity shops are also good places to seek out cook books (especially in January when unwanted gifts find their way onto the shelves). Or host a bake and swap night with friends, where everyone bakes their favourite and brings a copy of the recipe. The best friends bring hand written recipes you can stick into notebooks, which is how I discovered my marmalade cake recipe. For years this was the most viewed page on my blog, the most “pinned” and the one that ranked highest in my “referrers from google”. Who knew marmalade cake could be so popular? One of these days I’ll update the photo, it’s definitely one you should try for yourself. Meanwhile, here are a few of my current favourites:

Nigel Slater’s Hazelnut and Chocolate Cake from Observer Food

Miranda Gore Browne’s Caramel Apple Cake from Sainsburys Magazine

Nigella’s Olive Oil Chocolate Cake available on  her website

Diana Henry’s Lime, Cardamon and Coconut cake from the Telegraph

Photo credit: Norwood Themes on Unsplash

Elderberry Recipe Ideas

Elder (Sambucus Nigra)

Elderberries

The elderberries are starting to ripen, offering the promise of autumn cordials, jams and chutnies. Many people are aware that an elderberry cordial or syrup can help soothe a cough or cold, but they also have dozens of culinary uses. My favourite crumble is a mixture of apples, elderberries and blackberries all foraged from the garden. You can also use them to make wines and chutney. I also use them in the solar dye posts to make a beautiful pink shade of wool.

You need to strip the berries from the stems first. The easiest way to do this is to run a fork downwards from the stems and let the berries fall into a bowl. Even simpler , freeze them on the stems and you can easily strip them when ready to use them. The berries in my garden ripen in stages (one side of the tree gets more sun than the other), so I freeze them until I’m ready to use them otherwise the birds eat them before I can enjoy them.  The stems are inedible and the berries slightly toxic raw. Please be careful if you’re new to foraging that you identify the tree correctly, at this time of year there are lots of bright black berries in the forest and not all of them are edible. If in doubt leave them on the tree. We’re lucky enough to have large elder trees in the garden, but the edges of the local fields also offer a ready supply. Try not to gather from the roadside because of car fumes and always rinse in water before use.

Elderbierries steeping in a solar dye pot

Elderberries in the dye pot

I’ll share pictures of some of my favourite recipes as I make them. Meanwhile,  if you need inspiration here are links to some of my favourite recipes and uses. There are also lots of great foraging courses at this time of year, so do look out for one local to you.

The Woodland Trust: Elderberry wine

Robin Harford: Elderberry Cordial

Foods of England: Elderberry Chutney

 

 

Something for the Weekend: Flapjack

A Slice of FlapjackI do love a quick and easy bake, and these fit the bill perfectly. Ideal for a quick Saturday morning bake, especially if you need to find something the little ones can help with. They are best eaten with a steaming mug of tea, in front of a roaring fire. The end of July might not be the best time to be saying that – but blimey it’s cold and wet up North today I can tell you.

This flapjack was an experiment to reproduce the cereal bars Mr T is very fond of and often takes with him on his cycling trips. The shop bought versions cost around £2 and the ingredients list stretches to over 20 items (several of which I’m not convinced are actual “food”). This version might not be the “healthiest” cereal bar, but it’s packed with honest, real foods and tastes delicious. I made a cranberry and almond version, which is pictured here. You can also make a very yummy maple and pecan special edition by swapping the honey for maple syrup and using roughly chopped pecans in place of the almonds.  I’m tempted to try a cranberry and white chocolate version or dark chocolate and crystalised ginger.

In the recipe, you’ll find advice on making gluten free, vegan and refined sugar free versions. I’m a big fan of recipes that can be tweaked to individual preferences. I know coconut oil is the “go to” oil of the moment, but I like good old fashioned butter. If you need a dairy free version then Coconut oil is a good option, if expensive. Look out for the cuisine versions which don’t have a coconutty taste.

I’ve used chia seeds in this version. My flapjack is always a bit of a risk, sometimes it can be too soft and doesn’t hold together. I’ve tried adding flour, crushed cornflakes and all kinds of other ways to help bind the mixture together. A friend suggested chia seeds and the result was soft, chewy and held together remarkably well. I’m not convinced by their superfood status, but in this recipe they worked for me.

A Tray of Flapjack

Cranberry and Almond Flapjack

Photographing them was a challenge – not only tricky to get the right light in my gloomy kitchen – Mr T and I also munched our way through a few in the process. I’ve just upgraded to a digital camera after years of making do with my phone, it’s a steep learning curve! Anyway, don’t be put of by the amateur pictures, try them for yourself. You can find the full Cranberry and Almond Flapjack recipe here.

 

 

You can Eat Cake for Breakfast (but only if it’s my best ever raspberry cake recipe)

20170702124957Not just any cake. Packed with fruit and nuts, this is practically health food! I’ll admit, with no shame we ate a slice for breakfast and felt no guilt. (Nope, not even a little bit). Of course, I’m not suggesting you make a habit of cake for breakfast, but the occasional indulgence is OK. Let’s face it, not much can be worse than those sugar filled cereals we all love but pretend not to because “they’re bad for us”.

I like a cake that will serve as dessert as well as accompany a morning mug of coffee and this old favourite really does fit the bill. You can serve a slice with creme fraiche (or double cream) or just eat it on its own. It is quite moist, not the kind of cake you can eat with your fingers – although Mr T would disagree – sticky fingers can be licked clean he tells me!  I’m sharing the recipe for this Raspberry and Almond cake here (or you can find it by clicking on the recipe tab in the sidebar) but first a few tips.

I tend to weigh out in cups (American, not Australian), simply because that’s easier for me than getting out the scales. Butter has a handy guide on the wrapper, so you can just cut off what you need. I use Spelt flour (Sharpham Park), but there’s no reason why you couldn’t sub a plain flour, or even try using your favourite gluten free if  you need to. I used frozen raspberries, the remainder of last year’s crop. You could use fresh if you prefer.

My oven is a bit on the cool side, so everything takes longer to cook, so use the timings as a guide. You know your oven, so start checking after 45 minutes to test if your cake is cooked. I store my cake in the fridge, but it will sit quite happily at room temperature for a day or two, so long as it’s in an air tight tin. Why do I keep cake in the fridge?  If we can see it, we’ll eat it, so it’s best hidden away behind the vegetables  where Mr T won’t go snacking!

When lining your cake tin, either use a quick release springform tin,  or make sure the lining paper sits higher than the sides of the tin so you can lift it out. This cake won’t thank you for turning it upside down to cool – you’ll end up with a sloppy mess and lose the pretty, crunchy topping.

Orange zest definitely falls in the “food for free” category. Next time you eat an orange, pop the peel in a tub and freeze it. You can grate or zest it from frozen straight into your cake mix. You can do the same with lemons, if you need the juice for a recipe, freeze the empty “shell”.

I don’t know who should take the credit for this recipe, it was sent to me by a friend when my daughter was little, we had enjoyed a slice (well, since we’re friends I’ll admit it was two) at her house and I loved it. Over the years I’ve tweaked it a bit, adding flaked almonds to the topping and experimenting with the sugar quantity (I think I’ve got that just right now). I hope you enjoy it.

This post isn’t sponsored by any of the companies listed in the ingredients. I’ve just names them because they work well for me. You can, of course substitute your personal favourites.

Now, don’t eat it all at once!

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Food for Free

No, I’m talking about foraging today. I’m thinking about those “stealth” free foods that live in my freezer. You might remember I talked about my top ten freezer favourites last week.  Today I want to introduce you to a few things that make my life easier and feed us practically for free.

  1. Spicy chicken wings. Every time we buy a whole chicken, I cut off the wings before cooking. Save them up in a tub or a bag in the freezer and next time BBQ season comes around defrost them, steep in a spicy marinade of oil, soy sauce, chilli flakes and fresh ginger. Roast in a hot oven or cook on the BBQ for a tasty snack that has cost you almost nothing.
  2. Pizza toppings. Next time you open a jar of pasata, scoop out a couple of tablespoons and freeze in a small tub.  If you paid attention last week, you can use this to top a small pizza base, add a few frozen veg, some herbs and some of that frozen grated cheese and voila – an pizza snack for one. Serve with a baked potato and salad for a perfect Friday night tea
  3. Save left over chilli, curry or stews and freeze in individual servings. They make perfect ready meals and can easily be stretched by adding frozen left over rice, pasta or frozen vegetables.
  4. Pea soup –  a bag of  frozen peas makes a quick soup, add some frozen ham leftovers or mint for flavour.  There’s a great quick pea soup recipe on the BBC Food website. We grow our own garlic and onions, so I tend to think of them as free food.
  5. End of the week soup. OK, so not strictly free. Most of us find a few veg lurking in the fridge or veg basket at the end of the week. Use a decent stock cube if you don’t have fresh stock in the freezer (or  look out for 9 Meals from Anarchy stock (see link in sidebar (not sponsored).  Chopped onions, garlic and herbs can be used for flavour. BBC Good Food website has some great recipes for soup you can make from leftovers. Even a potato and a couple of carrots can make a delicious soup. Top with some of that frozen grated cheese and a few toasted nuts or seeds (again you can make a batch and store in the freezer).

Feeding yourself and your family quickly and cheaply is an art form. You can learn it and passing these skills on to your kids prepares them for when they inevitably leave home. You might also like to take a look at my store  cupboard staples page and stock up your kitchen. Next week I’ll be sharing five quick and delicious meals you can cook from the store cupboard – you might be surprised!

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Food You Can Freeze

What’s in your freezer? You might be surprised by what’s in  mine.

Instead of ready meals and ice cream, my freezer is stuffed with the things I need to make life easier. Apart from all the every day essentials (bread, butter, frozen veg and milk). I also freeze cream, grated cheese, mashed potatoes and crisps (yep, even crisps can be frozen).

Learning to love your freezer and use it efficiently will save you time and money and offers all kinds of opportunities to use up your leftovers creatively. If you’re not confident about how and what to freeze, you might want to refer to these tips on freezing  on the BBC website first.

Now for my freezer top ten:

  1. Whipped cream – I know, who has left over whipped cream? But sometimes it happens. I pipe mine into stars and open freeze it before storing in plastic tubs. Use it to decorate cakes, trifles, hot chocolate or even a cheeky Irish coffee.
  2. Cheese – next time you go shopping, buy yourself a great big block of really tasty cheddar cheese. Grate it (I use a food processor) and store in the freezer. You can use it straight from the freezer for pizza toppings, gratins or  cheese on toast.
  3. Mashed potato – I always peel and boil extra potatoes. Use the mash for fish cakes, topping left over mince to make a cottage pie or use it to make a fish pie.
  4. Eggs – yes, eggs freeze really well. Separate the yolk from the white (and label them). Frozen egg whites make great meringues, yolks can be used for custard. There are some great tips for freezing eggs on this American website.
  5. Fresh herbs – if you like to buy bunches of fresh herbs or have plenty in the garden, freeze the stalks  of coriander or parsely for soup (carrot and coriander is delicious), the leaves can be crumbled straight from the freezer into sauces.
  6. Bread – sliced bread can be toasted straight from the freezer. Cut up crusty bread into croutons and bring them out when needed, defrost slightly, toss in olive oil and herbs. Fry or roast until brown and crispy.
  7. Wine – yes another of those “but you’d never find any left over in my house” ! But, freeze small amounts of left over wine in ice cube trays and use them in sauces – brilliant in a “spag bol”or for a dash of white wine in a risotto.
  8. Pasata – or any tomato sauce. We rarely use a whole jar, so I freeze the leftovers for pizza toppings or sauces. In summer I make sauce with the glut of tomatoes, but you can just as easily freeze the shop bought ones.
  9. Cookie dough – make a batch of cookie dough, roll into a sausage and freeze. Slice and bake as usual when you need to impress unexpected guests! You can also freeze pizza dough – roll into circles and use straight from the freezer – or freeze the dough and defrost before using.
  10. Crisps – Mr T loves to buy those huge sharing bags, and more often than not we’ll eat the whole bag without thinking. Freezing them keeps them crunchy and keeps them out of temptation. It’s also a great way to take advantage of those special offers. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself or check out the Huffington Post’s 17 foods you didn’t know you could freeze“.

Back in the 1970’s when my mum bought her first freezer it came with a handbook full of recipes, tips and advice. Today we seem to have forgotten how to freeze – it’s so easy to just fill our baskets from the frozen food aisle – by making my freezer work for me I save time, money and  reduce my food waste. It’s a bonus that can always find a few treats when we need them… hot chocolate and whipped cream anyone?

 

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A quick lunch on a cold day

hoummous6

Hummus and crunchy veg, summer 2016

It really was a day for soup. A biting wind and a hard frost kept me indoors. Only a fool would have ventured out today! I craved soup, but the cupboards are bare. We only came back from a few days away last night and the only fresh veg we have is a sad looking cauliflower, and a couple of onions. We didn’t even have a can of soup or a stray tupperware tub lurking in the freezer.

Instead I made a big bowl of hummus. Served up with crackers and crunchy cauliflower it was a delicious lunch. I make mine with lots of garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. It might not be the genuine article but it passes muster in this house. Everyone has their own favourite recipe for this tasty dip. I use canned chick peas for convenience and a big dollop of tahini. It’s easy to make if you have a food processor. You might like to try this recipe from Jamie Oliver as a starting point. If you have ten minutes to spare, Felicity Cloake wrote a piece for the Guardian about making the “perfect hummus”, which is a great read if you want to experiment.

Tonight we’re eating from the freezer, left over sausage rolls and Christmas Day veg fried up bubble and squeak style. Tomorrow the monthly “big” Ocado shop arrives and I’ll make a trip to the green grocers and the butcher to stock up – but I shall definitely be wearing “all the hand knits” if it’s as cold as it’s been today!

 

Recipe: Homage to Manchester Tart

jammy coconut thumbprintsAs a child I loved Manchester Tart, the combination of sticky sweet jam, pastry and the exotic coconut on top  was hard to resist and I always had second helpings.

These biscuits were developed to satisfy my craving for this school day favourite and Mr T has already requested a second batch be baked this weekend, so join me in the kitchen, set aside 20 minutes and pop a tray of these in the oven. Best of all, they’re gluten free and dairy free so I can indulge my sweet tooth and remember all those delicious, stodgy school dinners.

You’ll find the recipe here

If you’re looking for a modern take on the traditional Manchester Tart, there is agreat recipe on the Great British Chefs website.

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Friday Bake: Choc Chip Cookies

plate of cookiesThis simple recipe meets all my requirements in a cookie. They’re crunchy on the outside, but still slightly soft and chewy in the centre.

Using orange flavoured chocolate drops adds an element of surprise to the unwary; it’s never a bad thing to elicit an “ooh” over the tea pot!

Of course, they’re gluten and dairy free too – but that’s an aside – first and most importantly they taste great. If you need a quick recipe to make with your little ones, these are ideal. From start to finish, you can have a batch on the kitchen table within half an hour.

You’ll probably have most of the ingredients in your store cupboard. Do look out for the Beyond Dark chocolate drops, they are great quality. The taste is delicious and they hold their shape well for baking which is very important in a choc chip cookie.

This recipe makes 12, just enough to nibble a couple while still warm from the oven and then serve to friends with a pot of tea!

You can find the recipe here. Along with a few rather “under par” photos taken on my phone!! Believe me when I say my baking is far superior to my photgraphy skills!

Recipe: Salads with a Twist

I love beetroot, jewel colours, tiny globes of sweet flavour which brighten up winter mealtimes. Yet, for most people, mention beetroot and their first thought is the vinegar steeped slices bought from the supermarket. If you can get hold of fresh beetroot it’s truly delicious, easy to cook, versatile and very good for you. You can even eat the tiny young leaves in a salad.

LOWRESthenaturalvegmen_3143Earlier this week, I picked up a bunch of tiny, overwintered beetroot from the Veg Men (I wrote about them here). I decided to make a salad for lunch, using up a few left overs from the fridge, added some slivers of Gabriel Blue (a ewe’s milk cheese) bought from my favourite Cockermouth deli last weekend and a few slices of baked beetroot. Looking for a bit of added “crunch” I made some candied nuts as a gluten free alternative to croutons. Here’s how you can recreate your own version. Mix and match your flavours to suit what you have. Think of it as a twist on the classic goats cheese salad you find on so many restaurant menus and experiment.

sliced beetrootThe Basics

150g of mixed salad leaves (either home grown or find a local producer)

100g candied walnuts or pecans (see below for instructions)

75g goats cheese (I used a blue ewe’s milk because that’s what I had – and I didn’t weigh it – a small handful should suffice) chopped into small cubes.

3 or 4 small baked beetroot (see below for instructions)

A simple dressing made with 3 tablespoons  walnut oil and 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar

Method

Whisk together the oil and vinegar to make the dressing. Shred the salad leaves, slice the beetroot and combine all the ingredients in a large salad bowl. Leave to stand for a few minutes for the flavours to develop beofre serving.cheese and walnut salad

Candied Nuts

The ideal nut for this salad would be walnuts –  the eagle eyed among you will spot I used pecans – that’s what I had in the cupboard! To be honest, that’s what I’d use again, the flavour of cooked pecans worked really well with the blue cheese.

1 tablespoon of dark muscovado sugar

3 tablespoons of water

100g nuts

Mix the sugar and water in a saucepan and heat until the sugar has dissolved, add the nuts and stir until well covered in the syrup.

Pour onto a baking tray lined with silicone paper or baking parchment and cook at gas mark 6 for about 5-7 minutes. Start checking after five minutes, you want the nuts cooked, but not burnt. Leave to cool. The nuts can be stored in an airtight jar for about a week. They make a great snack too.

As a variation you could substitute maple syrup for the sugar, add a little ground ginger, plenty of sea salt and perhaps even a little paprika. Combine with a small bag of mixed nuts and make the perfect gluten free nibble to serve with drinks. These may take a little longer to cook, in my oven I give them 10 minues.

Baked Beetroot

Wash the beetroot, but don’t scrub. It’s important not to break the skin or the colour will “bleed”. Trim off the leaves, leaving about 1cm of stalk and  then trim the roots. Place in a shallow baking dish and add a little water (as a general rule I add a tablespoon for each beetroot). Cover with foil and bake at gas mark 2 for about an hour. The baking time depends on the size of your beetroots, “golf ball” size take about an hour, larger ones will take longer).

Once cooked, leave to cool before trimming the stalks and roots. You can then peel them if you wish and add them to salads, make a delicious dip or make a puree.

Veg Men salad

When I was a little girl, a “salad” meant a slice of lettuce, tomato, cucumber and if we were really pushing the boat out, slices of hard boiled egg. This would be smothered in Heinz salad dressing. Today, we eat some kind of salad almost every day. Even if you only have  a small plot or a window ledge, it’s easy enought o grow a few salad leaves. Even during the winter you’d be surprised what will grow.

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#badbirdwatcher #girlgardener #gardenbirds #gardenorganic #twitcher #blackbird #nothingisordinary #naturelovers Classroom window view. I spent today at the Boat Museum, Ellesmere Port.  learning to use my digital camera - thanks Eve & Carol from @going_digital for getting me off auto!
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