Monday, 24 June 2013

Elderflower Cordial

Elderflower Lemon & Lime

It's the scent of muscat grapes which attracts me to elderflower.  Leave it too late in the season to pick the blooms and the aroma will be closer to cat's pee - and no one wants that.  It's not just when you pick elderflowers but where also matters; well it does to me.  I know how lucky I am to have an allotment and to have access to elders growing well into the centre of the plots so I'm not about to lecture you on harvesting.  All I will say is, I'd think carefully about where I picked blossom and wouldn't gather from trees close to the pollution contamination of busy roads.

Elderflower  is one of those cordials made for generations in family kitchens.  Like 'blackberrying' it connects us to a time when foraging was the norm.  Then, knowledge of free food was widespread and its harvesting, often, necessary.  The flowers and the berries of the Elder are high in vitamin C so were a valuable addition to the diet.  There is a C17th reference to the drink by John Milton, and the blessed Mrs Beeton offered recipes for cordial and wine.  It wasn't until the mid-80's that commercial brands of Elderflower Cordial began appearing on supermarket shelves.  I have to say, there are some good brands out there, but I love to 'cook' the seasons so, for me, at this time of year it has to be home-made.

This year I managed to harvest elderflowers early in the season when the white flowers were just beginning to open and their scent was fresh and sweet with none of the mustiness which develops later in their flowering.  So, don't delay.  Picked just before yet another deluge and wrapped carefully in an improvised cone of newspaper, I raced home with my free booty.  Fresh muslin-wrapped elderflowers added to soft fruit during cooking can be lovely but, to preserve your harvest of blossoms for weeks to come, you can't beat elderflower cordial.  Last year I left it far too late to make mine.  Although I did grab a fistful of overblown blossom heads, and managed to make a couple of bottles, the taste really wasn't up to the mark.  The proof of the wisdom of picking early is in the drinking.  This year's cordial is sweetly aromatic, fresh-tasting and vibrant and bears little resemblance to last summer's drink.

There are plenty of recipes for elderflower cordial around but it's simply water, sugar, elderflowers and citrus so you can't go too far wrong.  I don't like it too sweet as I find it detracts from the flavour so you'll find this recipe uses less sugar than most, but there's no reason why you shouldn't add a bit extra for a more syrupy result.  I know a lot of people add oranges and lemons but I love limes and much prefer to use them in place of orange.  If you want the cordial to keep beyond a few weeks, add a heaped teaspoon of citric acid (available from shops that sell home-brew kits) at the end and sterilise the bottles in a water bath after filling and sealing.  Alternatively, pour your cold cordial into small plastic bottles, freeze it and defrost a bottle when you want it.

To drink; a ratio of 1:5 cordial to sparkling or still water is about right.  To flavour fruit; add 2 tablespoons to around 500g of fruit.  Elderflower goes particularly well with gooseberries, apricots, cherries, strawberries and raspberries.

Elderflower Cordial
(makes about 2.5 litres)

20-25 just-open Elderflower heads
2 large unwaxed lemons (pour boiling water over and scrub well if not unwaxed)
2 unwaxed limes (pour boiling water over and scrub well if not unwaxed)
1.75 litres water
1kg granulated sugar

Cut any excess stem from the flower heads, shake well to release the inevitable bugs.  Put the heads in a large bowl and grate the zest from all the lemons and limes over the top. Bring the water to the boil  and pour over.  Ensure the flowers are submerged and leave to steep overnight. Keep all your fruits in the fridge to juice the next day.  

Next day, line  a sieve with muslin.  Sterilise the muslin by pouring boiling water over it. Strain  the flower head infusion through it into a stainless steel pan.  Add the reserved citrus juice and the sugar.  Bring slowly to the boil, stirring occasionally to ensure the sugar dissolves fully.  Bring to the boil then simmer for 2-3 minutes.  Use a funnel to pour into hot sterilised swing-top bottles.  

The cordial can be used straight way but the flavour develops more after a week or two kept in a dark cupboard.  It will keeps for about 6 weeks.  Poured, cold, into plastic bottles and frozen it will keep for several months.

More recipes using elderflowers:
Gooseberry Elderflower Syllabub

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Carrot Cake with cream cheese

Carrot Cake with cream cheese

There is something about a cake containing vegetables which appeals to me.  Probably because I grow vegetables and am always looking for ways to use them.  When you've worked your way through a glut lasting more than a couple of weeks, even the most beauteous crop of beetroot starts to look ugly unless you can ring the changes in the recipe department.  Oh yes, I am on familiar terms with Nigel Slater's Chocolate Beetroot Cake and I make a mean Courgette and Lemon Cake too.

Not just any vegetable will do, of course, and I'm not prepared to get too wacky in the name of experimentation.  If you stick to vegetables which have a high natural sugar content you can't go far wrong - parsnips, beetroot, pumpkin or sweet potato for instance.  I'm prepared to at least entertain the idea that fennel could work but haven't yet plucked up the courage to try.  To be honest I haven't yet had a glut of fennel and don't hold my breath that I ever will.

I'd love to be able to say I'm pulling carrots from the allotment right now but, though the seeds have germinated better than is normal on my soil, harvest is some way off.  In any case you don't want to use your best carrots for this recipe.  Whatever you can find is fine here, but the better the carrot, the more nutritious the cake.  Carrot cake is arguably the most obvious 'vegetable cake' but search as I would, I never managed to find a recipe that delivered on its promise. Clearly I'm being very difficult to please as there are hundreds of recipes out there.  In fact I do know in which kitchen my perfect recipe resides.  The cake has everything I am looking for - moist, light, properly spiced and not too sweet.  Sadly, the baker is not yet ready to share it with the world.  Until that day, I still I have this masochistic urge to try again.

This recipe is based on Rose Carrarini's Carrot Cake in her first book Breakfast Lunch Tea.  I've changed the sugar from caster to a light muscovado, upped the amount of cinnamon and added a little orange zest.  It's less sweet than most carrot cakes and it keeps really well.  Next time I plan to make it a day ahead of icing it.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with the original recipe so I apologise for changing it, but I just can't resist.  I'm searching for that extra something, and it's worryingly possible that when I find it, only I will appreciate it.

Carrot Cake with cream cheese
Makes a deep 18cm cake - (double the quantities for a 23cm cake)

2 eggs
125g light muscovado sugar
150ml sunflower oil
2 large carrots, grated
75g chopped walnuts
Zest of half an orange
150g plain flour
1 level teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 level teaspoon baking powder

¼ level teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of salt

Icing for an 18cm cake - (for a 23cm cake x 1.5):
200g cream cheese
100g unsalted butter, softened
50g icing sugar
Half tsp natural vanilla extract
A few whole or chopped walnuts (optional)

Heat the oven to 180C (Fan oven 160C)/Gas 4.  Using  a deep 18cm cake tin,  butter and line the base with parchment. 
Beat the eggs and muscovado sugar well, until light and fluffy.  
With the mixer still running, pour in the oil fairly slowly until all is well mixed.  
Fold in the carrots, walnuts and orange zest.  
Sieve together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt and fold into the mixture.
Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and bake for 35-40 minutes (about 50 minutes for a 23cm cake), until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Cool the cake in the tin before turning out.
To make the icing, beat the softened butter with the cream cheese until you have a smooth mixture.  Mix in the icing sugar and vanilla extract.
Once the cake is cold, spread the top with icing.  Decorate the top with walnuts if desired.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Yorkshire Curd Tart - Take 2

Yorkshire Curd Tart
My apologies to those of you who have already seen a similar posting from me on this subject but an annoying Blogger glitch which cannot be sorted has left me no choice but to post this recipe again.  Those of you searching for "Yorkshire Curd Tart" should, hopefully, now see both Take 1 and Take 2

In times of austerity most of us need to think a bit more deeply about what we spend our money on.  Whilst food shopping is the last thing I want to cut back on, the cost of food, food waste and food miles are much on people’s minds at the moment.  This set me thinking about how the home-cook coped in the past when money was tight and yet a sweet treat was called for which did not scream ‘frugal’.  The Yorkshire Curd Tart is a good example, but what exactly is it and why does it fit the bill?

To a pot of curd cheese add sugar, a scattering of dried fruit, a pinch of spice, an egg or two and a little butter to enrich the mix, pour it into a pastry case and you have it.  Crunchy pastry, soft, sensuous filling and the fragrance of nutmeg filling  your kitchen as it bakes.  Balm for the soul on a cold winter’s day.  Simple it may be, economical certainly, but parsimonious it is not.  Originally it may have been less sweet than later versions, given that cane sugar was heavily taxed until 1874.  It was not until the Napoleonic and First World wars that the growing of sugar beet in Britain took off, out of necessity.

This is my second version of a recipe for Yorkshire Curd Tart.  Versions can be found in many Yorkshire bakeries, particularly in the north of the county, but sadly many current recipes have drifted a long way from the original.   I titled my first attempt “Take 1” as it was my first attempt to capture the tart I remembered.  A trip to the London Guildhall Library for a browse through their extensive food history section confirmed to me that this dish has a little-documented history and there would be few pointers along the way to finding the definitive recipe.

The narrative which resonates with me is that the Yorkshire Curd Tart was a happy by-product of the cheese-making process.  From a time when most smallholders would keep a cow and produce a few small cheeses, inevitably there would be some leftover curds and, well, in true Yorkshire style, ‘waste not, want not’.  Clearly it originated in Yorkshire but the tart I remember from childhood came from a small County Durham bakery - now sadly no more.   A certain  amount of border-creep has taken place with this dish so it’s not uncommon to still  find it in Durham.

Joan Poulson’s book “Old Yorkshire Recipes” tells of the tarts being traditionally served at “Whitsuntide”.  Thanks to PCD Brears' book “The Gentlewoman’s Kitchen – Great Food in Yorkshire 1650-1750” I learned of “Mrs Tasker” who took the trouble to write down her recipes.  Her notebook is annotated to show she lived in Brayton, near Selby, some 34 miles from the east coast of Yorkshire.  A recipe of 1741  tells of making the curd and, of “butter that is well-washed in rosewater”.  Whether the use of rosewater arrived in England with the Romans or we came to appreciate its delicacy after the Crusades  is debatable.  Both Romans and Moors have long histories of its use and rosewater as a flavouring was certainly documented in Elizabethan England.

Curd cheese, lemons, nutmegs

I've tasted quite a few shop-bought Yorkshire Curd Tarts over the past few months, all made in Yorkshire .  As with most things, you usually get what you pay for.  The best of the bunch came from Betty's of York, but I've always had a taste for their version.  Good as Betty's is, I was hoping to find perfection somewhere out there.  My conclusion is that, these days, this is a tart best made at home.  I needed to put into practice what I’d learned.  Taking Jane Grigson's recipe in her book “English Food” as my starting point, I adapted it as my research took me deeper into the origins of the Yorkshire Curd Tart.  The pastry should be a fine shortcrust, the filling dominated by the soft, pillowy curd - not the egg -  and the fruit should, I think, be currants.  You will need much more nutmeg than you may think, unless you choose to add rosewater too – balance is all.  Some recipes call for breadcrumbs and, if your curd is very loose, I can see why but I prefer not to use any.  The addition of a little melted butter helps the tart acquire that rustic browning on top.  The following recipe is as near as I can get to doing justice to this singular tart.

Some writers advocate substituting “cottage cheese”  for curd.  Do not be tempted as the result will be nothing like intended.  Fromage frais is perhaps nearer to the texture.  The curd consistency is best when fresh (2-4 days old).  If you buy them from a cheese-maker the texture of this natural product will, of course, vary.  You could *make your own curds, or do as I did and get to know an artisan cheese-maker.   Now, just as way back then, they’ll have an amount of surplus curd just crying out to be made into a delicious, fragrant Yorkshire Curd Tart.

Yorkshire Curd Tart - Take 2

(makes enough for 2 x 22cm tarts)

250g (10oz) plain flour
25g (1oz) ground almonds
150g (6oz) butter
75g (3oz) icing sugar
Grated rind of half a lemon
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons milk

Filling (makes enough for 1 x 22cm tart)
300g (12oz) curd cheese
2 eggs
125g (5oz) caster sugar
50g (2oz) currants
Grated rind of half a lemon
A good pinch of cinnamon
Half a nutmeg, grated
1 tablespoon of rosewater (optional – if used, reduce the nutmeg a little)
25g melted butter

Sift the flour into a mixing bowl and add the ground almonds.  Add the butter and rub in with fingertips.  Sift in the icing sugar, add grated lemon rind and mix.  Lightly beat the egg yolk and milk together and stir into the dry ingredients.  Mix until the paste just comes together, turn out and knead gently to smooth the surface.  (You will need half of this mixture for your tart so divide and freeze the other half for next time).  Cover and rest in fridge for 30 minutes.

Lightly butter a 22cm shallow tart tin.  Roll out the pastry thinly on a lightly floured surface and line the tin with it.  Prick the base with a fork several times and rest in the fridge for 15-20 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan oven).  Bake the pastry blind for 10 minutes.  Remove the baking beans and paper, turn down the oven to 180C (160C fan oven) and return the tart to the oven for another 4-5 minutes to fully cook the base.

Mix the curd cheese with the currants, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon rind (and rosewater if using).  Beat the eggs with the sugar then add to the curd mixture along with the cooled melted butter.  Pour into the pastry case and bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes until the top is golden and the filling set.  Once cooled, serve with no embellishment.

*Make a simple lactic curd by bringing 1.5ltrs  of whole  milk (“raw” if you can get it) to just below boiling point, add juice of 1 lemon, leave overnight in a cool place (not the fridge) then pour into a muslin-lined sieve to drain the curds.

A version of this piece appears in The Foodie Bugle

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Modern Peasant - Jojo Tulloh

The Modern Peasant - Adventures in City  Food
Jojo Tulloh

'The Modern Peasant' didn't hook me, it was the subtitle 'Adventures in City Food' that did.  Rooted in this maddening, chaotic, fascinating city of London, it pays to have an adventurous spirit, not least where food is concerned.  It's not the  multiplicity of cuisines on offer in this cosmopolitan metropolis that the author, JojoTulloh, finds so enthralling.  It's the new wave of small urban producers that interest her.  Buying food from them, growing some of her own and making simple food from scratch - "rediscovering an earlier tradition of cookery" - has reconnected her to the source of food.  She sees the word "peasant" not as a negative term but as a description of a person producing high quality food.  Whether they are doing so for pleasure, profit or out of necessity - these are her 'Modern Peasants'.

Like Jojo, I have revelled in the emergence of bakers, brewers, bee-keepers and butchers.  I am ever-delighte to discover cheese makers and ice cream makers tucked into unlikely arches and forgotten corners of the city.  Whenever I can I will inveigle my way behind the scenes .  It's no wonder, then, I seized on The Modern Peasant.

The book starts with a "pilgrimage" to Italy's Apulia region, specifically, to the farmhouse where foodwriter Patience Gray spent the last 35 years of her life.  It was here, with her lover, the sculpture Norman Mommens, that Gray lived off the land and wrote her autobiographical cookbook Honey from a Weed.  If you don't know this book, Jojo Tulloh's introduction will make you want to delve into its pages.  The book and the visit made Tulloh look at her own life and how she procured her food.  She returned to London "determined to eat more weeds (Patience's universal panacea), get bees and seek out those who could teach me their hard-earned skills."

Tulloh makes the case that by producing some of our food ourselves, witnessing the labour that goes into its production or buying direct from the producer, we will appreciate it more and waste less.  For chapters headed Baked, Fermented, Planted, Foraged and Pickled, Preserved, Foraged & Smoked she spent time with producers.  In a bakery she takes us from the description of a container of dough bubbling "like the sac in a bullfrog's throat" to a succinct explanation of autolysis.  She forages on Hampstead Heath with "someone who knows" and enjoys the thrift of making jams and pickles for a well-stocked larder.  Many of these chapters end with some excellent 'Tips", techniques and a few simple recipes.  She shows just how easy and satisfying it is to make your own bread, yoghurt, ricotta or ginger beer.

Like all of us who are fortunate enough to 'borrow' a little piece of land on which to grow crops, Jojo Tulloh values it beyond measure.  In a section titled The Practical Peasant's Year, she makes the point that "To grow something is to become aware of the elements.  Earth, air, sun and fire become part of your consciousness".  That's not to say she is blindly romantic about it.  Time spent on the allotment is "not the most logical or effective use of my time" but "there is a deep calm and concentrated peace that comes from the monotony of task performed outside".  Even when growing feels like a battle "there is a strength there that can be gained and is almost as worthwhile as the produce you take home".

Returning to Patience Gray, The Modern Peasant ends on a few of the foodwriter's recipes and acknowledges that food is not the only important thing in life but it is a daily necessity that shouldn't be made light of.

My enjoyment of this book was helped along by a peppering of great quotes, particularly those taken from William Cobbett's Cottage Economy.  Reading, learning, growing and making has "added another layer" to Jojo Tulloh's life.  I have to say I feel the same way and this book gives voice to that feeling.  It's an interesting and inspiring read and one I am likely to return to in future for reference.

The Modern Peasant - Adventures in City Food
Jojo Tulloh
Illustrated by Lynn Hatzius

Book courtesy of Chatto & Windus