Tag Archives: autumn

Autumn Plum Cake

When I started this blog, I boldly vowed to myself that it would be a place for my culinary triumphs as well as those times when it all goes awry. I’d write about things that went wrong, and provide photographic evidence too! Well, I think it took me about a day-and-a-half to realise that actually no-one really wants to see pictures of cake gone wrong (for that, of course, we have the amazing Cake Wrecks).

I’m telling you all this because I had just such a cake disaster at the weekend. I had a glut of pears in my kitchen which had been sitting on the windowsill for a while, and had therefore reached a state of perfect ripeness. Now, what I should have done was to just eat them and enjoy them. But no, I decided to make a cake. Spiced pear and ginger struck me as a good combination, so I set off on my merry way. Ripe pears, mace, preserved ginger and a dash of cinnamon and allspice seemed good in theory, but something went wrong. It might have been my decision to use less sugar than I would normally use in cake, or it might have been that I used far more chopped pear than I ought to have done (three large, juicy pears in one loaf cake). Whatever it was, the cake seemed to start baking just fine, but then it developed a big dip, and when it came out and cooled down, it was worryingly soft. Okay, so not the end of the world, but then I sliced into it, and I was faced with the full reality of my failure – the pear pieces had sunk (and yes, I had tried coating the pieces in flour before baking!) and the lower part of the loaf was not fully baked. It was a small crumb of comfort that at least this problem affected the whole loaf – at least I’m consistent!

So…back to the drawing board. All the pears were gone, but I also had a big tray of purple plums. This time, I was not going to get too creative – I used a more traditional cake batter (not playing around with the sugar!) and rather than chopping the plums, I just cut them into quarters. They would be artfully arranged on top, and – so the theory goes – the cake batter would puff up between the plums.

plumcake1

plumcake2

And as you can see, the resulting cake looks pretty good! It is actually a complete doddle to make – it is just a simple sponge mixture that you spread in a pan, then add chopped fruit and bake. To flavour the cake, I added a little vanilla and almond extract to the sponge, which I think works nicely with the tartness of the fruit. The plums became lovely and soft during baking, and their sweet-sharp flavour pairs very well with the sweetness of the cake. I finished it off with a simple glaze of apricot jam, which adds a golden glow to the cake and helps to keep everything moist. If you want something more spicy (or nut-free), then skip the almonds in the cake and the almond extract, and add a bit of cinnamon or allspice, and sprinkle the top of the cake with a sugar-cinnamon mixture before baking.

This would be a perfect cake to make if you’ve got surprise visitors on the way, as it really looks like it took a lot more work than it actually does (but keep that part to yourself). I think the could also be easily adapted to use apples or cherries, or perhaps – if I ended up with another glut – a few ripe pears!

plumcake3

plumcake4

To make Autumn Plum Cake:

• 140g butter
• 70g white caster sugar
• 70g soft brown sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 2 large eggs
• 165g self-raising flour
• 25g ground almonds
• 1 tablespoon milk
• 5-6 large plums
• 2 tablespoons apricot jam

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F) and line a 22cm cake tin with greaseproof paper.

2. Cut the plums into quarters, and discard the stones.

3. Make the cake batter. Beat the butter and sugars until creamy. Mix in the almond and vanilla extract. Beat in the eggs, then fold in the flour and ground almonds and mix well. Finally, stir in the milk and beat well until the mixture is smooth and soft.

4. Pour the batter into the prepared tin. Level the top and then arrange the plums on top. Make sure to leave some gaps between the plums for the cake mixture to puff up during baking, but don’t worry about leaving big gaps – the fruit will shrink and sink a bit during baking, so be generous!

5. Bake the cake for around 45 minutes until golden. If the top is browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil. When done, remove from the oven and leave to cool.

6. Finish the cake with the glaze – heat the apricot jam with 2 tablespoons of water until runny, then pass through a sieve. Brush the sieved jam all over the top of the cake. You’re done!

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Filed under Afternoon Tea, Recipe, Sweet Things

Spiced Walnut Buns

How are you enjoying the chill? We’ve just enjoyed a spell of unusually warm weather (the warmest Halloween for many years), and then, almost overnight, temperatures plummeted. Last weekend we were sitting in the sunshine, this morning I woke up to frost on the lawn! It is starting to feel that winter really is coming, and alongside the colder weather, we also had that other seasonal signal where the skies of Britain were lit up with fireworks.

Yes, Bonfire Night! I do love it, but my two poor cats heard all those bangs outside, and scuttled into cosy corners under radiators until the noise had abated. This for me really does say that winter is just around the corner, but this time of year does have the fringe benefit of allowing you to gather outside and share your attempts to keep warm, from getting toasty hands around the fire, to spicy snacks and hot drinks (which may or may not contain a tot of rum for more mature firework-gazers). Or in my case, this delicious batch of spicy, sticky walnut buns!

WalnutSpiceBuns2

This was my contribution to a fireworks party, and I was originally thinking of making them with some sort of fruit. I’ve been having a “pear affair” in the last few weeks, but I wasn’t sure that their delicate flavour would be so good in these buns. Then I remembered that I had a huge bag of walnuts that I was given by my friend Nargis from a trip abroad. A few weeks ago, I had spent an afternoon opening them with a pair of nutcrackers. Alas, my aim of opening perfect walnuts like those trained squirrels from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came to almost nothing – of the 150 or so I had to open, only one whole! The rest ended up in different stages of disintegration. Maybe not so pretty, but perfect for baking, and the flavour of freshly-shelled nuts really is magnificent.

 WalnutSpiceBuns

Again, I have just used my standard and dependable bun recipe, with a little brown sugar in the dough, but they were packed with lots and lots of walnuts. I chopped them up, some very finely and others left in larger chunks, as I quite like a nut filling that seems like nuts, rather than just being some sort of a soft paste. For the spice, I wanted something more complex and warming that just cinnamon, so added some garam masala spice mixture, which worked beautifully with the nuts.

Once they were baked, they got a brown sugar glaze to keep the soft, and they were finished with a light coating of water icing. As there is not too much sugar in the dough, they are not actually too sweet, but they did look rather pretty, the icing suggesting the frost that has finally arrived.

WalnutSpiceBuns1

To make Spiced Walnut Buns (makes 12):

For the filling:

• 70g butter, soft
• 70g soft brown sugar
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice (I used garam masala)
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 tablespoons milk
• 1 tablespoon plain flour

1. Mix everything until smooth.

For the glaze:

• 50g soft brown sugar
• 50ml water

1. Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan. Bring to the boil for about a minute.

For the icing:

• 200g icing sugar
• 3 tablespoons boiling water

1. Whisk the icing sugar and hot water until smooth (do this just before using).

For the dough:

• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g brown sugar
• 60g butter
• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 generous teaspoon cinnamon or mixed spice
• 325g strong white flour
• 150g walnuts, roughly chopped

1a. If using a bread machine: put everything except the walnuts into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

1b. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar, mixed spice and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and the egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

2. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Roll into the largest rectangle you can. Spread with the filling, sprinkle with the walnuts, then roll up into a sausage. Use a sharp knife to cut into 12 slices.

3. Lay each slice, cut face up, on a bun case. Cover with cling film or a damp teacloth and leave to rise for at least an hour until doubled in size.

4. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden. If they are browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

5. When the buns are done, remove from the oven and brush them while still warm with the hot glaze.

6. Once the buns are cooled, make the icing and brush over the buns.

Worth making? These were fantastic – you’ll go nutty over these nutty treats!

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Nordic Inspiration

Today is a bit of a special offer, as I’m going to share not just one but two recipes on an autumnal theme. This all seems very fitting, as my morning walk to the local underground station had definitely changed from being warm or even just cool, and is now decidedly crisp with a little prickle of cold in the air.

I’ve been busy in the kitchen making cinnamon buns. I actually make them quite often, and took a batch to work last week for my birthday. I think they lasted less than three minutes, and I got five requests for the recipe. The lesson? If you’re keen to be a much-loved co-worker, fresh and buttery baked goods will always go down well. However, this time I’ve add a twist to my standard recipe. In addition to the buttery cinnamon filling, I’ve added a rich seam of apple jam running though them, with the seasonal flavours of apple and spice joining forces.

My inspiration came from an event at the Nordic Bakery in London a few days ago. In celebration of Cinnamon Bun Day on 4 October, they are offering five daily specials over the course of this week. I think it’s a great idea to put a twist on the classic, and I find it rather amusing that the Swedish idea of celebrating them for one day has been taken by people from Finland, extended to a week, and thereby made better. Below you can get a bit of an idea of their tasty Finnish wares from a visit to their branch near Piccadilly Circus during summer.

Nordic Bakery 1

The five flavours on offer are lemon and raisin, blueberry, almond and custard, apple jam and finally chocolate buttons. As we’re just heading into day five of five, I’m afraid you’ve missed most of them, but you can still nab the apple jam version on Friday.

I also had a chat with Miisa Mink, the lady behind the Nordic Bakery, and she shared her ideas about selecting flavours. The apple jam ones were a traditional Finnish ingredient and a favourite of her father. My verdict on the five flavours was that the blueberry and chocolate versions were good, but the apple jam was a bit of a star for me (maybe something to do with a strategic selection of the piece that had the largest pieces of jammy fruit peeking out from between the layers of pastry?). You can see some of them below – yes, they’re cut into pieces, but really, who could eat five whole buns and remain standing at the end of it all? I mean, I tried my best, but I did have to admit defeat eventually!

NordicComposite

So, if you’re a cinnamon bun fan and want to try these specialities, head to the Nordic Bakery. Otherwise, do as I did, and draw on them for a bit of inspiration.

Yes, after I had tried those apple jam buns, I decided that I would try to make something similar. My first task was to make the most of a few organic apples that were languishing in my kitchen and starting to look just a little bit forlorn. OK, that is perhaps a bit harsh – they actually looked more like real apples should look, with varying colours, sizes and a few little bumps and bruises.

autumnapples

Unlike some of the other jams that can involve a fair bit of work to prepare the fruit, this one was easy. Peel, core, chop, add sugar and boil. Very easy, and the apples were transformed into something sweet, sticky and delicious with a rather pretty soft pink colour. If you’re only looking for a way to use up apples, then you can just make the jam, and look to flavour it with whatever spices you like – cinnamon and apple is classic, but you could get good results with cardamom, star anise or cloves (just be sure that you get the amount of spice right – with cloves in particular, a little goes a long way!). And there you go…first recipe of the day!

However, the real fun comes when you add the apple jam as a filling into cinnamon buns. I tweaked my standard recipe by omitting the cardamom that usually goes into the dough, and replacing it with nutmeg. I also swapped out the white sugar for soft brown sugar, and instead of the usual sprinkling of white pearl sugar, I gave them a shiny coating of brown sugar glaze. The result? Pinwheels of warm, delicious, apple-infused goodness.

applejamcinnamonbuns1

As you can see, not a bad result! And thanks have to go do Nordic Bakery for giving me the idea to have a go at them at home. I urge you to try them, but if you’re feeling a bit lazy/desperate but still want to get into the celebratory spirit of Cinnamon Bun Day, you can still hot foot it down there and nab the apple jam buns today!

applejamcinnamonbuns2

Full disclosure: I didn’t get paid for writing this post. I just positioned myself next to the table when the five types of bun were revealed and ate A LOT of them during my visit!

To make Apple Jam Cinnamon Buns (makes 12):

For the apple jam:

• 450g peeled apples, finely chopped
• 250g jam sugar (with pectin)
• 1 lemon, juice only

1. Put the apples into a saucepan with some water. Bring to the boil, then simmer until soft.

2. Add the sugar, and simmer gently until it is dissolved. Bring to a rolling boil, then cook on a medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice, then test from time to time for a set. You want a slightly soft set – the fruit should be “jammy” but it should not be thick or stiff.

3. Once the jam is ready, put to one side and leave to cool.

For the filling:

• 70g butter, soft
• 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• all the cooled apple jam

1. Mix the butter and cinnamon until smooth, then fold in the apple jam.

For the dough:

• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g brown sugar
• 60g butter
• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 generous teaspoon nutmeg or mace
• 325g strong white flour

1. First thing – whisk the egg and divide in two. You need half for the dough, and half for the glaze.

2a. If using a bread machine: put one portion of the egg and the rest of the ingredients into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

2b. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar, cardamom and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and one portion of the egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

3. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Roll into the largest rectangle you can. Spread with the filling, then roll up into a sausage. Use a sharp knife to cut into 12 slices.

4. Lay each slice, cut face up, on a bun case. Cover with cling film or a damp teacloth and leave to rise for at least an hour until doubled in size.

5. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Take the remaining egg (remember that?) and mix with a tablespoon of water. Brush the buns with the egg wash. Bake for about 12 minutes until golden. If they are browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

6. When the buns are done, remove from the oven and brush them while still warm with the hot glaze.

For the glaze:

• 50g soft brown sugar
• 50ml water

1. Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan. Bring to the boil for about a minute.

Worth making? Utterly delicious! These are like compact apple pies and add a whole new dimension to making cinnamon buns. I’m a convert!

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Filed under London, On Location, Recipe, Sweet Things

Sloe gin revisited

Back in early autumn last year, as we were enjoying an unseasonal heatwave in London – picnics in the park, drinks in the sunshine and balmy evenings. At that time, I posted about my attempts at home-made sloe gin, made with local fruit sourced from some very old bushes growing wild in the local area – the lovely Clissold Park. It’s two minutes from my house – so for the Hackney foodie set, it just couldn’t really get much more local that that!

So, today, I present the fruits if my labour, and I can confirm that it’s quite something.

The name “sloe gin” is perhaps a little misleading. Gone is the strong flavour of gin, and the mixture is transformed into a marvellous liqueur. It has a fantastic crimson colour and plummy flavour with a very mild hint of almond. It’s sweet, but not overly so, and the dominant taste is “fruity”.

Over New Year, it featured in place of cassis in a glass of champagne under the moniker of the “Sloe Gin Fizz Royale”, lending a pinkish blush and delicate “something” to the champagne. Later, after food and fireworks, it was sipped from glasses next to a log fire. By that stage, it was slightly warm and made a great liquor to share while everyone lazed around, chatting about the year that had passed and the year to come until the wee small hours.

All in all, I am very happy with this little experiment – the results were far better than I had dared to hope for, and I’m looking forward to trying something similar with other fruit this year.

If you’re keen to try making sloe gin, wait until Autumn when you get a decent haul of fruit and use this recipe.

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Take it sloe…

‘Tis autumn, and lo! In the local park, there is a patch of thorny bushes that have changed from green to golden, and those leaves are now starting to fall. And behind those tumbling leaves…the sloes appear!

Not everyone knows sloes. I make this sweeping statement based on a survey of one person. I got chatting to an American lady in the Refuel bar at the Soho Hotel last week, and she was unsure what to order. She asked me, and I suggested the sloe gin fizz, on the basis that sloe gin is very British, and it was also seasonal. She went for it and seemed happy with it. So one convert to sloe gin…but back to the point: what are they?

Sloes are part of the plum family, but much smaller than the varieties we are used to enjoying. They have a deep purple colour and a blueish bloom. But the real surprise is the taste. As a child, we were all the victim of someone who convinced us to taste one, only to recoil in horror as you realise that sloes might look nice but they are unpleasantly astringent. It’s like eating alum. Your whole mouth goes dry and your mouth puckers. The whole thing is…well…just downright horrid. And from that point (typically aged seven or so) you learn to avoid the little devils, no matter how ripe and juicy they might look on the tree. And then, in due course, you play the same trick on your friends and younger cousins.

Well, you avoid them, unless you are me.

Two years ago, I thought I would get clever and have a go at making sloe jam. On paper, it was all going to go marvelously well. I had read a little about them, and understood that the astringency will vanish if the fruit is frozen overnight. This also has a basis in homespun folksy wisdom – sloes would traditionally be picked after the first frost, so the freezer is just giving Mother Nature a little helping hand. Now, I have to admit that while the freezer option is much easier, there would of course be something terribly romantic about wandering through the trees on a cool, misty autumn morning as the fruit is tinged with frost…

So, I got my sloes. I picked them, froze them, and then chucked them into a pot. I made the jam and it set to a fabulous garnet colour.

The next morning, I settled myself on the sofa with a cup of tea, the Sunday papers and several slices of hot buttered toast with a generous spreading of sloe jam. At first, it was quite nice, a like damson jam.

Then it hit. The pure, pure horror.

I had basically just succeeded in making eight jars of astringent paste. It was inedible. Awful. So the lesson? If you’re going to do “stuff” with weird fruit, be very, very sure you know what you’re doing with it. With hindsight, I might had gotten carried away with how nice the fruit looked on the tree and should have waited longer for the fruit to ripen…but I still look back on that jam with dread…

And you know what? You would think that I would have learned. But no. Last summer, a similar disaster unfolded when I tried to get clever and make rowan jelly. Again, it was unpleasantness in a quivering, jewel-coloured form. And again, probably the fruit was picked based on looks rather than ripeness…

This is all a very roundabout way of bringing me to the issue of today’s post: how do you solve a problem like the sloe fruit? Well, there is one option which is perennially  popular tipple in Old Blighty. You take the little chaps and immerse them in alcohol. Yes, I’ve made a batch of sloe gin.

To get all technical, this is not really a true gin, but more like a fruit liqueur based on gin. The idea is very simple indeed – you just take some large glass jars, fill them with fruit, sugar and alcohol (gin or vodka) then leave the flavour to infuse. After about a month, the alcohol is drained off and left to mature, while the fruit can be used for pies or jam.

The sloe gin itself can be enjoyed neat to ward off the chills outside, or used in a range of cocktails (sloe gin & tonic or a sloe gin fizz).

As with so many traditional recipes, this is one that contains its own little rituals. You should pierce the skins of each sloes two or three times either with a silver needle or a thorn from the sloe bush. Now, I don’t have silver needles lying around the house, so I toyed with the idea of going back to the wild part of the local park to get a thorn. However, I thought better of it. I had picked them with three friends and we all emerged with large cuts in our arms and legs (nothing serious, but they looked dramatic). You see, the sloe bush is also known as the blackthorn, and as you can see from the top picture, there are some vicious looking thorns on the bush. So all things considered, it was safest to use a cocktail stick.

The recipe is actually quite easy – take a clean jar, fill one-third full with sloes. Check the weight of the sloes, and add three-quarters of that weight of white sugar. Then top up the bottle with gin or vodka, and shake gently. Then you shake the bottle every day for a week until the sugar dissolves, then shake it two times a week thereafter, and after a month, remove the sloes and store the sloe gin somewhere dark to mature.

As you can see in the picture below, the gin starts to take on the colour of the sloes straight away. I write this on day four, and all the sugar has now dissolved and the colour is now a deep pink colour, which should become stronger with time. So for the time being, this is tucked away in a cupboard. Let’s see what it’s like by Christmas!

Update: you can see how it turned out here!

To make sloe gin:

• sloes
• white sugar (three-quarters of the sloes)
• gin or vodka

Rinse the sloes and remove any bruised fruit, leaves, stalks and insects (yup, there will be some in there!). Put the sloes into a tub and leave in the freezer for a couple of days.

The night before making the gin, remove the sloes from the freezer. Spread them out on a plate or a try, and leave somewhere cool to defrost.

The next day, pierce each fruit 2-3 times with a needle or a cocktail stick. If you’re making a lot of gin, this is best done sitting at the kitchen table with the radio on as it can take quite some time.

Fill the jar one-third full of sloes. Weight the sloes, and add 3/4 of the weight in sugar. Fill the jar with gin or vodka, seal the jar, and shake gently. Store the jars in a cool, dark place (the back of a cupboard is ideal). Shake the jars gentle each morning and each evening for a week, then shake them twice per week for the next three weeks. After a month, strain the gin and decant into a sterile bottle. I’ll keep an eye out for some ideas for the boozy fruit!

Worth making? No idea. Normally I would be in a position to say that I made something and it was either amazing or awful. But not today. This stuff will take a while to develop, so you’ll just need to remain patient and check back in a few months. But I’m quietly confident and expect rather great things from this. Fingers crossed!

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What to do with windfall pears?

Last Saturday, I peeked out the window, and the lady downstairs said I could have a bag of windfall pears – if I wanted them.

There were about five on the garden table, with an open offer to get as many off the tree as I wanted and could reach. A few minutes later, we’re up a ladder, whacking the fruit off the tree using a grass edger with great comedic effect, and I managed to walk away with two kilos of fruit.

So…I had a pile of pears, but it turned out they were…rock hard. Given these were windfalls, I wasn’t sure that these would be great in a pie or make great jam. Then it struck me – I would adapt my recipe for quince jelly but using these pears.

I shredded the lot and boiled them up with some water. The result was a pale green-yellow mush. Strained overnight, I ended up with a few litres of murky pear water. But then I boiled it up with sugar, and something strange happened. Like with the quince, the colour changed and became a deep amber colour. I have no idea where this colour came from, but it looks pretty. The picture was taken with the sun shining through the glass, and as you can see, the colour is pretty amazing.

All in all, I felt rather pleased with myself. It really does not get much more local than fruit from a tree outside your back window.

This is a jelly with quite a loose set, but it tastes lovely. There is a pear flavour (of course) and is quite aromatic, so perfect to have on toast, scones, crumpets, muffins or to glaze tarts. If you are after a firm jelly, just add some pectin when you add the sugar (follow instructions on the bottle/packet!).

To make pear jelly:

• hard pears (I used 2kg)
• water (I used 2 litres)
• lemons

• granulated white sugar

Wash the pears. Remove the stalks but leave on the skin. Grate coarsely.

Put the pears into a large saucepan and add the water (1 litre for every kilo of fruit). Bring to the boil, and simmer for 50-60 minutes until the pears are tender. Mash the fruit to extract maximum flavour. If it seems a little too solid, add more water – we want the texture of soft applesauce.

Pour the mixture into a sterile tea towel or muslin cloth(*). Tie the edges together, and – being careful – use a string to attach the cloth to an upturned chair. Place a large bowl under the cloth, and leave overnight for the juice to drip through. Don’t squeeze the cloth, otherwise you end up with cloudy jelly (tastes the same, but looks less pretty), and in this recipe, you won’t be going short of juice.

Next day, measure the juice – for every 600ml of juice, add 500g of sugar, and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Add everything to a large heavy-based pan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat until the setting point(**) is reached.

Finally, pour the hot jelly into sterile jam jars(***), seal, label and hide it somewhere to enjoy later.

(*) To sterilse the cloth, put into a sieve, and pour over boiling water.

(**) To test for the setting point, put a spoonful of the mixture on a very cold saucer. Let it cool, then tilt the saucer – if the jelly wrinkles, the setting point has been reached.

(***) To sterilise jam jars: wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well. Place upside-down in a cold oven, and heat to 90°C for 15 minutes. Leave in the oven to cool down while you are making the jam . To sterilise the lids, wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well, place in a saucepan with boiling water for 5 minutes.

Worth making? I would not make this recipe with perfect ripe, juicy pears. But with windfalls…there is not a lot you can do, and this is a great option. OK, it happens over two days, but it actually needs very little attention and the results are worth it.

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Eve’s Pudding

I know, I know, I promise all this festive stuff, and then it’s all apples, apples, apples as far as you can see. But apples are in season, and it’s all good, so that’s not bad thing in the greater scheme of things, surely?

Eve’s Pudding is one of the first desserts I ever learned to make. I love it, but I don’t know if that is just nostalgia? Probably it isn’t, because people seem to like it when I serve it up. The name, predictably enough, comes from Eve as in Garden-of-Eden, linking back to her pinching forbidden fruit (which were not, as people often say, apples, but close enough). It dates back to the early 1800s, and is a simple dish of stewed apples, topped with a Victoria sponge mixture, so you end up with fluffy, soft apples with pillowly soft cake on top. Yummy!

This can be made either as one large dessert, or as individual puddings. I had been bemoaning the lack of ramekin dishes in my kitchen, so making this pudding was the perfect chance to go out and buy some. On the first attempt, I found some rather fetching ones in the sale section of Habitat on Regent’s Street in central London. You don’t see it here, but they have pixellated images of aubergines, beetroot and carrots at the bottom. I like that when you’ve scoffed dessert, there is a little picture to greet you, and these would say: eat more veg, you pudding monster!

Eve’s Pudding is, in my view, a really nice way to finish a meal. Because it is mostly apple (i.e. fruit), it is relatively light. If you keep any additional sugar to a minimum, you have a lovely combination of sharp fruit with soft, golden sponge. Aim to serve them warm, rather than piping hot, with a little cream or ice-cream. Or, if the urge takes you, drown it in cream or custard. I don’t judge.

It’s also great if you have people round for dinner – the apples can be partly stewed and the sponge mixture prepared ahead of time. As your guests are about to eat the main, you can slip out, put the apples into individual ramekins, top with the cake mix and bake. Your domestic god/goddess organisational credentials will be sure to impress.

To make Eve’s Pudding (serves 6):

• 8 apples, peeled and cored.
• 4-5 tablespoons sugar
• Squeeze lemon juice
• pinch of ground cinnamon
• 125g butter
• 100g caster sugar
• 2 eggs
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 100g self-raising flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 2-3 tablespoons milk

Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

Chop the apples into chunks. Put into a saucepan with a few spoons of sugar, the lemon juice and the 25g of the butter. Cook gently until the apples are starting to soften (they should not be mushy). Remove from the heat. Stir in the cinnamon. Place in a deep oven dish or divide between six individual ramekins. Place to one side.

To make the topping, put the remaining 100g of butter plus the sugar, flour, baking powder, vanilla and eggs into a bowl, and mix until well-combined and creamy. Add as much milk as necessary to make the mixture light, smooth and soft – it should drop gently off the back of a spoon, but should not be runny.

Pour the batter over the apples, and spread it out until roughly even. Don’t obsess about this, as part of the charm (particularly with the ramekins) is that you get gaps where the apple peeks out. Put in the oven and bake until the topping is just golden and the sponge topping is springy (10-15 minutes for ramekins, 25-30 minutes for a single dish).

Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Serve warm with cream, creme fraiche, yoghurt or ice-cream.

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Quince Jelly

If there is one things that I really don’t need in my house, it is more jam. I have a rather mad tendency to make lots of it, all summer and autumn, and in far greater quantities than we can eat it. Bramble, apricot, cherry and quince all line my shelves. And we don’t mention the disasters involving rowan berries and sloes…but we all have mishaps in the kitchen from time to time!

So…quinces are in season…and I just couldn’t resist the lure of making quince jelly. I mean, the colour alone is amazing, right?

The reason I like preserves is they capture the flavours of otherwise ephemeral fruit. The fruit is edible right now, but if you left it sitting for a week or two, it would turn bad. But boil it up with sugar, and it will stay good for a long time. I am just finishing the last jar of bramble jelly made from with forest fruit from a trip to Epping Forest last autumn. But that is nothing – back home, my mother stored jars of jam that were several years old. Little pots of sugary Victoria plum and raspberry, all celebrating multiple birthdays in the requisite cool, dark place.

Some foodies might think that jam should be eaten within a month or so of being made, but for me, that misses the point. It is a means of preserving fruit, and as such, the longer you can make it last, the better, all the better when it brings back some happy memories of almost-forgotten warm, sunny days.

At the weekend, I got hold of quinces in a local fruit shop. I picked out eight choice specimens, and brought them home with the intention of making quince jelly. I had a successful go at quince jam at the end of spring with some Turkish quinces, but now their English cousins have appeared in the shops here, so I wanted to try making jelly.  I always think of jam and jelly as sisters. The former prim and proper, wholesome and honest, whereas the latter is louche, flashy, complex and tricky, but all the more dazzling for it. A lot more work, but a lot more fun.

I digress. Quince jelly. Actually, sourcing the fruit was not as easy as I thought. Two weekends ago, I saw them everywhere, in all the posh food shops in Shoreditch. This weekend – nada, very hard to find. My shopping companion was not quite sure what they looked like, and kept producing giant apples and pears to ask if they were quince. In desperation, we tried Wholefoods. “Is that quince?” he asked. “No, it’s a persimmon” I replied. “This one?” in a hopeful tone. “No, that’s an Asian pear“. Patience (and hope) running out. I was getting despondent, but pressed on. Then finally, a whole crate! I was initially put off by how dusty they seemed to be. Surely they had been sitting somewhere for too long? Then I remembered that quince have an odd habit of developing a strange bloom on their skin, perfectly harmless, and this natural fuzz is easily removed with a little water.

Fruit sourced, I returned home and got cooking. A boon (the only boon) in making jelly is that you don’t need to make the fruit presentable before cooking it. Just remove stalks and cores, then shred everything. Boil up with some water, then strain overnight to extract the fruit juice. In the end, our kitchen looked a little worse for wear, pans and dishes everywhere, and bits of shredded quince stuck to just about every possible surface and utensil. But by early evening, the juice extraction was underway in the corner, an upturned stool holding a bowl and two teacloths balanced on a wooden stick. All went fine until I decided to poke it with a wooden spoon, at which point lots of sticky quince juice leaked out, onto the floor and some seeped down between the floorboards. I am hoping no damage done…lesson learned: don’t poke things with sticks unless you’re prepared for the fallout.

The next day, I had ended up with 2.5 litres of quince juice, which I was pretty happy with. I did the maths to work out how much sugar I needed, and came up with the eye-popping amount of 2kg. It looks a lot when you see it in a bowl, and you think it is way too much, but remember – jam and jelly making is a bit of a science, so playing with ingredients can make things go awry. Placing my faith in science, I added the sugar and the juice of two lemons to the quince juice, and started to cook up the (by now 3.5 litre) brew.

Well, this was certainly not one of those “bring to the boil, simmer for a minutes and it’s done” recipes. No, I found myself still standing over the stove and testing jelly samples an hour after the mixture reached boiling point.

I tried using a candy thermometer to find out when we reached the magic jelling point, but my brew was having none of it. The thermometer said all was good, but it was still obviously a very runny syrup. At that stage, my blind faith in science ran out, and I went back to the good old trick of using a cold plate and seeing if a drop of jelly wrinkled when you push it. It finally got there, and I was really quite relieved, as I did think I might have to come up with a use for 2 litres of quince cordial. Hmmm…I wonder how a Quincehattan would work?

Feeling a sense of pride that me and my mixture got there in the end, I bottled it up, and was finally able to enjoy the rewarding sight of nine jars of the most beautiful deep amber jelly. Sweet and with an aromatic quince flavour. It’s going to be great for brightening up those chilly winter mornings. Hard work, but utterly worth it.

To make quince jam:

• quinces (I used 8 )
• lemons
• water
• granulated white sugar

Wash the quinces. Remove the stalks and cores, but leave on the skin. Grate coarsely.

Put the quince into a large saucepan, press down lightly, and cover with water until the level is about 2-3cm above the fruit. Bring to the boil, and simmer for 50-60 minutes until the quince is tender. Mash the fruit to extract maximum flavour. If it seems a little too solid, add more water – we want the texture of soft applesauce.

Pour the mixture into a sterile tea towel or muslin cloth(*). Tie the edges together, and – being careful – use a string to attach the cloth to an upturned chair. Place a large bowl under the cloth, and leave overnight for the juice to drip through. Don’t squeeze the cloth, otherwise you end up with cloudy jelly (tastes the same, but looks less pretty), and in this recipe, you won’t be going short of juice.

Next day, measure the juice – for every 600ml of juice, add 500g of sugar, and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Add everything to a large heavy-based pan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat until the setting point(**) is reached – which can be anything from 10 minutes to an hour!

Finally, pour the hot jelly into sterile jam jars(***), seal, label and hide it somewhere to enjoy later.

(*) To sterilse the cloth, put into a sieve, and pour over boiling water.

(**) To test for the setting point, put a spoonful of the mixture on a very cold saucer. Let it cool, then tilt the saucer – if the jelly wrinkles, the setting point has been reached.

(***) To sterilise jam jars: wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well. Place upside-down in a cold oven, and heat to 90°C for 15 minutes. Leave in the oven to cool down while you are making the jam . To sterilise the lids, wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well, place in a saucepan with boiling water for 5 minutes.

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Autumn Days and a Mushroom-Barley Pilaf

Ah, those crisp autumn days! We hanker after bright sun of summer or the fresh mornings in spring, but I love the crisp, bright autumn days we are enjoying at the moment.

Summer is well and truly over, but produce-wise, you are still able to enjoy a good range of quite interesting and exciting things. And enjoy it you should, because this is that last, final celebration before the darkness of winter creeps upon us. Brrrr!

Just to make the point, here are a few shots that I have taken recently, and I think they convey the mood quite well. Autumn colours with sunlight streaming through yellow leaves, berries and crab apples a-plenty, and a few interesting looking things at local farmer’s markets. I knew about heirloom tomatoes, but I have now learned about heirloom carrots!

To go with this time of year, I have tried my hand at a pilaf dish, but based on barley. It’s a grain that you don’t often see on menus, which is a bit of a shame. It was one of the first grains that were grown in Europe, so it has pedigree, but it is also very tasty. For me, it is what makes a decent bowl of broth, adding a bit of chewiness, but keeping its shape, unlike the tendency of rice to self-destruct and turn to mush after too long in soup stock.

I think this recipe works because it successfully pairs the “earthy” quality of barley with mushrooms to make a rich, warm and filling winter dish. In some ways, it is very much like a risotto, but the finished results is also quite different. The grains of barley soften but do not turn to mush, keeping a little bit of bite and chewiness, so there is more texture than in a risotto. There is also no cream or cheese in the pilaf, so it makes it filling but not heavy. And one of the big attractions to a busy home cook is that rather than the stir-stir-stir method of good risotto, you cook onion and barley in a little olive oil, then add everything else and allow to simmer gently for 45 minute. Job done.

To make Mushroom Barley Pilaf (serves 4):

• 1 onion, finely chopped
• 2 tablespoon olive oil
• 240g barley
• 1 litre vegetable stock
• 200g mushrooms, roughly sliced
• 2 spring onions, sliced
• 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
• freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• Parmesan cheese, to serve

Heat the oil in a saucepan on a medium heat. Add the onion and fry until soft and translucent. Add the barley, and cook for two minutes until it is toasted (you will have to stir all the time to stop it burning).

Add the stock, mushrooms, spring onions, thyme and black pepper. Stir well and simmer for 45 minutes until the barley is tender and the stock has been absorbed.

To serve, fluff the pilaf a little with a fork. Serve topped with grated Parmesan cheese.

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