Summer in my kitchen (part 1)

If you ever find yourself in the happy situation of having several large fresh figs and a bowl of raspberries, I strongly urge you to make a Fig and Raspberry Crumble Cake.

My neighbour has a large fig tree which has produced masses of exquisite figs this year and she kindly gave us a load. As there are only so many raw figs one can eat, I searched for a recipe and found this one from the fabulous cookery writer Diana Henry. I altered it only very slightly in that I used a little less sugar, used set Greek yoghurt instead of regular natural yoghurt, because that’s what I had, and omitted the flaked almonds (which should be sprinkled on top) only because I didn’t have any.

I did wait for 15 minutes for it to cool slightly before releasing it from the tin (as instructed) but the smell was so divine that I just had to cut a slice and try it while it was still warm from the oven. It looks quite stodgy and maybe even undercooked in the photo but it wasn’t – it was surprisingly light. (I didn’t eat all that by myself by the way.) This is Seriously Good Cake and it would also make a wonderful pudding.

As well as this cake, I also made two banana loaf cakes (recipe here) and a huge apple and blackberry pie – all in an effort to use up the fruit mountain that occurs at this time of year. I’m missing my sous chef, though, and she’ll be cross she missed a mega-baking day but we do have a big party to cook for soon, so there will be plenty more baking going on next week. Bang goes my waistline.

Good luck to any of you whose children collect A or AS level results today. My eldest took one AS level (these are exams taken half way through an A-level course; exams for his other two subjects are all at the end of the two years) and he’s off to school soon to collect the result. Fingers crossed.

Cheerio for now.

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Blustery days and bara brith

 

 

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Yep, it’s definitely autumn. There’s a nip in the easterly wind and this morning I needed a warm coat for the first time since spring; collar up, hands shoved deep into pockets, purposeful stride. Cassie gets a little frisky when it’s windy. She’s easily spooked by a falling pine cone or a sudden flurry of leaves. Our cats go a bit silly, too. Skittish. They’ll leap at the sight of their tail, zoom past and out through the cat flap and back in again a few seconds later. I feel a little skittishness (is that a word?) is rubbing off on me. I can’t settle. There’s a long list of Stuff To Do and I’m avoiding doing it. A teacher friend once told me that teaching young children on a windy day is like herding grasshoppers – they’re excitable, unpredictable. I like that. The thought that humans are deeply connected to forces of nature appeals to me. That’s one of the reasons I love living here; that feeling of connectedness with nature that you don’t get in the city. Here you see the weather coming; you experience it.*

My children’s appetites seem to have stepped up a gear. You wouldn’t believe the amount of milk we’re getting through. I buy four x four-pinters at a time and within a few days we’re running out. In an effort to keep them well-fed, I’ve been baking a lot of cakes for after-school tea. Mary Berry’s Ultimate Cake Book is my most-used recipe book for straightforward, reliably delicious cakes. She’s gone up even more in my estimation since Great British Bake Off-gate. That woman has integrity.

Anyway…  In the cake tin this week we have Gingerbread Traybake (the quantities of syrup, treacle and sugar would make you shudder but, boy, it’s scrumptious) and the ‘award-winning’ (!) Bara Brith. Far be it from me to mess with Mary’s recipes but I use less sugar than the recipe states. And I use a mix of dark muscovado and light. It is the easiest cake to bake, you just need to remember to soak your fruit the night before. Makes 1 x 2lb (900g) loaf.

175g currants
175g sultanas
175g muscovado sugar (I use a mix of dark and light. Mary’s recipe calls for 225g light)
300ml strong hot tea
275g self-raising flour
1 egg, beaten

Put the dried fruit and sugar into a mixing bowl, pour over the hot tea, cover and leave to soak overnight.
Preheat your oven to 150 degrees C. Grease and line your loaf tin. (I use those brilliant loaf-tin liners you can get here.)
Stir the flour and egg into the soaked fruit/sugar and mix thoroughly. Scrape into your prepared tin, pop it in the oven and bake for one-and-a-half to one-and-three-quarter hours. It should look risen and a little cracked on top and be firm to the touch.
Serve sliced with butter. You can be generous with the butter on top as there’s none in it 🙂

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* I know there is a nasty amount of wind currently rampaging in the Caribbean and south eastern US. I don’t mean to be flippant about it. If you are affected, I do hope you’re ok.

 

Bank holiday, bluebells and baking

Since David has been working away from home during the week, weekends have had a slight air of urgency-bordering-on-frantic-rush about them. There is so much to fit in that we’re often frazzled, with little time left over for relaxed conversations, making plans or spending time together (forget ‘quality’ time, just time), so a bank holiday weekend is a treat. We can luxuriate in an extra day – time for a relaxed coffee and chat together, for long family meals, for a dog walk together, and wandering around the garden and pottering. Today is a grey and drizzly day but I don’t care; Saturday and Sunday were gloriously sunny and we spent plenty of time outdoors. Frankly it’s nice to have an excuse not to be in the garden digging out stumps and lugging rocks around, which is what we had planned to do today. I’m glad to have a rest.

There’s an ancient wood near here which is full of bluebells and wood anemones at this time of year. It’s a magical place to visit (even when there are no bluebells) and is a favourite place of ours. We walked the dog there yesterday morning – the sunlight filtered through the branches, birdsong was all around and the smell was divine. Breathing big lungfuls of spring air, scented by spring flowers, surrounded by glorious nature – there is nothing quite like it. Sorry if you’re fed up of seeing photos of bluebells; I’ve seen quite a few on other blogs and on Instagram but I never tire of them.

I also made time to do a little baking in honour of the long weekend; I love to bake but have to be in the mood. I made Nigella’s Victoria Sponge (from How to Eat) but substituted 30g best cocoa powder for 30g of the flour, thus making it into chocolate cake, and added a simple choc fudge icing. It got a big thumbs-up from the boys. The stars for me, though, were the Rhubarb and Lemon Scones I made to use up the few stalks of rhubarb pulled on Saturday (recipe from this blog which sadly seems to have disappeared). I doubled the quantities given and can vouch for their more-ishness.

Thank you so much for your kind comments about my girl’s knee situation – it is getting better and she’s off the crutches; I’m sure she’ll be dancing and trying out her pointe shoes in the next week or so. As for football, she’s determined that she’ll carry on. Family life… Gosh, it has it’s ups and downs, doesn’t it? I’m struggling a bit with how best to deal with my eldest at the moment. His GCSEs start in under three weeks and I keep walking into rooms to find him sprawled out and on his phone, or taking him a mug of tea when I think he’s hard at work only to find he’s gone back to bed. It’s so exasperating! I know I’ve banged on about this before… He is doing some work but he’s taking an enormously relaxed approach to the whole thing. He tells me there’s no use in him revising for pointless exams because the world could end tomorrow (hmm), or he tells me how stupid it is to make 16-year-olds do exams and the government is crazy and the system is bonkers (he could have a point). Sigh. All I want is for him to do himself justice so he’ll have as much choice as possible in the future. I wonder what to do for the best but, for now, I’ve decided to back off. I know things could be a lot worse.

My boy is still inside this crotchety 16-year-old, though. Last week he called me into the kitchen where both cats were in a stand-off. One of them had brought in a very cute mouse, I’m fairly sure it was a field mouse, which was sitting statue-like between them, not moving a whisker. We managed to shoo the cats outside and get the mouse into a box – I think the poor thing was stunned with fright but it wasn’t obviously injured. He carried it carefully down the road to let it loose in the field and came home to report that he’d waited to see that the mouse was ok and watched until it had scurried off into the undergrowth. That is my boy.

 

 

Trying to fit in too much (as usual)

Yet another photo of alliums. They are looking so spectacular at the moment that I had to show you (again)!
The alliums are now fully out and looking so spectacular that I had to show you them again! I adore these balls of beauty.

It’s been a busy few days as we’re spending every spare moment outside in the countdown to the Garden Safari. The entrance to our property is through a gate in a mixed hedge at the top of the garden (we are on a slope). It’s an unprepossessing entry so we decided to give the hedge a good cut back, clear the area underneath it which runs beside the path and plant it with something pretty to look at. This is a job that has needed doing for some time…

I should have taken a 'before' shot, ie, before the hedge was cut and the edge cleared, but David got going before me!
I should have taken a ‘before’ shot, ie, before David cut the hedge and the edge was cleared, but you can get an idea of what it looked like from the mess on the path.
The earth here is very dry and so we've added a huge sack of compost (it didn't go very far).
The soil here is very dry and so we added a huge sack of compost. (It didn’t go very far.)
We've planted grasses, geraniums, bergenia, achillea, and erigeron – all plants that don't mind it dry and cope with baking sun and a bit of shade (fingers crossed).
We planted grasses, geraniums, bergenia, achillea, osteospermum and erigeron – all plants that don’t mind it dry and cope with baking sun and a bit of shade (fingers crossed). These were mostly plants that we propagated from others in the garden or grew from seed.
A big clump of bergenia that we transplanted with luzula in the background.
A big clump of bergenia that we transplanted from behind the shed with luzula in the background and geraniums in the foreground. The tree is a large maritime pine.
I hope the erigeron will take here as well as it has on the front steps.
I hope the erigeron will take here as well as it has done on the front steps.

As well as tackling this area, we’ve also started on project ‘Rebuild the Compost Heaps’…

This is what the compost heap looks like at the moment.
This is what the heaps look like at the moment: A Mess. There are two collapsing bays, completely overloaded and with potatoes growing out of them(!), and two plastic bins that we don’t use.
Wood and tools ready to go. We only got as far as making the two side panels. The plan is to have three bays, each roughly 1.2m square.
Wood and tools ready to go. In typical ‘taking on too much in one day’ fashion, we only got as far as making the two end panels.

The plan is to have three compost bays, each roughly 1.2m square, so we can use one to turn each heap to aerate it. I’ve read about all kinds of interesting ingredients and that it’s important not to have too much nitrogen-rich material. It’ll be so great to have home-made compost – it feels as though this is ‘proper’ gardening now. Does anyone have any composting tips?

My son's discarded walking boots. I had to leave them for quite a while before it was safe to move them.
My son’s discarded walking boots. We had to leave them for a few hours before it was safe to move them.

In other news… Our eldest finished his qualifying silver Duke of Edinburgh expedition yesterday – three days of walking (60km) and two nights of camping. It’s been an exciting few months for him but that’s it for a while now. In order to achieve the award, he has to concentrate on finishing his volunteering, physical and skill activities. Oh, and all his school work of course.

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I baked a couple of banana loaves earlier this afternoon for the after-school kitchen-raiders. If you usually eat all your bananas before they have a chance to be over-ripe, I recommend saving a couple to go past their best and use them to make this cake.

Dairy-free banana loaf
Makes 1 x 900g/2lb loaf 

The quantities double up easily for two cakes – I usually make two at
a time and use 2 medium or 3 small bananas as we don’t like them very banana-y. And you can experiment with types and ratios of sugars. Using all dark brown soft, or a mixture of light (or dark) muscovado and caster, also works well. You could also add a handful of sultanas or walnuts (but my youngest doesn’t like ‘bits’).

100g dark brown soft sugar
75g unrefined caster sugar
60ml olive oil (basic, not expensive or extra-virgin)
2 eggs
175g self-raising flour
1 heaped tsp baking powder
2 small or 1 large over-ripe banana, mashed

Line a loaf tin with baking parchment or use a loaf-tin liner. Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees C.

Whisk the sugars, olive oil and eggs together in a large mixing bowl using a hand-held electric whisk. Do this for a couple of minutes until the mixture is lighter in colour and frothy. Sieve the flour and baking powder into the bowl and use a wooden spoon to fold everything in until fully combined. Add the mashed banana and stir until just incorporated. Pour the batter into your prepared loaf tin, pop in the oven and bake for 40–45 minutes. Stick a skewer into the centre of the loaf – if it comes out clean and the top is springy to the touch, the cake is cooked. If not, bake for a few minutes more.

Remove from the oven, place on a wire rack to cool for a couple of minutes before turning out of the tin. It’s delicious eaten while still warm as the edges will be a little crunchy. It will keep for a few days in an air-tight tin, but ours usually disappear quite quickly.

 

Lows and highs

 

Wind and rain scattered cherry blossom over the garden.
Wind and rain scattered cherry blossom over the garden.

 

The long weekend didn’t turn out quite as expected. Poor David was ill which meant a sleepless night for both of us on Friday, and Saturday was subsequently a wash-out. I was due to head to London for a friend’s pre-wedding party but sadly had to send my apologies – I couldn’t leave the children with a poorly dad and I was exhausted and definitely not feeling my best. I did tackle a huge pile of ironing, though, which made me feel a bit better. (Oh, the high life!)

One of my favourite colour combinations in the garden green, purple and orange – a cheering sight.
One of my favourite colour combinations in the garden – green, purple and orange – always cheers me up.

The rest of the weekend has been very low-key, which is sometimes what  you need. Pottering around the garden and the greenhouse (checking for snails), walking the dog, snuggling up and watching tv with the kids, early nights.

The tulips are looking so fabulous right now that I have to show you another photo!
The tulips are looking so fabulous right now that I have to show you some more!

 

Oh, and I made scones. I do most of the baking in our house, but making scones is David’s thing. And, I have to admit it, he does make the BEST scones. This is not an exaggeration – they are legendary in our family. Still, it was just what I fancied and David definitely wasn’t up to making them. I followed the same recipe and they were perfectly acceptable but they were ‘not as good as dad’s’, as my middle son bluntly told me (while happily scoffing one).

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David’s scones
Makes about 12 using a medium cutter

4oz caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling on top
4oz butter (or block margarine for dairy-free)
1 egg, beaten
1lb self-raising flour
enough milk to bind to a dough (use almond or soya milk for dairy-free)
a handful of sultanas

1. Preheat your oven to 200 degrees C and grease a baking sheet.
2. Use a mixer to beat the sugar and butter together until light and fluffy.
3. Add the egg a bit at a time until mixed in.
4. Add the flour and and whizz for a while – you’ll end up with a fairly dry breadcrumb mixture.
5. Tip the mixture into a large mixing bowl and pour in just enough milk to bring it all together to form a dough. This shouldn’t be sticky.
6. Add the sultanas and knead lightly to mix them in.
7. Turn out onto a floured surface and roll out to about 2.5cm thick. Cut out your scones and place onto your baking sheet. Sprinkle the tops with sugar.
8. Pop into the oven for 12–15 minutes (depending on how fierce your oven is). I’d check after 10 and turn the tray to ensure even baking.

Best eaten while still warm from the oven – with jam and clotted cream if you have some, or just butter/spread if you don’t. Hopefully you’ll get higher praise than I did!

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