Loving Lock-down.

 

The traffic isn’t as quiet but the people are definitely louder.  I wish I’d maintained a graph of the exponential increase in sociability during the last few months – it would have been a wonderful antidote to those awful official Covid ones.

Over at our local Blackbrook Park, there’s a new community life thriving.  When we first ventured there in March while even breathing in the same square mile as anyone else seemed too dangerous, other walkers were distinctly chilly.  As time has passed, distancing still stays social but exchanges have become happily chatty.

Dog-walkers are easy prey for anyone seeking some human contact: the smallest pooch generates a whole conversation from age and breed to obedience and energy.    Familiar faces have graduated from a bare nod to exchange of greetings.  Even the local teenagers can be persuaded to swop a few sentences.  Even on a damp grey November afternoon, the park literally hums with people talking to each other.  We may not be putting the world to rights (yet) but we are all living, breathing proof that man and womankind is a sociable species that relishes interactions – even at 2 metres distance.  Perhaps we can build on this new community spirit for the future and find the silver lining to the Covid cloud.

Simple suppers this week with my favourite smoked salmon mousse:

3 leaves of gelatine, soaked in cold water.

500g smoked salmon pieces (ideal for this dish and less expensive than posh slices).

2 tablespoons cream

2 tablespoons mayonnaise (optional)

Zest and juice of a lemon

(lots of) ground black pepper to taste

 

Pour off most of the water from the gelatine and heat in a medium microwave until dissolved.

Whizz all the ingredients in a food processor to make a thick and fairly smooth paste.

Adjust the seasoning with more black pepper if needed.

Spoon into serving dishes, cover and chill.

Serve with bread, toast or savoury biscuits plus a slice of lemon.

 

Lest we forget.

 

Not even Covid can stop us remembering those who gave their lives for our futures, freedom and democracy.

Get your Poppy face mask from the Royal British Legion on-line shop and put on a brave face amidst our own troubles today.  I’m hugely grateful to friend Jane who found one of these for me so I too can honour those who served the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And I’ve been busy with some different flower arrangements too: one features the iridescence of old CDs plus a little tinsel while the other sports a fluffy pink straw bird’s ness and a black beaded cone – just a little reflection of Halloween and all created with just three stems of lilies!

And talking of forgetting: friend and frequent co-cook Karen created a superb Pavlova meringue for her son’s birthday and left it in the oven to finish cooling.  The drama of the weekend lock-down announcement threw all her plans awry: last minute dash to the supermarket to grab some essentials, pizza for supper and oven on to heat them.  A pall of acrid smoke greeted her on return: the Pavlova had been reduced to cinders and they’d been lucky to avoid a fire.  She had to re-start her birthday confection and I inherited over a dozen yolks.

Luckily, there were just enough oranges and lemons languishing in the fridge to make this

St. Clement’s Curd.  You can definitely reduce the proportions:

12 egg yolks

12 ounces granulated sugar

8 ounces butter, cubed small

Zest and juice of 3 and a half oranges plus 3 and a half lemons

 

Put the egg yolks into a heat proof bowl to reach room temperature while preparing the other ingredients.

Add the zest, juice, sugar and butter cubes to the bowl.

Place over a pan of barely simmering water and gently whisk ingredients together until the mix reaches 71 degrees Centigrade throughout the mix.

Pot in to sterilised jars and eat soon, keeping in the fridge.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bee Whisperer

Fact or fallacy: do bees respond to the human voice?  I’m not sure if it is the words that are spoken or the breath that speaks to them.  but there’s no doubt that our two bee colonies are calm, relaxed and reciprocating with their bounty.

We’ve managed to harvest our first honey: over 10lbs (5kg for the modern).  It was an intensely focussed activity that started the night before.  A special board that excludes bees from part of the hive is installed so that the frames of comb and honey can be removed next day without having to brush away straggling bees and risk harming them.

There’s a special tool for removing the wax caps at each end of the honeycomb cells before the frames go into the extractor.  Think of something like a handraulic spin-dryer: the frames are suspended in a cage that is whirled around to enable centrifugal force to spin the honey out.  A golden sticky mass oozed from the extractor and through two filters before resting overnight in the settling tank for the air bubbles to surface.  The filled jars are a glorious celebration of the bees and their hard work over the summer.

My great friend and frequent cooking companion, Karen, had brought five egg yolks leftover from a birthday party Pavlova.    The obvious use was lemon curd with honey rather than sugar.  Honey can be up to 21% water (23% for heather honey) and ours was 17% on the refractometer.  Just using yolks rather than the whole eggs should counterbalance the extra water.  Here’s the experimental recipe I made this morning:

zest of 3 and a half medium lemons, juice of 2 and a half.

5 egg yolks.

6 oz honey.

4 ounces butter, cubed small.

Mix the lemon juice, zest and egg yolks together in a heatproof bowl.

Add the honey, stirring again, and then the butter.

Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water, taking care that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water.

Stir the mix from time to time while it heats to just over 70C.

Allow to cool a little before pouring into sterilised jars.

Keep in the fridge and eat soon.

(I’ve just checked and it is setting perfectly).

 

 

Waste not, want not.

 

The apple trees in the garden here are at least 130 years old – the house was built in about 1890 on part of an orchard.  There’s a Worcester Pearmain, Cox’s Pippin, Bramley, another cooking apple and an intriguing Golden Delicious that produces fruit with one or more “seams” – ridges from top to bottom.

Every year I’m overwhelmed with windfalls so have a nifty piece of kit to transform them into Juice.  It’s a Scandinavian aluminium pot comprising (bottom-to-top): a water tank, a juice reservoir with a funnel through the middle for the steam to pass plus spout for the rubber hose and clip, a basket for the apple pieces and lid.  It is supremely simple to use just chop up the apples, extracting the worse bruises and any wildlife.  Toss the apple into the basket, switch on the hob and let the water boil to steam them.  The juice drips down into the reservoir where it, in turn, is heated by the water – nearly pasteurised, ready for drawing off through the rubber pipe, controlled by the clip.

Reusing plastic water bottles is the ideal storage.  Not only are they saved from landfill but the hot apple juice makes them collapse a little, just about vacuum packing the juice.  This is where I need a hand: managing wilting bottles of very hot liquid isn’t safe when you can’t see what’s going on!  The bottled juice needs to be kept out of the light and I tend to store it in the fridge.

My goal is to use the juice within a year but I have had some several years old and it was still delicious.  It is an excellent thirst-quencher when diluted with fizzy water (keep the bottle for next year) or we use it in the homemade granola.

I try to use every apple: dried in the dehydrator for the granola or cakes; frozen as puree; in crumbles, pies and puddings; the Cox’s sautéed in a little butter and sugar until caramelised are the base for many a Tarte Tatin.  And I haven’t even started on all the chutneys and other preserves …I’ve even used an apple press and made my own cider.

 

 

 

 

Super scones.

Last weekend I was cooking for a special tea party: just a few friends carefully spaced out in the garden to keep everyone safe.

The damson chutney I wrote about a few weeks ago was perfect with sausage rolls hot from the oven and blinis topped with simple smoked salmon mousse had different texture, taste and temperature.  But the tea-time stars were the scones – only my second attempt in decades.  I’d been pondering about the logic of soda bread that uses a rather acid liquid to activate the bicarbonate of soda.  Self-raising flour already has the same raising agent and makes a very respectable soda bread with just the liquid added.  Why shouldn’t the same principles work with scones?

I use the liquid collected after straining the home-made yoghurt but buttermilk, plain yoghurt or milk with a little vinegar and lemon juice should do just as well.  I added some extra baking powder just to make sure.

500g self-raising flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

Half teaspoon salt

80g caster sugar

80g butter

2 eggs

Up to 250g yoghurt strainings.

5 handfuls sultanas

Zest of one orange

 

Place all the dry ingredients in a large bowl and rub in the butter.

Crack in the eggs and add half the liquid.

Add the sultanas and orange zest.

Mix the dough with your hands, adding more of the liquid to create a soft dough that is not wet and sticky.

Place the dough on a floured surface and gently press out to the thickness of two fingers.

Cut out scones using a well-floured cutter, reshaping the scraps to cut again.

Place the scones on an oven tray lined with baking parchment and give them 5 minutes or so for the baking powder to start working.

Cook for 15 minutes at Gas 7.

 

These were split in half and served with last year’s strawberry and Cointreau or cherry jams, topped with clotted cream (Cornish style).  And then a super fruit cake that had been injected with lashings of brandy.  Yum.

 

Scones the Devon way (left) and Cornish way (right)

 

 

 

Ginger biscuits go global.

Well, not quite, but I couldn’t resist the alliteration!  In fact, I’ve been doing live on-line bake-ins for blind students in both Hertfordshire and San Francisco this week.

The Brits wanted some tips about baking so I explained my only two items of “blind” equipment: talking scales and thermometer.  For any of these talking items, I strongly recommend auditioning them before buying because some of the voices are distinctly slurred, rather transatlantic and somewhat abrupt.  My oldest scales are my favourite: he says “Hello” when turned on and “Goodbye” when his button’s pressed.

The san Francisco group liked the recipe too but I had to explain our golden syrup – it is not so easily available over there and our British self-raising flour becomes their all-purpose version with some baking soda.  They wanted to know more about my time in the Navy and why I joined.  And they seemed to like the tales of derring-do from the global cooking tour too.  It was another chance to promote all my hundreds of Baking Blind videos https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWTJYx7jGA3xaR4830wJSRg?view_as=subscriber

In turn, they gave me a sense of what life is like in California in the midst of the Covid pandemic.  It sounds very similar to here: lots of confusing messages from governments, lives limited by lockdowns and the particular problems of blind people who might often rely on someone else to guide them.  It is impossible to maintain social distancing when you need to hold someone’s arm or can’t see the one-way signs or floor markings when out either.

These Covid challenges were also part of the discussion during an interview  I did with RNIB Connect radio (broadcast on 8 July at 1100 – but there’s catch-up too: http://www.rnibconnectradio.org.uk/> Twitter @RNIB Radio).  The pandemic is creating some extra challenges for disabled people as we try to navigate our way through Government guidelines  so please give us a bit of leeway.

Here’s the ginger biscuit recipe in case you missed it last time:

50g butter.

50g sugar (white, golden or brown).

50g golden syrup or honey.

100g self-raising flour (or 100g all-purpose flour plus half a teaspoon baking soda).

1 heaped teaspoon ground ginger (about 5g).

Heat the oven to Gas 4, 350F, 175C

Melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a pan, stirring to check the sugar has dissolved.  Allow to cool.

Put the flour and ginger in a bowl and pour in the butter and sugar mix, scraping the pan clean and using the scraper to start mixing the dough.

Finish the dough with your hands,  forming  it into 10 small balls, rolling them between your palms.

Line a baking tin with baking parchment and place the balls on it about 2 inches apart, gently pressing down each ball a little.

Cook for 12-15 minutes.  The biscuits should feel firm to touch and will crisp further as they cool.