When life gives you dandelions….

I know many people are feeling out of kilter. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Or are you just doing your best in difficult circumstances? When you see dandelions in your lawn do you enjoy their pretty showiness or bemoan a less than perfect lawn?

Me? Well I leave some for the bees and harvest some to make dandelion petal jelly. Just like a did a few years ago. Here’s how. 

A perfect creative make to do with or without your children when you’re cooped up and want a little bit of sunshine in your life.

And yes to me a lawn is wasted growing space, never perfect but a concession to the rest of the family. I might replace the weeds. moss and rye grass with one made of chamomile this year.

Watch this space.

Friday Night leftovers

I used to shop on Saturdays for food and so Friday night In this house is leftovers night. Since the lockdown we’ve had some pretty weird supper combos, but tonight’s roast dinner was extraordinary. Not for the ingredients this time, but because a Friday night roast is a first. I have never had the energy to face cooking this after a week in the classroom. But life in the topsy-turvy world of COVID19 can offer opportunities as well as restrictions and uncertainty.

This week I am grateful for the time I got to spend with my family, to cook, to potter in the garden, to watch theatre productions live streamed to my pc and to reflect on my teaching practice. I’ve even signed up for some online courses to make me a better and more informed teacher. I haven’t had time for that for years,

There are still leftovers in the form of some over-ripe bananas so my daughter whipped up a quick banana loaf after supper. It’s easy – 140g each of butter, caster sugar and self-raising flour, a couple of eggs, 2tsp of baking powder and a couple of very ripe bananas whizzed together and baked at 160 c for half an hour in a fan oven.

And now I can relax in front of Gardener’s World, watching Rachel de Thame start her walled kitchen garden project.

One day that will be me.

 

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.

 

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.

Summer 2019: Pot luck

At some point during last year I lost my cooking mojo. Work was manic; sporting, drama and other commitments meant that there were nights when we didn’t eat together; tastes became uber conservative, my psoriasis flared up and I needed to be selective about what I ate…. It was all too much and I settled for a few tried and tasted – and frankly boring options.

Now that life has settled and there is more headspace to plan and experiment I’ve rekindled my passion for being in the kitchen. I’m finding, trying out, adapting or developing a range of one-pot vegetarian or vegan supper dishes and if the leftovers work as next day’s lunch for someone, that’s even better.

Last night’s was a mix of chickpeas, puy lentils, halloumi, kale, sweet potato and squash, pesto, mint, smoked paprika – a version of a recipe found in this book.

Keep your eyes out for more during the summer.

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