Quick cakes for tea

Friends Joan and Jeff visited for a Covid-secure tea and came laden with their allotment produce including an enormous potato weighing in at over 750g – that would feed a family of four.  They’d brought peas that can be planted now and will grow over winter and tiny self-seeded rainbow chard plants that can go into the pots vacated by summer’s tomatoes.  Most intriguing were the coconut sugar and flour they’d found in a local supermarket – definitely worth trying in my next baking session.

Creating something interesting and delicious to entertain them hadn’t taken long.  A few minutes preparation the night before and just minutes in the morning produced these very simple little fruit cakes that came out perfectly: soft and spicy, rich with fruit and not too sweet.  Just one left at the end of their visit!

 

A generous handful each of:

Raisins

Currants

Sultanas

Dates, cut in half

Dried apricot, chopped

Glace cherries

250g each of:

Butter

Soft brown sugar

Self-raising flour

4 eggs

2 heaped teaspoons mixed spices.

 

Put all the fruit except the cherries into a bowl, cover with water and then drain off virtually all the water.  Microwave on low/medium power for a few minutes until the fruit is warm.  Allow to cool.

Whizz the butter and sugar together in a food processor until soft and fluffy.

Whizz in the eggs one at a time, with a little of the flour.

Pulse in the remaining flour and spices.

Pulse in the fruit and cherries – you might need to fold in by hand.

Place dollops of the mix in to muffin or cupcake paper containers.

Cook at Gas 1 for 45 minutes.

 

I warmed the fruit,  put the butter and sugar in the food processor bowl, weighed out the flour and spices, got out the eggs the night before so everything was at room temperature.

It only took about 15 minutes to create the mix and put the 12 cupcake containers into the individual holes of a metal tray to support them while cooking.

The mix made 12 small cakes and another larger one (cooked for an extra 30 minutes, for later in the week).

This would make a good alternative last-minute Christmas cake.

 

 

 

 

Accessible communications.

 

If you need some tips about making information easy for anyone, try this little handbook I put together:

http://www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk/index_htm_files/151123%20-%20Accessible%20Communications.docx

 

One colleague sent me this feedback this week:

“I’m a carer for my dad who has advanced Parkinson’s disease and dementia and the following points especially hit home with me:-

1/ ‘a person may be one of the over 2 million people who need others to have more patience in listening to their speech which is less fluent due to a speech impairment, a stroke’.

My dad now has a severe speech and cognitive impairment and we really have to listen very carefully and try to interpret what he is trying to say, more so now than ever, he often can’t think what he needs to say either.

2/ Talk to the disabled person, not the support person.

This is so true, when we take dad out people often talk to us instead of him which is also frustrating.”

 

I completely recognise that frustration: I was at a hospital just recently and the person controlling entry and Covid safety measures just couldn’t manage to speak to me.  It was rather as if my white cane had become magical: I was invisible, incapable of either hearing or speech.  Those who know me will understand how it became an utterly humiliating and embarrassing  experience for that wretched person – thank goodness her manager saved her!

 

The handbook is short, straightforward and free for anyone to use so please share it around.  And it helps with Equality Act compliance too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hungry children.

It seems rather shameful to be writing these Covid cookbook recipes each week when there are clearly millions of people very much struggling to get a meal on the table – especially for their children during this half-term.

I too remember that I and my brothers had free school meals – and there was no stigma about it as far as I can recall.  Money was certainly tight in a single income household with four fast-growing and strapping boys.  Every piece of fruit was counted out; evening meals for the week were scrupulously planned; it was a balancing act to create satisfying and nourishing food on a budget.  Meat-and-two-veg lunches plus a good stodgy school pudding   kept us going.  Thank goodness Marcus Rashford and other public and political figures are making a stand: if we can afford £7m re-branding the Highways Agency and, doubtless, more on MPs’ recent pay rises, we as a society can certainly afford to be a bit more generous and caring for those who need it.

Here’s a dish that doesn’t cost much but tastes super:

1 medium aubergine

2 tablespoons oil

Salt and pepper

4 medium tomatoes, chopped small.

Handful of mint leaves, chopped

125g sausage meat.

Cut the aubergine in to an even number of slices – about 18 or 20.

Line an oven tray with foil, drizzle over the oil and season with salt and pepper.

Place the aubergine slices on the tray in the oil and seasoning and then turn over.

Cook the slices for 10 minutes in the oven at Gas 4, remove and turn the slices over and return to the oven for another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the tomato pieces and chopped mint with black pepper.

Make 9 or 10 marbles of sausage meat and press out in to circles.

Using the largest slices of aubergine: top the slice with a round of sausage meat and top with a spoonful of the tomato mix; top with one of the smaller aubergine slices and more tomato mix.

Lay the aubergine sandwiches on the tray.

Cook in the oven Gas 4 for 20 minutes and then Gas 2 for a further 20 minutes.

Served with half a courgette sautéed with garlic and some spinach leaves, this made a very good lunch for two.

Once the aubergine slices have been pre-cooked, the sandwiches can be constructed and kept on the tray in the fridge until you are ready to cook them.

I learned this classic Umbrian antipasto recipe on a cooking course near Perugia with my Australian friend, Rosemary.    The usual authentic version uses cheese instead of the meat and a little extra over the tomato topping.  My version works for those, like me, who are cheese-intolerant.  I’ve made the dish many times but this is the first year that the aubergine, tomatoes and mint all came from the garden.

Pristine whites

Out of the loft popped a dusty box labelled “Tropical Whites”.  It has been there for 36 years on the remote off-chance that, when I was still in the Navy, I might have been sent back to an overseas appointment.

Buried in the box were a pair of brand new, classically ugly white canvas lace-up flat shoes – completely understandable why they’d never been worn.  Nestling below, some still in their original packaging, a selection of white uniform skirts, shirts and dresses.  They’d all been in the box even longer: issued to me in 1978 as I deployed for my first job in Naples as a newly-fledged WRNS Officer.

How I loathed that uniform which is clearly why it was never used.  Instead, we all tended to wear the dresses that, once one had a bit of a tan, were nearly see-through as the outline of white underwear was clear against brown skin.  No wonder we got attention from male colleagues.

The package is now consigned for the recycling centre – another bit of history.  But I’ve still got a huge bag of blue uniform in another loft and a boat cloak that still rotates, unworn, between wardrobes.  Some memories are more difficult to extinguish.

Two for one

Even in these times of restrictions, life can be hectic so one cooking session that provides at least two different meals can be a boon.

Here it has been rather a mad house of activity.  Enough mix for sixteen Christmas puddings was lovingly tied up with string for steaming in the individual bowls.  Long-term builder Rodney and his lads, Wayne and Andrew, were all over the garden for a week installing a magnificent new fence.   I reckon that the trellis topping will provide over 130 square feet of luxuriant sun-bathed growing space for productive climbers  (kiwi, blackberries, grape vine) plus annual climbing vegetables (sugar snaps, beans and more) plus some evergreen fragrant plants too.  The noise was pretty dreadful for the neighbours as they dug holes for new posts, chopped down neglected scrub outside the boundary and groaned to instal the heavy panels.  No peace for the neighbours as the security team tested the alarm system for what seemed hours.  Thankfully the plumber/heating engineer was distinctly more peaceful as he worked his special magic with a couple of leaks.

Most of these tradesmen have been here on and off for nearly 20 years.  It makes such a difference, when you can’t see to check the work, to have people whom you can trust entirely and who have become friends.  Although they still send the bills …

A quick cooking session was the solution with so much going on – perhaps an hour in the kitchen and at least two meals ready for later.

3 pieces of fresh rosemary

Good handful of fresh thyme

2 onions, peeled and finely chopped.

5 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

2 tablespoons of olive oil

6 red peppers, de-seeded and cut in half top to bottom

2 handfuls of pitted black olives, cut in half

1 tin of tomatoes

6 fresh tomatoes, chopped

Salt and black pepper.

250g sausage meat, divided and rolled into marble size.

Remove the leaves from the rosemary and thyme and chop finely.

Sauté the onions and half of the the garlic in the olive oil in a large ovenproof pan.

Add 4 halves of pepper, chopped, plus half the olives and herbs plus the tin of tomatoes to the pan – season and bring to a gentle simmer.

Mix the remaining herbs, garlic, olives with the chopped tomatoes in a bowl and season well.

Place 3 or 4 marbles of sausage meat in each of the remaining pepper halves and top with the tomato/herb/garlic/olive mix.

Add the remaining meat marbles to the pan.

Place the filled pepper halves in the pan and cover with a lid or foil.

Place in the oven at Gas 4 for an hour and then reduce to Gas 2 until the peppers are soft  (an hour or more).

Remove the stuffed peppers for one meal (they reheat perfectly in the microwave on a medium setting).

Use the sauce left in the pan to make another meal with pasta.  I prefer shells which capture the pieces of vegetable or meat.

Super supper soup.

It takes more than an ordinary bowl for the Christmas cake mix here and inspired my very first Baking Blind video by brother Martin  https://youtu.be/Y81yGF72dUQ

In the past, I’ve used a pristine washing-up bowl but even this isn’t big enough for, by my calculations, nearly 10 kilos (20 lb) of ingredients.  Luckily, my Covid home clear-out unearthed an even bigger food-quality plastic box.  The dried fruit had been soaking in brandy for months;  two hours chopping the nuts gave me cramp in both hands; I layered the butter/sugar/eggs/flour mix with the other ingredients in the box, folded them all together and filled all the cake tins and moulds. It was a juggling act to cook them in two ovens, turning and changing their positions over several hours.  Thankfully, there was enough to have a “test cake” shared with guinea pig friends, Sue and Rod.  Verdict: perfectly moist but I’ll still be injecting brandy for the next week.

Other cooking was rather on the back burner in the midst of these culinary challenges but I did manage a new B&B soup:

1 onion, peeled and chopped

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

2 sticks celery, peeled and chopped

250g smoked back bacon, de-rinded and chopped

1 butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded and chopped

3 vegetable stock cubes

Salt and pepper

 

Sauté the onion, carrots, celery and bacon.

Add the butternut squash to the pan plus the stock cubes.

Cover the ingredients with water and simmer until the squash has softened.

Whizz to a smooth soup in a blender.

Season to taste.

 

Even Martin, staying overnight and no fan of butternut squash, declared the result to be delicious – served  with home-made soda bread to make that super supper.

 

 

 

 

Last minute buys

 

There’s a fruit and veg stall in one of the small local shopping precincts – all the traditional calls and a fine array of good produce.  At the end of the day, there are bargains to be had if you can use them fairly quickly.

The punnets of strawberries made a quick pudding and half went into the dehydrator for another day.  Baby plum tomatoes were halved and dried in the oven with a little salt and pepper – now in jars steeping in olive oil.  Raspberries went straight into the freezer but I wanted something special with the fresh figs.

 

9-12 fresh figs, stems removed and halved

1 orange, juice and zest

2 teaspoons of butter

2-3 tablespoons of honey

Handful of walnuts, shelled and chopped.

 

Place the figs cut side up in an oven proof dish.

Pour over the orange juice, dot with butter, anoint with honey and top with walnuts.

Cook in a pre-heated oven Gas 4 for 45-60 minutes.

Serve with yoghurt or cream, sprinkled with the orange zest.

 

Don’t be mean with the honey or orange juice – it is delicious.

 

And I’ve been experimenting with my hot water pastry.  It made excellent cases for turkey and mushroom pies – hot or cold – and also for vegetable tarts (sautéed onion, courgette, mushroom, potato, fresh thyme with a little well-seasoned egg and cream   custard).  The pastry had been sitting in the fridge overnight after making pork pies but was still easy to handle and cooked perfectly.  This is a pastry that can do more than just raised game pies.

 

 

With apologies to GBBO

This week I had a fresh pineapple that was getting past its best.

A pineapple upside-down-cake/pudding seemed the answer.  But little did I know that the very first episode of the new Great British Bake-Off series was going to steal my thunder – and with a hilarious political spoof too.

My version of the TV technical challenge is probably simpler.  I had the remnants of a bottle of caramel sauce that cut down on the preparation and I made the whole edifice in one large silicone ring mould: the problem of cooking so much wet pineapple is all the steam which can make the sponge soggy.  The ring mould ensures that heat gets into the very centre of the pudding so that it cooks nearly as quickly as the edges.

 

1 fresh pineapple, top, skin and core removed, flesh chopped small.

2-3 tablespoons caramel sauce

3 eggs, weighed

Same weight butter

Same weight caster or granulated sugar

Same weight self-raising flour.

2 handfuls sultanas

 

Place the pineapple and caramel sauce in the bottom of the mould.

Cream the butter and sugar.

Add the eggs one at a time with a teaspoon of flour, beating after each addition.

Fold in the flour and sultanas.

Place mix in mould and place mould on a metal tray.

Bake for 40 minutes in a pre-heated oven Gas 4, covering the top of the mould with cooking foil after about 20 minutes.

Allow to stand for at least 15 minutes for the pudding to finish cooking once out of the oven.

Turn out with care to avoid any hot juices.

 

Once cooled, you could fill the centre with whipped cream, any spare pineapple or other lavish decoration.  It keeps well for a few days and can be served warmed in the microwave or just as it comes.

Individual moulds or other cooking containers would work just as well but I’d reduce the cooking time by about 15-20 minutes, depending on the size of your vessel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family of creators.

There are Melville-Browns making all sorts:  painting and sculpture (Chris), handmade dovecots (Peter), photography (Martin), plays and drama (Jonathan), car design(Guy), sodabread enterprise (Laura), lighting for international hotels (Jessica), architectural and other illustration (Toby), theatrical stage management (Emily) and even one of the youngest is moving in to metalwork.

Emily’s latest venture is close to our interests and links to the bees: cotton food wraps impregnated with beeswax so that they are food-safe, durable and washable.  The perfect alternative to clingfilm if you want to reduce your use of plastics https://www.numonday.com/shop/m-bee/

For my part, let me introduce the humble but wildly successful sock-dryer.  Fiddling around with individual pegs to hang up socks was just too irritating – put it down to being blind rather than innate impatience.

1 large ice-cream box lid (other pieces of plastic are available).

2 plastic coat hangers.

Gaffer tape.

1 one inch pastry cutter.

1 pen.

1 Stanley or similar sharp knife.

 

Mark two rows of 4 or 5 circles down the two sides of the lid – going lengthwise – marking the circles by running the pen around the pastry cutter.

Cut a cross inside each circle with the knife: cutting from edge to edge like a hot cross bun.

Attach each side of the lid along the length of a coat hanger with the tape.

Tape the two coat hanger hooks together.

Voila: one perfect sock-dryer.

(For good finish, make sure the circles are in a straight line and cut the crosses all in the same direction.  I confess I just did the design and master craftsman Steve did the making.)

At first, you need to watch your fingers when pushing socks through the crosses but these soon soften.  Simply load and hang up in a good drying location.  Those with tidy minds can even pair their socks in the dryer (too sad).

 

 

Man of many talents.

You may have seen me cooking with John: for Comic Relief https://youtu.be/6SaB88MiUu4xx   and with an American guest https://youtu.be/cOXzP3NGzFkxx

Not only is he a super-cook but also Director of my long-term (over quarter of a century) taxi company but he has just turned avid fisherman and arrived bearing gifts of freshly caught mackerel.  He and brother-in-law Derek (of wedding cake fame) had just returned from another trip in their boat on the Solent.

Blind people are perfect for filleting fish: we can feel all those pesky tiny bones and get them out.  But I was grateful that John had already gutted the mackerel.  Simply fried in a very little olive oil, they were magnificent for breakfast with just a little of my apple, date and walnut chutney.

Last week, suitably masked, he prepared one of his favourite dishes: slices of gammon gently poached in honey with oven-cooked potato wedges.  And long-term Navy pal, Maggie (again, I’ve known her for more than quarter of a century) joined us for the cooking demo and to devour the results.

 

1 Large potato per person

Seasoning mix such as a little ground chilli, garlic powder, crushed dried thyme and rosemary, salt and pepper.

Olive oil.

1 gammon slice per person.

Honey.

1 fresh pineapple, skin, core and top removed, sliced.

About three cherry tomatoes per person.

Stab the potatoes and microwave on high until becoming soft.

Cut the potatoes in to wedges lengthwise and brush all over with oil and then gently roll in the seasoning.

Place in a moderate oven (Gas 5) to crisp and finish cooking.

To prevent the honey burning, mix with oil: 3 measures honey to 1 measure oil.

Heat the honey mix gently in a frying pan and add the slices of gammon.

Cook gently for 20-30 minutes with the mix just bubbling rather than simmering and spitting.

Turn the gammon steaks over halfway and/or baste with the mix.

Remove the gammon when done and keep warm.

Add the pineapple slices and cherry tomatoes to the frying pan and heat through.

Serve the gammon, pineapple and tomatoes with the potatoes, a salad and those wonderful cooking juices.

 

The special extra touch was the cocktail that John  created “to cut through the sweetness of the dish” or for any reason:  Tall glasses full of ice with measures of gin and bitter lemon  with segments of pink grapefruit squeezed over at the last moment.  Maggie got a taxi home!