Cookery

Instagram: A Little City Garden

I am now on Instagram! Well, to be honest I’ve been doing it for a while but I wanted to get the hang of it and, more importantly, establish a routine. As regular readers will know, our posts here can sometimes be a bit erratic. I would obviously love it if you followed me there as well. As I have a little garden in London I decided @alittlecitygarden would be a good title. As with this website it covers all the good things in life: gardening and also reading, making, baking and exploring London and beyond. This is the great thing about having a tiny garden; there is always plenty of time for other things as well. There are also guest appearances from Matilda the cat. I hope you like it.

Jane

A Book in the Garden: Bitter Honey

I have quite enough cookery books but my excuse is that I read them as well as cook from them. I’m clearly not the only person to do this as books by authors such as Nigel Slater, are often produced in a format that is easier to read rather than cook from. Even Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat was published in a novel-shaped paperback last year although in this case the book was so thick and heavy it might well have resulted in serious injury if someone had dropped off while reading it in bed.

Many years ago I spent a happy time working with Tish (Letitia Clark) at Slightly Foxed. I was in the bookshop they had at the time and she was mostly based in the office working on the magazine but every so often she would come to work in the shop and we would have a lovely time comparing recipes and discussing cookery books (as well as working, obviously).

My self-imposed rule of ‘no more cookery books’ didn’t apply to her new one which came out this spring. My book-buying rules are only ever guidelines, intended to curb too much excess rather than implementing a complete ban.

The subtitle is Recipes and Stories from the Island of Sardinia. I know Corsica reasonably well and have always wanted to go a little further south to Sardinia but, given the present state of affairs Tish’s book will be a welcome substitute. It is a delightful mixture of recipes, anecdotes and interesting background information. I have never seen the point of polenta, regarding it as tasteless flab or goo according to the consistency. Tish’s recipe, with a ragù of sausage meat, tomatoes and sage, topped with mozzarella, pecorino and basil, has transformed my opinion. Likewise my view of panettone has been changed. I had always viewed it as a poor relation of Christmas cake. Made into a superior bread-and-butter pudding with saffron custard it becomes a food fit for the gods – or ones friends as lockdown eases. Don’t wait till Christmas – this is perfect summer food.  

 Jane

It would obviously be great if you bought this book but, particularly in these difficult times, please remember your local bookshop. You’d miss it if it went.

Making May: Bookshelves and Baking

The making that I’ve done so far this month doesn’t really warrant a post – I’ve made some rather ramshackle bookshelves (wood rescued from a skip, cut to size and balanced on bricks) and done a lot of repairing of things that I’ve decided I’m too fond of to throw out – worn-out shirts, skirts that have had disagreements with my bike chain (and come off worst) and table cloths that have suffered one spillage too many. Everything has been patched and the shelves have solved the double-stacking problem but none of these remotely qualify as artistic achievements.

I’ve done a lot of baking that I’ve been grandly calling Necessary Recipe Testing but if I’m honest most of it was fine-tweaking rather than strictly necessary, particularly since I am working on an anthology of nature writing at the moment which involves no baking whatsoever. But my chief recipe testers (the estate agents) were back at work and keen for the supply of cakes and biscuits to resume. They tested my chocolate cake recipe versus Mary Berry’s and, in a socially-distanced, blind tasting, mine won!  Then two surprise berry cakes, which reveal a hidden centre of tumbling fruits – lemon won over chocolate here. The wonderful thing about this cake is that the hollowed-out centre gives you another, mini, two-layer cake. This went into the freezer for three weeks, came out and was iced (buttercream in the centre, water icing on the top) and was voted the Best Cake by one of the estate agents. Unfortunately it also shows just how crooked my oven is. I’m made painfully aware of this every time I remove a cake but, as it will involve pulling the oven out and somehow inserting a wedge beneath its back feet (do ovens have feet?), I always manage to convince myself it’s not really a problem, until the next lopsided sponge emerges.

I also made a blackberry and apple tart which is meant to have ragged edges but came out looking alarmingly like a yeti’s footprint. It tasted okay though. Finally, now we are allowed to visit people I made a belated Easter cake for the friend I usually visit at Easter. And I made a startling discovery; strawberries and asparagus may no longer have a ‘season’ as far as supermarkets are concerned but small chocolate eggs are unavailable by the end of May. It’s nice to know that some things still abide by laws of nature but it did mean that these poor unfortunate chickens had to hatch out of circular Maltesers. Perhaps that’s why they look a little dishevelled. 

The country’s Loo Paper Crisis earlier this spring paled into insignificance compared with my impending Flour and Sugar Crisis. While it’s great that the entire country seems to have taken up baking during lockdown, it has resulted in empty shelves in the baking section of almost every shop. I mentioned the problem to the testers and they took the matter suitably seriously. 

Jane

Making Week 21: More than I expected

Some time ago I cut a recipe out from the newspaper. Actually, if I’m honest, this is a regular occurrence. They then sit in a growing pile on the kitchen table and, when the pile threatens to topple, I sort through them and throw away at least half. This one survived the first cull and I’ve now bought the book it comes from: Aran Bakery by Flora Shedden. I’m not particularly good at following recipes, even when I’m supposed to be recipe testing, but I did follow this one as it told me to “mix the butter and sugar till smooth”, rather than the usual ‘mix till resembles fine breadcrumbs’ that I’m more used to for pastry. The result was delicious: pastry with a very slight spongy texture. What didn’t work were the quantities. I had enough for two tarts with some left over. The first was the correct apple, the second a combination of what I could find in the kitchen: one Bramley apple, one Granny Smith, a handful of raspberries and a large splodge of apricot conserve. The pies fall apart terribly when cut but both were delicious.

Jane

Making Week 16: Making, but Nothing That will Last

Although our seasons are no longer reliable, November is heading towards the end of autumn. Next month, regardless of the temperature, it will be winter. I decided to spend today doing a little autumnal baking. First Nanaimo Bars, for which a friend gave me the recipe, saying they were amazing. They are a Canadian speciality and have even been featured on a postage stamp. Since Canadian trees are famous for their autumn colour, this clearly counted as an autumnal recipe. Called a dessert bar, I’m not sure whether they should be eaten as a pudding or at tea-time. They are a sort of unbaked traybake and staggeringly good. I think elevenses, lunch, tea or supper would all be suitable times.

I am the generation that prefers Guy Fawkes Night to Hallowe’en and my childhood Guy Fawkes Nights were always accompanied by toffee apples (as well as jacket potatoes cooked in the embers of the bonfire and the obligatory burnt fingers). I wanted to make an apple cake and reasoned that the addition of toffee would only improve my standard recipe. I was afraid the toffee would melt and run out of the tin so I added most of it about ten minutes before the end. The result was apple cake with an almost impenetrable layer of toffee on the top. It’s very good but needs a little refinement.

Jane

Each Month in my Garden: September by the Seaside

September is one of my favourite months. Partly because it is ‘autumn’ but nearly always behaves as if it is still summer; it feels like stolen time, a sort of permanently sunny bank holiday. At the end of the month I went to Devon and, driving there, I was surprised how autumnal the countryside looked. It may still have been summer in London but the fields and woodlands of Hampshire, Dorset and Somerset all had a distinctly golden tinge. It was lovely but in a slightly wistful way. As I was driving, in the interests of safety, there are no photos.

My friend lives by the seaside and this too had tipped from the buckets and spades of summer to deserted expanses of sand. But it was still warm enough to paddle.

This has nothing to do with gardens but it was one of the best puddings I’ve had for a long time. It was called something like ‘Every Child’s Worst Nightmare’ and tasted every bit as good as it looked. Thank you Relish in Ilfracombe

 

Jane

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Nine: The Christmas Diaries, Nigel Slater

I would be the first to admit that I have too many books. Also I probably have too many unread books, not books I don’t want to read but ones which I am intending to read ‘very soon’. The problem is that ‘very soon’ can stretch to years, with some books remaining in situ long enough to be dusted. Last year Nigel Slater wrote The Christmas Chronicles. I was very excited as I love his writing as much as his recipes. It was arranged by date, starting in early November and going through to Candlemas on 2nd February. It immediately appealed to me as I use Candlemas to mark the end of the Christmas season too – January can be a grim month and a few fairy lights make it a little brighter. In the days when I lived in a small and cluttered flat, my tiny tree often remained up until then too, becoming a temporary winter ornament.

His selection of dates meant the book covered just over three months. Surely I would manage to read daily entries for such a short period? The book has sat on my kitchen table for just over a year, the bookmark sticking out accusingly on the entry for 7th November. This year I moved it to a more inconvenient place on the table and resolved to read it. I have, and it is wonderful – why did I wait a whole year?

Nigel Slater loves winter, relishing its arrival in the same way that many people welcome summer. I now like all seasons. When I was young I loved winter: Christmas and snow (yes, I’m old enough to remember reasonably reliable snow at roughly the correct time) and summer – the long (and always sunny) freedom of the summer holidays. Spring and autumn largely passed me by apart from jumping clumps of daffodils on a pretend pony (sadly accompanied by my pretend dog), walking through deep layers of crisp leaves and playing conkers.  That has all changed, mainly through gardening, and I now appreciate each season for its particular joys.

When does winter start? Officially in Britain 21st December, the Winter Solstice, is the first day of winter. This I cannot agree with. For me the Winter Solstice, with its shortest day, marks the turning point towards spring and light – from then on it is (almost) downhill all the way to light spring mornings and long summer evenings. In all my books I mark 1st December as the beginning of winter, not because I particularly regard November as part of autumn but because I cannot think of February as spring (working on the assumption that each season lasts three months). Nigel Slater’s winter begins on 1st November but before that the book has a delightful twenty-five pages of general wintery writing. Pictures in winter gardening books annoy me as, almost without exception, they show gardens covered in a crisp white frost or atmospherically clothed in a romantic mist, whilst the reality of most winter days is a sort of murk somewhere between the two. Nigel Slater’s winter manages to encompass all the best of winter without becoming unrealistically rosy-eyed about it. Yes, I know these photos are ridiculously romantically rosy-eyed but I have to remember that even London is, on occasion, deep and crisp and even. 

So far the recipes look delicious and most are his trademark easy preparation: a New Toad-in-the Hole involving marmalade, Crumble-Topped Mince Pies and Sweet Potato and Kale Bubble & Squeak. Lentils and Basil sounds a wonderful combination (particularly with added cream and mushrooms) but surely this is a dish for late summer or autumn? My basil plants would not allow me to take ‘a good handful of leaves’ in November, although perhaps it would be a fitting way to say farewell to the plant and eat the lot rather than trying to nurse it through to spring on a chilly windowsill.

The book also includes wintery musings: Christmas markets, the story of the Magi and a mass of fascinating information about candles, including the fact that in winter he writes by candlelight! I am enchanted; this will be my New Year’s resolution. I write everything first in fountain pen and have often thought that using a quill pen might be even better. This may be the first step towards that.  

Looking slightly ahead, to Christmas Day I see that, unlike Delia (see Book Six) Nigel recommends the following for mid-morning: ‘May I suggest that you sit down and take it all in, as I do. Collect your thoughts – there is still much to do – but also take in the scene . . . . Five minutes in which to settle your spirit.’  So far I have followed this book date-for-date, rather like a literary advent calendar. I have every intention of continuing to 2nd February.  

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Six: Delia Smith’s Christmas

This is obviously a brilliant book. The Parmesan-Baked Parsnips are the only way to cook parsnips, the Caramelised Cheese and Onion Tartlets are recommended as party nibbles for vegetarians but are far too good not to be made (in huge quantities) for everyone and the Truffle Torte is, as it says in the book, the best chocolate dessert. All that said, this book is actually included in this list because it makes me laugh. There is a chapter called The Last 36 Hours in which the reader is calmly taken though the run-up to the Main Meal. So far so good, the instructions have probably saved many Christmas Days from disaster. What makes me laugh is the entry for 8.55am: the turkey is in the oven, the bread sauce made and the frazzled cook is allowed to ‘take a break’. Everything should be under control and Delia suggests you ‘help the kids unwrap their presents, have a coffee or TIDY THE HOUSE’!!!!! Who tidies the house on Christmas Day – surely part of the fun is that every surface should be littered with wrapping paper, ribbon, chocolates, half-written thank-you letter lists and wine glasses? And one final quibble; her timings make no allowance for the Queen’s Christmas Message, unless one eats lunch very quickly.

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Four: Roast Figs and Sugar Snow, Diana Henry

Wintery food is so much more inviting than summery fare. Admittedly summer has scones with cream and jam sitting on the lawn, ice cream on a beach and chilled white wine (that is food, isn’t it?) but I can’t, at the moment, think of much else. Winter has luscious, rich, recipes and this book contains the very best. Sadly, I’ve never been able to make my favourite recipe in this collection: Sugar-on-Snow. This is a kind of toffee which appears in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. It is very simple – all you do is heat maple syrup and butter to the required temperature, which you test by spooning the mixture onto snow. If it sets and forms a web of toffee, it’s ready. Apparently in New England they have parties with dill pickles (this I’m not sure I like the sound of), mulled apple juice and doughnuts.

The book also contains Tartiflette; the most ridiculously over-the-top concoction of potatoes, bacon, onion, Reblochon and crème fraiche, Pumpkin Tarts with spinach and gorgonzola (which taste even better heated up the next day), and the delightfully-named Peasant Girls in a Mist (softened apples layered with sugary-cinnamony breadcrumbs and topped with thick lemony cream).  Even the salads look tempting (which is high praise from me) with cured ham and potatoes, a farmer’s salad helpfully topped with fried eggs and a Friulian Winter Salad with chestnuts, pancetta, spicy Italian sausage, walnuts and pomegranate, oh, and a few leaves to justify the name. Writing this, I realise that this is one of my most-used cookery books. I just wish I could make the toffee. Perhaps this year.  

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

A New Job, a Late Resolution and Some Biscuits

I have a new job. Well, more accurately, at the beginning of the year my job at Hatchards was tweaked a little and I have become The Shop Scribe. The title was mentioned jokingly at first but it has stuck and I rather like it. The images it conjures up are of dusty Dickensian desks and quill pens. My reality is a laptop that the cat uses as a bed, that is, when she’s not helping me edit.

In addition to writing the shop’s catalogue I am writing a weekly newsletter and reviews etc as and when they are needed. A quick look at the website revealed that the last blog had been written in 2016 so I am also writing a monthly blog, selecting books loosely based on an event or particular date: The Boat Race, St George’s Day, The Chelsea Flower Show. I was telling someone how shockingly out of date it had got and they replied ‘Yours isn’t much better!’ Rubbish, I thought…… but then I checked and realised that our track record isn’t much better. So, my not-so-new-year’s resolution is that when I write a blog for Hatchards I’ll also write a post here. My hope is that resolutions made in mid-March are easier to keep than those made on New Year’s Day. I prefer the word post to blog but a little distinction between the two may not be a bad thing; Hatchards customers probably won’t want to know my opinions on gardens, although they might want this wonderful biscuit recipe.

One of the most important dates in culinary history was 1977. This was when the recipe for Delia Smith’s Chocolate Orange Biscuits appeared in her Book of Cakes. Over the years I have adapted it for all manner of fruits and nuts, combining them with dark, milk or white chocolate. Particularly good combinations that Sally and I discovered for our books Berries, Nuts and Cherries and Mulberries (to be published in June) are:

  • Hazelnuts and milk chocolate

  • Walnuts (replace the orange juice with maple syrup)

  • Dried cranberries and white chocolate

  • Dried cherries, cocoa and dark chocolate
  • Dried mulberries and white chocolate (don’t be put off by the appearance of dried mulberries; they look rather like something you might put on a fishing hook. Once cooked they disappear into the biscuits, giving a lovely chewiness)

 

  • Makes 25-30 biscuits
    125 g / 4 oz / 1 stick soft butter
    175 g / 6 oz / 1 cup caster sugar
    225 g / 8 oz / 2 cups plain flour
    25 g / 1 oz / ¼ cup cocoa (if using)
    2 teaspoons baking powder
    75 g / 3 oz / ½ cup dark, milk or white chocolate, chopped into small chunks
    1-2 tablespoons orange juice (or 4 tablespoons maple syrup) as necessary

100 g / 3 ½ oz dried berries, chopped OR 30 g / 1 oz nuts, chopped OR for the original biscuits, grated zest from 2 oranges

Heat the oven to 180 C / 350 F / Gas 4

Beat the butter and sugar together till pale and creamy. Sift the flour and baking powder and mix well. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix together. You should have a stiff, slightly crumbly dough. Don’t be tempted to add too much orange juice.

Lightly flour a work top and roll out the dough to roughly ¾ cm / ½ inch. It will be very crumbly but that doesn’t matter, just squish it together. The biscuits will hold together once cooked. Cut into 5 cm / 2 inch rounds and place on a greased baking tray. Allow space between the biscuits as they tend to spread. Bake on the top shelf for about 10-12 minutes until golden, be careful not to burn them. Leave to cool on the baking tray for a couple of minutes to firm up and then transfer to a wire rack to cool fully. In the unlikely event that any are left, these biscuits can be stored in an airtight tin.

Jane