Christmas kitchen – red onion marmalade

 

There’s a timely article in the paper today about foods to eat to help keep the winter blues at bay once the clocks go back. Oily fish, green vegetables and onions feature highly.

I’ve blogged about making red onion marmalade before and on a chilly Autumn day in October I like to have something to show for my time when I can’t make much headway in the garden. There are bulbs to plant, weeds to hoe and pruning to be done but the soil is so cold and wet that I’m loathe to trample piles of soil all over the lawn and the terrace ( I use the terms ‘lawn’ and ‘terrace’ in their loosest sense!).

This October’s red onion marmalade is 2 kilos of red onions sweated down for 45 minutes over a low heat with 140g butter , a good slug of olive oil (about 4 tbsp), a generous tbsp of fresh thyme leaves, a small handful of dried chilli flakes, salt, black pepper, 140 g muscovado sugar and a spoonful of ground gloves. Once the onions are soft to the touch (they should break easily if you press them with a spoon) add a 75cl bottle of cheap red wine, 350ml of red wine vinegar and 200ml port. Simmer over the heat until 2/3rds of the liquid has evaporated. Cool slightly and then pot into sterilised jars.

They should  be stored in the larder or a cool, dark cupboard where they will keep well for three to six months, by which time they will be long gone and you’ll need to make another batch. By Christmas it will be yumsome. I’m going to add some to a food parcel for my eldest who is away at Uni and mentioned ‘home cooking’ at least four times in his weekly phone call home yesterday.

The Importance of Rituals

 

Ritual plays a big part in our home. October Half Term is THE time for making the Christmas cake. Recipes come and go but the ritual of buying ingredients, soaking the fruit and mixing the cake two months before Christmas remains the same. Mary Berry’s version (above) with the odd twist from me is this year’s cake of choice. (I used homemade cherry brandy and a slightly different combination of dried fruit.)

There was a time when I had three little helpers in the kitchen. This year I have one away preparing for a university cycling competition, one upstairs doing his A Level coursework and one relaxing with friends before the next spurt of GCSE mock revision. They’ve all ‘checked in’ that the Christmas cake is in hand.

Being a Celt and a mother it’s not surprising that food plays a big part in our family life and that I share kitchen rituals from my own mother and grandmother with my own children and, one day perhaps, they’ll share the same ones with their own children. Of course they’ll change some; they’ll adapt some; they may even abandon some but that connection and routine is important to our well-being and sense of identity. If you want to read more about the importance of ritual and routine try this as a starting point.

 

Chocolate Cherry Cheerfulness

Yesterday I strained the cherry brandy I’d made back in the summer. I’ve stashed a bottle in the back of the pantry for Christmas and the rest was used to soak the fruit for the Christmas cake. But what’s a woman to do with all those boozy cherries?
I’ve put some aside for a plum and cherry crumble to take it Grandad’s; some have been served with clotted cream ice cream and the rest have been popped into a naughtily rich and delicious boozy chocolate cherry cake to welcome the teens home for their half term holiday. School’s out today!
Here’s how.
You’ll need:
150g good quality dark chocolate like Green and Black’s, broken up
3 eggs
200g caster sugar
150g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
35g cocoa
125ml boiling water
125ml olive or rape seed oil
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
pinch of salt
a few small handfuls of boozy cherries
and the ability to wash up a lot of bowls
  1. Preheat the fan oven to 150C. (170C if not a fan oven.) Grease and line the bottom of a 23cm springform cake tin.
  2. Melt your broken up chocolate gently, either over a bowl of simmering water, or in a microwave. Set it to one side.
  3. Mix your cocoa with boiling water and vanilla extract. Set aside.
  4. Combine flour and salt with bicarb in a separate bowl. Again, set aside!
  5. Now beat eggs, sugar and oil In a mixer until it becomes a little lighter and fluffier. If you don’t have a mixer then this is an excellent five minute upper arm work-out.
  6.  Tip the cocoa solution into the egg and oil mixture. Beat. Now tip flour in gradually into this mixture and beat again. Lastly, the melted chocolate and the cherries. Fold gently till all is combined.
  7. Tip the dark batter into a prepared tin and bake for 40 – 45 minutes. Test with a skewer (it should come out clean).
  8. Let it cool for 15 minutes in the tin, then remove and place on a wire rack to cool.
  9. Serve with creme fraiche and more cherries.

Creativity, Community and Crab Apple Jelly

Schools are frantically busy places in the Autumn. Much of the teaching takes place in the Michaelmas Term at my current school where we teach on Saturdays and finish at the end of June. Consequently there is little time to do much else between the end of August and half term in October. Frantic bursts of work followed by short periods of creativity and slow living work for me.

October Half Term is a golden time of Autumn walks, putting the garden to bed for the winter, planting bulbs, and finding sheltered places for the tender plants, preserving our harvest bounty, baking the Christmas cake and spending time with my own family beside a log fire with a steaming cup of something good in my hand. Spicy apple cake, squash and sage risotto and ginger Parkin will feature In the kitchen. I guess I have a deep-rooted urge to be creative away from the classroom.

This year I am the happy recipient of one of my teaching colleague’s crab apple largesse. There’s quite a creative kitchen community among the staff – I’ll be sharing round the quince after the holidays. After Wales narrow rugby victory yesterday I celebrated by boiling up the 1kg stash of beauties with 1200ml water, a couple of cinnamon sticks and a small handful of whole cloves until they were mushy; then left the whole lot to drip through a jelly bag overnight. This morning I added preserving sugar to the luscious ruby red liquid after I’d boiled it up, stirred to dissolve and then put it on a rolling boil for 9-10 minutes, until it reached setting point. Poured into small sterilised jars,  I have another beautiful item for the Christmas hampers.

 

To everything there is a season…

Apples courtesy of Habitat Aid.

I’m back to school at the end of this week after a summer when, as ever, I completed about half of the tasks on my list. Note the use of the word ‘completed’. The garden is in better shape than it was at the beginning of July, some decorating has been finished, books have been read and chutney made with produce as it comes into season. It’s a bumper year for. Apples. They’ve been falling from the trees for weeks. I spent a happy half hour in Grandad’s London garden sorting the good from the bad with the aid of a ‘sorter’ fashioned from an old brush handle and a plank of wood. (You can never retire from engineering!)

This year we have a phased back to school and work routine. Next week one of the bright young things returns to school, the middle one returns a few days later (after a week of work experience) and the eldest starts at University after that. Ample opportunity to indulge the family stationery fetish! I’m sure all teachers have one.

One of the great joys of life is the pleasure you can take from the changing seasons – not just the way nature, the garden, the weather, the light changes but all those rituals associated with different times of year. I have a sizeable bulb order arriving within the next few weeks. That will take up a few evenings after school in the new term. There is apple chutney to make, quince jelly to create, the chimney to be swept, logs to order, a Christmas cake to prep in October. The list goes on.

Whilst I’ll miss the not so lazy days of summer there are pleasures aplenty to come in every season. They give a shape and familiarity to the year which energises the body and quietens the soul. Modern society can leave us cocooned from seasonality. Centrally heated houses can feel the same all year round, you can put fresh strawberries on a pavlova in February and keep your Christmas lights up all year round. That’s not for me.

The joy of coffee and cake

I’ve written about taking afternoon tea before and it’s still ‘a thing’ in this house. Yesterday, between the showers we popped over for a stroll around the stones at Avebury and the Manor garden followed by high tea. (More march than stroll to allow for calorific cake consumption).The table was laid with mix and match china, 1930s tunes played quietly in the background, there was proper tea and coffee in pots and the cake was deliciously naughty . My cheese scone was beautifully moist and came with a dish of spicy homemade tomato chutney and there wasn’t a mobile phone in sight. (Every mother’s dream.) As a family we had a proper natter of the kind that is difficult when there are five busy people in a house with competing sporting, school and work commitments, making sitting down together more of a rarity than it used to be.

A glance around the tearoom revealed plenty of smiling faces engaged in relaxed conversations. I guess it’s what the Swedes create when they indulge in the art of fika- meeting up for coffee and cake, even if it’s for 15 minutes. School staff rooms up and down the country would do well to encourage some fika, even if it’s only once a week. If I was a Head I’d be baking on Thursday evenings in preparation for our Friday fika. In fact, it might not be a bad idea for the new term.

And at home with the eldest about to make his way in the world at University a spot of fika once a week is precious time well-spent.

Summer 2019 : 5 reasons why the seaside is the place to be

It’s August and in August the Country Gate gang head to the beach.

A visit to the seaside is a treat for us at any time of year and for well over a decade, as the children grew up, every school holiday the waggons to rolled to West Wales. We couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. Whilst friends flew to Spain, Majorca, Croatia, New Zealand, Japan and Greece we spent time doing essential home maintenance on our ‘ethical holiday home’ (family home inherited from my late parents and occupied all year round by an aged aunt).

There are worse places to go for a holiday than within a stone’s throw of Broad Haven South, Barafundle, Amroth, Newgale and White Sands Bay. We bathed, played cricket and frisbee, discovered bodyboarding, flew kites, read books and ate fish and chips whilst the sun went down. In the Winter we wandered in wellies or walking boots, thick jumpers and waterproofs. Whilst the wind tugged at out hair we sat on the rocks and drank hot coffee from flasks.

I worried that we weren’t giving the children a ‘proper holiday’ – whatever that means – but I needn’t have. We visited some fantastic places – many of which are documented in this blog – despite the bitter sweet feeling that the whole experience could have been better had my parents been alive to enjoy them with us. My great aunt died (at nearly 100) three years ago so we sold the house to a cousin, allowing the essential maintenance on our own house instead and in recent years we have visited Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly, Guernsey and Devon. There’s a definite seaside theme here. “I could watch the sea for hours,” said my daughter this week, whilst gazing out to sea on the coastal path at Baggy Point near Croyde in Devon. My middle son tentatively asked if it was too far for a day trip to Broad Haven South later in the month. He’d like to go back.It’s in the blood. They speak fondly of those holidays just as I look back on all the evening jaunts to the beach after dad came home from work when I was their age.

For those suffering from stress or anxiety the seaside has so many benefits. If it isn’t available on prescription, it ought to be. Here are my five reasons why.

  1. Sun 30 minutes a day spent outside in natural light can significantly affect our wellbeing. The higher the level of Vitamin D in the body, the lower the blood glucose level, suggesting that sun avoidance may be linked to the onset of Type 2 diabetes. A deficiency of vitamin D leads to muscle pain, weak bones, fatigue, lowered immunity, depression, mood swings and sleep irregularities. Wear sunscreen but get out in the sun when you can and the beach is the perfect place to do it.
  2. Sea Sea water has antiseptic properties and may improve skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. (I can vouch for the latter.)The salt and potassium chloride content ”seals” the damaged skin and speeds healing. Obviously you need to wash the salt off and moisturise well after a few hours on the beach but it really makes a difference. Psoriasis reared its ugly head first for me  when I hit puberty and my self-confidence plummeted. I was persuaded to go sea bathing by my parents after the tourists had abandoned the beach in favour of their evening meal  and my condition improved so much.Sea water also has strong antihistamine effects and is a good decongestant. It may even help to reduce snoring – always a bonus.
  3.  Sand Sand acts as a natural exfoliant, helping old skin to shed more quickly and improving its natural regeneration. Walking, running or exercising on sand is also recommended as the extra resistance it imposes on muscles can maximise the effects of any fitness regime.
  4. Smell  The distinctive smell of the seaside is caused by dimethyl sulphide gas and breathing it in deeply will help you to sleep better.This is because sea air is full of negative hydrogen ions, charged particles abundant in sea spray and concentrated in fresh air, which improve our ability to absorb oxygen by neutralising damaging free radicals (positive ions). These negative ions can also balance levels of seratonin, the feel-good hormone, making us less prone to anxiety. Patients with respiratory problems and pulmonary disorders report improvements in their  condition after spending time at the seaside too.
  5. Seaweed I’m Welsh band you may be shocked to hear that I can’t bring myself to worship at the altar of  larver bread. If you can bring yourself to partake, seaweed has high levels of zinc, chromium, manganese, selenium and particularly iodine, all essential for good health. I can embrace a seaweed bath or face mask however to draw toxins out of the body and leave you feeling centred and energised.

So there you have it – a beach is the place for tired teachers to go on their summer hols – or any hols.

 

Summer 2019 : Homemade cherry brandy

We don’t have a cherry tree at the moment but we do have generous cherry-growing friends. A trug of cherries at this time of year is just the job for some homemade cherry cake, a clafoutis or to indulge in some store-cupboard alchemy, making cherry brandy. Making or creating something is one of my particular stress-busters. I don’t paint or sew or knit but I can garden, cook and prance about on a stage.

For this project you’ll need a bottle of (cheap) brandy, a kilner jar (1 kg should do it) and enough cherries to fill the jar (600-700g), 2 tbsp sugar ( I use soft brown) and a cinnamon stick. Obviously you can make more by upscaling the jars and ingredients.

Stone the cherries and pack them into the jar. Add the sugar and stir well. Pop the cinnamon stick in the top of the jar, pour in enough brandy to cover and seal.  Shake well and put away in a cool dark cupboard for about 6 weeks.

Shake the jar occasionally. (I have to write myself notes on the fridge as a reminder.) Then on a rainy day in September, remove your jar of cherry jewels,  pour through a sieve to remove the cherries and use these to recreate the scent and taste of summer on top of deliciously indulgent clotted cream or chocolate ice cream. At this point you’ll feel smug that you remembered to stone the cherries. Pour the brandy into pretty bottles, label and store in the pantry for that Christmas drinks party or to pack into hampers for those you love.

Easy, delayed gratification.

Summer 2019: A good year for the roses?

Unlike Elvis Costello I’ve had better years with my roses. A particularly annoying leaf cutter has been carefully chomping on the leaves of “Lady Emma Hamilton’, ‘Emily Bronte’ looked like she might fade away like her namesake and ‘Munstead Wood’, ‘Gertrude Jekyll’, ‘Rambling Rector’ and the others have had far fewer blooms than last year. When they really needed feeding and watering assiduously, I was in the middle of my exam marking marathon. But if you truly love your garden, it will recover and pay you back tenfold in experience, if nothing else. Not unlike parenting or teaching. There’s always another day in the garden, in the classroom or with children. Parents or teachers who beat them selves up when things go wrong would be wise to remember this.

We never grew roses when I was a child. I‘ve had to learn how to take care of them – where to plant, when and how to prune, how to rid them of aphids, dealing with black spot….. That’s probably why they didn’t have a spot in the garden. Plants had to earn their place and virtually everything was for cutting or eating. In my own cottage garden, roses rub noses with other plants – some edible, some not. I rarely cut roses for the vase but use the petals for pot pourri and rose petal jam. They work well in a cottage garden, mixed with poppies, foxgloves, phlox, under planted with violets or alchemilla mollis or companion planted with lavender, chives, tarragon, fennel or thyme.

One of the first things I planted when we moved in was a beautiful cream climber beside the kitchen door. I’ve no idea what it’s called but it romped away and smells delicious. The last one was ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’, whose buds are red, becoming orange in bloom, fading to a pale peach. Orange and blue are calming colours to look out on. Lady Emma knocks about with deep blue agapanthus in a bed easily seen from the kitchen window. I love seeing them when I’m washing up or doing the ironing.

Here’s the recipe for rose petal jam.

Gather about 60 rose petals. Deep pink or red roses are best and they need to be pesticide-free. Everything is in our garden. Cut away the light-coloured base of each petal, which can make the jam bitter. Place  a kilo of sugar and a litre of water in a saucepan or preserving pan and bring to the boil. Add the petals and simmer for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally.Add a teaspoon of citric acid, (available from the pharmacy) and stir for a further ten minutes until it reaches setting point. Pour into sterilised jars and seal. Once cooled serve with scones or ice cream. Delish.

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