I wrote here about the moment in April when Harry and I caught Spring Fever and had an exuberant flurry of planting fruit and vegetables, before collapsing exhausted on the lawn with a stiff drink (of milk, naturally). We are complete amateurs, seduced by the adverts in the garden centre which promise abundant produce from phoenix-like plants which thrive on neglect and rise from the dead every time. Harry’s selection process involved choosing the brightest coloured packets which were reachable at knee-height, and that seemed as good a plan as any to me. It’s fair to say we put our feisty seedlings and their hardiness to the test, as did the British weather – the amount of floods and hailstorms we’ve had in recent weeks would suggest to the Biblically-minded that eternal damnation is quite possibly just around the corner.
Still, today we harvested our first crops and have held a small judging ceremony to score our efforts. We have been generally tough on ourselves but start with the stand-out winners, our beautiful, abundant sugar snap peas. Or perhaps I should just say peas; they grew way beyond sugar-snapping size and are now cheery fat pods bursting with perky peas. We’re very proud.
Our second crop was courgettes. Everyone warned me that courgettes grow in the blink of an eye and that gardeners the world over will roll their eyes and tell you of the glut they always experience, and their weariness of having to cook courgette 50 different ways to try to run down their stocks. It is thus with some embarassment that I confess we have managed to grow just one courgette. One, Uno, Solo. And that one is approximately the length of Harry’s finger, and only slightly wider. It is perfectly formed, but insufficient for a meal, unless perhaps Gwyneth Paltrow was coming for dinner. We give ourselves 6 out of 10.
Chantenay carrots were my secret favourite crop; I pictured rustling up a bowl of them for Sunday lunch en famille, where they would glint under a knob of melting butter and look radiant and perfectly formed, yet just earthy and organic enough for it to be clear they were not from a supermarket. Well, of all these goals we seem to have achieved only the latter; there aint no doubt that our carrots are not shop-bought….
Still, who needs to eat carrots when you can give them false eyes and name them individually? (this one above is The Lobster, by the way…). We may not be close to winning any beauty prizes for our efforts, but we’re having a lot of fun growing them…
The eagle-eyed will have noticed a distinct absence of decadent baking in recent posts, due in no small part to my determination to win our bikini-fit diet race (an alarming thought; my husband in a bikini – let’s hurriedly think of swim shorts). Well, three weeks have passed and I have to confess that he has won, albeit narrowly. Still, second place is not to be sniffed at, so as he bounces lithely through the kitchen flexing his newly-evident abs, I am turning a blind eye and rewarding myself by baking a batch of these perky beauties (above & below), which after all are, ahem, mostly fruit…
I adapted a recipe from the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, substituting their digestive biscuit topping for freeze-dried, crumbled strawberries, and chopping the fruit finely into the sponge mixture for even distribution (the Hummingbird crew like to place strawberries directly into the cupcake cases for a fruity puddle at the base but I find that a bit gloopy for small fingers…). The cream-cheese frosting offsets the sweetness of the sponge and the end result is a mixture of loveliness which is neither too sugary nor too tart – and just looking at them shining in their jaunty red and pink cups while the kettle boils for an accompanying cup of tea creates a sort of delicious anticipation…
To make the cakes…
- 120g plain flour
- 140g caster sugar
- 1.5tsp baking powder
- 40g unsalted butter, softened
- 120ml milk (they suggest whole milk but I use skim which works fine with less fat)
- 0.5tsp vanilla extract
- 1 egg
- 12 large strawberries, finely chopped.
Mix together the dry ingredients then pour in the milk and vanilla and blend. Beat the egg and mix in until well-incorporated. Finally, fold in your finely chopped strawberries (or drop them into the cupcake cases if you prefer). Bake for 20mins at 170/325 degrees c/f.
And for the frosting…
- 300g sifted icing sugar
- 50g unsalted butter
- 125g cream cheese – use regular not reduced fat; the consistency of the latter is runnier and will affect the end result.
- Dash of food colouring if desired – gel colour gives a lovely intensity and won’t make the frosting watery
- freeze dried strawberries, sprinkles or other decorations – whatever takes your fancy!
Beat together the icing sugar and butter (I use my trusty Kitchenaid for this and indeed for all baking), then stir in the cream cheese straight out of the fridge. I added a dash of red gel food colouring with a toothpick and gave a final blitz with the mixer for a soft pink tone and a hint of raspberry-ripple swirliness. Pipe or spread onto the cakes when cool and then force yourself to jog around the block for 20mins in order to feel virtuous and entitled when you return… then EAT!