Joyeux Noël

One of our Christmas packages caused all sorts of questions.   The trouble and cost of sending several thousand little parcels to ex-military blind people was truly kind.   Although the card wasn’t accessible, I’m told it used an image of First World war men injured and blinded in the trenches, leading each other to safety.   It is a famously poignant statue of remembrance that conveys the pathos and spirit of men supporting each other during conflict.

But it does rather beg the question as to whether this is how we want to be seen over a century later.   Nowadays, the vast majority of blind ex-military people include both men and women who left the Services decades before losing their sight.   There is a much smaller proportion of us who were blinded by and during our time in uniform and, with 21st century attitudes, adaptations and accessibility, we are capable of so much more than was possible 100 years ago.   Enabling us to achieve fulfilling and rewarding lives, embark on new careers and fulfil our potential should surely be the key goal and more powerful image for all those who so generously offer us support.

The remainder of the package was just as thought-provoking: a sachet of hot chocolate drink and a shortbread biscuit!

Let me also share a perfect recipe for any mass entertaining you might be planning: Crème Noël.   This is my answer for advance mass production of desserts.   I was able to use my sous-vide water bath, but a bain marie in the oven should work just as well.

This quantity filled more than 24 small screw-top jars which provided an ample portion for each guest.

 

800 ml double cream.

400 ml milk.

16 egg yolks.

192g honey (or caster sugar).

4 heaped teaspoons mixed spice.

4 teaspoons vanilla extract.

mincemeat – 1 teaspoon per serving.

Preheat the water bath to 80°C.

Warm the milk and cream together in a small saucepan to 60°C

Whisk the remaining ingredients (except the mincemeat) together in a bowl.

Gradually whisk in the warm cream and milk.

Place a teaspoon of mincemeat in each jar and then fill with the whisked mixture.

Screw the jar lids in place tightly and submerge in the water bath for 60 minutes.

Remove and chill quickly.   Store in the fridge up to 2-3 days.

My Tips:

I used the homemade mincemeat and served with little star-shaped shortbread biscuits (recipes in the free recipe booklet https://www.pennymelvillebrown.com/free-christmas-cookbook/).

Simply divide all the quantities by 4 for just six servings.

If not using a sous-vide, fill a deep roasting tin with water and heat in the oven until the water reaches 80C.   Place the jars in the water and monitor the temperature during the cooking time.

I gave away 8 egg whites and am experimenting with freezing the remainder.

 

My next on-line cooking demo is at 1030 on Monday 10 January (details to follow) with roast vegetables as the focus for cutting, chopping and peeling when you can’t see.

Check out my new website: www.pennymelvillebrown.com

 

 

 

 

Now for something completely different

Time to catch your breath too.   I’m sitting in the cool winter sun, enjoying the scents of hyacinths and freshly baked bread, knowing that its too late to post any more Christmas cards and that any forgotten presents are hereby relegated to obscurity.  The interminable list is fully ticked up-to-date and there’s nothing to do until the turkey makes its entrance.

In case you’ve moved on from roast potatoes, mountains of sprouts and stuffing balls, here’s a little recipe that I used to entertain friends last weekend.

We were all carefully Covid-safe, even lunching outside courtesy of an outdoor heater resembling a rocket.   Just handing out warm bowls of spicy but not too hot lamb curry was a good way of being hospitable without putting people at risk.   It sounds like a lot of ingredients, but this is mainly just the normal spices which I have handy in tins.  Easy to cook as, after the initial browning, the curry can just sit on the hob and gently glug away for a few hours without any further help.   This is a perfect dish to make a day or two ahead, chill well and then reheat for the non-party.   With a rice cooker filled to the brim, the whole meal fed at least 20 hungry people.

about 100g lentils.

10 pieces cinnamon

3 heaped teaspoons coriander seeds

3 heaped teaspoons cumin seeds

12 green cardamom pods

15 cloves

3 teaspoons mustard seeds

4-6 tablespoons oil.

7 onions, peeled and diced

8 portions GGG*

2.5kg lamb, diced.

5 heaped teaspoons garam masala

2.5 flat teaspoons chilli powder

2.5 flat teaspoons paprika

2.5 flat teaspoons ground black pepper

2.5 heaped teaspoons cumin powder

2.5 heaped teaspoons ground coriander

2.5 teaspoons turmeric

2 heaped teaspoons fenugreek leaves

6 carrots, peeled and diced

5 courgettes, diced

2 sweet potatoes, peeled and diced.

4 tins coconut milk, plus 1 tin water from washing them out

tamarind paste and/or lemon juice.

 

Place the lentils in a bowl and fill with cold water.   Set aside for at least 30 minutes.

Dry roast the whole spices and set aside.

Heat the oil and cook the onion until at least golden brown or even darker.

Add the GGG and lamb in handfuls, searing each until coloured on each side.

Add the ground spices and allow to cook a little.   They may stick to the bottom of the pan.

Add the whole spices, carrots, courgettes and sweet potatoes, coconut milk and water and scrape the bottom of the pan clean.

Bring to a very gentle bubble, add the lentils and cook for at least 2 hours.

Adjust the seasoning by adding tamarind paste and/or lemon juice to balance the sweetness of the coconut and add a little salt to taste.

*(GGG is 4 parts fresh root ginger: 2 parts garlic: 1-part green chilli blitzed together in a food processor and then divided into 1 heaped teaspoon portions before freezing.   Defrost as many portions as needed.)

Check out the fresh videos on my new website: www.pennymelvillebrown.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Obituary for Donna Treploy

I have suffered a bereavement this weekend.   For years, I have been receiving e-mails from Donna at my bank.   I realised that she was probably sending out vast numbers of e-mails to people she didn’t really know.   But she did give me the sense that I was dealing with a real person at the bank.   It was reassuring to know that there was a human hand at work somewhere.

But, over the weekend, I found she had moved jobs and I was getting her e-mails from a new location.   I tried to reply and discover what was happening but that e-mail was undeliverable.   I checked out her e-mail address and, with a screen reader, listened to each letter with care.   Imagine my chagrin and burst bubble on learning that she’d always been Do not reply.   Just shows what misunderstandings adaptive technology can create!

My last on-line cooking demo this year is at 1030 on Monday 13 December.   You can sign up here:

Eventbrite:

https://open-sight-humous.eventbrite.co.uk

or follow-on Facebook:

Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/events/289090496430530

If you would like a free copy of a simple and accessible Christmas recipe booklet  with links to video demonstrations (about 20 pages), just drop me a line at penny@laylands.co.uk.

 

 

There’s at least a billion of us!

A little video about the months and years surviving life-changing injuries on top of blindness: https://youtu.be/T_oQCLQyUpE

I’ve also just talked to George who is the leading light of blind cricket in India – here’s a link to the podcast: https://anchor.fm/eyeway/episodes/Eyeway-Conversations-with-Penny-Melville-Brown-e1avb82

You’ve guessed why I’m focussing on disability: about 20% of the world population is like me and 3 December is our International Day.

I wonder if the powers-that-be, the Governments, businesses, employers, IT developers and the global economic system remember that 1-in-5 of us have impairments.

Anyone trying to get through the financial impact of the pandemic would do well to remember the enormous potential of all of us shoppers and workers.   We could make all the difference.   Let’s de-bunk the perceptions that having a disability instantly renders you poor (not worth selling to) and incompetent (not worth employing).   I’m neither and nor are the thousands of other people I’ve met around the world over very many years.   This is a market and pool of talent that is ripe for the picking and the timing is perfect too.

Meanwhile, here’s a little recipe to spice up those autumn pears:

6-8 pears, cored and cut into chunks.

8 pieces crystallised ginger, chopped.

1 orange, juice only.

3 eggs, weighed.

Same weight butter, honey and self-raising flour.

2 heaped teaspoons ground ginger.

 

Place the pears, crystallised ginger and orange juice in an ovenproof dish.

Whizz the butter and honey in a food processor.

Add the eggs to the mix one at a time with a little flour.

Pulse in the last of the flour and ground ginger.

Pour the mix over the pears and cook in a pre-heated oven at 180C, Gas 4 for 40 minutes.

 

Hot and warming for chilly winter days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Too much process, not enough outcome

Listening to Dame Kate Bingham of vaccine delivery fame on the radio: she was commenting on the Civil Service and their inability to respond quickly enough to the pandemic.

Having worked with many Departments, I can recognise her weariness.   Just lately I commented on a Disability Strategy: not a number in sight.   There was no sense of what targets might be met or by when which, of course, meant that there was no chance of measuring progress or failure.

But perhaps we are too simplistic when laying all the blame on those civil servants.   Perhaps it is a Ministerial trait, of all hues, to avoid publishing anything to which they, their Department and Civil Servants can be held to account.   Promising lots is easy but delivery is difficult.   All sorts of problems can arise in the interim, including a pandemic, that throw the best laid plans awry.

On the other hand, isn’t it better to know where a plan has failed, for whatever reason, in order to pick up the pieces, reset the goals and start again?   Talking of plans failing…. …

It was Christmas cakes this week: one big one, 3 smaller and 22 individual.   Just imagine a mix using 4 packs of butter, a kilo of honey, 16 eggs and a kilo of flour.   The Kenwood made short work of the basic mix although the bowl was about full to over-flowing.

There’s an extra-large food quality plastic box kept specially for this annual purpose: alternately layering in the cake mix with masses of brandy-soaked fruit and nuts.   It all went so well with more folding in and spooning into the cake moulds.

Ready for the oven until I remembered that the lemon and orange zest and juice had been forgotten.   Thank goodness for Karen, who diligently and delicately mixed the fresh fruit into the cakes en situ – too messy for me to attempt.

Covered with foil, the cakes took about 2-4 hours to cook at 135C, Gas 1.   Ample time for washing up bowls, work surfaces and me: sticky to the elbows.

Now I’ve time to inject them with more brandy before the final decorations.   I made tiny Christmas crackers in pewter that get piled on top.

(This is the same recipe as the Easter Simnel cake earlier this year but four times the amounts and no marzipan in the middle.   I’ll be posting it in my free Christmas recipe booklet at the start of December – watch out for it or get in touch for a copy.)

My last on-line cooking demo this year is at 1030 on Monday 13 December.   You can sign up here:

Eventbrite:

https://open-sight-humous.eventbrite.co.uk

or follow-on Facebook:

Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/events/289090496430530

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harvest exhaustion

Up to our ears in it all.   The honey is progressing through the conditioning into jars and we have even experimented with putting some into bag-in-boxes.   Should be good for ensuring the honey is stored in the dark and easier for me to dispense into recipe mixes using the tap.

But now we are getting overwhelmed with windfalls.   Luckily, another beekeeper produced five large punnets of blackberries so now there are bottles of our own bramble juice (just the apple and berries steamed to release their juices) that should keep for at least a year.   It will be delicious hot with a spoonful of honey and a pinch of cinnamon in the winter months.   And there’s another huge bucket of grapes: more delicious juice.

Alongside, I’ve started Christmas preparations: raisins, currant and sultanas for cakes, puddings and seasonal mincemeat all weighed out and steeping in brandy.

It sounds very domestic and the major challenge is where to store all the preserved produce when there’s lots more to come.   We are starting to view each cupboard longingly and wonder where we can relocate the existing contents.   But it is so satisfying to make the very best of what has been carefully nurtured and grown.

Did you know?   According to the Daily Telegraph, if a domestic TV Licence is in the name of a blind person, they are entitled to it at half price.

Something much simpler, easy and needs no attention: courtesy of Heston, this is my standard roast chicken recipe.   It just needs short preparation and time to cook.

 

1 litre warm water.

60g salt.

1 fresh chicken, any trussing removed.

1 lemon, juice and zest.

freshly chopped herbs of your choice.

1 or 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped (optional).

salt and pepper.

55g butter.

a large glass of white wine.

 

Dissolve the salt in the warm water and allow to cool.

Place the chicken in the water, cover and refrigerate overnight.

Mix the lemon juice and zest, herbs, garlic (if using), seasoning and butter to make a paste.

Drain the chicken and push the paste between the skin and breast meat.

Push the left-over lemon halves and any spare herbs into the chicken cavity.

Place the chicken in a roasting pan, season and add the wine.

Cook in a preheated oven at 95C, Gas Slow or a quarter for 180-210 minutes or until the thickest part of the thigh has reached 70C.

Remove from the oven and cover with foil and a kitchen towel to keep warm and rest for an hour (while you roast potatoes).

Return to the oven at the highest temperature possible for 5-10 minutes to brown the skin.

Serve and enjoy – wonderfully moist, excellent cold and always a winner.

 

 

 

August windfalls

Local fellow beekeeper, Peter, turned up with a bucket of his grapes.   Each one had been individually hand-picked and, although some were instantly consumed, the rest wasn’t going to last long.   They went into the Scandinavian steamer which is, bottom to top: hot water tank to produce the steam; juice reservoir with natty tube for decanting into bottles; large container for raw fruit; lid.   The steam comes up through the middle, heats the fruit cells until they burst whereupon the juice drips down into the reservoir where it is heated by the water.   The result: virtually pasteurised fruit juice that will last a year.

His bucket made 15 bottles of precious homemade grape juice and then we topped up the fruit with windfall apples.   It’s steaming away to make apple and grape juice for homemade granola, and we can hardly keep up with the apples dropping from the trees!

The blustery winds and sharp showers brought down even more apples from the exceedingly venerable fruit trees.   They are probably at least 130 years old and a good mix of eating and cooking varieties.   This very moist apple cake is ideal for using any of the windfalls.

 

340g self-raising flour.

1 rounded teaspoon baking powder.

1 teaspoon salt.

340g soft brown sugar.

170g butter, cubed.

100g dates, chopped.

30g walnuts, shelled and chopped.

650g prepared mixed apples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped.

4 eggs, beaten.

1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste.

 

Spray a silicon ring mould with oil and dust with flour.

Rub the butter into the dry ingredients.

Add the dates, walnut pieces and chopped apples and mix so that the apple is well covered with flour.

Beat the vanilla with the eggs and gradually stir into the mix.

Stir thoroughly then place in cake mould.

Bake in pre-heated oven at 165C, Gas 3 for 90 -120 minutes, covering with a double layer of foil with a steam hole after 60 minutes.

Allow to cool before turning out.

 

I like my cakes to reach an internal temperature of at least 95C.   The quantity of cold, wet apple means that this cake takes a longer time than expected to bake.

Mixing by hand is a good way to feel how well everything is combined before placing handfuls in the mould.   Messy but I’m easy to clean afterwards.

A ring mould allows the heat to reach the middle of the cake but you could halve the ingredients and cook in a loaf tin lined with parchment paper.

My next experiment is to replace the sugar with honey – not sure what proportions will work.

 

 

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?