A Big Adventure

24 Jan

Mum was born in Scotland but before she was a year old she had travelled south with her mother and big sister to South Africa where her father had bought a fruit farm.

She lived there until she was 8 and WW2 broke out… and they made the journey back north to Scotland again. And at the end of the war they took that journey south again.

This pattern continued, back and forth from Scotland to South Africa pretty much until she married dad. I grew up hearing stories of the whaling ships she traveled on and it all sounded like such A Big Adventure.

No wonder we love the swallows that make that same journey every year.

The above was written on the Day Three of the 100 Days. I knew at the time that I should keep a diary, to remind me later what happened when, and how I was or wasn’t coping. But I didn’t. I just couldn’t commit anything to paper. It was easier to stab the fabric, to process things as I slowly stitched.

But, thanks to modern technology, I can look back at the messages I was sending my brother, and recall some of what was going on.

On this day, I discover that we were working out a new rota, given that we could now spend time together in the same house. The plan was for one of us to have a week on our own at Mum’s, followed by a handover week when both of us were there together, then a week with the other one going solo. I drew up the rota for the next few weeks, and took a picture and sent it to James, not knowing that none of it would actually happen in that carefully planned way.

I also noted that morning that there had been no nocturnal wanderings overnight. We were living in the house next door to Mum and had set up a motion sensitive camera to capture movement in the sitting room (so alerting us to her wandering around the house at night, rather than just getting up and going for a pee). At this point we noted that she was ‘one night on, one night off’ in the nocturnal wandering stakes. I was worn out, I’m sure Mum was too.

The District Nurse showed up mid-morning, to re-dress the bandage on Mum’s leg. She had fallen some weeks earlier, and had skinned her shin. Mum’s skin is thinner than tissue paper and also takes forever to heal. Another factor was the water retention in her legs, so the wound was literally seeping, soaking the bandage. The advice was to take advantage of gravity and for Mum to keep her feet up (we had tried water retention tablets earlier in the year, but Mum did NOT enjoy how they made her need to go to the loo very suddenly). So, each afternoon Mum would have ‘quiet time’ in her comfy chair with her feet up, and a blanket wrapped over her legs to keep her warm and cosy. Mum’s quiet time also gave me time to focus on work for an hour or two.

If you want to read more about the 100 Days Project, and to know more about why I’m embroidering a smock, go to Taking Smock of the Situation.

Thank you to all who have already donated to my associated fundraiser for Alzheimer Scotland, you are absolute stars! And if you feel moved to donate again, or for the first time, then today is a good day to do just that. Thank you all, you already support me in so many ways, so I REALLY appreciate you digging deep and supporting others when you make a donation.

Mum, with her big sister Jennifer

Swooping swallows

23 Jan

It’s only 7 months since I first started embroidering Mum’s smock, and recording my progress each day with wee stories about our lives, her life. It feels like several lifetimes ago, and it’s interesting to re-live that time, and to recall how far we had already come in our journey with Mum’s dementia.

I am someone who likes to know facts, who feels better if I feel I have some knowledge and if I can put a name to things. So, having seen that Mum wasn’t quite her usual self when I started minding her in January 2021, I researched ‘early stages of dementia’. If this had been a tick box exercise, Mum seemed to tick all the boxes. A typical list of symptoms is here (this one from The Alzheimer’s Society)

  • Memory problems
  • Difficulties in thinking things through and planning
  • Language and communication, for instance struggling to find the right word
  • Poor orientation (this is perhaps the one that I never identified with Mum)
  • Visual-perceptual difficulties
  • Changes in mood or emotion

Soon afterwards I spoke to her wonderful GP, who was professional kindness itself and discussed what, if anything, we should do about this. The GP confirmed that this indeed did sound like it might be the early stages of dementia, and also confirmed that we didn’t need to do anything, or not straight away. I enquired what the advantages of a diagnosis might be, and established that they ‘might be’ easier access to some forms of support. I’m not sure I discovered precisely what that support would be, but I also wasn’t sure what further support we needed or whether anything would actually be supportive.

This was to become the constant quest – ‘what support do we need? what else would help at this stage?’

The GP had established that Mum was not in physical danger, that she was not so vulnerable that she could no longer live on her own, and had also asked after me and how I was coping, which kindness immediately set off my tears.

I cry most easily at times when I am trying to be brave and cope with stuff and people show me kindness.

A few weeks after this conversation with the GP I cried when the local postie (who I only really know to wave at through the window when he delivers the post at Mum’s) was kind, and understood when I explained that Mum may have dementia, and that really the junkmail wasn’t a good thing for her.

With hindsight, so much had already happened by early June, but so much more would happen in the coming weeks. But we will come to that.

So, on Day Two on the #100daysproject I wrote this:

Today wasn’t as chaotic and so all was a bit calmer. And I had a long meeting online at work where I could listen and participate and stab the smock at the same time.

Swallows have swooped in and around our lives every summer for as long as I can remember. They nest in the eaves of Mum’s car port, and they dive bomb us every time we come out the back door.

Embroidering this swallow feels a bit like stabbing skin for a tattoo. The back yoke of the smock will have several swooping swallows.

Spoiler alert: the back yoke only has two swallows and I think it’s unlikely I’ll add any more – if only because in general I only ever see one or two swallows swooping at a time.

I’d be forever grateful if you felt inspired to donate to Alzheimer Scotland, it doesn’t have to be much because I know that every single penny will make a difference. They have a 24 hour helpline to ensure that no-one in Scotland need go through dementia alone. This coming week, could you make a donation instead of paying for a cup of coffee (or some other small treat) one day?

If you want to start at the beginning of this story, go to Taking Smock of the Situation.

Emotional investment

20 Jan

Was I the only one who hadn’t realised quite what an emotional investment this project is? I mean what was I thinking of? Embroidering memories, while Mum’s are slipping away like water through her fingers.

I wrote this on 1st June 2021 the first morning of embroidering the smock:

This morning started with a phone call at 5am. Mum had cut her arm and needed help. Just as well I knew where she kept her stash of more dressings! She had no recollection of how it had happened.

At 5.30 we were all sorted and I was very much awake but not ready to start work. So what’s a girl to do but start embroidering? The light was perfect and the steady stitching slowed me down and somehow gave me the focus to face the day. I didn’t get another chance to stab the smock till after supper time, when the light was less good.

I’ll tell you about why swallows another time. There’s lots of time. Ish.

The swallow was designed by my nephew Max, who enthusiastically threw himself into this project. That week when I started embroidering the smock was a few days after the first weekend we had ‘opened up’ from a long-term and pretty severe lockdown in Scotland. Max and his Dad (my brother) had come to stay in Galloway, and it was the first time I had been there caring for Mum when others were also around. The sense of relief, of beginning to understand quite how hard this had been on our own, was palpable. I was no longer alone (not that I ever was, I was with Mum, but I think you know what I mean).

Initially I felt quite overwhelmed by the enormity of this project. I’d embroidered way back years ago, when I was still a child, so I wasn’t entirely new to the idea of using threads to paint pictures on fabric. I remember I embroidered brightly coloured flowers up one leg of a pair of jeans (in the 70s, obviously), but don’t recall embroidering anything else, or anything that I would today be proud of.

Not knowing exactly how or where to start, I had done some research and had learned how I might transfer a design to the fabric (using a stabiliser that would then magically dissolve in water when I’d finished stabbing). And then I just started stabbing at the fabric, using what felt like the right thread. I’d maybe do those swallows differently now, but not much… and I realise that this project was never about the embroidery, it’s about the journey as they say, it’s about the memories, the slow pace of the stitching, the joy of creating something that will hold onto this time we’ve had.

By the end of Day One I had made some small progress. I had also consulted with The Embroidery Book, published in 1949 and given to me by my grandmother on my 11th birthday (it felt like an old book then, but with all these years behind me now, I realise it wasn’t THAT old).

If you want to start at the beginning of this story, go to Taking Smock of the Situation.

Again, if you are moved to support Alzheimer Scotland, who work to ensure that no-one has to cope with dementia alone, please just clickety click here, and you will seamlessly be taken to my fundraising page. I’m currently 75% towards my target of £600, and I’d be beyond grateful if your kindness nudged me a bit closer to reaching that goal. Thank you.

Taking Smock of the Situation

17 Jan
SheWolffe trying on the smock before the embroidery started

On 1 June 2021 I joined the 2021 100 days project.

For those that don’t know the 100 days project, the idea is simple: you choose a creative project, do it every single day for 100 days, and share your process on social using the hashtag #The100DayProject.

I joined for the first time in 2020, during that first lockdown year. Mum was interested to join in too – her creative project was to make a small painting each day, mostly of something from the garden. She would take a photo of her painting each day and then email it to me and I then uploaded it on her Instagram account. For most of 2020 we were not allowed to see one another, and this creative act brought us closer together and I think gave Mum a positive focus each day during those long locked down lonely weeks.

Then in January 2021 I came to stay with Mum during that lockdown. It became clear that she wasn’t quite herself, and at the end of April she was diagnosed with mixed dementia.

As I started the #100daysproject I reflected that my life was now very different from previous years… I shared caring for Mum with my elder brother; our routine was that we stayed in Galloway with mum for 2 to 3 weeks at a time, and then swapped. Because of covid restrictions it had been quite an isolated time, those first months of 2021.

Anyway back in the first weeks of January 2021 I found this fisherman’s smock which mum used to wear when she was sculpting her pottery animals. She never wears it now and gifted it to me. I knew right then I wanted to embellish it, to embroider it with life.

Each embroidered element would connect to mum in some way. I had no idea if I had the skill to pull this off and create something more beautiful and meaningful than the smock itself, but each stitch would be so full of love for the remarkable woman who made me.

I recorded the progress on Instagram, initially posting every day (the 100 days are meant to be consecutive) but for various reasons my days were not consecutive, and I have also now recognised that this is a marathon, and not a 100 day sprint. So, 32 weeks later I still pick up the smock some days and stab the fabric. I still upload to Instagram each day I add stitches and if you want to see progress follow #TakingSmockOfTheSituation and #Smocktales on insta.

I started a fundraiser as a sideline of the project. Of course I did, I’m a fundraiser at heart and couldn’t help myself. So, if you are moved to contribute so no one in Scotland has to face dementia alone, please click here and support Alzheimers Scotland. I really appreciate your support, but more importantly so will so many others who are struggling to make sense of either their or a loved one’s dementia. It is a bewildering disease, for all of us.

I’ll add the backlog of slow stitching progress, and eventually I might catch up with myself and by then will have formed a regular blogging habit so you can see it (and my other adventures) in real time.

Edited to add blog posts relating to this story:

Trying to care for Mum as she developed dementia nearly broke me on a number of occasions. I would really appreciate it if you could make a donation towards Alzheimer Scotland. They’re doing stuff that makes living with this more bearable for so many people. Thank you, thank you, a thousand thank yous.

Hugs in the post

4 Apr
Mini frangipane cakes

It’s been hard hasn’t it? This last year, being locked down, missing being with the people we love.

At the beginning of January this year, I went to stay with Mum, to mind her as she gets increasingly frail and somewhat confused. I knew I might be there for a while, and with the latest version of lockdown I didn’t know when I’d be allowed to see anyone else, nor how long I was likely to be there. It would be lonely, isolated. So I put a lot of thought into my own well-being and self-care, and tried to really think about what I could plan that would give me pleasure, that would nurture me, keep me on an even keel, when I knew I would feel cast adrift from the world I usually inhabit.

Most people who know me would assume that baking and cooking would be high on that list, and I thought so too initially. But it didn’t take me long to realise that the joy I gain from baking is mostly from sharing what I make. I got so little joy from baking for myself (partly because I have successfully lost over 2 stone and don’t intend to pile it all back on for the sake of some baking self-care). For a while I hardly baked at all.

Then I started making biscuits again, and posting them to people – biscuits, I discovered, are very post-able. And there was a surfeit of post-able boxes available after all that online shopping that had been going on!

But then the first pink forced rhubarb arrived in our fruit and veg box, And I knew exactly what I wanted to make – a sort of rhubarb frangipane tart. Well, the pastry was going to take too long (I only seemed to have short slivers of time available) so I made a cake without the pastry. It was amazing. But oh so ugly.

I made another. Just as tasty, just as ugly. It was christened the Ugly Duckling Cake.

Ugly Duckling Cake, in all its glorious ugliness

Then I discovered the muffin tins in the cupboard … at around the same time as I used up all the rhubarb. How could I replicate that sharp shock of rhubarb in a wee frangipane cake? My first thought was cranberries in balsamic vinegar (this may seem like a very random thought, but I had spied a bag of cranberries in the freezer, left over from the Christmas That Never Happened, and a couple of years ago I had made a delicious sharp and sweet cranberry and balsamic chutney, which was just the taste I was looking for). I’ve also used marmalade, and lemon curd. I reckon almost any kind of compote, made with whatever fruit is seasonal would work.

Oh, and the best thing about these wee cakes? If you pop them in a ziplock bag and put them in a suitable box, they post really well. You can send them in lieu of a hug to anyone and everyone you love. And you’ll feel so much happier having done it.

Well-fired frangipane cakes in rainbow muffin cases

Frangipane cakes

  • 125g butter, softened
  • 125 caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 125g ground almonds
  • 1 TBsp plain flour
  1. Preheat oven to Gas Mark 5, or 170C.
  2. Prepare your muffin tins. You know that this just means pop a paper muffin case into each of the muffin holes don’t you? I usually make 9 wee cakes out of one batch, but it depends on the size of your muffins, obviously.
  3. Weigh out your almonds and add spoonful of flour. Set aside for a minute.
  4. Using and electric beater, beat the butter and sugar together till really light and creamy. Then beat it some more. Seriously, the better you beat it at this stage, the lovelier and light your cakes will be.
  5. Add the eggs one by one, beating well after each one. Add a wee bit of the flour/almonds if it is curdling to try to bring it back together. If your eggs are really fresh I think it is less likely to curdle or split, but perhaps I’m just imagining that?
  6. Now, using a big metal spoon, fold the almonds and flour in to the mixture. Try to keep it light, don’t bash all the air out of it.
  7. Spoon dollops of the mixture into muffin trays, using about 2/3 of the mixture.
  8. Now put a spoonful of whatever fruitiness you are adding on top of the mixture in the muffin tins. And then cover with a final wee spoon of cake mixture. You really don’t need to be precise about all this, and in fact it works fine if you spoon all the cake mixture into the tins, and add the fruitiness on top at the end. You find this out by forgetting to leave some back one time.
  9. Pop them in the oven. Check them after about 30 minutes to see how they are – I’ve had some ready at about 35 minutes, others needing another ten minutes. I guess it depends on your oven doesn’t it? I test by pressing lightly on a cake with two fingers, and seeing if it springs back nicely. If not, cook it a bit more.
Ready for baking
In the oven
Mini frangipane cakes, ready to be packed up and posted off as a proxy hug

You can pimp this basic frangipane mixture by adding other flavours, such as vanilla essence, almond essence or orange oil (I was gifted some of this elixir by a super-kind friend and it is amazing) – I mix it in with the butter and sugar.

If you want to make the lemon version, you can find my lemon curd recipe here. The balsamic cranberries can be found here. Or use a bought jam, or fresh berries, or slices of poached pear on top, or apples cooked in butter and sugar to caramelise them. Really, whatever you have to hand, just try it out. What’s the worst that can happen?

If you are interested in more recipes that I’ve scribbled down over the years, take a look at my Index of Recipes. And if you find any broken links, please let me know – over the years I have moved this site and some of the links I think are historic (and not in a good way).

Perfecting my choux buns

24 Nov

Taking a holiday on lockdown is a strange old thing isn’t it?

I’m off all week this week, but staying at home (obviously). I feel as though I really need the ‘break’, I’m limping towards the end of the year. But what would a lockdown break look like? What would recharge me?

A series of personal challenges, that’s what. And no, not physical challenges – while that might be good for me, that is very much not my style. And not something I would look forward to.

I reveal my other challenges in a previous post, but this weekend’s was to make choux buns. I’ve made choux pastry once years ago, and all I recall is thinking that this was not something worth repeating – why have flabby, flat, soft pastry when you could have shortcrust instead?

Also, most of my memories of choux pastry aren’t that brilliant to be honest – back in the 70s they seemed like they’d be a terribly exotic dessert, but without fail they always disappointed: a bowl of slightly soggy, soft pastry shells, with questionable creamy stuff inside and a far too sweet chocolate sauce on top. No, I was a knickerbockerglory girl in the 70s.

In my quest to bake a decent choux bun I checked various recipes from my cookbook collection and they all seemed easy, and very similar, so I picked one and got going yesterday.

And it was all going so well, water and butter heated up, flour chucked in and beaten into the hot water to make a paste. Then eggs in, pre-beaten, so I could add just the right quantity of egg to get the right consistency.

But this is where it all went so badly wrong. I quickly ended up with a really liquid batter, and there was no way I could put dollops of batter on a baking tray to cook. I didn’t give up though, and dribbled some onto baking trays, on dampened baking parchment and put them in a very hot oven.

As expected, they came out as choux pancakes.

So I did what I do, and set to working out what had gone wrong and what I had to do differently to get something resembling more of a choux BUN.

(As an aside, the hens absolutely LOVED the choux pancakes, so if ever you have what appears to be a kitchen disaster, just remember that it may be the perfect snack, just not for you).

Anyway, today I made my second batch of choux pastry – and I’ll be honest, I didn’t really take much care over it, getting it half made and then stopping to enjoy a cup of coffee over the Sunday Papers before finishing it. And it appears that this is the best way to approach choux pastry, be off-hand with it, pretend you don’t really care. Ignore it for a while. It’ll come good.

Given that I’m not wild about a regular profiterole I filled my fluffy, light pastry shells with two different fillings: dark chocolate mousse for one lot and cinnamon apple cream for the second lot. I’m pretty happy with these choices, one being rich and decadent, the other tangy and fruity, but still with billowy creaminess.

My top tips for anyone attempting choux pastry for the first time:

  1. Do it!
  2. Use the 2:1:1:2 ratio, but add a wee bit extra flour (this will make sense soon)
  3. Don’t use an enormous pan
  4. Beat the flour, water, butter paste over the heat for a minute or so, till it’s glossy
  5. Let this paste cool for a while before even thinking about beating in the eggs
  6. Make them on the day you want to eat them, they become soggy and flabby if you keep them in an airtight container overnight
  7. Just do it!

Choux Pastry

  • 100ml water
  • 50g butter
  • 50g flour
  • 100g eggs (2 eggs)

Before you start doing anything, look at the ratios of the different ingredients. This is the 2:1:1:2 ratio. Twice as much (by weight) of each of water and eggs as there is of butter and flour.

Now we’ve got that sorted, here’s how to make your perfect choux buns.

  1. Put the water in a wee heavy based saucepan, and cut the chunks of butter into it, and place on a medium heat
  2. Weigh the flour out, and then add just a wee bit more (I think the choux pastry works better with the 2112 ratio just slightly out of kilter, with a smidgin extra flour)
  3. When the butter has melted and the water is just simmering, skoosh all the flour into the pan on top of the hot water-butter and BEAT with a wooden spoon (some people suggest you should place the flour on a folded piece of paper, to make a chute so the flour skooshes nice and fast into the water-butter, but I don’t think this is really necessary)
  4. Now, keep beating for about a minute, still over the heat though turned down a wee bit, till the dough seems glossy and is all coming together in the pan.
  5. Leave the pan to one side and make yourself a cup of tea or coffee now
  6. Pootle about on social media, or pick up a project you’re half way through (for me it’s that amazing mustard coloured cardigan with ALL the cables), or just read a book, or the paper. Whatever distract yourself for 20 minutes or so. You probably want to turn your oven on sometime during this wee break, so it’s hot enough when you come to cook your buns.
  7. Now go back to the kitchen and beat 2 eggs. Don’t bother weighing them, because you are going to do the rest of this by using your senses…
  8. Pour a wee bit of the beaten egg into the dough, and BEAT with your wooden spoon till it’s nicely incorporated; then add another dollop of egg and BEAT again. You’re going to keep doing this till you’ve got the right consistency. You might need all the egg, or you might have a wee bit left over at the end.
  9. You know you’ve got the right consistency when you pick your wooden spoon up, straight, out of the batter, and a sort of V-shaped bit of batter sticks to the bottom of the spoon, without dropping off. If it all drops off, ooopsie, you’ve added too much egg. Another way to check is to poke and stroke the batter – you want to see a wee trough where your finger made a trench in the batter. Basically it needs to hold its own, but kinda only just.
  10. Prepare your baking sheet: line it with a piece of baking parchment, then put it under the tap to get all wet. Pour of the actual water, just leaving a few droplets and a sort of sense of wetness. This helps provide the steamy heat the choux pastry loves in the oven.
  11. Now you can either spoon dollops of batter onto the baking sheet, or you can go all fancy and put it in a piping bag. Whichever you do, if you see wee sticky out pointy bits press them down with a wet finger (otherwise they will burn before the rest is cooked).
  12. Pop them in the oven, for about 15-20 minutes. Some suggest you should take them out a couple of minutes before they are ready (but once they are firm) and use a skewer or a sharp knife to make a wee hole in each bun, to allow the steam out, and to ensure they cook nicely inside. I’d say this is optional, so don’t stress if you forget to do it.
  13. Once they are out, move them to a wire rack to cool. If you haven’t poked a wee hole in them already, do it now so the steam can escape.

Fillings

You can fill these with anything soft and moussy really. The traditional (and possibly slightly old-fashioned) filling is plain whipped cream. And nice as that is, I think we can do better, don’t you. Some suggestions are:

  • Just before serving, pop a spoonful of your favourite ice cream inside each bun and sprinkle with something scrunchy, like chopped toasted nuts or sesame seeds
  • Lightly whip some cream with mascarpone and then fold through some stewed berries, or a fruit coulis
  • Make a quick chocolate mousse. OK, unlikely to be quick because you’ll have to melt the chocolate and then cool in the fridge (but you have time to make this while you’re taking that ‘break’ from the choux pastry-making). For an easy mousse: melt 6oz dark chocolate, cool slightly and then beat in 3 eggs yolks. Whip the 3 egg whites to soft peaks, and stir a big dollop of them into the choc mix. Now carefully fold the rest of the egg white in and leave to set in the fridge. Eat it by the spoonful, or spoon great big dollops of it into each bun. And if you want to go BIG, drizzle melted chocolate over the tops
  • Spread a wee bit of apple cinnamon jelly inside each bun, then fill with cream/mascarpone
  • Fold salted caramel sauce through whipped cream. I don’t have a recipe for salted caramel sauce to hand, but I’m sure you can find one.
  • Fold lemon curd through whipped cream, or a cream/mascarpone mix. That zingy zestiness will be so good. And I happen to have a recipe for lemon curd.
  • Or if you want to go decidedly grown up, check out what liqueurs you’ve got stashed at the back of your drinks cabinet… fold some through your whipped cream. And then think what would go with it… some fresh raspberries with chambord; with frangelico cream dip the tops in chocolate and sprinkle over chopped toasted hazelnuts… but over to you. Now you can make choux buns, you can fill them whatever takes your fancy.

Not in the mood for choux buns? That’s ok, there’s lots of other things you could try your had at here.

Challenges

24 Nov

I have a week off work and have set myself some challenges to complete before I go back to work next Monday, in the hope that this will make my lockdown holiday a bit more inspiring and I will go back to work feeling refreshed and invigorated and as though I’ve achieved something.

Some are quite mundane and because they need to be done, others are because I want to learn a new technique, some are because I think I’ll enjoy them.

  1. Make choux buns DONE!
  2. Make suet crust pastry I’ve decided to postpone this challenge (because it conflicts with my weightloss plan)
  3. Make puff pastry (not rough puff, REAL puff). I’m half way through this… using my Aunt Joyce’s recipe. Will share if it works okDONE! And then I made some sausage rolls
  4. Make hot water crust pastry (and the raised pie!) I may postpone this one too, for the same reason
  5. Make a more interesting bread than my usual
  6. Make creme patissiere
  7. Make some biscuits to post to people I’ve made another batch of ginger nuts, which might be my current favourite biscuit. Will pack some up this afternoon. DONE
  8. Finish knitting the baby jumper for Liz’s wee man
  9. Make the knitting swatches for my Knitting Retreat on Sunday ALMOST DONE. I’ve finished the first one, and half way through the second one. I need to block one now as per instructions
  10. Finish the latest bonnet
  11. Get sorted to be able to start my Advent Knitting Project I’ve got the pattern and wool ready… I just need to make sure I’ve got the right needles.
  12. Organise my knitting / sewing / crochet patterns (real life and online) Online ones DONE. Still need to do the paper ones, but I now have a plan
  13. Organise my room (ie give it a big tidy/declutter!) STARTED, but nowhere near finished.
  14. Organise my WARDROBE (ditto)
  15. Give Puck a BATH
  16. Plant hyacinths, garlic, broad beans
  17. Make a plan for Christmas (and start making gifts)
  18. Post a blog post or two DONE! If I include this one. And I feel back in the groove, so will post more regularly again
  19. Make mincemeat DONE!
  20. Make mincemeat frangipane tarts
  21. Make some more face masks, including ones for the Captain out of his metrosexual shirt DONE!

I’ll update this list as I make progress.

When life gives you eggs….

8 May

… you make Genoise sponge cake

  • Five fresh laid eggs, all slightly different muted colours, in a bowl, sitting atop a stripey crocheted blanket

I keep hens, more hens than is entirely sensible, and some weeks they lay an average of 7 or 8 eggs a day. This means that I never need worry about not having something to eat for supper – poached egg on toast is a popular midweek standby, as is a frittata, tortilla or omelette of sorts. I now regularly throw an egg into a cheese sauce as I make it, to give it extra richness, or quickly make mayonnaise just because I have some spare eggs kicking about.

In the pre-Covid Era I took eggs in to work for colleagues to enjoy, but that’s not possible now we are all in lockdown. Last week we offered a delivery driver a half a dozen eggs and at first he looked quite affronted, and said no he was doing alright just now, just managing thank you very much, and they’d managed to do a shop that week. I had to tell him they were laid that morning, from our free range hens, and he would be doing us a favour. He took them, I hope he enjoyed them.

But there are lots of other things you can do with eggs, including the miraculous Genoise sponge cake. It really is a magical creation – just eggs, sugar, plain flour and a wee bit of butter, but combined in such a way that it creates a properly light as a feather sponge cake. And of course you can pimp it however you want, you could swap out some of the flour for cocoa, or add citrus zest to the batter, or brush over a flavoured sugar syrup once the cake is cool. But I’m jumping ahead of myself, let’s just make the basic perfect light Genoise sponge today, and fill it with clouds of whipped cream and some fresh strawberry jam.

Genoise Sponge Cake

Ingredients

I’ve kept the ingredients weights in Imperial because they are so deliciously simple to remember, and it’s how I make it. Sorry if you prefer cups or grams, but on this occasion I’m not doing equivalents.

  • 4 eggs (obviously I would suggest using free range really fresh ones, but honestly use whatever suits you, probably medium/large in size)
  • 4 oz caster sugar (use vanilla sugar if you have any)
  • 4 oz plain flour
  • 2 oz butter

Method

Prepare your tin or tins. Ideally you would lightly grease the tin and line it with baking paper, but you could probably get away with lightly greasing and then sprinkling with flour (then give it a shake to evenly spread the flour around the tin, creating a non-stick layer). You can use two sandwich tins, or a springform 8″/20cm tin. You know what, you can use whatever tin you’ve got, obviously! It makes life easier when you’re getting the cake in and out of the oven if you place your tin/s on top of a baking sheet.

Preheat your oven to Gas Mark 4 / 350F / 180C

  1. Melt your butter and then leave it to one side as you do everything else so it cools a bit.
  2. Crack the whole eggs into a big bowl, and add the caster sugar.
  3. Using electric beaters, whisk this until it becomes thick and luscious, you’re looking for what is technically called the thick ribbon stage. This means that when you lift the beaters out, and leave a trail of mixture in the bowl, the trail holds its shape. I use handheld electric beaters at their full power, and it usually takes about 8 minutes to reach this stage. Remember, if the trail doesn’t hold, then there’s no chance your cake will hold its sponge in the oven, and you’ll end up with a pancake.
  4. Now find yourself a large balloon whisk. Don’t have one? Use a large metal spoon instead.
  5. Sift the flour into the eggs in three batches. After each addition, fold it in really gently, you’re looking to incorporate it into the light egg mix without bashing out any of the airiness you’ve worked so hard to create.
  6. Once you’ve added all the flour, take your melted butter and very gently pour the yellow liquid round the edge of the bowl. Stop pouring before you pour in the white liquid milk protein – it doesn’t matter if some goes in, so don’t fret too much about it.
  7. Now gently fold the melted butter into the mixture before gently pouring the cake batter into the prepared tin or tins.
  8. Gently slide the tin/s into your oven and bake for 35 – 40 mins (because all ovens are not equal). The cake’s ready when a skewer inserted comes out clean as a whistle. Also note how it’s beginning to come away from the edges of the tin. And while you’re at it, turn off the radio or podcast or music, or loud children, when you take it out of the oven. Listen to it. I love that noise.
  9. Turn the cake/s out onto a wire rack to cool.
  10. Fill with your choice of tasty fillings – my favourite is the traditional combination of creaminess and fruitiness, but if you’re a fan of buttercream, go for it.

Want to make more cakey things? What about a Springtime Apple cake (no idea why it’s particularly suitable for springtime, but who is to question Past Shewolffe?) or if it’s biscuits you’re after, these Langues De Chat are amazing, and use up a spare egg white. Or just browse for yourself here.

When Nature can’t help itself

15 Mar

No discussion, the beginning of this week was slightly stressful. I spent most of Monday in various NHS waiting rooms (the GP’s surgery, the eye clinic’s outpatient’s in the old hospital, the emergency dept in the new hospital, the CT scan ‘preparation’ area in the new hospital and then finally Sub Wait G1 in the new hospital). But to cut to the chase, everyone is fine, and my Mum’s assertion that “I’m good at falling” remains true.

It may have been stressful, and frustrating and mostly boring (waiting, waiting, forever waiting) but our NHS is remarkable. I hope it can cope with the oncoming onslaught of Covid-19; I fear it has not been well funded for far too many years and the staff are already over-worked and under-resourced. And the staff we met were all kind, caring and competent (apart from one, who was brusque.. but she was efficient and gave us what seemed to be useful information, so I’m not complaining).

The chorus of birdsong was almost deafening the following morning as I walked across to Mum’s house, under low grey clouds, with a slight smirr of rain in the air. Two male blackbirds were singing competitively from the rowan tree. I guess it’s that time of year. Spring is springing, despite the wettest February in memory. Everything still looked grey, or that end-of-winter depressing brown. But if you looked close, there were the tiniest splashes of colour everywhere.

And then that afternoon our pond seemed to be boiling, the water bubbling up as the frogs got on with their Springtime froggie thing. And of course we now have great globules of frog spawn which will mostly end up as additional protein for the hens I guess.

Our Springtime frog spawn

So, there’s Nature doing its thing, and as sure as night follows day, here am I doing mine, back in the kitchen making treats to cheer our days. And what is more cheering than a wee slice of the most lemoniest of lemony cakes? I adore that zing of sharpness from lemons, and the soft moistness of this sponge complements it perfectly. I guess it would probably keep well, in an airtight tin, but how will I ever know? It’s lovely with a cup of tea or strong espresso, but would work equally well with a scoop of vanilla or dark chocolate icecream, or a big spoonful of creme fraiche on the side for an easy dessert.

The recipe is from my favourite of favourite cookbooks, Darina Allen’s The Forgotten Skills of Cooking.

The most delicious lemony polenta cake

Lemon polenta cake (gluten free)

  • 225g / 8oz butter, softened
  • 225g / 8oz caster sugar
  • 225g / 8oz ground almonds
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 large eggs
  • grated zest of 2 lemons
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 110g / 4oz polenta
  • 1 tsp baking powder (make sure it’s gluten free if you want your cake to be GF)
  • a pinch of salt

Grease a 23cm / 9″ spring form tin, and line it with baking paper. Preheat the oven to 160C / 325F / GM3.

  1. Cream the butter till pale and soft, using electric beaters.
  2. Add the caster sugar and beat again until light and creamy.
  3. Stir in the ground almonds and vanilla extract.
  4. Add the eggs, one by one, beating thoroughly after each egg.
  5. Fold in the remaining ingredients: lemon zest and juice, polenta, baking powder and salt.
  6. Transfer the mixture into the prepared cake tin and bake for about 50 minutes (but check after 45 to see if it’s ready).
  7. It’s ready when it’s a deep golden colour on top and your skewer comes out clean as a whistle.
  8. Cool on a wire rack
  9. When cool, dredge with sifted icing sugar, to cover any slightly well-fired bits.

My other Spring makes include Wild Garlic Pesto (obviously) and I’m really in the mood for making some chicken liver pate, so I’m delighted that Past-Shewolffe has provided me with a recipe. Or go browse here and see if anything takes your fancy.

Do let me know if there’s anything you want me to make. I’m thinking I might share a few recipes using some of the stockpile in your store cupboard.

Love is….

14 Feb

Well last year love was a heart shaped sausage.

The Captain requested 12 inches of the finest pork sausage from our local butcher, and presented it to me as a Valentines supper.

He’s a keeper.

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