A present from Seville

If white is the colour of the first half of January, then by the end of the month it’s given way to orange. I love a bit of purity and minimalism after the richness of Christmas. Early January is a time for snowdrops in tiny vases, nutritious green juices and snow. But after a few weeks I’m ready for a bit of sunshine – even if that is in a jar.

I bagged a bargain box of Seville oranges from a local farm shop to make marmalade but couldn’t resist putting a few aside to make bitter orange pud for our supper. It’s a twist on Nigella’s bitter orange tart. I had a packet of Dorset ginger biscuits left over from Christmas so crunched them up with melted butter to form the base, divided the mix between 5 ramekins, popped the orange curd on top and chilled.

Once I find those muslin squares I put away for a rainy day and today’s snow has lost its virgin sparkle, I’ll be making a few jars of marmalade with spiced rum. Jars of sunshine in the depths of winter. It’s what I crave right now.

When life gives you lemons…preserve them

It’s been a busy week – teaching from home, on the rota with keyworker and vulnerable children in school, year 11 assessments to collect evidence for the end of course grades and a 290 mile round trip to take my father-in-law for his COVID jab. Pretty shattered actually and so the simple task of chopping a few lemons to preserve was just the job. Creative, therapeutic chopping which resulted in someting pretty and useful to stash in the larder.

It’s the work of a moment but a real mood booster. Sterilise a Kilner jar, place a couple of teaspoons of salt granules in the bottom then layer up fat slices of lemon (I used 2 lemons) with a teaspoon of salt between the layers. Cover with the juice of a couple of lemons, press down so that all the lemon slices are covered by the brine. Pop a couple of bay leaves in the top, seal and place in a cool, dark cupboard for a couple of weeks. Give the jar a shake from time to time.

They should be ready to use in a fortnight. I use them in soups, tagines and stirred through grains like bulghur wheat. You can preserve whole lemons or lemon wedges but I find slices are more versatile for my needs and you can make a small jar which is ready in 2 weeks as opposed to three months.

Wrapping up Christmas

Christmas is cancelled, according to the doom-laden press. It’s true enough that Christmas is very different this year for many. It’s true that we haven’t felt very Christmassy because the usual rituals have been curtailed or changed. It’s not true that the spirit of Christmas has been cancelled. Resilience, adaptability and community spirit – always positive character traits – have been forced upon us.

Here we are lucky enough still to be able to wrap up homemade gifts with love and care and deliver them to the friends we love who live nearby. We don’t go in for sparkle and glitter in our wrapping, but there was plenty of sparkle when we stood for 15 minutes on doorsteps chatting and planning to meet when were all allowed out next year. It was lovely to find a bit of normal in our topsy-turvy world.

Elderberry tincture

Some people spent lockdown learning Swedish, writing a novel or taking on an allotment. Virtual learning and preparing to move schools curtailed my usual creativity. No elderberries were harvested and so there is no usual elderberry tincture in the pantry to stave off those usual Winter colds and boost my immune system.

Consequently I indulged myself and ordered an elixir from Sweet Bee Organics. It’s the business but hugely expensive. I’m going to find time to make my own using freeze dried elderberries rather than fresh this year. I’ll blog the recipe and provide step by step instructions in due course.

Christmas Cake 2020

This year’s Christmas cake is in the oven – an annual half term job. More than ever this year I feel the need to prepare for a truly memorable Christmas. Nothing fancy – just the simple pleasures of family walks, log fires, books, board games and comfort food. I am a Celtic mother after all.

I used Mary Berry’s Christmas cake recipe this year but substituted honey for treacle, cut out the nuts as some of the family don’t care for them and used my own special mix of dried fruits. The fruit was liberally soaked in brandy for four days prior to cooking (obviously) and will be fed once a week with more brandy until Christmas – if I remember. Sometimes I don’t- but the cake is all the better for getting slowly sozzled.

I enjoy October Half Term more than any other holiday with its colourful Autumn walks, bulb planting and tidying up the garden, store cupboard cooking for Christmas, bonfires and domestic chores. The gutters have been cleared and cleaned, the firewood chopped and stacked, the quince tree mostly harvested, the dresser cleaned and polished with beeswax and the tree surgeon and oven cleaning guru are booked to do their magic over the next few weeks. The latter, I admit is a bit of an indulgence but I treated myself and my still-broken arm. Full time teaching in a new school during a pandemic, all the while without proper use of one arm needs rewarding somehow. A professional oven clean and a vastly expensive bottle of elderberry tincture to ward off the usual school lergi should be just the job.

More about elderberry tincture to follow.

Apple muffins on a rainy day

I was too late booking tickets for a brisk Autumn walk around Stourhead today. Usually we can just check out the weather and pop over; in pandemic times we have to plan a week ahead.

As it happens, the weather was pretty grim. Instead I turned on the oven and used a few of our home-grown apples to whip up a batch of cinnamon apple muffins. I may pop in some toffee to the next batch for bonfire night. These however were perfect for an afternoon treat in front of the fire with a good book.

Stourhead is booked for next weekend and there’s a Wales v France rugby match on the TV later. Rainy days rarely get me down.

To make the muffin sift into a bowl 300g plain flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 2 teaspoons cinnamon.

Stir in 4 medium cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped into chunks and 100g brown sugar.

Mix together 2 beaten eggs, 180 ml milk and 125 g butter melted and cooled.

Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients until combined. Don’t over mix.

Scoop evenly into 12 muffin cases. Sprinkle with some demerera sugar. Bake at 180 in a fan oven for 20 mins.

Et voila.

A Bumper Harvest of Greengages

Delicious greengage chutney

Last night the boys gathered the last of our bumper crop of greengages. It’s the first year we’ve had a proper crop after planting the tree about 6 (or more) years ago. This afternoon, while the younger members of the household variously sunbathed on the beach at Budleigh Salterton, played football or cycled 130km with clubmates Mum got to grips with the harvest. Chutney-making is the kind of cooking I love. There’s plenty of therapeutic repetitive chopping and stirring and you can give full rein to your creativity.

I had about 2 kilos of greengages, stoned and quartered. To these I added 4 large cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped. These were donated by a neighbour (ours aren’t ready yet and there were none to be found in the supermarket this week). Next went in three medium red onions, chopped small, a large knuckle of ginger, peeled and grated, 400g raisins, a kilo of preserving sugar, 750ml cider vinegar and a spice mix (2 tsps each of ground cumin, ground coriander, pink peppercorns, mustard seeds, a tsp of cardamon pods, a generous tsp chilli flakes and a cinnamon stick) and a pinch of salt. I  boiled it up and then simmered for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally. Then ladled it into 11 sterilised jars which have been stored in the pantry ready for Christmas boxes.

Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon in August.

Smudging

Seven weeks in lockdown hasn’t been that bad. Truly. Yet the lack of a focus for three teens who have had their examinations cancelled and their holiday plans dashed and two parents working flat out from home could possibly stir emotions and make them bubble up periodically. It’s natural.

This morning I cut back a hefty bunch of sage which had been overhanging the garden path and it’s now drying in the kitchen. I think I may do some smudging around the house in the near future.

Before you roll your eyes and think I’ve lost the plot or reverted to my Druidic ancestry there is some science behind this traditional practice of cleansing your home of negative and stagnant energy. It releases negative ions that fight against dust and pollution. Research has also shown that it can clear 94% of bacteria (for up to 24hrs) which is why it’s great to use when you’ve been feeling a little under the weather.

Here’s how. You can buy beautifully packaged but slightly expensive white sage smudging sticks or make your own from cuttings. I’m using garden sage which is not strictly correct as you’ll see from the comments which follow. Artemisia is the plant to use. Bind round the leaves with string so that you have a tight bundle. Gather together a flameproof bowl, matches and the bundle. Open the windows, light the end of your stick and blow out the flame, leaving it smoking gently. Then make your way around your house carrying the sage bundle over the bowl, wafting the smoke into all areas as you progress. You’re  aiming for gentle puffs not thick black fumes that leave your neighbours phoning the fire brigade and all the smoke alarms ringing out.

It works. And no do I look like I would do this when the teens are around to engage in friendly banter about mum’s bonkersness (is that even a word?). First thing in the morning is a golden opportunity. Teenagers in lockdown don’t rise at 6am, unlike their working parents.

May Day

I can hardly believe it’s the beginning of May but the winter squash on the kitchen windowsill and the lush growth in the garden is proof that it is. For the first time in years my seed sowing is more organised than sporadic. I have peas, beans of various varieties, beetroot, rocket, chard, carrots, lettuce and spinach growing in amongst the flowers and shrubs.

I’ve written about May Day before but this one is different. No trips out to National Trust properties, no May Fairs, no picnics, except in our own garden and no fire – although when I get that fire basket for the terrace we will be able to sit outside and chat in the chill of the evening.

I love a bit of tradition, as you know. Staying out all night, watching the sunrise and bathing your face in morning dew appealed to my younger self; dressing a tree and making a floral crowns and baskets was the stuff of parenting toddlers.

Now I’m drawn to making Hawthorn Brandy, much more sedate for a woman of mature years. You will need a bottle of brandy and at least one cup of hawthorn flowers, plus a little sugar to taste. Mix the ingredients together and leave away from direct light, for at least two weeks. Shake occasionally. Strain, bottle and enjoy. Hawthorn is renowned as a tonic for the heart.

May is a good time to start a new project. It will be good to fuel my energies into a new enterprise after weeks of lockdown but I have welcomed the time to reflect and plan rather than rushing into anything whilst continuing the business of teaching my students remotely and spending time with my family. I’ll share progress soon.

 

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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.

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