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

The First Frost

sturdy boots on the first frostYesterday I woke and found I was cold. Properly cold for the first time since March. I looked out of the bedroom window to see grass laced with white icing, a bright blue sky and birds all puffed up and fluffy, perched in almost bare branches.

By the time I dressed and took my coffee outside the grass had become soggy, the nasturtiums were still edged with icy frills, but the frost was over and the promise of winter seemed a long way off.

Autumn is my favourite season, and this gentle nudging towards winter is best of all. I know that not everyone agrees there is beauty in this season. I’m reminded of  a piece I read  by Emma Mitchell in Standard Issue magazine, in which she wrote:

I don’t relish fossicking for my long johns in my knicker drawer, bulk buying ChapStick or feeling icy seepage through a hole in my welly. Winter can jog on.

While I sympathise with the cruelties of harsh winter weather (I suffer from frizzy hair, chapped lips and cold toes), I find myself  looking forward to the cold months. I like to hunker down with wool blankets, hot drinks and heavy, hard backed books. This is a time to re – read old favourites by the fire, light candles and to be honest, I find myself spending more time outdoors than in the height of summer, just so I can appreciate that sensation of slowly warming up and watching my cold breath and my glasses demisting.

In the garden there is plenty to do, so always a reason to be outdoors. Ever the optimist, I plant bulbs for spring. I pick dried  seed heads and cut branches for the house. I much prefer the russet reds and oranges of autumn to the blousy pinks and purples of high summer.  I walk in a circuit, inspecting each flower bed and border. It is the last day of October and  the grass is still growing, but too wet to cut. The roses cling on, passing on the baton to late flowering clematis and winter jasmine (Jasminum sieboldianum). There are still cotoneaster berries, turning deep red and still plump, the fluffy heads of Bill MacKenzie are tangled and silky reminders of a summer filled with bright yellow clematis flowers. I pick up stray branches of silver birch to use as kindling and plan my day.

I begin to feel the damp, cold air. It’s time to head indoors, pour fresh coffee and begin the day’s admin of emails to read, bills to pay, commissions to plan. Books don’t write themselves and food must be bought. I feel the need to bake a cake, a sticky, stodgy gingerbread or fruit cake. The kind of cake you cut in thick slices and eat in front of the fire with scented candles burning. Yes, if you visit me in winter you will be handed cake and a steaming mug of tea almost before you’ve had a chance to unwind your scarf or kick off your shoes.

I  relish “peak autumn”, dried and curling leaves, clear blue skies, low winter sun and an excuse to wrap, snuggle and indulge my maternal instinct to provide warming stews, hearty broths and stodgy puddings.  I welcome the cold, the damp and the dark.  I refuse to be sad that summer is over, or to resent autumn as the wet, soggy poor relation or to resist the dark of winter. I embrace autumn, I welcome winter. I look forward to scented paper Whites in dishes on window ledges.

It feels rebellious to speak of autumn with so much love when others are complaining bitterly about the cold, the damp and the dark. So, feel free to remind me of this post  on  January mornings when my hands are numb from scraping ice  and I complain bitterly about cracked lips, dry hair and damp washing that refuses to dry ….

 

Photos credit: Sturdy Boots on Frost: Llum Isart

 

 

Embrace the Now

ApplesThe seasons are changing, but I’m not ready to let the late summer give way to autumn just yet. In the garden, the pinks, purples and yellows of mid summer are slowly giving way to jewel bright reds and blacks as the trees become laden with berries. There are huge rosehips and the rowan trees are covered with red berries. The apple tree is heavy with fruit, it looks like we’ll get our best crop ever. The hazel trees are full of nuts, which means the squirrels are gathering. But it’s not autumn yet (despite what “Instagram” is saying, the changing colours, bronzing of the leaves, copper tones in the bracken are normal for this time of year). They reveal the promise of autumn’s bounty, and yet we still have summer skies, warm afternoons and plenty of sunshine to enjoy. Late summer offers so much, the opportunity to spend time with friends, and with the kids before they go back to school. Some of my clearest summer memories are of late summer blackberry forays, climbing trees still in full leaf and discovering that elder berries are bitter and best eaten cooked, not straight from the tree!

elderberries.jpg

I think we’re prone to forgetting that late summer offers us so much. I have ripe, red raspberries. The elder berries aren’t ripe yet, but the deep red stems are so beautiful and I love to admire the light as it filters through. In a few weeks the starlings and blackbirds will strip them in a matter of days  if I don’t get there first.

Before we rush headlong into autumn (which, if I’m honest)  is my favourite season), let’s just slow down and admire the now. There’s plenty of time to gather together all those autumn recipes for pickles, gins and cordials. Sit in the garden and enjoy the late afternoon sun if you can. Pick the late summer vegetables and last of the soft fruits. Take a moment to reflect on how beautiful this time of year can be, forget the rainy days that caused a change in summer plans. Go for a walk in the woods, on the beach or your local park. The blue skies are out there if you take the time to look!

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Embrace the prospect of autumn, but don’t forget to enjoy the now. Why not start by making a simple fruit cordial? I shared my recipe for redcurrant cordial way back in 2011 and I’m still using the same recipe today. You can swap the redcurrants for any summer fruit (or even a combination), my favourite this year has been rhubarb and raspberry.  If those rainy days threaten to spoil your outdoor fun, making a batch of cordial is a terrific way to bring some summer into your life – you can even use a bag of frozen berries – call it domestic foraging!

 

 

 

So, British Hygge Is a Thing Now?

hygge-handsLast year’s obsession with all things Hygge in the UK fascinated me. Everyone it seemed was trying to find a way “do hygge”.  Knitters and crocheters were posting almost daily photos on Instagram of themselves with candles, blankets and knitting. If they could factor in a woodburning stove as well, and a glass of wine it seemed they must be in Hygge heaven. Almost  every yarn enthusiast I follow on social media got a book about “It” for Christmas, and my Danish friends (there is a quite a big middle aged Danish contingent in Cheshire – not sure why), were equally amused and aghast at the phenomenon. One friend showed me a clip of a knitting podcaster struggling to pronounce the word, trying “higgy”  and “higg yee” before settling on “higg”. “Well, she clearly hasn’t read the book she’s reviewing – there is a guide to pronunciation on page 7″ said my grumpy friend Trine.

So, why are the English (and it does seem to be a thing I’ve noticed among English friends rather than Scottish or Welsh), so obsessed with this idea? Have we fought against cold, wet winters for so long that the sudden idea of getting cosy and embracing winter is appealing? I am usually immune to trends and fashion (I still wear boot leg jeans and my phone is 8 years old) and so I have observed the growing interest in all things Scandi from a distance. I watched Borgen, but I’ve never seen the Killing or the Bridge. I’ve been to Copenhagen and loved it, but the idea of deliberately trying to”make” or “do” Hygge had never occurred to me. Then,  I posted a photo on twitter and someone commented “That is so British Hygge”. I think it was meant to be a compliment.  Here’s the offending photo.

woodburner

It seems I am the epitome of British  Hygge without even realising it.  I’m still not sure if it’s a compliment or an observation. But my immediate reaction is one of  denial. This is just what I do, I work from home, I have Reynauds, I need to be warm. The woodburner is our main source of heating, this is just our “normal”.   In an effort to discover more about this new phenomenon, I googled “British Hygge”.  Try it for yourself, you’ll be swept down a rabbit hole of blogs, articles and page upon page of advice for how to bring the H word into your life.

There is even a helpful blog, full of tips and advice on creating a cosy existence the British way.  Eager Brits have stolen the frankly, untranslatable concept of Hygge and created a version for themselves in which the deliberate act of making yourself cosy is celebrated. It seems the antithesis of what my Danish friends have tried to convey. One said “Hygge is a feeling of bliss and contentment you get when everything is just right, it is a state of mind”. The lovely Trine, a 63 year old Dane who has lived here for almost 40 years told me that “Hygge happens”, you can’t buy it or make it. “It’s a state of being” she told me, not a product you can buy or make at will.

So has Hygge been hijacked by the British media to sell us an idea. Is it the “new mindfulness”? Or just a publishing ploy  to make us buy self help books disguised as  how to be Hygge? Or is the fascination with all things Nordic part of a wider desire to find happiness and contentment in the every day? I’m still unsure.  My first encounter with the term came in 2015 when I read Helen Russell’s book “The Year of Living Danishly”. I am drawn to books about ex pats (maybe it’s my innate curiosity about other people’s lives, or maybe I’m just plain nosy), and Helen Russell’s account of trying to fit in to life in Denmark, while her husband worked for Lego is engaging and amusing.  If you really want an insight into Danish life and values, forget the “how to” books and read this instead.

gathering-wood

As for me, I shall live the life I’ve always lived. I shall remain satisfied with what I have and   enjoy the simple things.  I shall spend time with people who make me happy, who value me as I am, not for what I can do for them. Above all, you will still find me hunkering down under a blanket, warmed by the fire in a room lit by candles and soft lighting until Spring. Then I shall leap forth, weed the garden, marvel at the spring bulbs and embrace  the daylight. If that makes me the epitome of British Hygge, then so be it.

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  • Happy knitmas! My Mother in Law has unpacked her knitted decorations, here are the three kings, part of the nativity scene which grows every year and now fills the window ledge!
#knittersofinstagram #knitmas #knitting #handmadechristmas #knittednativity Throwback to last December's family outing to Chester Zoo lanterns, a beautiful night. Ah, we knew how to Christmas in the 1960's. Missing my lovely Mum today - and love that we're both wearing outfits she made (crimplene, whatever happened to you???) The fabulous @wildzucchinis getting festive at Cockermouth Food Festival today xx
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