Filled with despair

Stand by for a toot!

I’ve been working in the disability field with Government Departments, businesses and employers, charities and more for over 20 years but feel an utter failure as the battle for fairness seems harder than ever.

A bit of history: more than quarter of a century ago in 1995, there was the Disability Discrimination Act that placed legal duties on all sorts of bodies to make reasonable adjustments.   In 2010, the Equality Act was more specific about requiring all those public, private and voluntary sector organisations to make information available in alternative, accessible formats.   But we are still banging our heads against this brick wall and the most awful ignorance and prejudice.

This is the sort of stuff I face in just one week:

* One new disability charity wanted a quote for their leaflet.   Not only did they want to define me by my disability rather than my professional activities, they had the temerity to re-write the quote into the most ghastly mediocre and mundane words alongside factual errors.   I stepped back from it all.

* Another charity was trying to set up on-line links between visually impaired people.   It all fell apart as their hierarchy had decreed use of a notoriously inaccessible on-line conferencing system.   Pity their procurement team were so completely ignorant of the law, their beneficiaries, their needs and accessible technology.   One wonders how they manage to operate at all.

* I was asked to take part in some research into disability and employment, but the consent form wasn’t accessible.   It is (nearly) laughable to ask blind people to tick or initial boxes.   Even if I could, how would I know which side of the paper to scan and send back to them?   My solution was to write a statement confirming I’d read everything, gave my consent and an electronic signature.   But not good enough for their ethics committee.   Their solution: they’d send a hard copy.   Did they think I’d miraculously recover my sight?   When ethics are so blinkered about reality, I wonder whether they have any credibility at all?

* An environmental charity was seeking membership and donations.   I would have been interested had they been able to provide information in some accessible way – a simple Word document attached to an e-mail (how quick, simple and cheap is that?).   But all too difficult.   Yet they claim to have an “equality and diversity specialist”.   Pitiful.

* I wanted to get more involved in the sous-chef’s beekeeping but, once again, the national association doesn’t provide information in a format I can read.   Their response: they are “actively” pursuing a solution – it has already taken them 11 years not to succeed so I’m not holding my breath.

Most of this is probably less important and little skin off my nose but restricts how I can take part in the life that others enjoy.

But it becomes more crucial elsewhere.   Take health for an example.   Years ago, the (then) Chief Medical Officer reported that blind people have more health problems than others.   One reason is not difficult to find: the NHS is still appalling at making adjustments for people who can’t see.   Telling our GPs about our needs doesn’t make any difference.   Imagine the fun and games of opening a package with all sorts of paraphernalia.   Eventually, I discover it is a bowel cancer test kit.   I leave it to your imagination as to how blind people can manage to use it, complete any paperwork and return it.

In the midst of this pandemic, resorting to on-line “E-consult” seems to be the only way to get some health care.   How do we do that when we can’t see the screen?

Making information and communications available to everyone isn’t just about equality and fairness, it becomes a matter of life and death.

If you are involved in sending out information: a simple Word attachment without fancy layouts, logos etc is quick and easy – or just paste it into an e-mail.   Done and dusted: legal and fair.

Cath from Blind Veterans contributed the ginger cake featured on the latest on-line live baking session https://youtu.be/myfVZVzVflU

.   We were all rather concerned that the mix was too wet, cooking in the microwave was too risky and that it just wasn’t done.   But her 9-minute cake turned out beautifully.   The trick is to have faith in the timing and accept that it will continue to cook while resting.

It is not a cake that is going to last as it gets somewhat dry after a couple of days.   I treated mine more like a pudding: cooked in a silicone ring mould which left the perfect opening for accompanying pear slices gently cooked with crystallised ginger plus the reduced poaching liquid.

145g milk.

115g butter.

85g syrup and treacle (about 2 tablespoons of each).

85g brown sugar.

115g self-raising flour.

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda.

1 teaspoon mixed spice.

2 level tablespoons ground ginger.

Pinch of salt.

2 eggs, beaten.

 

Gently heat the milk, butter, syrup, treacle and sugar until warm and the sugar has dissolved either in a pan or the microwave.

Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl (I used a hand whisk).

Add the heated ingredients and mix in.

Add the eggs and mix well.

Pour into a microwave-proof ring container that has been lightly buttered and floured.

Cook on High Power for 9 minutes.

The cake should feel barely done: soft and spongy but will get firmer as it rests and cools before turning out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cool as a …….

Fascinating lecture this week in the cool of the Great Barn located in the Titchfield valley conservation area which is not a mile away.   This is the third most important medieval barn in the country and was built with timbers cut in 1409 – they’ve dated the trees.   The subtlety of the construction was the selection of the right trees with the perfect curvature at their base.   Once cut, the trimmed trees were turned upside down and their curves formed the basis of the roof.   Completed in about 1411, the barn was one of four victualling stations for the English troops massed between Portsmouth and Southampton before their passage to France and the Battle of Agincourt.

The Barn stands a few hundred yards away from the site of the lost Titchfield Abbey and the remnants of Place House.   Parts of the barn were built with the bricks and stones recovered from those buildings as they fell into disrepair.

There was regular royal traffic through the area over centuries.   In those days, Titchfield was an important port, and both the Abbey and Place House were suitably posh overnight stays for the odd king or so before embarking.   We still have the tiny stone Anjou Bridge across the River Meon just a few hundred yards away commemorating the arrival of Margaret of Anjou on her way to her royal wedding.   The fleur de lis of Anjou regularly features locally.

Place House was owned by the Earl of Southampton who was a supporter and patron of Shakespeare.   There’s growing evidence accepted by many academics that Shakespeare spent time at the House, probably taught at the Grammar School that still stands close by and may have had a particular relationship with the Earl.   If accurate, there’s more than a chance that Shakespeare also spent time in the Great Barn where Christmas pageants, playlets and festivities were held.   You never know: perhaps the Bard and I both touched the same ancient timberwork.

The Portsmouth Football Club bought the site plus much of the land in the conservation area with the wildly unrealistic plan of terracing the ancient landscape into training pitches.   I remember being canvassed by the then-owners for support of their venture.   Not surprisingly, their ambitions failed, and the land was re-sold when the Club’s finances nose-dived.   The purchasers subsequently sold the Great Barn and its site to the Titchfield Festival Theatre which now regularly presents Shakespearean and other plays in the medieval setting.   The structure of the Barn remains a visible reminder with the modern theatrical set-up carefully constructed to avoid damaging or interfering with the historic structure.

The Titchfield emblem has been created to capture the tales of the area: from the fleur de lis to the nibbed spear representing the great playwright.

Meanwhile, the sous chef has been cutting back the lush vegetation in his vegetable pots and discovered a large languishing cucumber: still in good health but a little too soft for salad.   The answer was a quick and simple cool summer soup thickened with some left-over potato.   A delicious supper.

 

3-4 spring onions, trimmed but green leaves retained, roughly chopped.

1 tablespoon oil.

1 cucumber trimmed and roughly chopped.

500ml water.

Half a stockpot/cube.

Tablespoon fennel and tarragon leaves.

Salt and pepper.

1 medium potato peeled and cooked.

2 heaped teaspoons thick cream.

 

Sauté the onion in the oil for a few minutes before adding the cucumber.

Cook for about 5 minutes before adding all the other ingredients except the cream and potato.

Bring slowly to a simmer and remove from the heat.

Allow to cool for a few minutes before placing the mix in a blender with the cream and potato.

Blitz until smooth and then chill for at least an hour in the blender jug.

When ready to serve, adjust the seasoning and blitz again.

Summer perfection: a good read and ice-cream

Crime fiction, thrillers and spy stories have tended to feature in my book reviews for RNIB.   Not the most literary or spiritually uplifting but great for relaxing in the sun (when it shows its face again).

My latest selection goes live on RNIB Connect radio from 1300 on Friday 9 July – just click  https://audioboom.com/posts/7898711-alex-michaelides-kate-london-penny-melville-brown

I’ve also been telling the international audience of the British Forces Broadcasting Service https://fb.watch/v/9uSZ3flrF/

about next Monday’s 1030 (London time) live on-line bake-in: the 9-minute microwave ginger cake.

https://www.facebook.com/events/806006046955175

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/baking-session-for-visually-impaired-people-ginger-cake-tickets-160566860803

This honey and ginger ice-cream is the perfect accompaniment for both the good book and the cake.   It grew from a Heston Blumenthal recipe: substituting honey for sugar to give more flavour and slightly changing the consistency.   Ideal for those who can’t eat eggs and very easy.   Keeping the pieces of ginger as a topping avoids overwhelming the subtle honey flavour.

My venerable and elderly ice-cream maker has an integral refrigeration unit.  But you could part-freeze the mix for an hour or so before whisking the semi-frozen mix to break up the ice crystals and returning to the freezer.

 

840g double or whipping cream.

360g whole milk.

200g honey (we use our own).

35g semi-skimmed milk powder.

3 teaspoons vanilla paste.

Pinch of salt.

2 handfuls crystallised ginger, chopped.

 

Simply place all the ingredients except the ginger in a pan and gently heat until all is dissolved and mixed.   Briefly bring to boiling point.

Chill for at least two hours (or overnight).

Churn and top with the chopped ginger before serving or placing in the freezer.

How’s that for simple?

 

Double Trouble

Who would have thought a simple birthday/anniversary cake could cause such problems?

The raisins, currants and sultanas had been soaking in brandy for a month: plump and boozy.   All the other ingredients were neatly pre-weighed ready for the mixer.   The recipe was just a quarter of my basic Christmas version https://youtu.be/Y81yGF72dUQ but, like the Easter variation https://pennysddblog.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=2283&action=edit I replaced sugar with our own honey.

Eggs were added to fluffy butter and honey; flour folded in with citrus zest and juice; cherries, apricots, dried apple and nuts were embalmed in the spicey mix.   All spooned into the cake mould; into a low oven and timer set.   Smugly triumphant as it had taken only 30 minutes.

Horror on realising that the jar of carefully pre-soaked fruit had been forgotten: cake out of the oven and the late additions gently folded in.   Thank heavens for a silicone cake mould that didn’t need lining.

Time to start planning the finishing touches: a week of daily injections with the reserved fruity brandy before marzipan and icing.   But did I have enough icing sugar in the cupboard?   Out came the container and, with a sickening crash, it hit the floor.

You can hardly imagine the spreading power of icing sugar when dropped from a height.   And it has special staying sticking power.   Three washes of the floor by indomitable co-cook, Karen, and we were still finding traces days later.   There’s that special gentle sucking kiss of shoes on a tantalisingly tacky surface.

Hence, this week, a simpler supper dish as prepared by the sous-chef: a Tian Provençal which is ideal when we have gluts of summer vegetables:

1 large aubergine, sliced in half lengthwise.

3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced.

Olive oil.

salt and pepper.

1 or 2 courgettes.

4 or 5 tomatoes.

tablespoon thyme leaves.

tablespoon rosemary leaves, finely chopped.

Stud the aubergine halves with the garlic slices, douse with about a tablespoon of olive oil and season generously before wrapping in cooking foil.

Bake the aubergine package in the oven at 180C, Gas 4 for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, slice the courgettes and onions.

When cool enough to handle, scoop the softened flesh of the aubergine into the base of an ovenproof dish.

Fill the dish with upright alternating rows of tomato and courgette, sprinkling herbs and seasoning between each row.

Drizzle another tablespoon or so of olive oil over the rows and bake in the oven at 180C, Gas 4 for about 45 minutes until the vegetables are soft.

 

This dish has many variations according to what you have available.   For example, thinly sliced peppers could be included and other herbs added.   We made a simple topping of toasted walnut pieces to add crunch (toasted pumpkin or sunflower seeds would have been as good).

 

 

I needed cheering up

It is taking years to repair and recover from the accident in 2017 but I’m battling on.

Each time I feel more confident and try to be more active, there seem to be disastrous consequences.  Last year, I managed to strain my back when I was stowing away a box of accounts.  A few months ago, I broke my hand just moving too fast through the house.  This time, I pottered around a garden show (short walks, then rests) and did the baking session a couple of days later.  The upshot has been a back that doesn’t work and the need for a wheelchair for a medical appointment.  I’m too young for all of this stuff.  Roll on the emergency physio session: there must be light at the end of this tunnel.

Meanwhile, it has been an exciting week with the sous-chef potting up his first honey harvest of the year and gaining a distinction in his initial beekeeping exam: a gentleman and scholar.  The friendly Council pest-control operative was reassuring that we don’t have a rodent problem and, even better, she turned out to be a girl.  Wonderful that there’s no sexism amongst ratcatchers!

The shortbread recipe for the on-line cooking session worked https://youtu.be/oaKxOGEXldI.  A topping of sliced strawberries  and clotted cream produced the classic strawberry shortbread dessert.  I was good and sent some over to the neighbours.  I’m more reluctant to share the Millionaire version but they’ll last longer in the fridge (allegedly).

Most cheering was one of the on-line blind cooks who has re-gained his kitchen confidence through the baking sessions – it is what they are all about.

I have Karen to thank for the basic recipe – my trusty co-cook – and can blame her for the vagaries of mixed metric and Imperial measures!

 

250g butter.

4oz caster sugar.

300g plain flour.

 

Pre-heat oven 180c, Gas 4.

Cream the butter with a wooden spoon until soft.

Add caster sugar and beat until pale and fluffy.

Stir in flour until the mixture binds together.

Knead lightly to form smooth dough.

Lightly butter a loose-bottomed bun tin (or baking sheet).

Press portions into the bases of the bun tin (or press out the shortbread and cut into circles or triangles and place on baking sheet) and prick each biscuit several times with a fork.

Bake for 12-15 minutes for individual biscuits.

They will look pale gold and feel softly firm to touch.

Cool and finish as you wish.  Here are three choices:

  1. Simply dredge with caster sugar.
  2. Top with a generous layer of caramel (tin of caramelised condensed milk) and a layer of melted chocolate for Millionaire’s shortbread. Chill.
  3. Slices of strawberry marinated in a dash of Cointreau plus the juice of an orange with its zest (or use a good strawberry jam) and top with a layer of double or clotted cream. Chill.

We will be making a ginger cake in the microwave next time in just 9 minutes.  Join us at 1030 on 12 July by signing up free at:

Facebook event link:

https://www.facebook.com/events/806006046955175

 

Eventbrite link:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/baking-session-for-visually-impaired-people-ginger-cake-tickets-160566860803

If you have difficulty signing up with EventBright, contact Open Sight on  02380 646 385  and they’ll do it for you.

 

 

 

Good food can make life so much better.

 

Too much time with lawyers this week trying to capture the consequences of the accident that took place about three and a half years ago – it’s no fun going over all the continuing miseries.  But life improved with celebrating the first meal in a restaurant (Lauro’s in the High Street, Fareham) for over a year.  Strange to be in an enclosed space with other people but good distancing, masks, excellent ventilation and a bottle of wine made all the difference.  Good food as always: I’m inspired to try making my own confit duck.  The homemade chocolate ice-cream was superb but I’ll try to resist.

It must be well over 10 years since I bought 24 little silicone pots with lids in France.  They were sold for “oeufs en cocotte” (the posh French version of coddled eggs) but, in those days, I was making lots of my own ice-creams, so they were perfect for freezing individual portions – and were in the Sale too.

Good kitchen kit has multiple functions and not always their original.  Last week I was using one asparagus pan for blitzing chicken liver parfait, another one is used to store individual flan tins and I cook the asparagus in the microwave.  In place of the cocottes, small ramekins with a lid of kitchen foil would work too.

When the heat’s on, no-one wants to spend much time in the kitchen.  Here’s the simplest little lunch/supper or even a starter.

Per cocotte:

tiny knob of butter.

half slice of ham.

1 egg.

1 teaspoon cream.

Pepper.

3-4 spears asparagus, trimmed.

knob of butter to serve.

 

Rub the butter around the cocotte and leave a tiny piece in the bottom.

Thinly slice the ham and put half in the bottom of the cocotte.

Break the egg on to the ham and top with the remaining ham.

Add the teaspoon of cream and a grind of pepper.

Place on the lid and cook in a pre-heated oven at 200C, Gas 6 for 12 minutes.

While the egg is cooking, rinse the asparagus and place on a plate.

Microwave on Medium power for 3-5 minutes until cooked.  Serve with another knob of butter and the egg in its cocotte.

 

Cooking times may depend on your oven, the shelf position and whether you put the cocotte on a baking tray.  It may take a little experimenting to get the egg cooked just as you want it.

 

Don’t forget the shortbread virtual baking session on Monday 14 June at 1030 (see previous post).

 

Summer starter.

With the better weather and less Covid restrictions, we can all do a bit more entertaining: the joy of seeing friends and family, sharing a meal together and catching up on months of news.

I was eating with friends a week ago: sitting on their terrace, overlooking the boats skimming along the Solent with a hazy Isle of Wight in the background.  It was so much better than those rather disjointed on-line conversations: topping up the tan, chatting over a glass or two, succulent steaks of swordfish and, for dessert, the new season’s rhubarb.

My offering was a chicken liver parfait starter with home-made bread and chutney (well, in reality, the sous-chef had done all the work and I’d done all the directing):

half an onion, diced.

small knob of butter.

splash of brandy and/or port.

500g chicken livers, drained.

250g butter, melted.

salt and pepper.

a little more melted butter to top the parfait.

 

Sauté the onion in the knob of butter until softened.

Add the port and/brandy and cook until nearly all the liquid has evaporated.

Add the chicken livers and cook over a medium to high heat for five minutes.  The outsides should have become brown while there is still some pink in the centres.

Season and place in a food processor with the melted butter.  Whizz until smooth.

Pour into serving dishes and top each with a little more melted butter to keep out the air.

Chill for several hours or overnight.

(He put the mix into a tall asparagus pan (doesn’t everyone have one?) and whizzed with the wand-blender to make 8 portions – not too big as it is so rich!)

 

 

 

World Baking Day

I expect that there will be cakes galore out there but here’s something different: a pastry that anyone can make.

I’ve been celebrating this special Baking Day with a virtual on-line live bake-in with blind and visually impaired people – and there will be a video published soon too.  It is part of our series of bakes to create a special tea for family and friends as the Covid lock-down eases.  So far, we’ve made ginger biscuits, soda bread, lemon Victoria sponges and, today, individual pork pies.

I’ve heard from so many people that they are no good at making pastry, their hands are too hot/cold/rough or whatever.  Hot water pastry is like play-dough: beautifully malleable and forgiving. Left-overs can be stored in the fridge or freezer for another day.  Pork pies and raised game pies are the traditional uses but I’ve made open tartlets and even used a vegetable filling.

We have been experimenting with different fats for those who don’t want to use lard.  Trex is based on oil and is one possibility and those who feel self-indulgent could use all-butter.

One of the plus points with this pastry is that it can be moulded very thin – not like those wedges of dough in shop-bought pies.  You can therefore pretend that it is nearly good for you.

The beaten egg brushed over the pastry is primarily for those who eat with their eyes – it makes no difference to the taste.

 

Hot water pastry:

100ml water.

90g lard.

200g plain flour.

50g strong white bread flour.

Flat teaspoon ground mace (optional).

Flat teaspoon salt.

50g butter.

 

Filling:

About 300g sausage meat.

Ground black pepper.

Fresh thyme leaves.

1 lemon, zest only.

1 egg, beaten.

 

Preheat oven to 200C, Gas 6.

Place the water and lard in a pan and heat gently until the lard has just melted.

Meanwhile, mix the flours, salt and mace (if using) in a bowl.

Rub in the butter.

Pour in the water and lard and stir with a wooden spoon.

Use your hands to make a dough ball and allow it to cool (press out and put on a cold plate in the fridge).

Mix black pepper, the herbs and lemon zest into the sausage meat.

Line the pie tins with the pastry (either roll out or mould with your hands).

Fill with sausage meat and press out a lid and mould over the pies.

Make a hole in each pie top to let steam escape, brush with the beaten egg.

Place on a tray in the oven for 10 minutes and then reduce the heat to 140C, Gas 2 for 20 minutes.  If you have a probe thermometer, check that the filling has reached 70C.  Cover with a loose double layer of foil to stop the pastry over-cooking if necessary.

 

My Tips:

I will use a bun tin with loose bottoms or small foil containers with high sides.

It is difficult to be accurate about the amount of filling you will need as it depends on the size of your pie tins, how thin you get the pastry etc.  The above quantities made three generous individual pork pies.

Trex or butter might replace the lard although I haven’t tried it.

If I was experimenting with a wheat-free flour, I’d try adding about a teaspoon of xanthium gum to the flour – but no guarantees!

Vegetable fillings are equally possible but will need part-cooking beforehand so that the mix has cooled.  I’ve used: sautéed onion, mushroom, courgette, potato, fresh thyme, seasoning.

If you want to chill the pies, you might consider adding some “jelly”: a stock pot/cube, a little water and some gelatine to make the jelly that is poured into the steam hole.  Good to do this while the pie is still warm and it will spread through the pie.

 

 

Awning gap.

Nightmare as making preparations for the first outdoor entertaining: day before, tested the electric awning over the terrace.  Went out beautifully; retracted perfectly. Then, entirely of its own volition, extended again and promptly stopped, refusing to respond to frantic presses on the remote control.

All would have been well other than for the gale force winds and rain that then ensued.  Result: one dramatically flagging large awning, dipping down to about a foot off the ground, filling with water and banging on the house.  Too risky for the sous-chef to resolve without another pair of eyes to monitor troubleshooting in such a hazardous situation.  Fortunately, located a couple of experts who cut out the canvas and tied up the frame – electrics and motor burned out.

But I did manage to feed the visitors despite the chaos and finished with an experimental chocolate cake.  I’m convinced that most people rely on their eyes to taste the chocolate so, if its brown with cocoa powder, it’s OK – but not so for us who can’t see it.

Here’s a better version based on the famous Viennese Sachertorte:

 

150g plain chocolate, melted and cooling.

6 eggs, separated.

150g butter.

100g castor sugar.

Half teaspoon vanilla extract.

55g plain flour.

100g ground almonds.

1 heaped tablespoon cocoa powder.

 

Whisk the egg whites to soft peak stage.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Whisk in the chocolate and vanilla. Followed by the egg yolks (one at a time) on full speed.

Fold in the flour, ground almonds and cocoa powder.

Fold in one third of the egg whites and then the remainder, gently.

Pour in to 23cm tin (buttered and base lined with parchment paper) in one go and level gently.

Cook in pre-heated oven at 180C or Gas 4 for 45-50 minutes.

To finish the cooled cake (optional), brush with warmed apricot jam and cover with a chocolate icing made of 200ml double cream heated and poured over at least 115g plain chocolate -cool before covering cake.

(I made two smaller cakes and cooked for about 20 minutes by when the internal temperature had reached over 95C.  The finished cake keeps well and retains its moistness for at least a week – there was only this scrap left by then).

 

 

 

 

Exclusive: World Baking Day live online bake-in for blind people

 

17 May at 1030 (London time).

Free cook-along as we celebrate World Baking Day on 17 May.

We will be making the simplest and most forgiving hot water pastry and producing wonderful melt-in-the mouth pork pies.

Virtually no skill or experience required but you will need:

100ml water.

90g lard.

200g plain flour.

50g strong white bread flour.

Flat teaspoon ground mace (optional).

Flat teaspoon salt.

50g butter.

Filling:

About 300g sausage meat.

Ground black pepper.

Fresh thyme leaves.

1 lemon, zest only.

A metal or silicon bun tin or individual foil cases with 1-inch sides, a plate, a bowl, saucepan, wooden spoon.  Oven set to 200C, Gas 6.

(some people are going to use Trex, or all butter rather than the lard and pre-cooked vegetables can be used in place of the sausage meat)

Thanks to Open Sight from Hampshire UK, you can avoid on-line “trolls” by signing up through this link:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/x/exclusive-baking-session-with-penny-for-visually-impaired-blind-people-tickets-151057187113

 

See you on the day.