Saturday, 31 October 2009

Quince Pickle

I am proud, if a little surprised to report that the quinces are already transformed into quince pickle. I only got them on Wednesday evening. I’m not sure what has spurred me on to this unusually decisive and prompt behaviour. Maybe it’s the thought of explaining to the kind friend who gave me some of the quinces she'd spent her Saturday morning picking, that they’d ended up in the bin. Or maybe it was the prospect of either spending the afternoon pottering about in the kitchen chopping fruit and stirring simmering pickle, or cleaning the bathroom. Whatever the motivation, a mere 4 hours of labour, a blister on my index finger, numerous bowls full of washing up and about a fiver’s worth of raw materials have resulted in  ......... 3 jars of pickle. But they are my jars of pickle. (Please don’t remind me how little a jar of Branston costs.)

Ta da!

I wanted to do something tangy and savoury with the quinces and something that I would actually want to eat regularly. As I’ve said before, I’m not a huge fan of jam or poached fruit – which has been the fate of quinces in past years (those that have avoided the dustbin). I once carefully poached sliced quinces in a rose water syrup and bottled them in a quaint, French, glass preserving jar. They looked beautiful. Delicate pink slivers of fruit suspended in a blush-coloured syrup. I never ate them of course. They just sat on the pantry shelf gathering dust. After about a year I decided to turn them into jam with instead. So a jar of quince and rose jam was produced. I ate very little of it, but I did feel pleasantly smug bringing it out for guests.

This is a pickle rather than a chutney recipe, so the fruit keeps a bit of texture rather than going completely to mush. You can also eat it immediately, unlike chutney which needs a month or two to mature. It tastes pretty good. Quite sweet and sticky, but with a rasp of vinegar and a definite musky flavour of quince.

The original recipe came from here.

Here’s my very slightly amended version and for half the quantity ( I only had 2lb of quinces). I used brown sugar, because that’s what I usually use for chutney. However, it struck me that the original recipe might have meant you to use white sugar, so you can see the pink colour of the cooked quinces, rather than the brown sludge produced in my version. I don't have a lot of experience making pickles! I added the crushed chillies to the recipe, because I wanted something with a bit of bite. I think if I make it again, I will add a bit more chilli. I was a bit nervous of making it too hot, but I’ve probably erred too much on the cautious side. I would probably also slow the cooking down a bit by simmering it with the lid on for half an hour or so first and then cooking the pickle with the lid off to reduce it. The texture of the pickle was ready - i.e. the juices reduced down to a rich syrup, but the quinces were a bit chewy.

Quince Pickle

2lb quince, cored and diced
1 ¼ cups white wine vinegar
1 ¼ cups red wine vinegar
1 ½ tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp crushed, dried chillies
½ tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground black pepper
1lb 12 oz sugar
1 tsp salt

Wipe the quinces with a damp cloth to remove the fuzz, then core and dice them. Don’t peel them. Place all the ingredients into a large, heavy-bottomed pan, and simmer, uncovered, on a constant low heat until the quince is a dark rose colour (or brown in my case!). This took about 1 ½ hours – although the original recipe stated that it might take 3 hours. The liquid will reduce down until it has thickened, and barely covers the fruit.

This is what it looked like when it first went on the heat.

This is what it looked like after 1 1/2 hours cooking. Note that it is now in a pan about half the size of the original. I let the pickle catch a bit - ooops - so I put it into a different pan to prevent it being infused with the taste of burnt pickle.

Bottle in sterilised jars with vinegar-proof lids. Keep in a cool place, for up to 2 years (now that's what I call a shelf-life!).

The friend who gave me the quinces recommended this recipe for Quince Balsamico Chutney  which she has made in the past. It sounds lovely, but I couldn't quite face the faff. Worth a look though.

Oh dear -  do you think I'm in danger of starting to finish things, thereby making the title of this blog redundant? Oh - there's always the bowl of soaking chick peas lurking in the bottom of the fridge which I intended making into hummus last weekend. A fairly unlikely prospect at any time, but considering this was  intended for a 'shared lunch' at a weekend course I was attending, and therefore would have meant me getting up early on the Sunday morning to make said hummus, it was pretty much doomed from the start. Turns out that chick peas develop an unappetising scum very quickly when left in the fridge.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Plot Night

Vital ingredients for 'plot night' baking

Those of you who didn’t grow up in Yorkshire (poor things!) won’t know what ‘Plot Night’ is. It is Bonfire Night, or if you are very posh, Guy Fawkes Night. Looking back to my childhood, Plot Night was one of the highlights of the year. It hadn’t been eclipsed by Halloween in those days and there wasn’t the same health and safety hysteria around fireworks then - although, it should also be acknowledged that the most powerful firework you were likely to light was a roman candle or a slim rocket, rather than the pyrotechnical monsters you can buy nowadays. The most dangerous event I remember was when a spinning Catherine wheel flew off its nail. Dads were blamed of course, responsibility for the fireworks being the men’s job. In those pre-BBQ days, it was the most primal display of virility available to the white collar Dads of my friends.

Plot night marked the start of the run up to Xmas and my birthday, which is at the end of November. It was very much the start of my ‘festive season’. The fact that bonfire night and its associated celebrations could fall midweek added to the sense of slightly subversive fun. Being allowed to be out and about on a school night, with lots of other people, playing with fire and of course eating lots of party food, was a heady mix.

I don’t remember getting involved in the ‘penny for the guy’ run up. I don’t ever remember seeing any ‘guys’ at all. This may have something to do with the fact that Guy Fawkes was a Yorkshireman, so we might not have wanted to burn him in effigy (but that’s just speculation on my part). The night before Plot Night was Mischief Night, the traditional time for practical jokes. Being ‘nice girls’, rather than ‘rough boys’, me and my sister didn’t get involved in that - of course! On the evening of 4th November there would be the sound of bangers being set off in the street and occasionally knocks at the door from people who had disappeared by the time you answered. There were stories about treacle being spread on door handles or gates being lifted off their hinges and hidden, but it was all pretty harmless.

The main reason I loved Plot Night was the food. It was one mouthwatering delight after another. You started with warm pork pies with mushy peas and mint sauce, followed by baked potatoes, cooked in foil in the embers of the bonfire. All this food tasted a million times better because it was eaten outside, in the crisp night air, a sparkler clutched in your hand, the smoke stinging your eyes and the heat from the flames scorching your cold cheeks.

And then came the sweet stuff. My grandma used to make ‘Plot toffee’, treacle toffee by any other name, in great, spiky shards. It was the sort of sweet that changes the outline of your cheek whilst you eat it because it is so big and unyieldingly angular. I have no idea why ‘plot’ baking is so dominated by ginger, but it is.There were  ginger biscuits and gingerbread pigs. But my favourite was always the parkin. Parkin is not gingerbread. Proper Yorkshire parkin, features oatmeal as well as ginger and has a dense, nutty consistency with just a hint of stickiness on its surface.

I was so disappointed when I moved to Scotland to discover that people don’t celebrate bonfire night up here. There are understandable historical and nationalist reasons for this, but what a wasted opportunity for some smashing food (in the Enid Blyton sense) and fire-gazing. This year however, I am going to be in Yorkshire for Plot Night. I am sneaking off for a break in a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales. In preparation, I’ve made some parkin to take with me.

The old school recipe book.

It’s ages since I’ve made parkin. I decided to go back to grassroots and use the recipe I was taught at school. The only change I made was to replace some of the golden syrup with treacle. I think ‘plot’ baking needs that dark hit of treacle to give the flavour proper depth. It hints of the smokiness of the bonfire. It also gives it the dark chestnut colour I remember.

You will also note the use of lard. Not a fashionable ingredient these days. I stuck to the recipe, but you may well want to use all butter instead. The original recipe also specified margarine, not butter (it does date from the 1970s!) but I hate margarine.

Parkin should be made at least a week in advance and then left in an air tight tin to acquire the proper sticky texture. If you can hold off long enough!

Yorkshire Parkin

(Source: Bradford Girls' Grammar School, circa 1976)

8 oz plain flour
8 oz medium oatmeal
8 oz soft brown sugar
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 heaped tsp ground ginger
Pinch salt
2 oz lard
2 oz butter
6 oz golden syrup
2 oz treacle
3 fl oz milk
2 med eggs

Preheat the oven to 325F/170C/Gas mark 3.

Grease and line the base of an approx 12inch square traybake tin (I used a 9 inch square tin and it was a bit small – the parkin ballooned above the tin during cooking and then collapsed a bit).

Mix all dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Rub the fats into the dry ingredients. Heat the milk and syrups together gently, stirring until combined. Don’t let it boil. Add to the flour/fat mixture and stir in. Add the eggs, beaten, and mix well. Pour into the tin and bake for 50-60 mins until deep brown, firm and shrunk slightly away from the sides of the tin. Don’t open the oven for the first 45 mins, or it will sink – like mine did! Leave it to cool in the tin. When cool, cut into squares and leave it in an airtight tin for 3 days to 2 weeks, to ‘mature’.

I confess, I scoffed a piece, just for the purposes of research of course. Very nice – sticky and nutty with the soft warmth of ginger.

When I was looking for a recipe for parkin, I found one in my old Yorkshire TV Farmhouse Kitchen book. It included this unexpected advice about ingredients: “If you have no treacle add 1 or 2 drops of gravy browning to the mixture to get the true dark Parkin colour”. Please note: there is no gravy browning in my parkin!

I'm getting the hang of this 'food styling' photography!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

I blame Nigella

Did Nigella Lawson invent quinces? I mean, until I read ‘How to Eat’ for the first time, I’d never even heard of quinces. Next thing, I notice them appearing in the greengrocers in October. Before I know it, I’m looking forward to their arrival, as if it’s some sort of long established ritual. As if autumns when I was a child were always marked by the purchase of quinces with my mother. I have somehow taken on Nigella Lawson’s quince habit, as if it were my own.

So for the last 8 years or so, early November has meant the annual buying of the quinces. This is followed, about 4-6 weeks later with the associated annual ritual of the throwing away of the mouldy quinces, or, if I catch them in time, the dumping of the (very) ripe quinces into a jar of vodka with some cinnamon sticks, in order to make some kind of ‘interesting’ liqueur. I have a jar of quinces steeping in vodka which has now accompanied me on two house moves. I finally got round to straining and bottling the liqueur a week or so ago, when I was flushed with the success of my damson gin making. The faded label on the jar said: Spiced Quince Liqueur - November 2003.

I don’t even like the taste of quinces that much. Sorry, I realise this is heresy amongst the Nigella reading public. I’m not really a fan of poached fruit and poached quinces are tooth-screechingly sweet. I’m not a huge fan of jam either – whether quince or otherwise. I’ve also made Nigella’s quince mincemeat, which I’m afraid didn’t taste that different than ordinary homemade mincemeat, and you’ve guessed it, I’m not that fond of mincemeat.

I just like the idea of quinces. I’m driven by some ridiculous self-delusion that I am connecting to ancient Christmas traditions, reaching back to medieval times or tapping into their exotic, middle-eastern roots. Or maybe, in that sad way that people buy celebrity perfumes to try and acquire a touch of their favourite star’s magic, maybe I think buying quinces will make me like Nigella Lawson – beautiful, oozing sex appeal and rich. Instead, I am still just a slightly frazzled, overweight, middle-aged woman, but one with some rotting fruit in her kitchen.

You can imagine the combination of delight and dread with which I greeted the news from a friend that she had discovered a source of quinces, growing here in Edinburgh. Would I like to share the fruit with her? Delight at the prospect of locally gathered, free fruit and magical quinces to boot. Dread at the thought that yet again I would fail to do anything useful with them and just feel even guiltier at the waste this time around, because the fruit had been generously given by a friend. But could I resist? Of course not. It’s quince season again.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

What goes around comes around

Do you ever have those moments in life when you feel as if you are experiencing a kind of living parable?

I am a great believer in the maxim ‘what goes around comes around’ – by which I mean a sort of woolly, secular belief in karma, but in this life, not in the next. At the risk of sounding priggish, I like to think that that putting goodwill or good deeds out in the world makes the world a better place generally. My less altruistic motivation for this attitude is that I believe it results in good things coming back to you. Of course most of the time, I forget to think this way or I am feeling far too full of self-pity and irritation to sustain goodwill to others, but I do try.

Yesterday, I experienced a little incident that attested to my ‘pay it forward’ principle. I could call it 'The parable of the pound'.

 I was rushing from the office to a meeting and I stopped off en route to get a coffee. On the way into the coffee shop, I noticed a sign on the door letting customers know that as a result of temporary technical problems, credit card payments couldn’t be accepted. A couple of students were ahead of me in the queue. One of them was trying to pay for his lunch with a card, not having noticed the sign. He had no cash with him. His companion dug around in her purse and lent him some cash, but he was still a £1 short. He patted his pockets helplessly for a moment and then started saying he would have to go and get some cash. On impulse I said to him I’d give him the £1. He looked at me in disbelief and I repeated my offer, adding that he could put £1 in a charity collection box at some point in return. He thanked me, paid and went off with his friend to sit down. This had all taken place infront of the till, observed by the staff.

When I came to pay for my sandwich and coffee, the guy behind the counter said that they wouldn’t charge me for my coffee – because I’d just given the student the £1 he needed. He then passed me my £1 change.

I thanked him and on a whim, chucked the pound coin into the tip jar.

By my reckoning, the student ahead of me in the queue, the coffee shop staff and I all benefited. The only people who lost out were Starbucks, and frankly, I think they can afford it.

What goes around comes around. Sometimes, surprisingly quickly.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Guilty pleasures: comfort food

The concepts of ‘guilty pleasures’ and of ‘comfort food’ have become so popular that they now denote things to be proud of rather than guilty about, as retro, nostalgic, post-modern, ironic statements. Listening to cheesy disco music for example with just the right degree of archness (think Mamma Mia!) or even (God forbid) enjoying wide shoulderpads and electro-pop as the 80s return, is actually very hip. (I’m dreading the time, which must come soon, when fashions I was already too old to be part of are reclaimed as 'retro'.) Cookbooks celebrate the supposedly guilty pleasures of comfort food. The Domestic Goddess herself devotes a whole chapter in Nigella Bites. Nigel Slater’s recent book Eating for England is one long paean to comfort food – with entries for Dairylea Triangles, Fray Bentos pies and Kitkats. There’s even a restaurant in Edinburgh, the wonderfully named Monster Mash (how 1970s can you get?), with a menu based entirely around ‘british classics’– pride of place given to humble bangers and mash of course, but featuring other old faves such as shepherd’s pie and macaroni cheese.

But what about the comfort foods that are too dull, too downmarket for a gastro-rennaissance? These are the truly guilty pleasures. The pleasures that you don’t admit to and certainly don’t serve to dinner guests as retro chic. Is it just me or does everyone have a selection of favourite foodstuffs (‘dishes’ is far too sophisticated a term for the things I have in mind), mostly drawn from childhood it must be said, and therefore fuelled by a degree of nostalgia rather than just taste, that are so ordinary, so plebeian, but so fantastically yummy that in the privacy of your home you eat them with shameless relish?

I was reflecting on this yesterday evening when, just back from work and turning my mind to cooking, I discovered that there was nothing in the fridge and that everything in the freezer would take too long to defrost. I stared despondently at the pantry shelves, thoughts of takeaways beginning to form, when my gaze alighted on a tin of corned beef. Oh joy – I knew exactly what I wanted – Corned Beef Hash. God, I love corned beef hash. It’s quick and easy to make. It requires only store-cupboard ingredients. It’s cheap. And it has that stodginess that I find is essential to true comfort food. It’s like an internal duvet – soft, warm, wrapping you up from the inside. Comfort food should be a bit heavy. After eating it, physical movement should become slightly difficult, thereby confining you to the ‘comfort’ zones of sofa or bed.

What would Masterchef make of these ingredients?

The ‘recipe’ (ahem!) is delightfully simple: boil some small chunks of potato. Meanwhile, in a frying pan, sweat some chopped onion in butter, or even, as a sop to the world post 1978, some olive oil. Dice the corned beef and add to the pan. Add 1 tsp tomato puree and ½ tsp dried mixed herbs. You must use dried herbs. You want a dusty, bass note, not zingy green freshness. Then, the piece de resistance: the ingredient that makes this meal off limits to anything other than private, family dining (as if the tinned corned beef and dried mixed herbs hadn’t already done this!) - add one small tin of baked beans. I confess, I sometimes add a small tin of chopped tomatoes as well – which is verging on an acceptable foodstuff for the noughties. Drain the cooked potatoes and add them to the hash and then cover and leave to simmer gently for 10 mins or so. I sometimes add a dash of tomato ketchup as well – just to reinforce the déclassé credentials of the dish. Under no circumstances serve it with anything green, to try and rescue it from the culinary fourth division – for example a mixed salad or watercress or pak choi. You could possibly justify serving it with some Marrowfat peas (see below). Otherwise just pile it on the plates and eat it with a fork, preferably whilst slumped on the sofa, watching rubbish on tv. Add extra tomato sauce to taste ….

This should probably be followed by something like a wagon wheel biscuit (do they still make them?)  just to recreate the full 1970s home-cooking experience.

Here are some of my other favourites from the comfort food hall of shame:

Mince and Potatoes (or Mince and Tatties – to translate for my Scottish husband).
Beef mince, chopped onions, browned then simmered with salt and pepper and probably an oxo cube, or similar. You may add some diced carrots, or even frozen garden peas. But nothing else. Serve with plain boiled potatoes. What’s not to like? When I used to come back home for the holidays from university, this was what my Mum always cooked for me on my first night home, because she knew I loved it so much. Aw. I’m easily pleased.

Pilchards on Toast
Even I think this is pretty weird if I’m honest. Take a small tin of pilchards in tomato sauce. It is important that they are in tomato sauce. You aren’t going to incorporate the tomato sauce into the meal, because it’s too sloppy and bland. However the fish will have steeped in the sauce and taken on some of that innate tomato-iness. With a fork, slide the fish out of the tin and put them in a small bowl. Mash them coarsely with the fork and add a dash of tomato ketchup (again!). Meanwhile toast two slices of bread. Butter the toast and spread the pilchard/ketchup mixture on the bread. Pop the fish covered toast under a medium grill for a few minutes, to warm the fish through. I confess, reading this, it sounds pretty disgusting even to me, but it is strangely delicious - trust me.

Fish Finger Sandwich
More ketchup with this one. Doesn’t really need any explanation. Almost health food – well, it’s fish, and you could use wholemeal bread.

Eggy Bread
Ok – I could call this ‘french toast’ and feel quite sophisticated – but is it still ‘french toast’ when accompanied by tomato ketchup? Actually, this is one of C’s comfort foods, which I never ate as a child, but I have learned to love as an adult. To serve 2, beat 3 large eggs, with about 2 tablespoons of milk. Add a bit of salt. Put the egg-milk mixture in a shallow bowl or rimmed plate– big enough to lay a slice of bread in. Plonk a slice of bread in the mixture, so that it soaks it up, then turn the bread over to soak up some more. Fry on a medium heat, on both sides, until it is nicely golden brown. Repeat with more bread until the mixture is used up. Serve with – yes, you’ve guessed it, tomato ketchup. Although C is also partial to brown sauce with this.

Tinned Marrowfat Peas
Have to be tinned. Have to be marrowfat. NOT mushy. Best eaten with something like a warm Cornish pasty or a meat pie. By the way, don’t make the mistake of uniting marrowfat peas with any other foodstuff during the cooking process (not that you would!). One of my more memorable meals as a student was preparing a haddock and haricot bean casserole. As I didn’t have any haricot beans - I was a student! It was 1983! - I used marrowfat peas, ‘fresh’ from the tin. After half an hour in the oven, the fish had turned luminous green. Presumably a result of the dye in the peas. Not an appetising look for fish. I think it’s the only time my flatmates actually refused to eat what I’d cooked for them.

In all the above dishes, note the lack of fresh vegetables, the high proportion of starchy foods, red meat - and ketchup. Turns out tomato ketchup is one of my comfort foods. All of these dishes could appear in some kind of postwar, austerity cookbook written by Marguerite Patten on behalf of the Ministry of Food.

Mmm. Don’t think I can open a restaurant with this kind of fare. However fashionable the 1970s are. And don’t get me started on sweets.  Sherbert Dib Dab anyone?

Monday, 19 October 2009

Anthems #1: Is that all there is?

I think this says it all. Has to be the Cristina 80s version, not Peggy Lee or PJ Harvey. Hey, I'm a child of disco (or punk, depending on my mood). Sometimes this sounds like an existentialist anthem to living in the moment. Sometimes it just sounds bleak. Either way, I love it. Hope you do too. Preferably listened to whilst drinking strong liquor.  Alone.  Laughing bitterly to yourself. Or maybe that's just me.

Damson Gin

Well this blog has already justified its existence (for me, I mean). Writing about my half-finished projects has guilted me into getting on with something. Is the giant Yorkshire embroidery finished? Is the William Morris tapestry adorning a cushion? Am I sporting a chic, hand-knitted cardigan with tonal detailing on the sleeves? No, don’t be ridiculous. Of course not. But I did finally get the damsons out of the freezer and bung them in some gin.

For those of you not initiated into the delights of the damson, let me urge you to explore the tart, dense flavour of this fruit. I had never come across damsons until we lived in Cumbria. The Lakes are famous for their damsons. Even in the less sheltered climes of East Cumbria, where we lived, there were damson trees. We were lucky enough to have a tree in our own garden. The first year we were there was a record harvest and I made gallons of damson gin and jars of damson jelly. There’s something so deeply, intensely fruity about the flavour of damsons that is unique. They make ordinary plums seem bland. The rich, purple colour of the cooked fruits just adds to their appeal.

Alas, whatever other delights Edinburgh has to offer, I haven’t seen any damson trees - yet. My damsons were bought from the greengrocer. They ended up in the freezer partly because I’d left them so long in the fridge that I was worried they’d go off, but it’s also a technique for softening the skins so they release their juices into the gin. This is a way of handling sloes for sloe gin, in order to avoid having to prick every single fruit. You’re supposed to pick sloes after the first frost, so the skins have been softened but you can just as easily throw them into the freezer for a while instead.

Somewhere in the move from Cumbria to Edinburgh, I’ve lost my little notebook with records of my various attempts at making fruit liqueurs, preserves or pickles, so unfortunately I don’t have my tried and tested recipe any more. Instead, I’ve used Nigel Slater’s recipe. He’s usually pretty reliable about this kind of thing. He does say you can use damsons or sloes for this recipe. Sloes are so much sourer than damsons, I’d be tempted to put in more sugar but you can always do that later, once you’ve tasted the finished drink.

I got into the habit of leaving the fruit in the gin indefinitely, and just siphoning off the liqueur with a ladle when I wanted it – not the most elegant way of serving an after-dinner drink admittedly. However I read on a website somewhere that after a year, you might spoil the flavour of the liqueur if you leave the fruit in. This still means that once the damson gin is ready (after 2-3 months) you do have about 10 months to get around to straining and bottling it. Surely that’s time enough… ahem. Once strained, the gin will last indefinitely. Unless you drink it of course.

The wonderful thing about damson and sloe gin is that it is so incredibly easy to make and yet gives the impression of ‘domestic goddess’-like skills, especially if you bottle it in some quaint, decorative glass bottles (bought from the not so quaint Ikea!).

By the way, do not ever make champagne cocktails using damson gin, along the lines of a Kir Royale. I have a vague but nonetheless hideously embarrassing memory of trying - and failing miserably - to play the piano for my friends fuelled by damson gin cocktails. Think Les Dawson’s piano playing sketch. Please note, this is not something I would ever try and do sober. At least I didn’t try and sing as well. Or did I…..?

As a bonus, here’s a damson inspired recipe I cobbled together from various ice-cream recipes. I made it once, ages ago and it was delicious. I made it a couple of weeks ago, and it wasn’t quite as good. This was partly because I couldn’t get the ice-cream to set – so it ended up as a sort of very cold damson ripple custard (sorry dinner guests!). I also had extra damson puree which I chucked in and the damson flavour was too dominating. But if, unlike me, you follow the damn recipe, you should be fine.

Damson Gin and White Chocolate Ice Cream

350ml milk
150ml double cream
4 egg yolks
50g caster sugar
200g white chocolate
100g damsons
2-3 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp gin

Put the damsons in a heavy bottomed pan, with a tablespoon of water. On a very low heat, simmer them gently until the skins begin to break and the fruits soften. Leave to cool slightly then push the fruit puree through a sieve. Whilst still warm, stir in 2-3 tbsps sugar and the gin. Taste the puree and add more sugar if necessary. You want a tart puree, but not so much that it puckers your mouth!

Warm the milk and cream in a double boiler or in a bowl over a simmering pan of water. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together, then pour the warmed milk mixture over it, whilst stirring. Return the egg and milk mixture into the double boiler, and cook gently until the custard thickens. Meanwhile, melt the white chocolate and leave to cool slightly, then stir it into the custard. Leave to cool.

Freeze the ice cream in an ice cream maker. Or, to use the freezer method, remove the freezing mixture every 30-40 mins from the freezer, as it is just beginning to freeze around the edges and stirring to prevent ice crystals forming. When the ice cream is frozen, but still soft, layer it in a suitable Tupperware bowl with the 2 thin layers of damson puree (so you have 3 ice cream layers around 2 fruit puree layers). Then use a skewer to ‘ripple’ the puree through the ice cream. Freeze.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Autumn Sunday

Autumn seems particularly beautiful this year. The red and yellow hues of the trees in our area of Edinburgh seem unusually strong.  This is the view out of my window. Who needs New England!

At this time of year it seems a sin not to get out into some woodland and make the most of the season. It's not just the way it looks, it's the way it smells. A potent mix of leaf mulch, damp earth, blackberries, the fusty scent of misty air, with an (imaginary I suspect) hint of woodsmoke.

We had intended going along to a 'fungus foray' out at  Almondell and Calderwood Country Park in West Lothian. This area is a new discovery of ours. As well as walks in the woodland along the river, there is a great little visitor centre serving coffees and teas which you can sit and drink in the pleasant walled garden. It also boasts a small aquarium with examples of local river inhabitants, including a fairly scary, and it must be said, quite cramped looking pike.

For one reason and another, we decided against the drive out to West Lothian and instead embarked on our own private fungus foray in the Hermitage of Braid, a nearby beauty spot and nature reserve.  The colours of the leaves were stunning. More yellows than reds and oranges. My photos don't really do justice to the intensity of the colours. There was a carpet of ochre leaves covering most of the ground.

As for the fungus side of things, well nothing too amazing to report. To be honest, I can only recognise about 3 types of edible fungus - penny buns, giant puffballs and horse mushrooms. None of these were lurking in the Hermitage today. But it's always fun to notice the mushrooms and flick briefly through my mushroom book before accepting that I haven't a clue what I'm looking at. If anyone knows what these are, do let me know - especially if they're edible!

Here's some evidence that I can do some useful foraging. These are dried slices of the very highly sought after 'penny bun' mushroom or what the Italians call 'porcini' that we found in the woods up near Dunkeld, north of Perth, a couple of weeks ago. Don't be deceived by the scale. The jar is about 4 inches tall with about 1 oz of dried mushroom in it. Maybe enough to make one tiny bowl of wild mushroom soup.

This is what they look like 'in the wild' as it were. This isn't the one I found - but it looked just like this, honest!

My Chair Affair

I am in the throes of a great passion. There’s a new love in my life. The object of my affection waits ready to welcome me into a soft, warm embrace whenever I am in need of comfort. I am in love with my new chair.
What I love about my new chair is that it is mine alone. Does that make me sound selfish? Well, it’s the truth. I didn’t have to negotiate the purchase with my husband. It doesn’t represent a hard-won compromise between our individual tastes. It’s not an inherited family piece I had to find house room for. It wasn’t a choice based on cost considerations rather than aesthetics. I saw it, loved it and bought it.

This is part of the intense pleasure I am discovering from, in Virginia Woolf’s words, having a room of my own. In our new flat, me and C are lucky enough to have a ‘room’ each. (‘Study’ sounds a bit grand; ‘office’ a bit business-like; ‘den’ a bit American; workroom a bit dull, not to mention, inappropriately industrious!) I’ve never had such a thing before. A room that’s just mine, to do what I want with. To furnish it, I already had my desk, a bookcase and a cupboard. But what I wanted was a chair. A chair to sit and read in, to think in, to rest in.

We have lots of chairs in our flat – most of them acquired from C’s parents (for which I am very grateful in the main). But none of the chairs we already had was exactly what I wanted for my room. I felt I couldn’t really justify acquiring yet another chair, especially as I spend a lot of time moaning at C that we need to get rid of some of the ridiculous quantity of furniture we live with. But secretly, I dreamt of acquiring the perfect chair. It needed to be comfortable and cosy, but not too big, as I don’t have much space in my little room. I wanted a second-hand chair, that would complement the ‘lived in’ (!) nature of the rest of the furniture in the room.

Last weekend we discovered a fantastic second-hand furniture warehouse on Leith Walk. We were actually on the hunt for a wardrobe. Whilst we were enjoying wandering around the showroom, the owner approached us with the magic words “would you like to look in the warehouse?”. Oooh- yes please! He took us down a lane at the side of the shop, across a yard into a huge storage unit, piled high with an extraordinary range of second-hand furniture. There was everything – wardrobes, bookshelves, desks, dining tables, marble topped washstands, cheval mirrors, wooden bed frames, an early record player in an imposing, mahogany case. And there it was. Hidden behind the broken frame of a rocking chair. My chair.

I’ve no idea how old it is. It is in reasonable condition – all the rattan is intact and the cushions have been reupholstered I think. It fits me like a glove. Best of all, the patina on the armrests, where the polish has been rubbed away suggests that this chair has been sat in a lot. I like to think that it was someone’s favourite chair. And now it is mine.

Part of me is loathe to share a good source of second-hand furniture, wanting to keep any potential bargains to myself, but one of the reasons why I started this blog was to share my enthusiasms (of which there are many). So for those who are interested, the furniture warehouse is: Crawford's Salerooms, 250 Leith Walk, Edinburgh. No website.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Belbin is right

Have any of you done the ‘Belbin team roles’ inventory, which tells you what kind of tasks you are most comfortable with? For example, ‘Co-ordinator’, ‘Implementor’ or ‘Monitor Evaluator’? What is abundantly clear, and I don’t really need to read Belbin to know this, is that I am not a ‘Completer finisher’ (the clue is in the title of the blog). In fact, finishing things, without the motivation of some kind of unavoidable, external imperative, such as the threat of public humiliation, redundancy or death, is very difficult for me.

A great bonding moment was hearing a friend tell me about the time she’d bought green tomatoes in a fit of domestic goddess-like enthusiasm, intending to make green tomato chutney. She took so long to get around to making the chutney, the tomatoes had ripened in the interim. Ah, a woman after my own heart. In the founding spirit of this blog I think an honest post is in order, laying bare and accepting (celebrating?) my long history of enthusiastically taken-up but unfinished projects. I think there is a psychic weight of guilt and self-hatred attached to these things. Occasionally I wonder about throwing them away and releasing myself from the burden. But with the triumph of hope over experience, I still labour under the naïve belief that one day, these things will get finished. So here is the great unfinished projects list (a selection!).

Knitting projects:
This is the most pernicious area of unfinishedness and most sinful because it represents quite a lot of money, the cost of nice yarn being what it is. I’m not even going to mention the collection of balls of wool, bought in various sales for as yet undefined projects that haven’t quite got off the ground. Let’s just look at projects that have taken not only money but my time to get close to completion.

In my cupboard, I have 2 unfinished, hand-knitted cardigans, which have been sitting there for about 4 years (that’s a lie – it’s actually much longer, but I have some pride). To be fair, these are unfinished because they have gone so terribly wrong that I can’t quite work out how to save them, yet I don’t want to admit defeat and throw them out. One cardigan, in a lovely, soft, teal, is a demonstration of the fact that yes, the same yarn from different dye lots can be significantly different in colour, and doesn’t actually represent the bargain it seems to be in the mill shop. What a shame it is to discover this half way through knitting the last piece of a cardigan. I have a vague solution in mind of unravelling both sleeves and re-knitting them, somehow creating a fetching cuff arrangement, using the different colours as accent, but I haven’t quite been able to face it - yet. I haven’t been able to face it for at least 4 years.

The other cardi – a dark green chenille item - is all but ready to sew up. Unfortunately, having been interrupted by circumstances (another lie – not circumstances but apathy and carelessness) I’ve lost the pattern and don’t quite know how the different bits go together. I’ve got baffling, unidentifiable bits of knitting dangling off stitch holders. I think they are pockets and bits of collar but I’m not sure.

Does failure to start count as failure to finish when you’ve bought the project materials? If so, I could include the stunning Debbie Bliss knitting kit which I treated myself to last year and which is still sitting in all its tissue-papered gorgeousness in the cardboard box it arrived in. But, at a year old, this is just a baby of an unfinished project. No urgency there yet.

Embroidery projects:
These represent my greatest failures to finish as well as the most self-delusion in my belief that I will ever get around to finishing them. About 18 years ago, when embroidery was my craft activity of choice, my lovely husband bought me a beautiful embroidery kit: to make a gigantic, antique map of Yorkshire (my home county). The picture on the kit of the finished object is gorgeous and I would really like to have such a thing on my wall. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to do. It involves lots of charts and fiddly bits of different coloured embroidery threads. The most alarming aspect of this kit is that the pattern isn’t printed on the linen. You have to count it off a chart. It is quite easy to go wrong and end up carefully stitching York Minster where Hull docks should be. I’ve lost heart. The embroidery, with my first faltering stitches, is in one of my boxes of broken dreams (i.e. unfinished projects) and has accompanied us on 5 (yep, count ‘em) house moves. But I will not admit defeat and throw it away!
I also have an elegant William Morris design tapestry which is unfinished. The hard bit is complete (for hard, read ‘interesting’), i.e. the intricate design of birds and flowers. There is also great deal of plain, blue stitching still to be done to complete the whole design. A few years ago, in a fit of determination, I dug out the half-finished tapestry and attached it to a tapestry frame. But now the tapestry has been sitting for so long on its frame awaiting my attention that I suspect it has faded slightly. If I ever get around to excavating the blue tapestry wool from its resting place (nestled alongside the Yorkshire embroidery kit) it will be a different colour from the bits I’ve already done. Perhaps I could use it to make some cuffs for that blasted cardigan…

Household projects:
Does anyone else have home-made curtains hemmed ‘for now’ with safety pins? Please tell me I’m not the only one. Or how about these:
· Collections of old prints or maps, picked up cheaply at car boot sales or on foreign holidays, sitting unobserved in a cardboard folder, awaiting framing and hanging.
· Pieces of boring brown furniture bought as ‘shabby chic’ restoration projects, waiting for the time when I will a) make my mind up about the colour of paint to buy, b) buy it and c) sand, paint, distress and varnish said piece of furniture. Don’t hold your breath.
· ‘Family heirloom’ items, such as antique wooden trays and writing cases, inherited in a totally trashed state but because they once had a value, we are (according to my husband) not allowed to get rid of them. Instead we will hold onto them until the mythical time when we will either a) restore them (erm, once we have done a course in restoring wood inlay, or silversmithing?) or b) take them to an antique dealer for valuing (who will tell us to throw them away).
· The ever-multiplying ‘car boot sale’ boxes – full of the junk that even my dear husband can’t pretend is of real value. We have actually managed to do two car boot sales. 14 years ago. We haven’t done one since.
· The ‘mending and alterations’ pile. In these days of economic downturn and eco-motivated thrift, it is surely important not to throw clothes away that just need a few minutes attention with a needle and thread. Instead, pop them in the wardrobe in the spare bedroom for a few weeks/months/years, or until they can be termed ‘vintage’ when you can transfer them to the ‘car boot sale’ box indefinitely. But at least you haven’t just thrown them out.

This is a very long post. It could have been much longer – I haven’t even mentioned the bags of damsons and sloes in the freezer - but I am beginning to feel ever so slightly embarrassed.

Some projects do get finished ... Hic!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Blogs Away!

Well this is it. I’m finally joining the 21st century. I’ve managed to resist Friends Re-united (remember that!), MySpace , Facebook, Twitter, even MSN. However, reading some fantastic, heartwarming and inspiring blogs (see below!) has convinced me to put a tentative toe into the blogosphere. What strikes me about so many of the blogs I’ve been drawn to is that they celebrate the everyday pleasures of life. They are often very domestic in scale, often linked to cooking and home-making and crafts. They are an expression of gratitude for the little things: a walk in the autumn countryside; a row of pastel, iced buns in a bakery window; the fruit gum colours of a crocheted blanket. I suppose I hope that by joining in, I will increase my own capacity to notice the good things in life. Contentment does not come easy to me but I think it would be a good habit to develop.

Years ago, someone told me this supposedly ‘Zen’ parable:
A Buddhist monk (don’t ask why it is a monk – it’s a Zen parable) is walking through the jungle. He starts to feel as if he is being watched. He glances behind him and sees that he is being stalked by a tiger. He carries on walking and the tiger follows him. Starting to feel anxious (in a kind of accepting, Zen way presumably) the monk starts to walk faster. The tiger keeps up. The monk breaks into a run and the tiger also picks up the pace. Soon, the monk is running for his life, hotly pursued by the tiger. The monk is running so fast, he doesn’t notice he has come to a sheer drop and before he can alter his course he falls over the edge. Luckily, he is able to grab hold of a sapling, growing from the cliff face and this interrupts his fall. So there he is, hanging from a small tree. Far below him, a river racing across boulders and rocks – certain death if he falls. Above him, the tiger, still intent on its prey. The monk then notices that the roots of the sapling are starting to give way and will soon come away from the cliff face. At this point, he notices a small wild strawberry plant growing in a crevice in the rock, bearing a single perfect, red fruit. With one hand, he plucks the strawberry and eats it. And he enjoys it.

I’ve no idea about the provenance or authenticity of this ‘parable’ but it’s always stuck with us. Whenever me and my husband are feeling frazzled or discontented, we try and remind each other to ‘taste the strawberries’ (in between sulking or grumbling at each other of course!). So my intention in starting the blog is to encourage me (and anyone who reads it) to stop and taste the strawberries.

The picture above is my study - and if you look very carefully you can see my windowsill 'garden' - which included a few strawberries this summer.

So why have I called it ‘my half-finished life’ and not ‘taste the strawberries’? Well, it’s a kind of reminder to myself not to get too hooked up on perfection or rather the failed search for perfection. I’ve been thinking about starting a blog for ages, but I kept putting it off because I felt I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t think of a ‘good’ name. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write about. I wasn’t sure which blogging site to use. I wanted to wait until I’d moved house. Then when I’d moved house, I thought I ought to wait until the house looked better, so I could put in some pretty ‘Cath Kidston’ style photos. Or I wanted to wait until I’d finished some nice craft projects, so I could show them off, which I’ve seen in the blogs I like. Or I wanted to put off starting it until I’d lost weight/dyed my hair/ acquired a more interesting personal style etc. All of which meant I didn’t get on with it. Like so many things in my life. So this blog is also intended as an acceptance of just how half-finished and ‘imperfect’ my life is. But after 45 years on the planet, I’m probably not going to suddenly morph into someone who is good at finishing things, so I might as well enjoy the half-finished things. And even though I am tempted to polish and improve this post or to leave it for a couple of days to ‘finish it’, in the spirit of this blog, I am posting it now.

The only mushroom we saw on our 'fungus foray' in West Calder woods last week. It's about 1 inch tall. Definitely a question of appreciating the 'little things'.