Thursday, 29 August 2013

Almond, Polenta and Lemon Cake with blackberry compote

Almond, Polenta and Lemon Cake
with blackberry compote

Blackberries, or brambles, are probably the most widely foraged foodstuff in the UK.  This is probably a dangerous claim as we seem to have rediscovered our passion for "foraging", but during their season it's hard to take a country walk and not come across someone picking blackberries.  Speak to any seasoned blackberry picker and they'll tell you they have a favourite spot they return to year after year.  That's not to say they'll tell you where it is - blackberry patches are jealously guarded - but it is the spot they will head for each year to try their luck.  That first picking is invested with more hope than expectation.  Will the fruit be plump or seedy?  Fit for a blackberry and apple pie or destined to be sieved for a fruit jelly?

Wild Blackberries

A late, wet start to spring has turned out to be perfect for fruit growing in the UK.  From gooseberries through berries, cherries and currants, all have cropped well this year.  Now plums and gages are starting to arrive and tasting sweet as nectar.  Apples and pears are expected to produce bumper crops too.  Right now it's the turn of wild blackberries, so much better than cultivated ones and they're free.  Foraging is by its nature anarchic but my own written rules are 'leave some for somebody else'.

Almond,  Polenta and Lemon Cake

Blackberry is a fruit I would never plant on my allotment.  It's a bit of a thug and will take over if you let it. Besides, wherever there is a bit of uncultivated land, there is likely to be a bramble patch.  Birds disperse the seeds very efficiently.  If you want a better behaved option, go for loganberry which is a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry.  If you do pick wild blackberries, folklore has it that you shouldn't take them after Michaelmas (29 September) as the Devil will have spat on them.  Superstitious or not, by the end of September in the UK you're unlikely to find berries you'd actually want to eat.

Almond, Polenta and Lemon Cake
with blackberry compote

My first pickings this year proved to be packed with juice, making the seeds barely noticeable.  Half of the berries were the basis for a classic apple and blackberry crumble.  The rest I warmed with a little sugar to enjoy as a compote which would be good, I thought, with a little almond 'something'.  I had almonds; I had polenta; and I had lemons.  With those ingredients, The River Cafe Cookbook was the first book I reached for. Their recipe for Torta di Polenta, Mandorle e Limone is the basis for the recipe below.  I know it's sacrilege, but I did change a few things.

Not wanting a cake as large as 30cm, I cut down the recipe to suit a 17cm x 6cm round tin.  It produced a beautifully light cake which is also gluten-free.  I found the lemon didn't come through quite enough for me so I increased the amount of lemon zest recommended.  I should mention the finished cake is fairly fragile so take extra care to prepare the tin.  The cake keeps well for a couple of days but it will lose its crunch.

Almond, Polenta and Lemon Cake
with blackberry compote
(Serves 4-6)

150g (6oz) unsalted butter, softened
150g (6oz) caster sugar
2 medium eggs
150g (6oz) almonds, skinned and ground fairly finely (or use ready-ground almonds)
Half a tsp of vanilla extract (or qtr tsp of vanilla powder - Ndali brand is very good)
Zest of 2 lemons
Juice of half a lemon
75g (3oz) polenta
Half a teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt

For the compote:
300g (12oz) blackberries
25-50g (1-2oz) icing sugar (depending on sweetness of berries)

Preheat oven 170C (fan 150C)/Gas 3.
Lightly butter a 17cm x 6cm round tin and dust with polenta.
Cream the butter well with the caster sugar.  Add the ground almonds and vanilla and mix briefly.  Gradually beat in the eggs. 
Gently fold in the lemon zest and juice, followed by the polenta, baking powder and salt.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for about 30 minutes or until a skewer comes out fairly clean (under-cooked is better than over-cooked).  Leave to cool in the tin before turning out.

While the cake is cooking, put the blackberries in a heavy-bottomed pan with no more than 1 tablespoon of water.  Heat until the juices flow.  Remove from the heat and mix in 30g of icing sugar, adding more if the compote is too tart.  

Spoon a little compote alongside a slice of cake.  I don't think it needs the addition of cream but it's up to you.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Rosie's Blackcurrant and Lemon Posset

Rosie's Blackcurrant and Lemon Posset

Blackcurrants don't have the jewel-like appearance of red and white currants but they pack a powerful punch.  A little goes a long way.  This is just as well if you grow your own, as keeping them to yourself in the kitchen garden is a battle.  Despite their tartness, birds love to feast on them.  I can happily strip redcurrants and eat them straight from the bush, but a little sugary help is necessary to make blackcurrants palatable.

Rosie's Blackcurrant and Lemon Posset
refrigerated overnight

Having picked blackcurrants at my allotment I was looking for some different recipes.

Almonds go wonderfully well with blackcurrants, so anything involving frangipane is an excellent idea. Chocolate and mint, I know, also pair well, but what else, I wondered.

According to Niki Segnit, author of The Flavour Thesaurus, blackcurrants have an affinity with juniper and coffee too. Even more surprising perhaps is the suggestion for pairing the fruit with peanuts.   Her thesis is based on the American taste for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Segnit does point out, in the USA,  the jelly involved is likely to be made from Concord grapes rather than blackcurrants.  She does, however, detect a "catty" quality common to the currant and the grape to support this idea.  I confess to never having eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich so I can't vouch for the combination.

For the recipe below, I think the blackcurrants work fine on their own.

Recipes for 'possets' are recorded as far back as the 15thC.  The term usually refers to a mixture of hot milk curdled by the addition of ale, wine or sack and sometimes with spices such as ginger added.  It gave a looser result than what we expect of a posset today.  By the 16th century sometimes egg was added to thicken the mixture.  The poor used old bread to achieve a similar result.  Later, cream began to be used and lemon juice became the preferred curdling agent.

Blackcurrant compote

This recipe comes from the talented and scholarly *Rosie Sykes, currently Head-Chef at Fitzbillies in Cambridge.  It was recently printed in her column for the Guardian (co-written with food journalist Joanna Blythman).  It's so perfect that, apart from adding a little extra sugar to my very tart home-grown blackcurrants, I make it as instructed.  Blackcurrants are coming to to the end of their season but blackberries are taking over and they would, I think, make a great alternative.

Blackcurrant and Lemon Posset
(Serves 4)

300g blackcurrants, washed and stripped from their stalks
25-40g icing sugar, depending on tartness of fruit
400ml cream (I used double cream)
Rind of 1 lemon
125g caster sugar
Juice of 2 lemons

Put the blackcurrants in a pan with 1 tablespoon of water.  Heat gently to a simmer and cook for about 5 minutes until soft and bursting.
Remove from the heat and, while still warm, stir in 25g of sifted icing sugar.  Taste and add more sugar if the fruit is very tart (as Rosie says, you want to carefully balance the tart and sweet).  Leave to cool.
Put the cream in a small pan with the lemon rind.  Bring to a "scald" (just to the point where it's about to boil) and, over the heat, add the caster sugar stirring to dissolve.
Turn up the heat and add the lemon juice.  Simmer for 3 minutes.
Remove from the heat and leave to settle for a few minutes.  
Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a jug, discarding the lemon rind.
Divide the sweetened blackcurrants between 4 ramekins or glasses and gently pour the posset on top (too fast and you'll get too much 'bleeding' of fruit into posset).
Cool to room temperature then cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

* Rosie Sykes' book The Kitchen Revolution is published by Ebury Press

Friday, 9 August 2013

August on the allotment

The harvest in August

Walking through the gate to the allotments I exchange hard tarmac for soft, yielding grass; honking car horns for the chirping of fledging birds; choking exhausts fumes for sweet honeysuckle.  Suddenly a rush of mint floods the senses as escapees from a nearby plot are crushed under foot.  Thank goodness for sloppy allotmenteers, I say.

The glorious spires of white, pink and purple foxgloves on my neighbour's plot have given way to glowing sunflowers and Californian poppies.  The desiccated heads of parsnip flowers sway in the lightest breeze, scattering their featherlight seeds far and wide.  The starchy roots from which they grew remain in the ground - planted a year ago and forgotten in winter's final frost.

Autumn Raspberries 'Bliss'

Winter seems a distant memory when the thermometer is pushing 30C.  Full sun is wonderful for ripening fruit but the picking can get distinctly sticky.  Harvesting takes on a quick "grab and run" routine with a guilty snatch at a few weeds in passing.  Thankfully, the mercury has now dropped and early morning visits to the allotment have that dreamy quality which comes with mid-summer harvesting.

Picking the summer raspberries becomes less urgent. The drooping canes are almost exhausted, having only a thin crop of ripe fruit and browning leaves.  Close by, the autumn raspberries have taken over, standing straight and lush green.  What they lack in quantity of fruit they make up for in its texture and taste.  Plump and juicy and less seedy than the summer crop, today the pickings are almost equal.


I carefully untie the fleece covers from my two precious blackcurrant bushes.  This is their third year of growth and the first time I've managed to keep the crop to myself.  Blackbirds love blackcurrants as much as I do. They'll get their share - but not just yet.  There are compotes, jams and cordials to make first, so the covers go back on.  The gooseberry bush alongside has almost given its all.  Next week I'll strip it of any remaining fruits.

Time for a job I hate - crawling amongst the brassicas, planted to over-winter, looking for caterpillars to squish.  No matter what I do to protect the plants, Cabbage White butterflies will find a way to get in and lay their eggs on the underside of leaves.  There they are.  Three pairs of fluttering white wings, their job done, desperately trying to escape.  I release them and crawl on hands and knees to examine the plants which really shouldn't be as far on as they are at this time of year.  Already I can harvest black cabbage.  The damage is clear and it doesn't take long to locate the fat green caterpillars munching their happy way from leaf to delicious leaf.  Squish!

Borlotti beans

This is shaping up to be my best year for borlotti beans.  A dense canopy of vibrant green leaves hides a pretty, heavy load of red-streaked pods.  Fat with beans, when ready, they will be creamy and flecked with hues of pink through to burgundy.  The marigolds that  self-seeded all around the wigwams have not only looked glorious but seem to have done a good job in attracting friendly insects and distracting pests.

Not everything is performing to order  this year, though.  The courgette plants look healthy but growth is agonisingly slow.  An abundance of flowers, albeit more males than females, promises fruit. Needless to say my neighbour's courgette plants are  producing a fantastic crop. I'll wait until the next visit before taking any of the male flowers from my plants for the kitchen. The Butternut squash and Uchiri Kuri pumpkin plants are at least forming fruits.  I'll be on slug watch for a few weeks now.

The 'nectar bar' has been in full and glorious bloom for several weeks now.  It's difficult to give over precious productive earth to flowers but they're irresistible and I love to see the beds abuzz with honey bees.  The blooms serve to confuse crop-damaging insects, too.  I fear I'm becoming almost as addicted to flowers as my near neighbour whose plot is almost entirely devoted to them.

Nectar bar in August
Cornflower and Marigold

A few beetroots, some Long Red Florence onions, a bouquet of rainbow chard and it's time to leave.  Back across the mint-strewn path to the exhaust-choked street, until the next time.

Recipes you might like:

Raspberry Cordial

Raspberry & Rose Sponge Cake

A bowl of warm raspberries ...

Raspberry conserve

Borlotti Bean Bruschetta

Courgette Soup

Gooseberry Polenta Cake

Gooseberry Elderflower Syllabub

Gooseberry Meringue Pie

First flush and a taste for Tortilla

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Raspberry Cordial


The raspberry harvest can get a little out of hand at this time of year.  It reaches a point when even friends and neighbours start avoiding you so as not to be pressed into taking yet more raspberries.

In summer, the mid-season crop is juicy and fragrant and there is nothing better than a big bowl of rasps served simply with vanilla ice cream or honey-laced yogurt.  However, the first and last pickings can be either seedy, sharp or weather-ravaged.   This is when you need a few ideas up your sleeve because, unless you freeze them quickly, the delicate berries do not keep well.

Raspberry Cordial
Jam is the obvious choice but if the fruit is excessively seedy, as my first harvest of the year was, for me seedless jam is the only way - more on this, soon.

My second harvest was little better on the seed front, so what to make?  Having recently made Elderflower Cordial, I had a couple of empty bottles, so raspberry cordial seemed like a good idea but how?  At times like these there are three books I reach for, Jane Grigson's Fruit Book; Nigel's Slater's Tender Vol II; and Chez Panisse Fruit by Alice Waters.  It was Alice who came to my rescue with a recipe for 'Raspberry Syrup' - "cordial" seems not to feature in the American vocabulary.

So, now I have a few deep pink bottles of cordial lined up in the larder to bring a touch of summer when the heat is long gone.  You can use this in the same way as Elderflower Cordial, diluting 1:5 with water to make a refreshing raspberryade.  I have an urge to try a little rosewater in the mix too.  Adding a splash of neat Raspberry Cordial to a glass a Prosecco is an excellent idea.  You can also add a tablespoon or two of the cordial to perk up a bowl of less flavoursome raspberries, or spoon a trail through yoghurt or ice cream.  Simply scale this recipe up or down according to how much fruit you have.

So far my summer raspberry harvest stands at almost 6kg and the canes are still fruiting.  Oh, and did I mention, the autumn-fruiting canes are producing already!

Raspberry Cordial

Take 600g of raspberries, place in a saucepan and crush with a potato masher or a fork.  
Add 1 litre of cold water and bring the mixture to the boil.  Skim off any scum then simmer for 15 minutes.  
Remove from the heat and pour the mixture through a non-reactive sieve, pressing on the fruit to extract as much liquid as possible from the pulp.
Measure the hot liquid and pour it back into the pan.  Add two thirds as much sugar to the liquid giving a ratio liquid:sugar of 1.5:1
Return the pan to the heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.  Bring to the boil and immediately remove from the heat and pour into sterilised glass bottles or jars.

Adapted from Raspberry Syrup recipe in Chez Panisse Fruit by Alice Waters