Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Gardening and Scones - Sweet and Savoury

For me scones and gardening are inextricably inked. Whenever Mum did a days gardening it meant we were having scones for tea. Scones for me are all about standing in the kitchen on a gloriously sunny day watching Mum garden and knowing what was coming later.

On Monday I finally gave in to the fact that the honeysuckle in the garden was dead as a doornail and no amount of careful tending would bring it back. An hour of determined chopping and tugging and it was out. I say all this breezily but I'm actually quite annoyed as it really was the one the plant that has ever grown in the garden. A trip to Morrisons (not much of a choice but ultra cheap plants) and a £5 replacement has been planted.

Gardening done it's time to make some scones. If you are raising your eyebrows at the concept of anybody just whipping up some scones honestly they are absurdly fast and easy to make. Why else would Mum have done them post a full day of gardening?

Fruity scones were the order of the day when I was a child but I thought I would make both sweet and savoury as the extra effort is minimal. I did a half and half mix, divided in in half before adding the sugar and fruit to the sweet side and the cheese to the savoury and shoved them all in the oven together.

Ingredients - 5 large scones or 8-10 small ones
225g Self raising flour
55g Butter
25g Sugar
150ml Milk
Pinch salt

25g Cheese
25g Dried Fruit

1. Heat the oven to 220C and grease a baking tray. Lightly dust the baking tray with flour.
2. Sift the flour into a bowl with salt and add the butter. (include the sugar if making sweet scones) Rub it all together till it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
3. Add your flavourings. I say 25g but in truth I always end up adding as much fruit or cheese as I think I can get away with. For the cheese scones add a grind of pepper.
4. Add some of the milk and mix in with your hands, keep adding the milk until it forms a dough.
5. On a floured surface knead the dough a little and squish it out flat, around 2cm thick. Using a round cutter cut out the scones. If you don't have a cutter just divide into equal sized balls of dough and flatten.

6. Put into the oven for 15-20 minutes until they are golden brown. (Cooking time depends on the size of the scones.)

To get a gloriously golden brown coverage a beaten egg brushed over the scones will work wonders. I rarely do this though as I think it's a bit expensive to do for something purely aesthetic that is going to be scoffed in seconds.

While they are cooking lay the table so you can take them out of the oven and straight onto your plate. Add butter and eat while warm. Of course if this is not impromptu then clotted cream and jam is pretty darn good as well.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Cheesy twice baked potatoes

The humble baked potato is one of my favourite things. However as one of my favourite things I am inevitably going to be picky about how it needs to be.  Crisp and crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle. Nothing else is worth bothering with. Those huge things with a soft skin piled with beans and cheese for a pub lunch may fill a hole cheaply but as far as I am concerned they just don't cut it.

It's all about the skin for me. I have never ever understood those people who eat the potato and LEAVE THE SKIN! I want to shout "The skin is the best bit you fool!". It is it really, really is. Yes I could go on about how all the nutrition is in the skin but that's nothing to do with it. The skin just tastes better than any other part, why would you not want to eat it?

These cheesy potatoes are barely a recipe as far as I'm concerned. They are just one of those things my mum made and I picked up. Apparently she learnt how to make them in Home Economics at school.


Baking potatoes - pick a good sized one per person or a few smaller ones so you can have seconds
Grated cheese - A good strong extra mature cheddar.
Salt and pepper


1.Turn your oven up full blast and bake your potatoes for at least an hour - hour and half until they have a good strong crunchy skin. Do not be tempted to 'get things going' by putting them in the microwave for a bit. They won't taste as good and the skin won't be tough enough for the next stage.

Top Tip: Before putting the potatoes in the oven score them around the middle with a knife. Just once round and don't cut too deep. This makes them a lot easier to cut in half when cooked.

2. When skins are gloriously crunchy take them out of the oven and cut them in half. Quickly scoop out the flesh and put in a bowl with the grated cheese and seasoning. Mash the mix together until nice and smooth before putting the potato back in the skins.

3. Sprinkle the potatoes with a little cheese on top, put them in a backing tray and pop them back in the oven for 5-10 minutes until the cheese on top is melted.

These are particularly good with leftover cold meats, a crisp salad and chutneys. (My Dad says every Boxing Day that this is his favorite Christmas food!)

While pretty darn good like this I have successfully jazzed them up in the past with the addition of fried onions and a bit of leftover bacon.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Wordy Envelope cushion

A friend of mine recently moved from a gorgeous but tiny one up one down cottage into a much larger house with a spare room for me to stay in. Hooray! What to bring as a small house warming gift that suits both my friend and her chappy? Much inward debate led to today's burst of creativity in the shape of a wordy cushion.

Much as I like the Jan Constantine cushions when I see them in shops they are way out of my budget, a tad too cutesy for my taste and dry clean only. They are also not right at all for my friends. Fresh from making embroidered felt birdies I had an idea for a word cushion. I know that there are hundreds of cushions in the shops with inspirational words emblazoned on the front. 'Love, Hope, Believe'. Sorry but they are just not for me, all a bit too saccharine.

My friend is Welsh and does speak the language. One of my favorite memories with her is when we were manning my stand at a disastrous Christmas Fair. The fair was truly appalling, nobody was buying anything, and we were stuck there for three days. There was nothing for it but to start my Welsh language education with all the rude words. This led to inevitable hilarity much to the bewilderment of the other stand holders as we sat there cackling away.

All in all it seemed appropriate to go down the Welsh route. No not with Cwtch (cuddle), although it is a brilliant word. No not with the rude words! With 'Proper Tidy' in red (washable felt) letters on a grey fabric. Amusing for my friend and suitable manly for her chappy. OK I know a cushion is hardly manly but as cushions go it is pretty butch.

Fabric scissors
Sewing machine
Computer with word or publisher

Method - Time taken: About three hours.

1. Have a play with fonts in word or publisher (Publisher is easier as you can make  a document the size of the cushion and have much more flexibility to play with sizes and placing.) When you have a font you like the look of make the letters big enough to look good on the cushion.

Top Tip: When choosing a font make sure that you don't have one that has really thin lines in the letters you are using. It will make life really tricky when you come to cut them out and harder still to sew them on. I used Bookman Old Style.

2. Print out your letters and cut them out. I found it easier to not cut out the inside holes as it makes it easier to be neat when cutting the felt out.  Pin the letters to the felt and cut them out.

3. Cut out three pieces of fabric the size and shape of your cushion plus an extra 3/4 inch all round for sewing. Put two of them aside for later.

4. Pin the letters to the front piece of fabric. I went for deliberately wonky as it looked better and to make this kind of thing  perfectly straight is a nightmare. Once you are happy with how they look sew the letters on. It is faster by machine but it would also look really pretty sewing them on with embroidery thread.

5. Looking good so far. Just need to make the cushion up. Take one of the two back pieces of fabric and fold over one of the long sides by about 5 cm, iron and do it again to create a large hem.

 6. Place onto the front of the cushion with the fold facing you and the raw edges lined up with the top and the sides of the front piece.

Terrible picture. Sorry. I'd take another but I can't un-pick the whole thing now.

7. Treat the final piece of fabric in the same way but make the fold 10cm and place on top of the other back piece with the fold facing you and the raw edges lined up with the bottom of the front piece.

8. Pin all three pieces of fabric together and sew around the outside of the cushion. Dead easy.

9. Snip the corners of the cushion to help them  make a nice point and turn the whole lot the right way round.

10. Ta dah! One 'Proper Tidy' cushion cover. I like to iron the edges to make them really sharp but that is me being a bit fussy. Put a pad inside and job done.

Top Tip: Using a pad that is slightly too large for the cushion cover will give you a gorgeously plump cushion that won't need to be shaken too often to get it back in shape.

I am going to admit to being more than a bit pleased with how this turned out. If I'm brutally honest I didn't want to give it away and ended up wrapping it up very quickly in order to take the temptation away.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Cheese Straws or How to impress without needing to do much.

Wiggly mouthfuls of cheesy pastry. I really don't think I need to say much more than that to convince that these are a good plan.

I used to make these a lot as teenager while revising for A-Levels and eating the lot for lunch. Whilst this is clearly not a balanced diet and not to be recommended it does serve to prove just how quick and easy these are to do. Essentially they are cheesy shortcrust pastry made a bit posh looking. I give this a bit of a twist by using self-raising flour which makes them a little flakier and closer to puff pastry but without the hassle.

100g Self-raising butter
200g Flour
100g Parmesan finely grated - clearly the better the cheese the better the final product but don't go crazy they are only nibbles. I used Morrison's basic version this time
Salt and Pepper

1. Rub the flour and butter together until it looks like fine breadcrumbs.
2. Add the seasoning and the Parmesan and keep rubbing everything together till it binds into a pastry. You will need to add a few tablespoons of water to help it come together so add them one at a time till you have a lovely lump of pastry.
3. Cool in the fridge for half an hour.
4. Turn the oven on to 200C. Roll out the pastry and cut into strips. Give the strip a bit of a twist and place on a greased baking tray.
5. Put in the oven for 10-15 minutes until they are golden and crisp.

These are very easy to give an extra twist to. Just add mustard, sun dried tomatoes, poppy seeds.......

Try not to eat them all straight out of the oven. This is especially hard to do because they are just too good for words when warm.

It is hard to think of an occasion when these are not suitable. At a party the only issue is that they will invariably be the nibble that everybody heads for so you either have spend the whole party baking in the kitchen or disappoint everybody.

Monday, 13 May 2013

When I'm cleaning winders

City living has its pros and cons. I am fortunate to live in a little Victorian terrace with high ceilings and nice big windows. The con is that it looks straight out onto the street and while I am happy to look out I am not so sure about other people looking in. (When I say 'other people' I am of course imagining a horde of swag-carrying burglars in fetching Breton stripes with their noses pressed up against the window.)

For years I have solved this problem with thin plain white muslin curtains. A graceful solution but I can't get away from the fact that they are still middle class nets and block a lot of light out.

As the nets...sorry... muslins.... needed washing I thought it was time to try the other city dwellers solution. Frosted window film. (I could mention that it took an absurd 3 weeks to arrive but we don't need to go there.) I am not going to be tedious and go through how to put this stuff up. Suffice to say it comes with instructions and it works better if you read them as it's not difficult exactly but it is slightly fiddly. However here are some top tips that I discovered as I went along that aren't in the instructions.

Top Tip: Bloomin' obvious but do take the time to clean your windows before putting the film on. Anything under the film will be stuck there and you will end up doing the whole job again.

Top Tip: Take time to smooth out all the bubbles under the film with an old credit card. It is worth it in the end.

Top Tip: As the instructions say do spray the film with the soapy water but just dampen the window a little. Too much of the mixture is a pain and you will have to spend ages smoothing it out and trying to stop the film from slipping.

It does look a bit rubbish to start with as the soapy water needs time to dry out. After a few days you will see that all the nasty streaks that you have been looking at with annoyance will have dried out.

So there we have it. Do I prefer it as a solution? Frankly no. I don't really want either. However as we have to have something it is arguably easier to ignore than the muslin curtains, unless you want to look out the window of course, and it does have one major pro. More light coming in.

As this was hardly the most scintillating post I'll finish up by saying that in the new look garden the plants appear to be growing and the slugs seem to be taking a holiday. The honeysuckle is still looking very sad but look at the pretty Camellia flower that emerged after a shower of rain.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

My final stab at growing plants in my garden

I have the tiniest courtyard garden imaginable. I'm not complaining mind you. To have outside space at all in the middle of London is a blessing. However it very hard to know what to DO with it to make the most of it and, at the risk of going twee, make it that 'outdoor' room that people keep talking about. I am also fighting a proliferation of slugs. Not just any slugs mind you. Slugs who wear safari hats and come inside the kitchen in search of adventure.

In addition to all this it is a north face garden so there is little hope of much growing successfully due to the lack of sun. This has not stopped my trying though. I have wasted a fortune in the past as I trot down to Homebase and rush back to plant my purchases only to watch them succumb to slug suppers, grow stringy in the hunt for sun and eventually die. I will admit that my ad-hoc approach to watering the plants in their pots probably hasn't helped.

This weekend I determined to solve the problem and make it work. It started badly with the discovery that the honeysuckle, the one glorious plant that actually grew prolifically all over the back wall, is almost dead. This did take a bit of an edge off my enthusiasm. I gloomily cut all the dead wood off and left anything with a  hint of green in a vaguely optimistic hope that it will spring into life next year.

 Is there any hope?

Staring at a load of pots with dead plants and  lively weeds in them I remembered a photo I'd seen on Pintrest of a rather irritatingly perfect stack of pots. As wonky is what works for me I decided to pile the very mismatched pots on top of each other in the one part of the garden with regularish sun to make a planter with a bit of height, do something with the pots and hopefully get as much greenery into a small space as possible. A few pots of herbs from Morrisons (£1 each, can't go too wrong as if they look a little droopy we'll eat them!) and voila.

Garden somewhat less crowded I decided to try for one final time to plant two shrubs in the two remaining mini beds in the cobbles. A little google to have a clue what to look for what might grow in a shady garden and a trip to Columbia Road market. I love and hate Columbia Road in equal measure. I adore the slightly bonkers collection of shops, love the street market with its proliferation of plants being sold at bargain prices. HATE the people. It is just too crowded to choose properly and half the time you are just standing still in a crowd, desperately trying to get out. I ended up with a bleeding heart and a camellia. (I suspect I was conned when I asked if would be ok in shade!) However I spent £15 for both, funded by putting a few of the pots on gumtree, so can't complain.

Back home this was the point when the magic happened. Both plants planted I realised I needed to move the table and chairs to allow the camellia to have a hope of getting sun. I moved my bike to under the kitchen window and put the table and chairs where the bike was. Suddenly the garden looked huge and more like a place to sit in. Yes the plants need to grow and in many ways it is a little bare but I can see something rather lovely evolving over time.

The only way to finish the weekend was with the first barbeque of the year, slightly charred bangers, peppers and aubergine all washed down with cider.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Carrot cake and chat

Afternoon tea is possibly one of the best things about Britain. I'm not talking about those fancy affairs in hotels. (Though they are awfully splendid too.) No. I'm talking a few homemade sandwiches, a jolly good cake, plenty of tea and a good natter. Embroidered tablecloths, napkins and glass cake stands are very, very lovely but very, very optional.

All this in mind  and with plans for a nice cuppa and a catch up with a friend there was only one thing to do. Make a cake! Now with this particular friend my chocolate and whisky brownies go back a long way. However as they were my offering last time I visited it was time to dust down my carrot cake recipe.

The recipe is truly an amalgamation of trial and error over the years. Having made loads back when I was a student I felt that there was one major flaw. They were all dreadfully wasteful, leaving bits of orange unused, a tiny sprinkling of 4 types of spice, a mere handful of fruit leaving a whole packet in the cupboard. Carrot cake is never going to be an ultra cheap cake to make but this recipe aims to minimise expenditure and stop as much wastage as possible. It is also a very dense and rich cake, almost like a fruit cake, so a little slice will go a long way.

150g butter
150g  dark brown sugar
3 eggs
200g self-raising flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp salt
1½ tsp allspice
Zest of 1 orange
100g sultanas or raisins
200g carrots, peeled and grated
100g chopped walnuts  (you can leave these out if you want to cut costs or really don't like walnuts)

Top Tip: Weigh out the carrot, raisins and walnuts before you start. For this recipe it makes life a lot easier later on.

For the icing:
75g butter
200g icing sugar
Juice of the zested orange

1. Turn your oven onto 180C and pop the walnuts in to toast while it is heating. (Toasting the walnuts gives an amazing taste to the cake so it is worth doing. Just don't let them burn!) Grease your tin(s).
2.  Melt the butter and let it cool a little before adding it to the sugar and eggs into a large bowl. Whisk until everything is well mixed in and the mixture is almost twice the size.
3. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda, salt and spices into the bowl and fold into the mixture.
4. Still being gentle fold in the zest, carrot, raisins and walnuts.
5. Place in the tin and bake for 50 minutes, until a knife/skewer stabbed into the middle comes out clean.
6. Allow to cool.

The icing you may well raise an eyebrow or two at. Buttercream icing is yummy but it really is pure sweetened fat on top of a cake, I find it can be all a bit too much. My way of doing it is with much less butter and a drizzle of milk or in this case orange juice. It behaves in almost the same way as traditional buttercream, is just as tasty, but is a lot lighter and cheaper to make.

7.While the cake is cooling make the buttercream by mixing the icing sugar with the butter and a drizzle of juice. If it is still a little crumbly add a little more juice until is nice and smooth.
8. Ice the cake and add a a few walnuts on top to make it pretty.

Top Tip: Using a piping bag to pipe the icing on makes life a lot easier to get an even coverage. Once the icing is on you can rough it up a bit with a knife.

This recipe is enough to make one 8 inch loaf cake and six mini cakes (cooked in 15 minutes). You can of course make this cake round and layered. Just keep an eye on the cooking time if you divide the mix between two tins and put some of the icing between the layers.

These mini cakes were made rather hastily, partly because my loaf tin wasn't quite big enough for all the mix but mainly because my Matey looked a bit big eyed when I told him that I was making yet another cake for somebody else.

You may have noticed that I have a tendency to make cakes in a loaf tin. There are three reasons for this:
a. I currently rather like the homely look of a loaf cake.
b. It seems less naughty to tuck into a loaf cake on an ordinary day.
c. On the whole I make cakes to take to a friend and a loaf cake is a lot easier to transport successfully.
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