cooking

An Overture to Springtime…

You know what they say about the best laid plans and all that?  Well, our trip to Morocco was eventful but not quite in the ways we’d imagined; the temperature dropped like a stone from around 28C to just 8C, sending Marrakech into a state of shivery shock; our hotel had somehow over-booked itself, resulting in a midnight taxi ride across the city in search of a bed for the night, accompanied by the profusely apologetic manager (we found a new hotel and bed which looked fine in the dark, but were greeted by a curious family of cockroaches on waking – cue yet another relocation after breakfast…).  Even our eagerly awaited trip into the Atlas mountains had to be abandoned as thick fog rendered the narrow hill roads too dangerous to be easily navigated.

A disappointment, for sure, but an experience so populated by adverse events that it quickly became funny, in that sort of mildly hysterically way when things spiral completely beyond your control.  Even then there were highlights; freshly squeezed local orange juice in the Jemaa el-Fnaa, the universally lovely and helpful people, and the rose petals, everywhere… beauty amidst the chaos which leaves us keen to return, albeit probably not in February.

Back home we tried to coax a little Spring sunshine and cheer ourselves up by throwing an impromptu dinner party on Friday night.

Paper Boat Placenames

I swiftly made paper boat name settings for everyone, and Harry and I dunked handfuls of curly kale into poster paint to make a fun sea foam for them to rest on (I’ll post a proper DIY for these in the week together with the patterns to download – a very easy yet lovely ‘make’ to do with a glass of wine in hand, and a little gift for friends to take home afterwards).  Along the table centre I placed random kitchen accessories and pots of herbs – anything that made me think of spring or summer, like fresh basil and lemons…

Springtime Tablescape

Fresh basil table centre

 

Bowl of fresh lemons Breadsticks

 

We had such a good night, in the way that often happens when you don’t have much time to plan and just throw people and food together; a lovely way to end the week and start the weekend.

In other news, remember my intent to start a proper glasshouse this year and your suggestions of Meyer lemon trees and other great plants?  My newly acquired lemon tree is looking beautiful and promising abundant bounty; whilst I can’t claim responsibility for the current crop of lemons, new flower buds have appeared all over in the last couple of weeks and suggest that it’s thriving; I’m very proud :-)

Meyer Lemon TreeMeyer Lemon Flowerbuds

Harry and I also took the opportunity of half-term to get busy in the kitchen, making Star Wars cookies using our newly-acquired cookie cutters from here (US Star Wars fans can find the same ones on sale here –  a bargain!).  We made basic sugar cookies and then rolled out fondant icing to stamp the toppings; C3PO also benefits from a light dusting of gold powder (we do love a bit of bling).

Star Wars Cookies

And finally, our cake-in-the-house Saturday ritual continues; this week it was lemon drizzle loaf cake, now just a scattering of crumbs.  Next week it’s back to work, and the gym, and a more abstemious few days of salad – but not just yet…it is Sunday evening after all.

Cake In The House

Have a great week, wherever you are and whatever you’ve got planned.

handbag logo

 

The Great Blackberry Caper

Homemade Blackberry Jam (and other recipes)

We’ve been mercifully distracted from preparations for the start of school, and have spent all our free time over the last few days foraging in hedgerows.  The unusual combination (for England, anyway) of endless sunshine interrupted by intense downpours of rain has ensured that nature is putting on a glorious show as the seasons turn; blackberries are everywhere you look; acorns are likely to fall from the sky and render a nasty ding to your forehead should you be foolish enough to stand still, and the air is perfumed with cider as a million windfall apples quietly ferment in the grass. (Do I sound a little tipsy and effusive?  Blame it on the apples..).

blackberry picking

Harry has proven to be a stoic and unflappable blackberry-picker; whilst I bumble along, shrieking and tossing my pail in the air with fright every time a bug walks over my hand, Harry tuts gently and gathers our fallen harvest before starting over again.  We returned home a little sweaty and scratched up, but with enough blackberries to fill several baskets and make for a weekend of berry-tastic cooking.  We started with our favourite… JAM!!

blackberry jam recipe from katescreativespace


I’ve found through trial and error that presentation is everything when it comes to homemade jam, and minimises the chance of recipients gingerly clutching their gift whilst stealthily examining the jar for mould, unconventional ingredients or smeary fingerprints. I made berry coloured labels for ours and then cut disks to cover the lids from a print-out of the photo above (at least there’s no doubt about the contents..).  Sparkly thread covered the rubber band and completed the look.

decorating jam pots

with approximately a bathtub’s worth of berries leftover we decided to invent a new recipe; blackberry crumble bars, which combine sponge cake, blackberries, jam and crumble, and thus contain all the main food groups.  All the ones we’re interested in anyway..

blackberry crumble bars

blackberry bars recipe

Exhausted – and deliciously full – we decided to abandon all further attempts in the kitchen and instead to package up our leftover berries and take round to friends and neighbours.  I found these pretty trays on sale and added labels with recipe suggestions, and then Harry practised his balance and co-ordination skills with moderate success…

blackberry gifts

And now, in a further fit of procrastination as I avoid all school-related thoughts; what to do with our first apple harvest?  We taste-tested these, and once we’d managed to un-shrivel our taste-buds, roll back our eyes and breathe without gasping, decided that they are probably a little too tart to be eating apples.  If you have any to-die-for recipes for cooking apples I’d love to know; at the moment I’m just enjoying their beauty and scent as they adorn our kitchen table (but I know I need to act soon….).

apples on kitchen table apple harvest

Have a great weekend, when it arrives!

Kate

How to Stay Cool in a Heatwave

homemade fruit juice ice lollies

We’ve had an unprecedented, glorious 3 weeks of unbroken sunshine here, with soaring temperatures and cloudless skies.  It seems to have sent Britain into a state of national shock, with people shedding clothes at an alarming rate and lying, spread-eagled, on every available patch of grass and scrub to soak up the precious rays.  Relatedly, hospitals report new levels of burns admissions and ‘injuries caused by misuse of poolside inflatables’ (there’s a Bill Bryson-esque post in itself there, I can’t help feeling).

Here, we’ve been rather more careful, and instead have been experimenting with ice-cream and lolly making.  In fact, we’ve frozen pretty much everything we can find in the cupboards these last few days, working out what tastes good and what was better left un-meddled with.  The kitchen has become a sea of brightly-coloured dribbles and splashes, and Harry has been diligently working his way through a variety of lollies, giving each one the lick-test for success or failure.  Here are our biggest successes;

Homemade Fruit Ice Lollies

Homemade Ice lollies

We made these by simply pouring our favourite natural fruit juices into ice-lolly moulds and freezing; simple as that.  No e-numbers, no scary preservatives, and a super-quick ice-lolly that you can even justify eating for breakfast (well, it replaces a glass of juice, right?).  You can, as we did, add a drop of food colouring gel to make them more beautiful – most natural juices are pale amber in colour, so feel free to jazz them up with a dash of the brights.

fruit juice lollies

You can find plastic ice-lolly / popsicle moulds like these in many stores, but if like me you prefer to use wooden sticks instead of the plastic handles and can’t find a mould which fits wooden lolly sticks, you can customise the plastic ones very easily (and it’s a great way of making large numbers in batches for a party).  Two foolproof ways; either cover the top of the filled mould with tin foil and pierce the wooden stick through, or (for the very precise-minded); place a piece of tape across the opening, and another at right angles so that you have a taped cross, and make a small incision at the centre before threading the stick through and down into the juice. If you don’t have special lolly moulds, you can make fill & freeze paper cups or even muffin cases using the foil & stick method – silicon works particularly well.

Our other favourite recipe was frozen yoghurt*…

organic frozen yoghurt pops

I made these in exactly the same way, by simply pouring into moulds, adding sticks and freezing.  As you’d expect, frozen yoghurt pops are much creamier and smoother than juice-based lollies, but seem wonderful immune from drips  - ours were mess-free, albeit they were consumed very quickly..

raspberry frozen yoghurt pops

*Yoghurt or yogurt?  Anything goes apparently, as far as the spelling is concerned; the only thing which is universally agreed is that it tastes divine..

yoghurt lolly

If you’re making batches of these, take the moulds out of the freezer when frozen solid (2-3hrs, we found), and after a couple of minutes ease the lollies out of the moulds.  Wrap each one in freezer paper to avoid them sticking together and place back in the freezer; then simply refill your moulds and start over again.

Are you an ice-cream or ice-pop connoisseur?  Any recipes we should be trying just as soon as we work our way through our current stockpile?

Have a great week.

Kate

A Marmalade fit for the Countess of Grantham

Downton Abbey Marmalade

There cannot be many things that my husband and the society grand dames played by Maggie Smith have in common, but a lifelong passion for marmalade is surely one of them.  In Gosford Park, Maggie Smith’s Countess of Trentham denounces those households shabby enough to serve shop-bought marmalade, and by series 2 of Downton Abbey, the Countess observes that marmalade cocktails are the fashionable drink-of-the-moment; a heady sign that the roaring twenties are on the horizon.

My husband prefers his marmalade  on toast, preferably daily if not twice-daily.  Like Paddington Bear, he feels somehow incomplete if he discovers himself to be in a marmalade-free environment, and when planning trips abroad will pat his pockets to check for marmalade in the way that other men check for wallets and boarding passes.

My Valentine’s gift to him this year, therefore, will be a year’s supply of marmalade, with personalised labels and even a few travel-sized jars of the exact proportions to fit in a pocket. An unusual present, perhaps, but one which I think will hit the mark.  If you haven’t tried making marmalade, or perhaps haven’t yet even tasted marmalade (an acquired taste, many believe), it’s definitely worth a try.  Here’s what you’ll need;

marmalade ingredients list

True British marmalade uses Seville oranges, a citrus fruit so bitter that were you to unwittingly suck on one your mouth would probably shrivel up with shock.  Add 2 kilos of sugar however, and it becomes blissful.  You can make marmalades with all kinds of different fruit – divine recipes abound on the internet – but classical marmalade requires a very bitter orange which is – appropriately enough – in season in the bitterest of winter months.

Once you’ve gathered your ingredients and a large pan, start by preparing the oranges…

marmalade step by step part 1

Now comes the complicated part (though I managed it, so fear not..).  Take out your muslin bag and give it a squeeze to release the final juices before you discard it.  Now add the juice of your lemon, give it a stir and pour in all the sugar.  Keep it on a low heat as the sugar dissolves, then bring to the boil.

Place your jam jars in a hot oven to sterilise; they’ll need about 10mins, then switch off the heat and keep them in there until you are ready to pot up.

If any scum from escaped orange pulp surfaces, just skim it off as you go.  If you have a jam thermometer, wait for the temperature to reach 104.5C/220 F – that’s your setting point and time to turn off the heat.  If you don’t have a thermometer, place a plate in the fridge and then periodically – and carefully – spoon a small amount of the marmalade onto the chilled plate.  When this wrinkles when touched lightly, you’ve reached setting point.

Once you’ve turned off the heat, leave the marmalade to cool for 12-15 minutes, stirring occasionally to distribute the rind.  If you pot it up straight away, the rind will all rise to the top of the jar; it won’t change the taste but aesthetically it looks a bit odd.  Take your jars out of the oven and fill each one to just below the rim.  It should look something like this;

marmalade from katescreativespace

Now place a wax paper disc on top of each before sealing quickly with a lid.  Once the jam has cooled, you can have fun with decorative labels, tags and cloth covers.  For my husband, I designed  these simple ‘Man of the House’ labels, then cut a striped cloth disc to cover the metal lid, securing with a simple rubber band.  I found some vintage silver teaspoons in our local charity shop, so I tied one of these to each jar, and then finally – given the Valentine’s theme – added a chalkboard heart peg to denote each month’s jar of marmalade.

homemade valentines marmalade

homemade marmalade gift

It will be possibly the heaviest Valentine’s gift I’ve given him, but also one of the thriftiest, which is always handy so soon after the Christmas frenzy.  If you try this do let me know how you get on, and if you’re an aficionado of jam and marmalade-making already, please do share any favourite tips or recipes; I’m a distinct amateur but can see this becoming quite a passion…

By the way; the vintage weighing scales I used for the first photo in this post were a recent find, buried in the depths of a local antiques mill; I found them in a roomful of period kitchenalia, from wooden butter pats to round wooden sieves and all sorts of mysterious turn-of-the-centry kitchen gadgetry that must have seemed cutting edge at the time.

The Unparalleled Nonpareil



You’ve got to admire the French when it comes to matters of the kitchen, or rather, les affairs du cuisine.  Not only are they world-renowned for their culinary outputs and inventions, they also possess just the right amount of Gallic confidence to name their creations in such a way that the world regards them with appropriate gravitas and awe.  And so, this little piece of chocolate magic, adorned with sprinkles, is known as the nonpareil; literally, a treat without parallel, supreme to everything else.  And who could disagree? Not me and Harry that’s for sure.  If a British person had devised the nonpareil, they would have named it, with hesitant and apologetic disclaimers, the Chocolate-I-Flung-Together-From-Some-Bits-and-Pieces-in-the-Cupboard, and it would have faded into unfashionability very quickly.  Instead, the nonpareil thrives as a gorgeous and simple treat, and the perfect gift for chocoholics.

To make these you’ll need:

  • Dark or milk chocolate (kids prefer milk, whereas bittersweet chocolate with >70% cocoa solids works best for grown-up, after dinner treats
  • 1/2 tsp of cooking fat for every 8oz of chocolate used; this is optional but helps to release the disks and keep them smooth
  • Sprinkles; any kind, any colour!

Simply melt your chocolate & fat together using a double-bowl on the hob or the microwave, then drop teaspoons onto a baking sheet or (even better if you have it) a silicon macaroon sheet with shallow indents, like we used below.  Use the back of your teaspoon to make flat rounds, and leave to set for about 15 minutes.

Sprinkle the still-gooey chocolate liberally with your candy sprinkles or other topping, then pop them in the fridge for 30 mins to set hard.  Use a palette knife to pop them off the baking sheet, or peel them from the silicon mat (either way this is very easy), and then allow approx. 1hr for collecting all the random sprinkles which have shot off into corners of the kitchen during this stage.  Admire your beauties, fend off attack from hungry household members, and decide whether they are too precious to give away.  If not, you could box them up like ours (below), or stack and roll them up in a pretty cellophane tube, tied at each end.

These are kitchen magic in that they are one of the simplest things you can make, but one of the loveliest to look at and the most fun for little people to make and eat. Yes, it can be a little messy, but hey – life is short, right?

A Taste of Summer

It’s raining again, plus ça change. In fact, I’m surprised that my predictive text function doesn’t automatically open each post with these words, so consistent is the dreary drizzle and grey skies.  We have chosen to rise above it and conjour up sunshine in the form of these individual bread rolls baked in terracotta flowerpots and bursting with sun blush tomatoes, feta cheese, rosemary and all manner of deliciousness.

I uncovered this recipe buried deep in a bulging and well-thumbed file entitled Magazine Clippings That Will Change My Life Or At Least Enhance It In Some Transient Way, and we set about making it this weekend.  We carefully selected some pots and gave them a good wash and burst in the oven to prepare them, then rolled up our sleeves and let loose.  Gorgeous as an accompaniment to soups and antipasti, they also went down a treat at our teddy bear Playroom Tea Party this morning, where a surprising number of rolls were nibbled and partially tasted, given that most participants were stuffed (literally), and only one, Harry, was technically capable of eating.  Hmmm… suspicious.

Recipe and tips below..

This recipe originally came from British foodie mag Delicious, and I’ve reproduced it faithfully below.  Uncharacteristically, we didn’t deviate from the instructions at all and they tasted divine; a more accomplished cook could play with a variety of substitutions and tweaks and produce some interesting variations.

Sunblush and Feta Flowerpot Bread. Ingredients & method:

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 7g fast acting dried yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 240g tub of sun blush tomatoes; set 8 aside before chopping the rest.
  • 150g crumbled feta
  • 2 tbsp freshly chopped rosemary plus some sprigs for decoration.
  1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl and stir in the yeast and chopped rosemary. Gradually mix in 250ml of warm water to form a loose dough, and add the chopped tomatoes and a tbsp of the oil from the tomatoes.
  2. Tip out onto a clean surface and knead the dough for 5minutes until smooth.  Add the crumbled feta and knead again until it is all incorporated into the dough. Separate into 8 evenly shaped balls and place each carefully in a well-oiled terracotta flowerpot (you could just place these in a muffin tin or on a baking sheet instead).
  3. Allow to rise for around 30mins, setting the oven for 220 degrees.
  4. Scatter the remaining crumbled feta over the top and add a single whole sun blush tomato to each (below). Thoroughly soak 8 small rosemary sprigs then gently push one into each flowerpot for decoration (the wetness will stop them from burning in the oven).

Bake for 20-25mins, then allow to cool for as long as you are able to restrain yourself; these are best served warm, so eat as quickly as possible or give them a quick turn in the oven before serving later (they last 2 -3 days if you can manage it).

Pasta la Vista, baby!

Carbs are big in our household, as anyone who knows us will attest. Given that my husband declares the potato to be his favourite vegetable, and I would request a toasting fork and crusty loaf if given notice of being stranded on a desert island, it was inevitable that Harry was going to feel a strong gravitational pull towards all things starchy. Whilst I’m secretly proud of the fact that he freely eats vegetables and would for ages misidentify any tree in a picture book as being ‘a piece of broccoli’ (no idea why; it’s unlikely, frankly, that he made this connection at home…), it’s also true that if you ask him what he’d like to do next, the statistically most probable answer at any given time is ‘eat spaghetti’.

So this weekend we whipped out our shiny new pasta machine that was the gift-of-the-year in Christmas 2010, rather like the bread machines that everyone gave and received 10yrs earlier.  A guilty confession; our machine is actually a present I bought for someone else and decided to keep because it looked so enticing; instead, they received a selection of novels and I no doubt received a great dollop of bad karma that will ensure all the pasta I make with it is cursed.  We’ll soon find out.  My cookbooks and the web are full of delicious recipes for homemade pasta involving herbs, different flours and semolina, et al, but we plumped for the simplest possible concoction (below), and got stuck in.  As you can see, this is one of those cookfests where it’s all about the journey, not the end result…

Take your 3 ingredients, create a volcano-like pile of the salted flour on your worktop, and pour the lightly beaten egg mixture into the middle.  Watch as the flour sides collapse and spend several minutes chasing egg around the table (you can see why small boys love this bit).

Mix the ingredients together.  Taste periodically if you really can’t resist.  Try not to touch anything else at all.  Once  a dough forms, knead for about 10 minutes.  Abandon your mother after 2 minutes and find something more interesting to do instead.  Do this quietly, dragging your sticky hands along the wall as you amble towards the toy box.

Hard work done, leave the dough to settle.

Roll out with a rolling pin until about 1cm thick, and then start to feed it through your pasta machine.  Of course, it’s perfectly possible to do this with a rolling pin alone and a lot of elbow grease and persistence.

Once you’ve got a long, thin piece of dough about 3mm thick, feed it through the slicer bit to create your chosen shape; we opted for tagliatelle, and draped it over a (clean!) broom handle to keep the strands separate whilst we worked on the rest of the dough.  As you can see, this offered an impossible temptation for a 2yr old and his fire engine, so our pasta curtain took a bit of a beating at this point.

Once you’ve finished making the tagliatelle, curl each strand into a loose ball and save till you’re ready to cook (the sooner the better).  We tossed ours gaily into a pan of boiling water and hastily gathered spoons, napkins and a large bowl each before stirring in some tomato sauce and basil. And you know, here’s the thing; despite starting with gusto (note the two forks used for speed, below), Harry quickly slowed to a halt and carefully extracted a piece of rubbery, part-chewed pasta from his mouth, then paused and asked oh-so-casually; ‘Maybe we can have Cheerios for tea instead, mummy?’ .  Karma. I knew it…