Happy Christmas, term is over.

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Exhausted and with a cold starting…feels like the start of the school holidays. I’m looking forward to the time to plan and cook family meals, read books in front of the log fire and get out into the fresh air as much as possible with my favourite people. Shopping doesn’t feature too heavily and screen time hardly at all. I believe it’s called Hygge on social media. To me it’s common sense.

Here’s hoping you all enjoy those special moments.

Half Term

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To misquote the late, great George Michael ‘Last Christmas I gave you my recipe for scented firelighters’ and, frankly not a lot since then. This blog, along with the taming of my overgrown allotment and baking has been one of the casualties of my return (virtually full-time) to the classroom. And before you ask, no I don’t regret it but yes, I do wish that there were more hours in the day.

Any teacher will tell you that when the school holidays arrive they are virtually on their knees and their own children may well have forgotten what they look like. School holidays are essential times for getting to bed at a reasonable time, heading out for a large dose of fresh air, baking, giving the house a thorough clean, ticking a few things off the seasonal jobs list and sitting leisurely at the kitchen table drinking coffee and catching up with own children, your husband and your non-teaching friends. Oh – and preparing your lessons for next half term, obviously.

It has been a packed year so far  beginning with selling the parents’ house ten years after my mother’s death and bringing to an end  a decade of family holidays in Pembrokeshire. The main highlights are…….

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snatching an hour to explore local gardens

 

 

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finally making it to the Scilly Isles

 

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playing the Nurse in ‘Romeo and Juliet’

 

 

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memories of a Cornish family holiday

I rediscovered my passion for teaching English literature and milestones have been reached by the children – eldest starting his A levels and driving lessons; middlest heading towards GCSEs this summer and about to start his amateur football league refereeing career; youngest now playing Rugby for Wiltshire and Dorset Under 15s girls along with lots of trips for all three to Holt to ring church bells, visit friends and play netball. Why did we ever leave that village?

Meanwhile the allotment was set aside for a year disappointing the badger.  A few cutting flowers, pumpkins, leeks, runner beans, soft fruit and rhubarb was all I had time for but, with the help of my mate Tim and his expertise at chainsaw gardening the council and golf course hedges have been ‘tamed’. I have a box of Peter Nyssen bulbs to plant over the next few weeks but have finally got the biennials I sowed in August in the ground. One batch of rhubarb and ginger chutney is stashed away in the pantry and the Christmas cake fruit is soaking up a liberal amount of rum. I might even finish another batch of chutney before heading back to school to enlighten teenagers about Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Dickens, Priestley and the use of the gerundive in Book IV of the Cambridge Latin course. And a stroll around Stourhead in the October sunshine is also on the To Do list.

If I manage to do more than fly by the seat of my pants there will be another installment before too long.

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Crunchy autumn leaves – perfect for kicking up your heels

 

Betwixt and Between

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20161227_143238I’ve been getting creative in the downtime between Christmas and New Year. A more organised woman would have done this before Christmas and given away a few scented bags full as homemade gifts but organisation has escaped me this year.

And so a basket full of scented firelighters graces our own hearth to create a delightful orange-scented blaze throughout the twelve days of  Christmas and beyond.

To make them couldn’t be simpler. Melt a tealight minus its foil casing in a paper cake case in the oven for a  few minutes. Then add a drop of orange essential oil to each case along with a slice of  dried orange, a pine cone and a cinnamon stick.  Leave the wax to cool and harden. Then pop them into a basket to sit alongside your hearth.

Oil of cloves or myrrh work equally well at this time of  year. For Sumner firepits try lavender or rose oil. Pack up in cellophane wrap and tie with a pretty ribbon and gift label if you want something homemade to give as a gift.

Simple, practical and creative. The perfect way to while away a Winter afternoon.

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On cake, gardening and getting your five a day

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grow your own cake

I am an expert in secreting healthy vegetables into all kinds of foodstuffs for my children. I was the mother who whizzed up all sorts of goodies and called it pasta sauce, made the veggies they wouldn’t eat into soup and popped spinach into the berry smoothies. (Ssh. I still do the latter!) I have come clean about my penchant for cakes with vegetables on this blog before and now I am the proud owner of a whole book dedicated to the subject, which Sara and I were sent to review for members of our outdoor learning programme. What’s not to love about the heady combo of gardening, baking and eating cake? No visit to a garden is complete without cake. And no work in the garden can reasonable be expected from teenagers without stoking up with home-baked goodies.

Beautifully photographed by Jason Ingram, who is particularly skilled at gardening and cookery books, Holly Farrell’s book is for the cook, who wants to grow a few things to add to their baking repertoire or the gardener who would benefit from an idea or two to use up some of their produce. In fact, you could be a novice at both, for Holly includes plenty of hints and tips for the cook and gardener, making it perfect for my own young teenage children who are dabbling with growing and baking. There are general chapters on growing and baking as well as specialist hits and tips for growing specific ingredients.

The recipes and growing advice is divided into seasonal ‘chapters’ on cake, afternoon tea, pudding and savoury bakes with a ‘Grow’ section followed by a recipe. The first – Gooseberry and Elderflower Cake is just perfect for this time of year when I have both growing in abundance on my allotment. Most of the recipes are for sweet treats although there are a few savoury bakes and puddings for those with less of a sweet tooth. We love the poppy seed flowerpot bread and pesto potato scones.

Having followed Holly’s growing advice and baked her cakes, there’s no reason why you and your novice growers and bakers can’t be inspired to dig around for or even invent new recipes. Grow and bake yourself healthy. I can see several of the cakes becoming favourite allotment bakes to sustain us as we dig, prune, plant and weed.

Grow Your Own Cake by Holly Farrell with photography by Jason Ingram

ISBN 978-0-7112-3701-8

Copyright Frances Lincoln Limited 2016
More info, including where to buy from QuartoKnows.com

Elderflower cordial

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elderflowers

I’m a bit late making elderflower cordial this year due to making the move back to classroom teaching, directing Emma at the Tithe Barn and taking on a plethora of last minute GCSE tutees needing support in the run-up to their exams. Fortunately, along with the weeds, there are plenty of elderflowers still at their peak on the allotment. Elderflower cordial is SO easy to make and perfect for a home-made gift to make, bottle up and package beautifully for your favourite teacher.

Here’s how.

Take a large bowl and wander around the hedgerows looking for elderflowers. For maximum relaxation I recommend going alone and wearing long gloves to avoid nettle stings and brambles, which seems to surround all the elder in my neighbourhood.

Head home, inspect the elderflower heads carefully and remove any insects. Small children find this bit fascinating. Place the flower heads in a large bowl together with orange and lemon zest. For every 25 elderflower heads use the finely grated zest of 3 unwaxed lemons and 1 orange. Keep the juice in the fridge overnight (about 150ml ).

Bring 1.5 litres water to the boil and pour over the elderflowers and citrus zest. Cover and leave overnight to infuse.

Strain the liquid through a scalded jelly bag or piece of muslin and pour into a saucepan. Add 1 kg sugar, the lemon and orange juice and 1 heaped tsp citric acid (if using). I don’t bother because it involves a trip to the chemist and an inquisition to ensure that you mean no evil intent with said chemical.

Heat gently to dissolve the sugar, then bring to a simmer and cook for a couple of minutes.

Use a funnel to pour the hot syrup into sterilised bottles. Seal the bottles with swing-top lids, sterilised screw-tops or corks.

Label and tie a ribbon around the top and you have the perfect end of school year gift.

Dilute with still or sparkling water, use to make ice lollies or drizzle a little over gooseberries or fruit salads.

#Slow food – Vegetable cassoulet for January’s good intentions

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veg cassoulet

The tail end of last year was frantic with the completion of the education packs for the Abington Park Outdoor Classroom Project and now I’m onto my next project, adapting Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ for a stage production in June at a local heritage site. It’s back to work with a vengeance this week. I’ve cleared the decks of decorations, cut a few very early daffodils from the garden and settled down to scribble. Nourishing and wholesome food and plenty of fresh air is essential when I’m in full-on writing mode.

My Twitter timeline is full of people getting back to work and New Year’s resolutions to get fit and eat healthily. In this house there’s still time for dawdling over a bit of slow cooking in the kitchen and a walk or two in the wild and wet Wiltshire countryside which does tend to give you a healthy appetite for comfort food. Here’s one of our favourite recipes which ticks every box. And before you roll your eyes….yes, you can make a delicious cassoulet without meat! As I am a cook who rarely measures or weighs ingredients, you’ll have to forgive the approximate quantities.

1 cup dry beans ( cannellini,flageoulet or borlotti)
1 carrot, finely diced
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 small leeks. chopped
1 small parsnip, peeled and finely diced
about 1/2 lb  winter squash, chopped to coarse, 1-2″ pieces
about 1/4 lb  mushrooms, quartered

a handful of shredded greens
1 cup apple cider
1 cup passata

3 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1/2 bunch fresh thyme
a few sage leaves, chopped (optional)
a sprig rosemary, chopped (optional)
1-2 cups fresh breadcrumbs (optional)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
for the roux:
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup plain flour

Soak beans overnight. Drain. Pour boiling water over beans to cover by at least 3 inches and cover. Let sit for 1 hour, and drain.

In a large, cast-iron pot, melt the butter and add the flour. Keep heat on low and stir occasionally for about 30 minutes, until roux is a medium, reddish chestnut-brown.

Add the onion, carrot, leeks and parsnip. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, on low heat. Add an extra tablespoon of butter if mixture feels very dry and is sticking too much to the bottom of the pot. Cook until all vegetables have reduced in size and released most of their juices, so that the pot is becoming dry again. Add the mushrooms, garlic, and the herbs. Once mushrooms have softened a little and garlic is fragrant, deglaze pot with the apple cider. Add the squash, bay leaves, tomato sauce, generous pinches of salt and pepper, and the drained beans.

Place cover on pot and transfer to a preheated low oven. Cook for 2 hours. Remove lid and check beans for tenderness. If beans are not soft enough and mixture is becoming too dry, add a little more tomato sauce or vegetable stock and cover again. If not, sprinkle the optional breadcrumbs across the top of the cassoulet, season with salt and pepper, and cook uncovered for another 15-20 minutes or until breadcrumbs are golden. Let cool a few minutes before serving.

Creativity rules in the #Christmaskitchen

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Chilli jam for Christmas hampers

Chilli jam for Christmas hampers

Those of you who hang around here a lot will know how I bemoan the lack of creativity afforded to teachers. Where league tables, exam performance, measurable improvements and accountability rule, a creative approach to education is out of the window. And yet the very skills and characteristics that are developed when children are allowed to be creative in their learning, solve problems, design and make and work together to complete a project are the very skills which employers want.

Personally, unless I have spent some time outdoors every day and have made something – or at least made progress in a creative project then I’m slightly out of kilter.

The run-up to Christmas is the perfect time for a little of the creative spirit and so I will be tweeting and facebooking my #Christmaskitchen exploits. Nothing is difficult and all can be achieved with and by children with differing amounts of support. Make gifts; fill up your store cupboard with seasonal treats; experiment; have fun.

Autumn Term rituals….and some seasonal bakes

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Glorious Autumn days are for walking but it’s time to get seasonal in the kitchen too

Our Autumn term Wednesday evening ritual is well underway as we approach the semi-final of the (Great British) Bake Off. We love the exploits in the tent, the baking triumphs and disasters, the hints and tips and the historical snippets. We love Mel and Sue and their ability to ease the tension. And we love the introduction to new and interesting flavour combinations.

Children can learn a lot from the Bake Off – how to face triumph and disaster with equal grace,  the importance of planning and practice, how to cope with deadlines and pressure, how to adapt the knowledge you have to new situations which you haven’t faced before and how to smile sweetly at Paul Hollywood when he picks faults in the work of hours without bopping him on the nose.

However the ambitious nature of some of the challenges for youthful bakers is akin to me attempting a triple salko on the ice when I’ve only just learnt to let go of the side. In reality, brave but ill-judged and over ambitious. My other ‘must have’ in my kitchen exploits is more than a sprinkling of seasonality. So in the Country Gate kitchen this week we are attempting Apple Muffins and Beetroot Crisps – seasonal, healthy and oh so yummy.

Here’s how.

beetroot is a superfood

Beetroot Crisps

A healthy alternative to shop bought potato crisps, beetroot are uber-healthy.

You’ll need three beetroot, a few drops of olive oil, some coarse sea salt and fresh thyme

Remove the stalks of the beetroot, leave them unpeeled, wash them under cold water and dry them in a towel ( Use paper towels as beetroot can be messy).

Slice the beetroot as thinly as possible with a mandolin or a very sharp knife.This is a job for a grown up helper.  Place the slices in a bowl, add the olive oil and use your hands to smear the oil on every slice. Every slice should be covered in a very thin coat of oil. This is the bit children love to do.

Line several oven trays with baking paper and place the beetroot slices on the baking paper, one next to the other so that they can bake to a crisp.

Bake at 160 degrees C for 20-25 minutes (depending of how thin they are). You will know that they are ready, when they start to shrink and become crispy.

When ready, take the crisps out of the oven, sprinkle some coarse sea salt, leave them to cool and then add some fresh thyme if desired.

 

Apple MuffinsApple harvest

Muffins are delicious gardening snack food at any time of year but it’s good to give them a seasonal twist. We have apples in abundance and so, what better flavour in Autumn than apple and cinnamon?

Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Grease six muffin cups or line with paper muffin cases.

Stir together 1 1/2 cups plain flour, 3/4 cup caster sugar,1/2 tsp salt, 2 tsp baking powder and 1 tsp cinnamon. Mix in 1/3 cup vegetable oil, an egg and 1/3 cup milk. Fold in 2 peeled, cored and diced cooking apples. Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups, filling to the top of the cup.

In a small bowl, stir together 1/2 cup demerera sugar, 1/3 cup flour, butter and 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon. Mix together with fork and sprinkle over unbaked muffins.

Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until a skewer inserted into centre of a muffin comes out clean.

We may not have Mary, Paul, Sue and Mel but we have bunting, a great view from the kitchen window and a passion for baking.

A quick trip through history – roundhouses, marshland frontiers and a Palladian villa.

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My children love finding out about the past and for that I am grateful, especially as this means they are more than happy to accompany me on numerous fact finding missions to a variety of heritage sites to see what’s on offer for ‘explorer families’ or school parties.

In the latter part of the summer holidays we stopped by three heritage sites for a brief reccy, packing the picnic hamper and the cricket bat along with a desire to follow the odd trail around house or garden. Doubtless we’ll return in the future to continue our exploration.

All three are  worth a visit which we didn’t have time to do full justice to this summer.  

a whistlestop tour through historical Welsh buildings

a whistlestop tour through historical Welsh buildings

 St Fagan’s National History Museum of Wales is currently undergoing a major revamp funded by the  Heritage Lottery Fund and the Welsh Assembly. Entry is free with the exception of the £4 parking charge and there is enough to keep explorer families like ours happy for a whole day. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, the historic buildings (rescued and reconstructed on site or built from scratch according to traditional methods) fascinating and the grounds extensive. Definitely one to visit again and again. There’s also an extensive programme for schools.

a stroll around the Essex marshes

a stroll around the Essex marshes

Wat Tyler Country Park (also free to visit) has been developed since last I visited. It too has some traditional Essex buildings, extensive grounds,  rich in biodiversity and history.

A forest school holiday club meets there during the school holidays and there are some organised wildlife based activities on a regular basis too (pond dipping, bug hunting…) On the day we visited it was teeming with young families playing in the playground and on the bouncy castles and enjoying picnics. And these are the ‘bread and butter’ customers who will return again and again to enjoy a few hours in the open air, letting their children run and play.

On the downside, for explorer families with older children the opportunities to engage with the site are few and far between. The advertised exhibition had been dismantled and the Explosives Trail and World War II trail, wherein lies the heritage of the park were little more than a badly photocopied sheet guiding you around an area with little or no interpretation.

We enjoyed the walk nevertheless, talked about Great Expectations and the marshland landscape haunted by Magwitch and stopped off in the reasonably priced cafe for coffee and cake.

 

Roman architectural inspiration and a restored garden

Roman architectural inspiration and extensive grounds

Chiswick House is the perfect stop off point for lunch on our journey from East London to Wiltshire and a favourite haunt of the joggers and dog walkers of West London. The architecture and art of the house itself is well-served by a 45 minute audio tour but the restored gardens have their very own audio tour which is the real gem. 

Not a bad way to spend a few hours during the summer holidays.