Posted by: lialeendertz | December 8, 2011

GMGs and damson Christmas cake

Christmas cake ingredients, with vodka damsons

Last week was the Garden Media Guild Awards, and I tarted myself up (boldly – if I say so myself – in orange) and took myself up London to see if I would win anything for this year’s labours. I sat on a table of people hauled together by the force of nature that is Ann-Marie Powell, where it’s fair to say we had some fun. And I got shortlisted, for three awards: environmental, blog and journalist of the year. Three times I went: ‘oh! oh! oh!….ohh…’ for alas, it was not my year. I toyed with bitter and twisted, but it is hard to maintain when you genuinely admire the writing of the people who won the awards you were up for (Annie Gatti and Mark Diacono), and it is pretty wonderful to be noticed enough to get shortlisted at all. So I laughed a lot, I toasted the winners with only a slightly wistful look on my face, I hobnobbed and networked like a good ‘un and I went out for a delicious meal after at Moro. Fun, fun, fun.

Home again, home again the next day, I let a little self-indulgent disappointment seep in. Best to temporarily give in to these things, I reckon. Touch the flame and feel the burn. And suddenly the one thing I wanted to do was bake. Put my mind to something simple and repetitive. Gardening, baking, sewing, all ways of ordering the world when I’m feeling out of joint, putting things methodically and carefully back in their place. Creative, sure, but requiring no great mental leaps. Nicely steady too, after those little episodes of risen heartbeats. And quite fittingly it was not just any old cake that was crying out to be baked, but the mother of them all, the Christmas cake. A proper project.

Despite being a pretty keen baker I had never made one before. We always go to my mum’s for Christmas and mum makes a mean Christmas cake, but this year I am being the grown up. We are doing Christmas this year, they are coming to us, and it seemed only right that I should step up, take responsibility and bake the damned cake.

Close your eyes and think of lego clone wars super star destroyers...

I’m not going to give you a recipe for Christmas cake – there are Delias for that sort of thing – but I will tell you my spin. It involves damsons. Everything has involved damsons this year, since our vast crop from the allotment tree. I bottled up my 2010 vintage damson vodka in August, when I needed the jars to make my 2011 vintage. The 2010 vodka-soaked damsons (I hope you’re keeping up) have been in a big jar ever since, waiting for me to do something suitably grand with them. So I soaked all the other fruity ingredients in damson vodka, and then added the sozzled damsons, just chopped in half and stoned, as the big, juicy ‘glace cherry’ element. For the nuts I stuck to almonds, with their stone-fruit affinities, and I lobbed another couple of tablespoons of damson vodka (plus flour, sugar, eggs, and spices of course) into the mix before baking. We all stirred it  and wished for good things (most probably lego- or star wars- or lego star wars-based things where the children are concerned, but I wouldn’t let them tell me).

Four hours it baked for. Such a satisfyingly long time. And yes of course: spicy, wafty house clichés. Now I’ve started down this damson-themed road it feels kind of right to stick with it, tho Im pretty sure putting vodka onto a cake is not really a thing. But hey ho, let’s have the courage of our convictions, and even though it’s a Christmas cake, it is only a cake. So it is getting regular doses of damson vodka, I will use damson jam to stick on the marzipan and – oh hell, why not? – I might even go for purple icing.

Soaking, measuring, stirring, wishing and breathing in spicy wafts. Baking therapy on a day of little sighs and little smiles.

Posted by: lialeendertz | November 28, 2011

A two-quince day

Quince and star anise icecream

Sunday morning is allotment time, but I didn’t go this week. I’ve been feeling a bit fractious with the kids, getting upset easily, worrying that all I do is bark orders at them, wanting to play but never finding time or energy. My husband – sensing a woman on the verge – took the kids up to the plot and I stayed at home. That maybe doesn’t sound too significant but it is. It wouldn’t have happened a year ago. Slowly but (we hope, we hope) surely, he is recovering from a two-year illness and able to take on more. There is a little more sharing, taking turns, a little breathing space. I got almost four peaceful hours to myself and spent much of it standing in the sunny kitchen making ice cream. Stirring, stirring. A good thing to do when you are not trying to do fifteen other things at the same time.

I got my ice cream maker a few months ago and love it. I bought it to make use of the fruit gluts we get at the allotment through the summer, but was a little late for this year, so have become slightly obsessed with the idea of winter ice creams, using wintery fruits and hints of spices: grown up ice creams. (Look out for one I made for the grow-your-own Christmas food feature in the December issue of Gardens Illustrated: orange and cardamom with rosehip ripple. Proper lush.) Yesterday’s was quince and star anise.

I have a great source of quince in my mum and step-dad’s tree. I get their windfalls, but only if I’m quick enough (their neighbours are all keen too) and I had a big container of pulped quince in the freezer from last year’s big crop (I broke my golden rule: never freeze produce for it shall sit in the bottom of the freezer for at least a year. And so it came to pass). I’ve baked quince with star anise before and liked them together. The aniseed of star anise keeps things perky but there’s mellow spiciness to it as well. So with time miraculously on my hands I thought I’d try it in ice cream form.

Making custard

First I warmed a pint of milk with a couple of pieces of star anise in it, then switched it off and let it sit for a good half an hour. Then I rewarmed the defrosted quince, pushed it through a sieve and added sugar, warming it again. Then the custard. I love making the custard. Six egg yolks and 125g sugar are whisked together. Sieve the now cooled milk into the same bowl and whisk, then return all to a clean pan. Warm gently for about ten minutes with – and this really is the important bit – a basin full of ice cold water ready poured in the sink. At the first sign of curdling (and this has happened to me every time so don’t think it wont happen to you) lift the pan off the heat and plunge its base into the water, whisking furiously. It brings it back from the scrambled edge. Combine fruit and custard and, when cool, add a pot of mascarpone. You can go for whipped cream here but for my money mascarpone is a classier way to get fat. Cool, churn and freeze.

During churning – feeling inspired – I went online and bought a dwarf quince tree from Blackmoor Nursery. I saw these at Hampton Court and they were so beautiful I promised myself one.  All the fuzziness and sculptural grace of the trees but reaching just a couple of metres in height. Too perfect to resist so I didn’t. No more competing with mum’s neighbours. Then I folded clothes and made lunch and cleaned the cooker and later on, when everyone was back and the jobs were done, I danced with the kids for a full half an hour with the music turned up high, played ludo with them and fed them weird and wonderful ice cream.

Posted by: lialeendertz | November 14, 2011

Silver poplars

Mahjong nights in Dorset

We went to Dorset at half term, and spent our days dodging showers and searching for ammonites and our evenings trying to work out how to play Mahjong in front of the log burner. On the way back home we called in on my nana. Nana is a natural performer: she sang for the troops during the second world war and still goes about singing to the ‘old people’ in homes. It means she has the ability to make my children sit still and listen to her. So when she told them this story – body and face entirely animated, voice full of drama – they sat, fascinated and silent:

‘Once some thieves went to a beautiful big house and stole all the family silver. They ran into the woods to try to hide the loot in the branches but all the trees shook their branches so that the thieves couldnt climb up. All except the poplar. The thieves climbed up the poplar and hid the silver in the branches and ran away. Soon the police ran into the woods looking for the silver. They couldn’t find it, and so they ordered all the trees to put their branches up into the air. Knives and forks and spoons came clattering down from the poplar’s branches, and landed on the ground below. The poplar’s punishment was to hold its arms up in the air for ever more. That is why they grow that way to this day, and why they are known as silver poplars.’

I suspect my kids will recognise silver poplars.

Posted by: lialeendertz | September 7, 2011

Alison’s bench

The bench and table, looking very at home on my veranda

Here is a nice thing. Well it’s a sad thing, followed by a nice thing. A few months ago my step-gran, Alison, died. There was no great drama or heartbreak. She was 91, and had always been very matter-of-fact about life and death (to give you a measure of the woman, she told several people who visited her at her death-bed to ‘go and do something useful’). She wanted it to be over nice and quick when her time came, and it was, relatively, so we had to be pleased for her.

We didn’t have a proper funeral as she donated her body to science, and science took it, so about 70 friends and family gathered in the golf club near St Andrews where she played golf with her friends, and people stood up and talked about her, and what she meant to them. I liked this. It meant I stood up, whereas I never would have felt it my place at a proper funeral. And I made people laugh by using the word ‘spiky’, which she was: I remember her poking me in the ribs many times but I don’t recall a hug. But I also got to say that she is the person I have received and written more letters from and to her than anyone else in my life, and got a murmur of recognition from the assembled company. She was interesting and interested, highly intelligent and a bit fierce, someone who showed you they loved you through practical help and a keen, ever-present interest in what you’re up to.

People always call gardening an older persons’ pastime as if that should put younger people off. But if you are a youngish person who enjoys gardening (I am very aware that I am fast approaching the age where I have to stop calling myself young, but she was 91, come on…), it gives you a beautifully direct line of communication. You may not be interested in the availability of primary-school places in the north Bristol area, and I may not be interested in Jean’s broken hip, but we are both interested in how to get our dahlias to flower for a bit longer, and we both have an opinion on what pest might have done *that* and what to do about it. Gardening was one of the places where Alison and I met.

So when I saw that her garden bench and table were on offer I rather jumped at them, partly because I thought it would be a nice way to remember that link, although mainly because I had the perfect spot for it, and have been wanting a bench for my verandah. Being ‘step’ I didn’t want to make a bid for an heirloom, and a bench seemed about right. And then, a couple of weeks after I took delivery, my step-dad found this on clearing out the house.

It was tucked into a pamphlet on seed growing from ‘The Tropical Library’ (Alison spent much of her young married life in Malaysia working in family planning) along with a beautiful packet of Bartonia aurea seeds (no idea). It’s a picture of Alison’s mother, aged about 50, perhaps. She is leaning on the bench, and in the background you can see the table. I have accidentally ended up with an heirloom, or at least, a very fine bench indeed.

Posted by: lialeendertz | July 21, 2011

Courgette glut

Making bunting, with slightly cheesy faux-vintage effect I've just learnt how to do. I made about 1.5m. The 37th most influential creative person in Bristol (official) Jane Willis, made the other 70m or so...

I have an early courgette glut. It is not a proper uber-gardener’s early courgette glut, the kind that you might get if you sowed early, remembered to water your plants occasionally and planted them out under protection. No. This is a garden writer’s courgette glut. I have had to write about having a courgette glut several weeks before I actually have one, so I had to go to the greengrocers and buy courgettes to make myself look glutty in the photos. Insider info, see. I will be hurled out of the Garden Writers’ Circle for telling you that…

So I’ve had all these courgettes knocking about and I had an occasion to make a cake, so I made a courgette cake. The other ingredient that I seem to have a perma-glut of is oranges. They must grow particularly well in the north Somerset region because there is never not an orange in my veg box. So it became a courgette and orange cake. I based the recipe very roughly on the ‘strawberry and cream cupcakes’ from Harry Eastwood’s Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache book. I have a love/hate relationship with this book. She uses lots of veg in the cakes, and they are very tasty, and she also doesn’t use fat in some of them, making them feel healthy and dietitious, but it is written in the most annoying style imaginable. You will like it if you aspire to be posh and girly and kooky… ugh ugh…

It's been so long that only the very observant will notice that this is my second cake-based post in a row

The recipe goes like this:

For the cake mix

2 medium free-range eggs

160g caster sugar

200g topped, tailed, peeled and finely grated courgette

100g rice flour

100g ground almonds

2tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

I also added a few drops of orange essence and the grated rind of one orange to the mixture.

Harry says to whip up the eggs and the sugar for a good four minutes with a whisk first. This turns the mixture slightly merenguey, and is perhaps how you get away without adding fat, maybe *science face*. You then add all the other stuff and mix. I put it into two 8-inch tins and baked at gas mark 4 for about 35 minutes. In the meantime I used up another two oranges by bubbling their juice up with some sugar to make a syrup which I poured on as soon as the cakes came out of the oven, so you could call it a sort of courgette and orange drizzle cake. I had creme fraiche for the filling and topping which I was going to just mix with orange zest, but something went wrong and I ended up having to use normal icing sugar, so the whole thing was slightly sickly sweet in the end.

The occasion was a tea party and dance for my friend and fellow band member Arieh. They hired a hall, got in the wonderful Elly of Pear Cafe and Montpelier Basement fame (who officially pronounced the above cake ‘Delicious’ when pressed for a quote for this very blog) to make the sandwiches and the tea, in beautiful vintage teacups, and the band played and all the guests brought cakes. Here is the hall as we were warming up, complete with bunting.  A very special occasion and a lovely way to use up my faux glut. By the time the real thing comes around I will be a dab hand.

Pre-gig scout hut, with bunting

Posted by: lialeendertz | May 16, 2011

Bog standards

Happy birthday Lyssa x

Every now and then someone calls me a foodie and I go all giggly and ‘who me? no, not really! oh, do you think so…?’ I’m genuinely not , my cooking is not even remotely adventurous and I don’t get much time for it, but there is a glamour about them foodies – a kind of luxurious dedication to the good things in life – and I am delighted by the association. Anyway, based on the fact that I occasionally have a bit of a food-based rant, Silvana de Soissons, editor of the beautiful website The Foodie Bugle has interviewed me about how I grow, eat and cook, so I thought I really ought to write something food-related on here, in case any of them foodies rock up here as a result.

Being interviewed made me realise that I have a standard set of dishes – not especially exciting ones – that I re-hash again and again but with slightly different ingredients. At first I felt a bit embarrassed about this, but thinking further it’s not a bad way to cook, if you are trying to use seasonal veg-box or allotment produce, and also if you are trying to get kids to eat. So here are my bog standards for veg: roast veg (maybe topped with feta cheese, served with rice), veg in a cheese sauce (sometimes with macaroni), pasta sauce, stir fry and quiche. With fruit I make crumbles, eve’s pudding, fruity sponges and I sometimes mix it into flapjacks. There must be more but I am racking my brain and I really can’t think of any. That makes mealtimes sound very dull round mine, but actually, if you’ve got different ingredients to add to the basics each time, it’s not a bad approach, and it means I can cook without too much thought, and occasionally coax the kids into eating vegetables…. Tell me your own bog standards and I will probably nick them for my next book.

Yesterday I made one of those fruity sponges. This is something I did a lot of last year. We have a lot of soft fruit at the allotment, but above all we have gooseberries, in vast quantities. So we start picking early and go on and on, and I picked the first handful yesterday morning. You can get sick of them but last year I chanced onto chucking them into a sponge cake (I use a Delia version that I do for every single birthday). Yesterday was a friend’s birthday so I made her the cake you see above: bog standard Delia, plus gooseberries and lemon zest, plus I sprinkled some elderflower flowers in, which may not be the right way. Do tell me if you have a better elderflower-flavour-infusion method. The result (eaten in the pub last night) was early summer made cake: fragrant and light but with those juicy sour notes when you stumbled across a whole gooseberry. But it will be just as good with strawberries and vanilla at high summer, or with apple and blackberries in early autumn, or with apples and cinnamon in late autumn.

Posted by: lialeendertz | May 6, 2011

At the age of 37

I’m going to be 37 on Sunday, and so this song has been going around my head. It’s a very dark vision of turning 37: suburbia, frustrated fantasies, boredom, a losing of identity under kids and husband, and ultimately suicide, but I’ve always strangely liked it, and been particularly intrigued by the line: ‘At the age of 37, she realised she’d never ride through Paris in a sports car, with the warm wind in her hair.’ I suppose I’ve always wondered how I would feel when I reached 37, and whether any of that would relate to me. And whether I would have managed to ride through Paris etc…by now.
The day before I turn 37 will see the last of my Guardian Q&A columns, by neat coincidence. They are little things, but I have done them for a long time, almost ten years* according to my editor (I’m sure it’s closer to eight, but am not a great record keeper), and I feel a need for a little self-indulgence over this, so humour me. I started off under Christopher Lloyd (I was meant to be the cheeky younger female to his er…cheeky older male). Then after his death I shared it with Carol Klein, then a page of my own for a while, and then finally in with a load of other questions about removing stains from toilets and where to buy verjus in Doncaster. Perhaps I should have seen that the end was nigh. At every previous redesign it has clung on, to my amazement and relief, and it is by a very long way the longest running column in the magazine. I got it within months of turning freelance and it really marked the start of something. So it’s been a little thing in the magazine but a big deal to me.
It isn’t a bad turn of events though. It was time, I think. I will still be in the magazine every week doing tips, and I have a spanking new features contract, plus I get to tout my wares to other papers, which is exciting if terrifying.
And I like the timing of it, I like the fact that, at the age of 37 I’m being propelled out of what has been a pretty easy, cosy gig into a new and challenging time, and that I can listen to that song with pity and understanding, but not recognition. Boredom is not an option. I haven’t actually driven a sports car through Paris with the warm wind in my hair, but I’m not about to rule that out just yet.

* Pity plug: you can buy the book of a collection of the columns here

Posted by: lialeendertz | April 1, 2011

Meg’s pollinating the peach tree…yeah

The other day I got the kids to pollinate the peach tree. You get a soft brush and brush gently over the inner bits of the open flowers. You do it cos bees are a bit rubbish at this time of year (before someone shouts at me they’re not really, they’re great, but there arent that many of them about). So for guaranteed pollination you do this:

You can sing the song too if you like. Yeah.

PS Have realised since I posted this that I didnt say: my son made the film. It’s nothing to do with me really (I provided paintbrushes). He is also the one singing the song.

Posted by: lialeendertz | February 23, 2011

The Middle East and my garden

This last couple of weeks I have found myself cheering the removal of a dictator I was only vaguely previously aware of, feeling emotional about the liberation of a people that I had previously presumed were liberated, feeling ignorant. But my real, deep puzzlement has been over emerging hints of our involvement. Why is there film of Tony Blair hugging Gaddafi? How come the tear gas used in Libya comes from a British firm? Why, precisely, do we appear to be friends with these people?

Then this morning I saw something that made the penny drop. Naomi Klein, on twitter, wrote : ‘Our enslavement to oil has required the repression of millions of Arab people. As they shake off their bonds, so must we.’

I know it seems stupid to try to draw a line between what is going on in the Middle East and my garden, one so momentous the other so small and insignificant, but it exists, so I thought I’d come on here and try to connect a few dots between what is happening on the news and us, the gardeners and cooks.

We (not just gardeners, all of us) have become dependant on oil for everything, but almost above all for food. From the tractors that plough the fields to the manufacture of chemical fertilisers that are sprinkled on to the tired soils to fluff them into performing one more time, to the harvesting machinery, preparation and packaging systems, distribution network and more. Our entire food system is tied to that stuff that Gaddafi has (or had). We are so very addicted that we turn our faces away from his massive cruelty (and dictatorships throughout the Middle East) in order to ensure ourselves a constant, uninterrupted supply.

Growing and buying organically, so that you are not encouraging the use of oil-based fertilisers and pesticides, buying seasonally and locally, to cut out air miles, buying raw products and cooking them from scratch, using every scrap of land to produce in a sustainable way, all these things seem like small things, but because of the disproportionate extent to which food is embroiled in this they are not. Each is a big deal, a political action. Every way that we can make ourselves less dependent on oil helps to release the wicked grip it has on us.

I’m not going to pretend to know anything like the full history of how this horror in the Middle East has come about, but I do know it hasn’t occurred because of some lone nutter. We have all been a party to this, and these people know it and they hate us for it. The ridiculous thing is that the alternative is so good, the organic approach, the local sourcing, the community growing, the cooking from scratch: it’s not a problem.

This post is not about wagging my finger or telling anyone off. I reckon many of you are already doing most of this stuff, but I just wanted to make that link explicit, cheer you on, remind you that every little bit of our easy living comes at a price to somebody and that we’re seeing it on the news every night at the moment. Gardeners and cooks have a real and important role, because we have the land (little bits often, but land nonetheless) or the skills, or both to stop being spoon fed and to grow up and start taking responsibility for ourselves.

Posted by: lialeendertz | January 30, 2011

New month’s resolutions

I am bad at spotting potential significant blogging moments. I somehow convinced myself that this blog was a full month and a bit older than it really is and so missed the opportunity to mark its momentous first birthday (Jan 7th as it turns out. No flowers, really). I think I once managed to write a ‘wimmins issues’ type post just a couple of days after International Women’s Day, which wasnt bad going, but now here I am on about resolutions on the eve of February.

But I am writing off January. Bad-health luck has left me in bed, a&e and emergency dentists for much of it. Work has suffered, I have suffered, the kids have suffered, and there’s been a sudden rush on number-recognition telephone buying among those I rely on for help. It’s been pants, but with last week’s root canal work I seem to have turned a corner. I feel well and healthy and vital for the first time since before Christmas, so – rather than melodramatically taking to my bed and writing off the whole year – I am setting January coolly aside and starting my resolutions afresh. And here they are:

1) Go back to netball – I managed this once before the tooth pain floored me. It was great – no, really! – and if I say it here I have to do it.

2) Stop saying ‘bugger’ – I seem to have lit upon this as acceptable now that my expletive of choice is out of the question, but it is almost as unedifying as The Bad Word, when a big-eyed, blonde, be-ringletted three-year old takes a liking to saying it. A lot.

3) Go out into the garden more: and hopefully – by extension – blog more frequently. Gardening alone is always a kind of meditation and clears the mind to let ideas in. When I don’t garden I don’t blog, and I’d like to blog more often. Wont make rash promises on that one though, given my past form.

4) Tackle the veg box head on, the moment it arrives on the doorstep.

While I was ill there was an inevitable slowing down of cooking from scratch, and we have ended up with quite an alarming root veg backlog, which is something no-one wants. And every thursday – ill or well – more parsnips arrive. I have been making a sort of curried parsnip soup like it’s going out of fashion, but I decided to try something fancy the other day and make some root veg crisps, like the ones you buy at huge expense on long train journeys. I thought it might make the kids eat root veg. Ha…

So, here comes the third in my very occasional series of recipes I made from the veg box* or allotment (here’s one and two). I took two beetroots, two oversized carrots, and two parsnips, sliced them up as fine as I could (you most probably have a fancy attachment on your fancy food processor that will do a better job), tossed them in a bit of sunflower oil sea salt and pepper and arranged them on separate trays (so they didn’t all turn beetrooty: no flies on me) in a hot oven. This, I think now, was a mistake. The ones on the edges burnt, the ones in the middle were soggy. I wonder if a low, slow oven might be better, to dry them out a bit and cook them more evenly. Thoughts welcome.

Despite their shortcomings and their dissimilarity to those posh packet ones, they looked beautiful, and tasted delicious, and it strikes me only now that they would make a perfect topping to lift that nth bowl of parsnip soup to another level. As it was the kids wouldn’t touch them (you saw that coming, dintcha?) but some friends happened to pop in at that moment and I looked like one of those proper mums who always has a healthy, home-made, organic root vegetable-based snack on the go. Always a bonus.

*If you are in the Bristol area (or even if you’re not) and if you happen to see this post before the 1st February (I know, this is getting less likely, but still, bear with me…) this is your very last chance to invest in The Community Farm, an exciting new Bristolian community funded agriculture venture and the people from whom I buy my very fine veg box. Buy! Support! Members get discounts on the very fine veg boxes too…

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