Wednesday 25 February 2015

Pour Me a Cup of Tea Please~~~

Gentle Reader ~~~ As many of you know, I love to bake. I also love to tweak recipes to put my own stamp on them.  Of course, playing with recipes often yields unexpected results, sometimes quite disastrous, sometimes serendipitous.  Here is a little tale of the unexpected goody that has come from a nearly disastrous bake last year.

Stollen is one of my most favourite Christmas treats.  For some reason, probably all the other gazillion and one things to do for Christmas, I have never baked my own, but with each passing year the cost seems to be going up way out of relation to inflation, and with some supermarkets charging as much as £8.00 for a Stollen, or around £3.00 for a small box of tiny Stollen bites, I decided to give it a go.  {After all, what could possibly go wrong with making an enriched dough stuffed full of dried fruits and marzipan?}

If you don't already know the history of Stollen, here is a link with a brief history.

Now, let it be known that I am a Disciple of Delia, so around lunchtime on Christmas Eve, still with loads of jobs to do, I assembled all the ingredients, as listed in my trusted Delia Smith's Christmas  {this link is to the revised version, Delia's Happy Christmas, mine is the original}, plugged in Emily and changed the beater for the dough hook, rolled up my sleeves, and set about baking Stollen for the very first time.  I mean, how hard could this be? It wasn't as if I didn't have enough things still to do, but with the help of Emily to knead the dough there was plenty of time to finish all the other jobs for Christmas Day ~~~ wasn't there? 

Of course, being a Disciple of Delia, I have all her cookery books, and naturally I have both the original and revised Christmas books ~~~

You can find Delia's Recipe here, and if you want to watch the process, you can watch Delia's Christmas Stollen video.  The site is, in general, worth more than a quick peek, so make sure you have a pot of tea on hand as you may be gone some time ~~~

Are you back yet? 

I measured out the ingredients, followed the recipe, and with the help of Emily it wasn't long before there was a lovely rich, yellow, fruit~laden dough rising in the airing cupboard ~~~ the cottage was already taking on the fragrance of Christmas baking ~~~ 

It was then that disaster struck for the first time ~~~ the dough started to take on a life of it's own and in a very short time it had risen well beyond what was expected of it, in fact it was, in my estimation, about double what it should be, so in I ploughed and knocked it back, shaped it and carefully rolled it around the marzipan roll, slipped it on to the waiting baking tray and put it to rise again {which it did, reaching rather gargantuan proportions again} before I tucked it in to the oven to bake ~~~ which it did rather beautifully, despite it's size ~~~ until I {Oh! so very stupidly} got over excited and disaster struck for the second time with vengeance, for as I lifted it off the baking tray too early, much to my dismay, out fell the beautiful, meltingly hot marzipan roll on to the floor ~~~ pass the tissues now!  How painful it was to see that plumptious confection in what I can only describe as an Almond Paste Splat all over my kitchen floor. If you have never seen an almond paste splat, I hope you don't, especially if you love the delightful confection as much as I do ~~~ oh, and hot marzipan cools down quite rapidly {except when eaten hot and it adheres to the roof of the mouth ~ not that I have ever done this, you understand} and has a nasty tendency to stick to the floor in such a way that a bucket and mop job is the only way to clean up, so adding more work to the already bulging list of Christmas jobs ~ which wouldn't be so bad if there wasn't a looming deadline!

Of course, the whole bread was spoiled as a Stollen, but did not waste.  We ate it, warm and buttered; toasted and buttered; warmed with custard; and the very last scraps were put into a heavenly Bread and Butter Pudding served with a warm brandied custard sauce ~~~ heavenly ~~~

Long have I thought and pondered and wondered over what went wrong, and can only think that maybe I forgot to add the salt to the dough {salt is a necessary evil in bread making as it inhibits the yeast from rising too much, so this makes sense given the uninhibited rising of the dough} or maybe I accidentally reached for the wrong flour, over kneaded the dough, maybe the marzipan was just too heavy for the dough, any one of a number of things.  I stopped losing sleep and agreed to move on ~~~

Two things have come out of this ~~~

  • do not wait until the eleventh hour to try a new recipe, especially Christmas Eve ~ and ~
  • try making buns and chop the marzipan through the dough {don't ask me where this thought came from, but come it did} so ~~~
Fast forward to yesterday ~~~ I gathered all the ingredients and made another batch of dough, only this time, the marzipan was cut up into small cubes, just over 1/4 of an inch in size, and added it in with the fruit. I am always changing my mind, so instead of making buns, I pressed the dough into a circle and scored it through to make wedge shapes. I left it in the circle on the baking sheet, and baked it at Gas Mark 5 for about 35 ~ 40 minutes until it looked baked ~~~ 

I then made Delia's icing, but as the lemon was a bit small and the icing a bit thick I added a teaspoon of vanilla extract {something I seem to add in to most of my sweet recipes, even when it is not in the ingredients ~ I think I have a bit of a love affair with vanilla}

So, here is the result of my Christmas kitchen disaster turned good ~~~ yesterday's Stollen wedges ~~~

I did leave the nuts out as there is a nut allergy sufferer in the house, and that is the beauty of home baking ~ you can adjust the recipe to suit any dietary or other needs.  Next time I make this, and be assured there will be a next time, I will put toasted flaked almonds on half the icing as I think they will add to the overall final presentation.

It was delicious with coffee for breakfast, and I must confess, I planned to present the wedges on a pretty plate and take a better photograph, but I notice that one wedge is already missing from the above circle, and as I type there are just three wedges left ~~~ 

Friday 20 February 2015

Magical Moon, Venus, and Mars

Gentle Reader ~~~

Just one very quick image this evening ~ a magical sight in the evening sky tonight ~~~ tonight the waxing moon, Venus, and Mars all in very close conjunction.  This will not happen again until 2017, so it was a real treat to have clear skies tonight to help me capture a memory of this event.

Here is my photograph, the view to the west from my cottage garden with the new moon and Venus are easily seen, and to see Mars just look slightly above Venus and there is the Red Planet, a minutely tiny speck in the deep dark sky ~~~
{at first I thought it was a speck of dirt on my laptop screen~~~}

Tomorrow evening, the moon will sit above the two planets and be even more spectacular, but we have a forecast of rain and cloud, so I am grateful for clear skies tonight. I hope the skies are clear above you so that maybe you will have a chance to see this too ~~~

Monday 16 February 2015

Vintage Stoneware Hot Water Bottle

Gentle Reader ~~~ here is a little vintage blast from the past ~~~ a stoneware hot water bottle that belonged to my Great Grandmother.  Few things bring such comfort as hot water in a bottle, and I remember, as a child, this dangerous beauty used to warm my bed as it did for many in the family before me.

I don't know the make, for there are many manufacturers of stoneware bed warmers {maybe Denby or Langley Ware} dating from the early 1800's onwards until rubber hot water bottles came to mass production in the early twentieth century.  They are extremely robust in construction and many survive today so there is no shortage and very little value to them.  Of course, that mine belonged to my forebears means it has a value greater than money can buy, for it has kept the feet of my family toasty warm on many a cold winter's night for decades when Jack Frost danced through the night ~~~

It is heavy before being filled with hot water, and, as I recall, was put into my bed and moved around at intervals for an hour or so to make my bed toasty warm before I was safely tucked in with a modern rubber bottle at my feet to keep me warm as I drifted away into the sea of sweet dreams.  

I feel lucky to own it, for it has not been seen for decades, assumed broken and thrown out in years past, but recently I was clearing a long forgotten corner of the attic ~~~ and there it was, having made the journey some thirty years ago when we moved house ~~~ hidden in a dark corner where no one went and only spiders lurked ~~~

Cleaned and spruced up, I have taken these photographs and must now decide what to do with it.  It is a lovely cream colour, warmer than these images show, with a rich brown glaze and stopper. I don't know what the pattern is, other than leaf like, but is quite traditional.  It makes me think of pastry leaves on a pie!  I think it is best to simply find a considered spot, maybe on the hearth, and leave it on display and appreciate it for it's simple and honest beauty.  It is certainly not to be used to warm the bed any longer!

Few things compare to the cosy comforting warmth provided by a hot water bottle ~~~ be it to cuddle and keep you warm or to provide relief from an injury.  Nowadays, the popularity of hot water bottles is waning due to the convenience of the electric blanket, but I confess that I adore my cosy hot water bottle more than any electric blanket!  

~~~Do you use a hot water bottle, or do you prefer an electric blanket?  

Friday 13 February 2015

Mincemeat Palmiers

Gentle Reader ~~~ ooops! A while back I promised to share my Mincemeat Palmier idea. So, I'm sitting here today, the day before St Valentine's Day, curled up in front of the fire nursing a nasty head cold ~~~ feeling a tad sorry for myself as the weather is horrible and the world looks as glum as I am feeling today ~~~

I did make a mistake, as you will see, but they are very easy, and great for using up those odds and ends that haunt the fridge and freezer after Christmas, but, of course, you can make them at any time of year.  Sometimes they are called Elephant Ears or French Hearts ~~~ 

I made mine using up leftover frozen puff pastry {which I always keep on hand in the freezer for emergencies} and a half jar of mincemeat that was languishing in the fridge ~~~

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.

I used a half jar of mincemeat, an orange, bought puff pastry, and some left over marzipan from icing the cake ~~~

I always add extra spice to everything ~ I love spice, but of course this is optional ~~~

In a small bowl, place the contents of the jar of mincemeat and the grated rind of the orange ~~~

Add your spice if using and grated marzipan ~~~

Unroll the puff pastry and spread the mixture across, leaving a small margin on the longer sides ~~~ these are a little over filled, and you will see what happened ~~~

 Roll up the edges to nearly meet in the middle of the pastry ~~~

Fold in half ~~~

Cut into pieces, about 1/2 an inch ~~~

Place cut side down on a baking tray ~~~

Bake in the oven for about 15~20 minutes until all puffed up and golden ~~~ as you will see, a lot of my filling oozed out because I'd overstuffed them. I didn't mind though, they were not for anyone else, only me, and they tasted really yummy and didn't last long ~~~ {I'm not afraid of showing what went wrong, we learn from our mistakes!}

Plated up with a light dusting of icing sugar snow to mask the imperfections ~~~

I might not get 10/10 for looks but they tasted just fine and it is better than wasting the ingredients!  Next time I'll get them right!

In the UK, Valentine's Day is a celebration of the love between couples, but in the spirit of an American Valentine's Day ~ where it is for everyone to share love and friendship ~ I send you all greetings for a Very Happy St Valentine's Day and thank you for the friendship we share through our online writings and photographs ~~~

Tuesday 10 February 2015

White Picket Fences, Garlic and Onions, and Future Thoughts

Gentle Reader ~~~ if there is one thing my heart yearns to see in my garden it is a white picket fence ~~~ and soon I hope to have one!  Plans are afoot but I am a classic Libran so it often takes me a long time to make up my mind, in this case to find the answer to the question "Where shall I put my white picket fence?" but I think, at last, the answer has arrived! Hurrah!

My love of white picket fences came long before I had even seen one when, as a child, I read books that transported me to faraway places where each house in the neighbourhood had these wonderful white picket fences.  No home was complete without a white picket fence. Even though no one had a white picket fence in my neighbourhood, I felt my childhood was incomplete without one of these magical things. I was obviously deprived and living in the wrong world. Of course, I never told anyone about this deprivation, this void in my formative years, for I would appear ungrateful as there was a wonderful, large garden in which I could play and ramble, with a swing, and an apple tree to climb, hens to pester, flowers to pick, and vast space in which to have as many adventures as I wanted to invent. Just no white picket fence to make my childhood complete.  Later, I saw them in films, or in television adaptations of the books I read as a child; then, when living in America, I'd sometimes see them in villages and towns as I travelled, and then I came across Susan Branch's vegetable garden, and if you click here you will see Susan and Joe building their very own white picket fenced vegetable garden.

You can read a little potted History of White Picket Fences.

You can also see a really pretty, thoughtfully considered, and useful white picket fenced garden over at Petals Paper Simple Thymes, where my friend Dawn has a sweet and heart warming tale to tell how her fragrant Tea Garden came in to being.  You just might notice a Susan Branch theme developing ~~~ Do stop by and take a peek ~ not only is it a such a dear story, she has added some truly special touches of her own.  Dawn will make you really welcome there ~~~

So, my hankering to own a white picket fence grows; long have I pondered and long have I wondered ~ for my garden is surrounded by stone walls, and there is not much I can do about that, nor is there a space to cordon off a special area as Susan and Dawn have done. Thoughts passed through my brain. Ideas are batted around and fall by the wayside. Then, it came to me ~ in a rare light bulb moment ~ that if I can't knock down the stone walls, if I can't have a whole fenced off area, I can have a white picket fence as the fourth side to my vegetable plot! It is too open and needs something to make it an enclosed area.  Perfect! Finally, an idea to run with that has real promise!

This is the main vegetable plot taken a few years back but it is pretty much the same today, bounded by three stone walls. The fence will go along the edge closest, or I shall make a rectangle across the foreground and enclosing the area up to the edge of the yellow weed suppressing sheet and over to the small bin ~~~ oh! and I want a row of lavender plants edging and falling over on to the paved area {where I am standing to take the photograph} ~~~
{don't look at how untidy it is, I've been using it as a holding bay for flowering plants for the borders}

They will be white and purple long stemmed lavender plants to contrast against the fence and to provide stems for lavender wands, which I love to make in the lazy summer evenings, sitting in my deck chair ~~~

If I make an enclosed space there must be just enough space over on the left where there is a small path {hidden under the ever~expanding osteospermum and sage plants} to push Wilbur Wheelbarrow on to the plot. As soon as the weather is a little warmer, I will go out and measure things up!  
Goodness, I am quite excited about this.

~~~ Let's Talk Onions!~~~

Onions are probably my most favourite and most used vegetable. A day does not go by where I do not use onions in some way in at least one meal, whether it be as part of the trinity that forms the base of most home made soups, in a vegetarian chilli or a rich tomato pasta sauce, caramelised as a pizza topping, in a lentil stew, raw with a salad, or in a cheese sandwich.  I could go on, and I know you are mentally adding your own personal favourites to this list as you read ~~~ unless you don't like them ~~~ 

Do you know that onions are one of the most widely grown and widely used crops on the entire planet? Every culture grows and uses onions in cooking, and they have numerous health benefits as well as being versatile and tasty. If I have onions in the fridge I have the foundation of a meal. Just think about how many times in the week you use onions ~ but did you know that they aren't just the spherical brown, white, or red ones in the shops ~ their cousins include shallots, banana shallots, leeks, garlic, spring onions {salad onions or scallions} and the tinier pickling onions too?

I recently read an interesting article, which will help you get to know your onions too. It tells you a little about the history of onions, and even how they are found in the first known recipe book that is four thousand years old ~ yes, you read that correctly!  I find that so amazing ~~~

Despite being a favourite, I don't actually grow onions {or potatoes} for the simple reason that they are inexpensive, readily available, and I do not have a huge vegetable plot that I can turn over a lot of space to growing when they are so readily available.

However, this winter, rather than leave the garden to rest, I sought advice and planted a small area with an assortment of onions, and a couple of tubs of garlic; if you click here and scroll all the way down you will see what they looked like about four weeks after I planted them in November, and below is what they look like now.  I am thrilled at their progress, and am probably quite unreasonably excited over them, but then as a novice gardener I always get excited when things do well ~ and the reward of nurturing anything from a tiny bulb or seed to a full grown plant that gives so much pleasure when it ends up on the plate, when you know the complete provenance of what you are eating, is something you cannot describe, or buy!

First, the two bins of garlic ~~~ the first one had rather a nasty accident three weeks ago, but from the looks of things was caught and rectified in time!  We'd had a lot of rain, and one day I noticed the bin was full to the brim with water! Panic strikes! The holes in the bottom somehow clogged up, so I pierced around the base of the bin to let the water drain out, which it did very slowly. I was afraid the crop was waterlogged and spoiled, but new, green shoots are growing from the middle of each plant so I'm hoping all is well below the soil ~~~

If growing in these bins is a success, I can move them on to the paved areas where there is nothing at the moment, so I will increase my growing space!

This bin was planted about a month after the first one and has nearly caught up! ~~~

and here are the onions, with weeds still growing so I shall have to clear them in a week or two ~~~

They are still quite small, but looking sturdy and strong, so I hope they will start to increase in bulb size as the weather warms up ~~~

{I had to zig zag the frames with string to keep off the birds and cats that might do a lot of damage if they are able to get on to the planted area}

If you want to know more about planting onion sets, garlic, or anything else garden~related for that matter, then the RHS has good information and guidelines.

While looking around the garden earlier, I also noticed my clematis is putting on a lot of shoots already.  Do you remember the dead clematis that suddenly came back to life after many years?  It now seems to be doing all right for itself, so it is time to look for a permanent structure and maybe take some cuttings when the time is right!

Thinking and planning forward into Spring and planting vegetables, I have bought some raised beds with suitable liners to retain the soil, on a spare piece of land adjacent to the cottage. These will hold my simple salad crops of lettuce, leaves, Spring onions, baby beetroot etc., thus freeing up space on my small plot for other things. Photographs and ideas will follow!

For now, though, I am still browsing the seed catalogues ~ for remember, I am a typical Libran and cannot make up my mind what to plant in my precious small spaces!  Top of my list this year will be seeds for growing outdoor tomatoes ~~~ I've already selected two varieties, and must think carefully as to what else will be grown this Summer ~~~ in the meantime, while I peruse the seed catalogues in front of a warm fire, with a mug of hot tea, remember that ~~~

~~~A Gardener's Work is Never Done~~~

Saturday 7 February 2015

February Frosty Days and Clear Skies

Gentle Reader ~~~ It has been a while since I wrote here for I have issues, yet again, with the computer.  I have been totally locked out of Facebook for what now seems ages, but I think about a fortnight in reality. I have no idea what is going on, I cannot access my account,so I cannot write anything on the garden page, although I'm told it is still there.  Strangely, though, I am not missing Facebook in the slightest, but at least you know why I am not there now.

I don't know about you, but I find February one of the more confusing months.  I find it a slow month, a grey month, a hard~to~get~going again month. I suffer from mild SAD and February is often my worst month for this and I do my best to overcome the trials of the dark days. Winter is half way through, and it's teeth grip ferociously across the much of northern hemisphere; many of us shiver while the days start to lengthen and we look forward to the returning light and some warmth.  Yet, while I long for longer, lighter and brighter, warmer days ahead, I dread the very thought of the scorching heat of Summer, and part of me clings madly to the cold days of now. I wish we had snow. Snow would make Winter perfect. We seldom have snow here in the west.  I am reading all your lovely journals sharing your snow adventures and photographs, while I sit here with temperatures outside my window at a balmy 36F average!  I know many of you have had more than enough snow, with blizzards and thundersnow, and more, but I long for snow, my heart yearns for snow, but not a flake has fallen from the sky.  Instead, we have had sleesh ~ this is my new word for that horrible wet not~quite~hail and not~quite~sleet stuff that falls and leaves the ground a sloshy sloppy slippy mess. We have had wind, seventy mile an hour winds, and it brought down my television aerial! Thankfully, that was all and no damage was done, and it is fixed again.

Thinking ahead to those lighter and brighter days, Spring Cleaning continues in the cottage albeit slowly!  I find it just a tad too chilly to go and dig the claggy wet soil in the garden at the moment so I am making the most of days spent inside before the garden really starts to call, to clear the cupboards and drawers of things no longer needed. Many bags have gone to the thrift store, mostly to the Red Cross as they collect everything in one go from the cottage saving me a lot of trips.

The wicked winds have mostly dropped and the skies, by day, are mostly clear and blue with promises of Spring around the corner. We did wake up to a light frost the other morning, so I was able to nip out and take a few quick photographs ~~~

This tiny leaf was about the size of a 10p piece, maybe just a little smaller ~~~ so pretty with it's crystal edging of ice ~~~

This is a frost covered mullein plant ~~~ the fuzzy wuzzy hairy leaves look so different now ~~~

I love the light dusting on this leaf, it looks like a delicate mosaic ~~~

Even the lid of the compost bin took on some extra dimension! ~~~

I love walking out in the countryside, especially at this time of year when the leaves are gone and all we see are the skeletal structures of the trees in winter ~~~ here are a couple of my favourites ~~~
The trunk of this one is covered with ivy! ~~~

Moss covered stones bring colour and scatter the ivy covered floor ~~~

I love the different textures when you look closely at the fuzzy moss and the shiny smooth penny wort leaves ~~~

The first early snowdrops of winter ~~~

Clear, cloudless days give way to clear, cloudless twilight evenings and stars twinkle brightly in the darkening blue sky ~~~ this is Venus in the south western evening sky, the brightest star at the moment ~~~

In November ~ oh! how long ago that now seems ~ I planted some onions which I hope to harvest in the late Spring or early Summer ~~~ here they are in December and soon I will be showing you how much they have grown ~~~

I had to put down lots of string, tied across the frames to keep marauding cats and pigeons away! ~~~

I also planted garlic, and it is such a thrill to see the first sight of buds pushing their flavoursome shoots through the soil ~~~

They have even kept growing in the cold ~~~

February has seen me starting to eat more responsibly and sensibly than I have done in recent years.  I do not diet.  Diet is what we eat, not something we do. Here is a typical evening plate of delicious food ~ oven roasted parsnips, carrots, butternut squash, and onions with some spicy baked tofu cubes served on a bed of blanched kale.  Kale is one of my most favourite vegetables.  I am a vegetarian, but a recent health scare made me take a long look at what I eat and how I cook and prepare my food, so I have made some radical changes.  The hardest part was getting through Christmas and January with all the Christmas gifts of chocolate and left overs to deal with!  I have slowly introduced some changes, but this last week has seen me embrace the transition completely.  I have taken on a 'one meal at a time' approach which works for me. I am really enjoying my food.  I have already lost a few pounds and I have a lot more energy, which is a bonus as I find February is the month I seem to have the least energy of all the year. 

Soon, I will be outside working.  The Community Recycling scheme starts on March 12th and I think my bin will be full to overflowing by then!  It is only a month away now and that time will fly by, as January is already gone! I can scarce believe that, can you?

Until next time, when I shall have more photographs of the progress of the onions and garlic, and hopefully be able to outline some of my plans for 2015, remember that ~~~

~~~A Gardener's Work is Never Done~~~