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Category Archives: In the Kitchen

Dr Chase’s Squash Pie (more or less!)

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For this Curiously Creatively post, I am back in the realm of old recipes (or receipts as they were called back in ye olden times). If you remember we have previously featured vintage recipes from writer Juliet Greenwood and The Llangollen Ladies, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. This time I have ventured across the Atlantic with a small book containing a collection of recipes by Dr Alvin Wood Chase, Buffalo Cake and Indian Pudding, (Penguin Great Food, 2010). This series from Penguin comprises several tempting titles, containing extracts from the work of Eliza Action, Alexis Soyer and Alice Waters to name but a few. This looks like a good series to introduce new readers to classic food writers, so I am only sorry that it has taken me a while to discover it. I now need to check whether any of the other titles are still available.

But who was the good Dr Chase (1817-1885) I hear you enquire. I have to admit to never having heard of him either until I chanced upon this small volume recently. The book offers some biographical information from the publishers as well as containing a fond memorial piece from a Rev L Davis, dated 28 November 1886. Alvin Wood Chase was born in Cayuga County, New York and eventually married and settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was a collector of folk remedies and recipes as well as being a travelling physician. According to the ‘In Memoriam’ piece, Chase didn’t begin his medical studies until 1856, studying in Michigan and Ohio. As he travelled dispensing medicines, he collected recipes along with folk remedies. All this valuable information formed the basis of his publications, which apparently were welcomed by pioneers and settlers who were keen to have a ‘multi-purpose how-to-guide to assist them in everyday life’.

Chase published his first book, A Guide to Wealth! Over One Hundred Valuable Recipes for Saloons, Inn-Keepers, Grocers, Druggists, Merchants and Families Generally (1858). By the 1863 edition, Chase’s handy guide contained over 800 recipes. Hs final book came out posthumously in 1887, entitled, Dr Chase’s Third, Last and Complete Receipt Book. Dr Chase seems to have been well respected by the citizens of Ann Arbor where he worked for many years for the good of the townspeople. Rev Davis says that Chase’s ‘real and ever-enduring monument is seen in his life, devotion and usefulness to his fellow man’.

The upshot is that I couldn’t resist trying out one of the recipes from the good doctor’s collection. As I have been threatening to have a go at a pumpkin or a squash pie for years, this was as good an opportunity as any that I could find. In the pie chapter, I found two possible alternative versions to try. In addition, I discovered the useful tip (quoted from Ruth H Armstrong of the Housekeeper) that it is better to bake your fruit first, rather than boiling to avoid the problem of having watery pumpkin/squash. I chose the following version to attempt to bake:

The ingredients

Squash Pie, Very Rich – Stew a medium sized crook-necked (or other equally rich) squash, and rub the soft part through a colander; butter, ½ lb; cream and milk, each 1 pt., or milk with the cream stirred in, 1qt.; sugar, 2 cups; 1 dozen eggs well beaten; salt, mace, nutmeg and cinnamon, 1 teaspoonful each, or to taste.

The directions follow along similar lines to Chase’s previously noted recipe for Pumpkin Pie. After rubbing your squash through a colander, add, ‘the butter, sugar and spices, and make hot, then the beaten eggs’. The squash recipe contains milk, so you’d add that next (it’s flour in the pumpkin version). The directions continue, ‘mix smoothly together, and while hot put into the dish, having a thick crust to receive it, and bake in a moderate oven’. Henry Crane, Frost House, Eaton Rapids, Mich.

Dr Chase recommends baking the pastry before adding the filling, if the cook is ‘fearful of a soggy crust’. He also goes on to note, ‘I think good squash makes a richer pie than pumpkin, while some persons claim the reverse’. He also mentions two different varieties of squash, the crookneck and the Hubbard; as Lidl could only supply butternut squash I made my first tweak to the recipe. I had to resort to Google to determine the appearance and qualities of the first two varieties, as they were unfamiliar to me. I can only assume that they are not readily available in either Ireland’s or Britain’s supermarkets, but maybe in specialist food shops.

My second recipe tweak was to scale the quantities down, since I am neither a saloon owner nor an innkeeper. I decided to make a quarter of the amount but despite this, I still had some filling left over after filing my 9” ceramic flan dish. My major recipe alteration was to cheat and buy some readymade pastry so that I could focus on dealing with the squash filling mixture. As Chase recommends a pastry with a light and flaky crust for all types of pie, I bought flaky pastry (Tesco brand).

I baked my squash, as recommended, by cutting it in half lengthways and laying the pieces cut side down on the baking sheet. I also baked the seeds in a separate dish at the same time since they make a great lunch box ingredient. When the squash was nice and soft, I left it to cool slightly before scooping out the interior. My estimation was that the small sized Butternut would produce about the correct quantity of flesh for my scaled down recipe. I mashed the tender flesh into a very smooth pulp with a potato masher so I decided that it didn’t need pushing though a colander as given in the recipe.

One inescapable fact of recipes of this vintage is that directions, cooking times and temperatures are rarely precise. For instance, the instruction to ‘make hot’ is vague to say the least. I took it to mean that you should heat up the squash mixture to a moderate temperature, but not to boil it. Similarly, the recipe has no oven temperature save ‘moderate’ so I baked the pie at 180c (gas mark 5) which seemed reasonable. I did bake my pastry case blind, following Dr Chase’s advice, to avoid a soggy bottom (so to speak).

The verdict

I was quite pleased with my first attempt at a squash pie and the rest of the household seemed to agree with that verdict. I served slices with plain Greek yogurt (we sampled the pie both warm and chilled on separate occasions) which worked very well, though cream or ice-cream would work equally well I think. I enjoy tackling vintage recipes, so look out for some more samples to appear on the blog in the future.

Has anyone else got any hits and tips on pumpkin or squash pies? I would love to hear them!

Picture credits: Curiously Creatively

Bite Food Festival 2016: Tasty Samples

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Food Display from Bite

Tempting goodies!

The Curiously Creatively team has had a couple of recent visits to exhibitions at the Royal Dublin Showground (RDS). The latest one was to Bite Food Festival 2016 featuring all things food related, thanks to a free ticket offer from Cooks Academy, which was passed on to us by a thoughtful food-loving friend. I am sorry to say that the biggest lure (apart from not paying to get in) was the thought of lots of lovely free samples to… well, sample of course. Also we are rather keen on attending cookery demonstrations and talks. Therefore, the Bite event promised to tickle our palates in more ways than one.

We did indeed find plenty of opportunities to try new tasty products but we also walked around making mental note of ideas that we could try out at home. So what were the results of our tastings and cogitations? After sampling a couple of different lemon curd brands, we decided that we still preferred our own version (more sharpness) but we did buy a brownie that gave our own Waitrose recipe a run for its money. Maybe we should have eaten a second one just to make sure of the verdict. One idea that we spotted was a pesto made from kale, and judging by the taste that we had, it might be worth trying to make some at home.

As you might have gathered, we go to these types of markets and exhibitions with the main purpose of gathering ideas for things that we might have a go at making ourselves. Not, I hasten to add that we don’t occasionally treat ourselves to a few things and support small producers, but we are DIY kind of folks at heart. We spend much of our time trying to deconstruct craft or food products at markets, coffee shops and festivals, to figure out the ‘how’, the ‘what’ and ‘could we do it ourselves?’. This habit produces many scraps of paper upon which are scribbled cryptic notes, which find their way into the recipe drawer for future reference.

One item at Bite that we didn’t do that with (however, the recipe drawer does come into the picture), was some tasty roasted almond butter that we sampled and then purchased. Fiona’s Nutterly Nutritious spread tempted us because it tasted great on biscuits. The next morning, I did also try the Nutterly spread stirred into porridge as suggested by the stallholder, but I have to admit that I prefer my regular dose of honey or fruit compote. Where the recipe drawer comes in to the plot, is that I had the idea that I could bake my peanut butter cookie recipe, using almond butter instead for a variation. I have a feeling that the roasted almond flavour could actually work much better than the usual peanut version. Watch out for a future report on that culinary experiment. From other stalls we also bought a tangy basil and lime dressing, a cheddar flavoured with beetroot and some rather tasty chocolate made with Ecuadorian beans. The dressing has almost gone already and I also tried adding some to my usual salmon pate mixture for a little extra oomph. Needles to say, the chocolate vanished extremely quickly once it arrived home!

So what was our verdict on the visit to Bite? It was more commercial than I had envisaged, as it seemed that many of the products were already available through shops and supermarkets. Having said that, we found plenty of items and brand names that we hadn’t heard of before, hailing from various parts of the country. My fellow blogger pointed out that there should have been a good range of fresh fruit and vegetable produce on show, as there are plenty of options for tasty eating to be explored there. Fresh poultry and sausages found a place, so why not the veggies? The cooking demos and workshops were a good idea, especially the workshops. Though I don’t think I would be willing to take a cookery lesson in public. Anything could happen and it probably would! And did we mention the free samples…?

If anyone else visited Bite 2016, we would love to hear what you thought about it!

Picture Credits: Bite Festival website, with thanks.


Freezing Vegetables: an Experiment

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Recently here at Curiously Creatively, there has been some new activity on the kitchen front, specifically, vegetable freezing. Now, before you get your hopes up that we had a bumper harvest of all kinds of wonderful green stuff, I have to admit that I am talking about purchased vegetables. As I mentioned in a previous garden post, this has not been as productive a year as we were intending. Therefore, dear reader, I am going to discuss using a supermarket’s (it shall be nameless, however) ‘reduced to clear’ vegetables or even any two for one offers available. I probably should have thought of this before, but I have realised that when supermarkets mark down large quantities of vegetables still in decent condition, then there is a brilliant opportunity to have a go at home freezing. Obviously the key thing here is that the food should be still in good condition (sometimes items are marked down simply as a way of clearing excess stock).

Home freezing is not a culinary activity, at which I am either very skilled or experienced but it seems silly not to have a go. It can be handy to have a decent supply of vegetables in the freezer to add interest or bulk to a dish. You could also easily throw together a soup or a casserole by utilizing what is in store in the freezer, together with tinned pulses from your store cupboard. That is always assuming that you are organised enough to remember what food you have frozen. Am I the only person that sometimes unearths long-forgotten containers from the back of the freezer? Sometimes unlabelled, unrecognisable items at that.

So what vegetables did I try freezing? As I had a glut of parsnips and carrots for the very good reason mentioned above, that seemed to be a good place to begin. I bought a new double handle, heavy based stockpot earlier in the year, which seemed ideal for the purposes of blanching vegetables. It is important to immerse your chopped vegetables into boiling water, not put them into water and then bring to the boil. I found a couple of useful websites with hints and tips for freezing, as I don’t have a general cookery manual (I think something like Delia Smith’s complete cookery course would be useful). The ever-reliable Good Housekeeping website has a good, succinct description of how to freeze vegetables, which I found useful.

I was not as organised during the freezing process as I should have been, in that I failed to get a supply of ice cubes ready to chill the vegetables after blanching. I have also discovered that I have an un-willingness to leave the vegetables boiling in the plan for only the required three minutes. The result is that my veg is more par-boiled than blanched, which I don’t really mind. It will cut down on cooking time anyway. I did forget to follow one tremendously useful tip, which is to spread out the cooled vegetables on a tray to enable you to freeze them without sticking together. You then bag them afterwards, for perfectly free-flowing vegetables. Sadly, I think mine will be somewhat clumped together as I packaged them straight away. You live and learn as they say! The pictures here show my finished results, including some of our miniature strawberries which we just pop into the freezer without any preparation.

Advice about what you can and cannot freeze can tend to be contradictory. For instance, on scouring the internet I have found a difference of opinion on the feasibility of freezing onions and any variety of pepper. Similarly, opinion varies about freezing chives (which I have recently done when I divided some plants). These caveats seem to be because of flavour loss rather than any more serious issues. I suppose really, it is up to you to experiment and to discover what works and what does not. Anyway, I will continue with my freezing experiments, who knows, next year I may even have my own home grown vegetables to freeze…

Let me know if you have done any home freezing!

Picture Credits: Curiously Creatively


A Tasty Boiled Fruit Cake

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I have just been doing some cake baking for the last coffee morning of the term, so I decided to bake a couple of old favourites and to try out something new as well. My old maths teacher once told us (apropos of no mathematical topic whatsoever) that it was not a good idea to try out a new recipe when you have guests for dinner. I can see the logic of that argument, but I don’t tend to apply it to my baking for cakes sales or coffee mornings, which seem to me to be excellent opportunities for trying out new ideas on a large number of victims (sorry, tasters). To that end, apart from baking shortbread and brownies, which I have featured previously on the blog, I decided to make a boiled sultana slab cake. I baked this fruit cake in a roasting tin, then I cut it up into about thirty small slices, an ideal size for nibbling with coffee.

My cake recipe is one that I cut from a packet of Gold Seal sultanas many moons ago and have never tried out before this occasion. It was stuck in my recipe folder in anticipation, yet unused until this week. I have made a boiled fruit cake before, quite a dark fruitcake (my nan’s recipe), but this mixture results in a nice golden cake. As you can see, the original recipe used sultanas only, but I used a mixture of glace cherries and sultanas instead. Another possible tweak is to use less sugar, as this is a very sweet cake. I am interested in seeing how a fruit and nut mixture would work using this method, so that’s an idea for the future. It may be that you could boil the fruit and then stir in some chopped almonds afterwards, as I don’t think nuts would derive much benefit from boiling.

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I am not sure where the method of boiling the dried fruit originated, but it is an excellent way to achieve very soft fruit. Perhaps historically it was a method of using up poorer quality dried fruit, or using up the last of the stored supplies, which may have passed their best. Either way, the boiling method makes a very moist, dense cake, which slices and keeps beautifully. This cake making method is also a very straightforward one, great for novice cooks. I hesitate to say that nothing can go wrong, but I think this method is almost certainly foolproof. That is, unless you let the fruit boil over the top of the saucepan I suppose or boil dry and stick to the saucepan!

The cake recipe is included in the picture gallery if you want to try it out; I used block margarine instead of butter on this occasion. You will probably notice that the instructions omit tin greasing; I greased the roasting tin, but also used my margarine wrapping on the base of the tin. I find that butter and margarine papers are really useful as tin or tray liners. In retrospect, I should have completely lined the tin, as I had problems with a couple of bits of cake sticking to the tin. One other change that I would make to the quantities would be to reduce the two teaspoons of almond essence, as I think the flavour is a little strong. However, you can adapt this good basic recipe in several ways, so it will be well worth making again.

Now I’m off to pack up some cake in boxes….having sampled everything first of course!

Rosy Grapefruit Marmalade

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Once again, I am in the preserving zone but this time it is not turning foraged woodland fruit into jam, but supermarket foraged fruit into marmalade. The fruit in question was a bag of pink grapefruit, bought in the mistaken assumption that they were large oranges. This posed a domestic dilemma, as nobody in the household is overly fond of grapefruit, even the rosier variety. I can remember as a child, being absolutely baffled by my parents’ occasional Sunday breakfasts of grapefruit halves. How could anyone eat them I wondered? What then, should I do with unwanted grapefruits (pink)? Cue a quick delve into the ever-faithful preserving book, to check out the citrus section. Lo and behold, Thane Prince does indeed have a recipe for grapefruit marmalade, which I decided to try out. As I had never made grapefruit marmalade, fate gave me the opportunity to throw caution to the winds and give it a go.Pink Grapefruit

As usual, I ended up fiddling around with the recipe a little, partly because whereas I had four grapefruits, the recipe required three. As the last fruit standing would be going nowhere in a hurry, it had to be marmalized (so to speak). Thane Prince’s recipe called for the rind and juice of two lemons also. However, since I had increased the quantity of grapefruit, I left those out; merely adding in some lemon juice I had by me at the time. I found the shredding of the peel to be a challenge, despite having made lemon marmalade previously. I think that I should have used the same method (using a potato peeler) described in that recipe and not followed the instructions given in the marmalade instructions. It is much easier to take the peel/rind off first and then squeeze the juice rather than the other way around. You have to soak the shredded peel in water for twenty-four hours before cooking; the smell was lovely and tangy.

As I have said already, I am delighted to have the use of a proper preserving pan, though I have yet to use it to full capacity. I could easily have boiled double the quantity, had I need to dispose of more grapefruits. The most important part of the marmalade process is to ensure that you cook the peel until is very soft before adding the sugar. The recipe said to allow sixty minutes for this stage, so I was careful to stick to that as the thought of tough chewy peel was an unpleasant one. The peel is supposed to be soft enough that you can cut it with a spoon, so I assiduously tested it, terrified by the spectre of marmalade with hard bits of peel in it. Not a thing you want on your morning toast.

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The marmalade recipe advises putting the pips in a muslin bag and adding them to the pan. However, the general instructions for preserving citrus fruits recommend also to reserve and boil the pith, to obtain as much pectin as possible, so I did that to be on the safe side. I am not sure whether grapefruit has as much pectin as lemon, but I assume all citrus fruits are good. I must check that for another time. I followed the instruction for adding sugar, boiling and then testing for a set. I found that it did take longer than the twenty to thirty minutes given in the recipe. In fact, I was probably too hasty in putting the jam into jars, as I found that all of the peel rose to the top half of the containers. I belatedly realised that I had missed the instruction to ‘allow it to stand for 5 minutes, then pot into hot sterilized jars’.

Nevertheless, our product tasted very good, a nice sharp, but not too a bitter flavour. We liked the colour too. I think the setting was not as good as it could have been, so the marmalade does not have the jelly like constancy I was hoping to achieve. However, for a first time effort I am pleased with our grapefruit preserve. I have in mind to use some in a marmalade cake, but that’s another blog post!


Recipes from the Ladies of Llangollen

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Ladies of Llangollen

My slightly battered library copy!

As some readers may already know, I also run a book blog based on my never ending TBR Pile, and one of my recent reads was a book about the Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831) by Mary Gordon. I was curious to learn more about the Ladies so I requested a book from the library called A Year with the Ladies of Llangollen edited by Elizabeth Mavor (Penguin, 1986). This comprises a selection of journal entries taken from Eleanor Butler’s journal, arranged from January to December to give a good idea of their seasonal activities from year to year.

In amongst the journal entries, written mainly by Eleanor Butler are extracts from the accounts kept by Sarah Ponsonby. The accounts give an indication of the practical housekeeping aspects of the Ladies’ lives, as also do the recipes that were included within the original journal. The women had servants, as befitted their social class, but I assume that they kept a close eye on what went on the kitchen to ensure that everything ran smoothly. I just want to mention a couple of the recipes here. I have been thinking that when I have time, I might play around and adapt some for a twenty-first century kitchen. If you remember, that is what Juliet Greenwood did as part of her research for her World War I novel We That Are Left (Honno Press). I made her version of seed cake from the recipe she adapted from that era. Very tasty it was too!

Journal Excerpt

January events…

Some of the recipes from the Ladies’ book strongly tempt my creative juices, though not perhaps anything involving a sheep’s head, neat’s tongue or sausage making. Some of the recipes are too robust for modern tastes I fear (well, mine anyway). Some dishes, such as stewed cucumber sound quite strange and not particularly palatable. Having said that, I am willing to give it a whirl, as it does not involve brains or eyes. Naturally, the recipes for cakes and biscuits have most interest for me, with the bonus that they are potentially adaptable to modern ovens and ingredients. I have picked out two recipes to give you an idea, quoting them exactly as Elizabeth Mavor has done, with the erratic punctuation and capitalisation.

The first recipe (or receipt) comes from a March 1794 entry (p65); the ingredients are all that the writer gives, so I assume that the method, baking times and temperature must have been so well known as not to require mention. It does remind me of some of the cryptic notes I find in my own recipe folder; I know what I mean, so it does not occur to me to expand on the basics for anyone else’s benefit.

Almond Cakes

Eight Eggs and two Whites, three quarter of a pound of Sugar a quarter of a pound of sweet Almonds half an Ounce of Butter. half a pound of Flour. Bake them in little Earthen pans.

I am guessing that the method would be to whisk the eggs up with the sugar, then to fold in almonds (ground?) and flour followed by the ounce of butter (melted). For practical reasons I think it would make sense to scale down the recipe to half the quantity to try it out for the first time. The recipe does not say whether the almonds should be roasted or how finely prepared, but again I suppose the Ladies knew that detail and didn’t consider it necessary to write it down.

The following cheese recipe [From January 1815, p37] might also be a good one to try. At first, I had visions of the Ladies having a 1970s style fondue party, but what they call a fondue is a sort of baked cheese soufflé. Again, the details are sketchy, as the cook gives no quantity for the cheese, so I suppose you would put grated cheese in to your taste depending on its vintage.

Fondue of Cheese

Rasp some Old rich Cheese and some common cheese equal quantities of each. boil half a Pint of good Cream and let it cool, beat up the whites of four eggs. Mix all together lightly, put them in little paper Cases and Bake them in a Gentle Oven.

Literally plenty of food for thought, and I have only browsed as far as March. I shall be truly sorry to have to return the Ladies to the library. Elizabeth Mavor’s book will be one to hunt down and buy I think. I would love to hear from anyone else that has tried out old recipes and to hear about the results.

UPDATE: September 2016

I have finally got around to ordering a copy of a Year with the Ladies of Llangollen and am eagerly awaiting its arrival. However, I don’t know how long it will be before I manage to try out any of the ladies’ recipes. I will keep you posted!

Preserving Damsons (again!)

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It was jam-making time again chez nous recently, which meant that we finally used up our stock of foraged and frozen damsons. This tub of fruit has been waiting patiently for inspiration to strike me for at least a year. In the end, the reason the damsons eventually found their way into a jam jar was less to do with inspiration and more to do with a need for a large Tupperware box long out of circulation. From such mundane considerations are culinary delights created (well that’s getting somewhat carried away I suppose, but you can see what I mean). What has started out as a purely practical exercise, has re-stocked our jam supplies with some quite more-ish fruit preserve. Still remaining to be used are some of last autumn’s foraged blackberries, but I will come to those soon I hope, as we are almost out of our supply of blackberry and apple jelly .

Defrosting Damsons

Ready to boil.

I originally planned to make the damson cheese from our Thane Prince Jams and Chutneys book. However, as I didn’t have the required 2kg of damsons available, but did have some Bramleys in the house, we ended up with a damson and apple cheese. I have thus borrowed from two recipes in Thane Prince’s book, as I have adapted elements from both the ‘Damson cheese’ and the ‘Apple butter’ recipes. If you remember, we have made preserves from her book previously, including our own variation of her apple butter using apples donated by a neighbour. This batch of preserves is noteworthy as it the first time that I had proper use out of my large new preserving pan, bought last year in Aldi. Part of me wishes I had chosen a smaller size, as you need to boil a large quantity of fruit to get good use out of the pot. Anyway, I suppose it should in future mean that fruit does not hang around in the freezer for a year, as I can now boil up an enormous batch should I so desire.

The damsons were quite small so I didn’t attempt to halve them and I peeled and chopped the apples (total of 2kg fruit) and put them with a litre of water to bring to the boil. I did find that the water took a longer time than I was expecting to reach boiling point, but I suppose that was because I was not used to the pan. Prince’s original recipe uses fresh ginger at this stage, to add zing to the fruit, but as I did not have any available (I think that happened last time I tried to make damson cheese) I resorted to the spice cupboard. When at the next stage of putting the fruit pulp and sugar (1.5kg) in together I added a quarter of a teaspoon of ground cinnamon to add a hint of spice. Next time, I really will make sure to have a piece of fresh ginger handy, as I would like to try it for flavour.

Damsons and Apples

Fruit cooking in the pan.

In this type of recipe, the hard work comes in at the stage of pushing the softened fruit through a sieve to create a fruit puree. I think that maybe I need a larger sieve to make the task a little easier as it is an arm aching process at the best of times. Then, when you get to the stage of being ready to test the mixture for a set, the recipe instruction says, ‘scoop out a spoonful, put it on a cold plate, and allow it to cool. It should stay in a mound rather than spread out over the plate’. Now, I had cooked the mixture for the suggested 30-45 minutes, resulting in a thickening of the fruit mixture but it was nowhere near as thick as to stay in a mound. Having said all of that, my test amount passed the appropriate wrinkle test, so I potted up the jam (cheese) into hot jars. I am not sure what I am doing wrong as my batches are never as thick as they are supposed to be. I am concerned that if I cook longer to achieve a greater thickness, that I will then spoil the flavour.

Jars of Damson & Apple Anyway, all my damson and apple cheese (or butter?) is safely sealed and labelled. Of course, we have already been sampling! If anyone has any jamming tips to offer, we would love to hear them.

Biscuit Cake with Leftover Gingerbread

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A few posts back on Curiously, Creatively Verity talked about her gingerbread reindeer kit from Christmas. But what do you do with the remains of said confectionary item when it goes slightly soft and looks to have passed its eat-by date? The answer to that question is that you turn it into a chocolaty slab of biscuit cake. Actually, I probably should mention here that various un-named persons had taken off and eaten all of the Smarties and royal icing, leaving an almost naked reindeer looking rather forlorn in the cake tin. It was time to do something about the reindeer remains. In sum, we wanted to turn the soggy gingerbread reindeer into another tasty nibble and the idea of creating a version of tiffin or a biscuit cake seemed to be the way to go.

For a biscuit cake recipe, I rooted through the recipe drawer, but in the end, I settled for one that I found in my Rosemary Wadey Cakes and Cake Decorating book. There are two quite similar recipes in the book and a version of the one below is the recipe that I used:

Chocolate Quickies

Biscuit Cake

In the tin ready to finish

100g/4 oz butter/margarine
2 TBS cocoa powder
1 TBS demerara sugar
2 TBS golden syrup
200g/8 oz crushed semisweet biscuits
100g/4 oz plain or milk chocolate, chopped (for topping)

Naturally, we tweaked the recipe a little; what else are recipes for, but to inspire you to fiddle around with alternatives? Of course, the biggest tweak was using the remains of a gingerbread reindeer instead of the semisweet biscuits. Having done that, we realised that we had less gingerbread than we thought so we made up the quantity with finely chopped walnuts. This worked well, although the proportion of biscuit to nuts wasn’t quite right. Ideally, maybe a quarter of the biscuits replaced with nuts would have been better. Chopped dried fruit could be a tasty addition to the biscuit base, or maybe a mix of contrasting biscuit flavours. Nevertheless, the result was still very more-ish I must say, and worth trying out again.

Chocolate Topping

Just covered in chocolate

The recipe method is a straightforward melting process, melting the butter, adding cocoa, sugar and sugar and bringing them to the boil. Simply stir in the crushed biscuits (or whatever combination you have) and press the mixture into a lined 7” square tin. Leave to cool and set firm before topping with the melted chocolate. It would be a nice idea to melt some white chocolate to pipe swirls or patterns to decorate to ring the changes. As you can see, we left our cake without adornment this time, with a simple layer of dark chocolate.

The quickies (or biscuit cakes!) passed their taste test, so why not let us know about anything you have tried out and tweaked recently? If you have a food blog, post up a link to your recipe for us to try out..

Finished Biscuit Cake

Ready to sample!

Crazy for Craft Kits

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I realised after Christmas that I had several craft kits which wanted making up. Firstly, there was my gingerbread reindeer kit. Then, my Big Hoot owl and finally two model aircraft.

The gingerbread reindeer was a Christmas present which I made up a few weeks ago. However, there is still some of it left to eat. In this kit, the body and head, antlers, base and legs were all supplied as pre-baked gingerbread biscuits. There was icing sugar, sprinkles and little chocolates with coloured shells. The assembly was easy-peasy. We used out own icing sugar to make the icing with, because we had a packet open already. The gingerbread base had slots into which the legs could be stuck with icing. Then, we slotted the body into the legs and put the antlers on.

Gingerbread Reindeer

Jazzy Gingerbread Reindeer

When it came to the decoration, I strayed away a little bit from the picture on the box, and I used the small coloured disks which we already had in instead of the sprinkles. The result was rather jazzy! Unfortunately, the reindeer’s neck soon broke under the weight of the antlers. We hadn’t re-baked the biscuits through first because the instructions said only to do this if they seemed soft. In hindsight, we probably should have done it anyway. Also, the icing really needed to be left to set before the antlers were placed on. Still, although my reindeer didn’t last long, he looked good while he did!

My second kit, also a Christmas present, was for painting a model plaster owl. It was merchandise from The Big Hoot, an outdoor exhibition of giant owls across Birmingham city centre, which we saw last summer. The exhibition was very similar to the Easter Egg Hunt and Pigs on Parade, both of which we saw in Dublin.

The kit comes with about five tiny paint pots in a basic range of colours and two small paint brushes. When I started doing this kit, I quickly realised that the brushes and paints supplied were hopeless. Although I stirred up the paint as best I could, some of it was too hard and set to mix. I got my own paints out to replace them. The bristles on the brushes were too long and bendy to be accurate, I tried cutting them down, but this had little effect. In the end, I got out my own paintbrushes as well. So much for kits with ‘all materials included’! Anyway, at the moment the owl is half-finished and awaiting a second coat of paint.

Finally, I have two model aircraft kits, one from a trip to Cosford Air Museum last summer and one was a Christmas gift. The Red Arrow kit is by Airfix, similar to the Hawker Hurricane and Gloster Gladiator that I made before. The other kit is quite different. It’s a Hurricane in balsa wood and tissue paper which is rubber powered and can really be flown.

Hawker Hurricane

Hawker Hurricane kit

I’ve never made a plane kit like this before and I’m looking forward to doing it as a summer project this year. Also, I’m going to finish my owl sometime soon. He Who Put The Shelves Up suggested making it an Emperor Owl and painting on some gold leaf to suggest a chest plate or chain mail. Gold leaf is sold in lot of craft shops and I might pick some up to try out this unusual idea.

What have you been making and baking recently? Drop us a line in the comment box below…

Homemade Christmas 2015 Round-Up

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As we are still (just) within the Twelve Days of Christmas, I want to give you a quick run-through of some of our homemade/foraged decorations and our home baked sweet treats. I still have in mind to make a Twelfth Night cake one year, but have not got around to it yet. Maybe I will do it for Christmas 2016!

I was writing in a recent Members’ Blog post on about harvesting tomatoes by torchlight (a form of writerly procrastination, don’t you know) and I begin this post with our torchlight holly gathering session. We had decorated the tree and had begun to retrieve the Christmas logs (originally made by my dad) when we realised that we had forgotten to pick any holly to go on the mantelpiece. Cue, a nighttime gardening interlude.

We donned our wellies (as the ground was very storm soggy) put on jackets and grabbed a torch, gardening gloves and secateurs. Then we sallied forth to the far reaches of the back garden to find some berry bearing holly branches for our seasonal display. I discovered that it is quite difficult to harvest holly wearing mud-stiffened gardening gloves, even if someone is aiming the torch in roughly the correct snipping spot. Anyway, we did manage to cut a few sprigs, although even with the aid of the torch it was difficult to see the berries. Memo to self, do this in the daylight next year…

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The mantelpiece was duly decorated with holly, off-cuts from the Christmas tree and the painted logs. We also still have the cinnamon sticks that I spray-painted last year to add to the Christmas arrangement in our slightly unconventional boot vase. One of our other natural decorations is a pile of fir cones, some of them sprayed with silver paint, ‘arranged’ in a glass bowl. We have also attached thread to a few painted cones to hang on the tree, but unfortunately didn’t get around to foraging any new ones this year.

While I am on the theme of homemade decorations, I want to give a cheer for the salt dough tree decorations that have survived several years of service (pictures in the gallery). Every December, they benefit from a little spell by the fire to take away the dampness acquired during storage. No matter how well we wrap them, they still end up getting a bit soft during the year. I am not sure how much longer they will survive, but fingers crossed for a few more years. One year, I think we should have a go at making some edible cookies for the tree, maybe that’s another project for 2016.

On the homemade food front, we repeated the fruit and nut Christmas pudding recipe that we wrote about last year, only this year I made the mixture into six small puddings for a change. Another difference was that I cooked them in a bain-marie in a moderate oven, instead of boiling which worked out very well. I took two puddings to my parents and kept the rest. They store very well for a few weeks wrapped in foil, or you could freeze them. So far, we have only eaten one, so we will be munching on Christmas pudding well into January.

This year’s Christmas cake was made from a walnut and cherry loaf recipe (from Cakes and Cake Decorating) which we transformed into a tree shape, after baking it in a small roasting tin. We put a layer of marzipan over it, after brushing on warmed rosehip jam as a change from apricot. With a covering of coloured sugar paste, we created a stylised Christmas tree, which we then decorated with royal icing.

One of my minor seasonal obsessions is to produce varying forms of the ubiquitous mince pie to ring the changes from year to year. I love mince pies, but I only ever make them during December and up to Twelfth Night, then my mincemeat eating ceases forthwith. A couple of years ago, I decided to tweak my usual shortbread recipe to include a layer of mincemeat. Using the recipe here, I divide the paste in half, line the base of the tin and add a layer of mincemeat before rolling out the rest to go on top. I prick the surface with a fork before baking and dredge with castor or icing sugar afterwards. Recently I made a version as a tray bake for a college coffee morning, but for our own Christmas nibbling, I made a half quantity in a seven inch round tin.

That’s about it for Christmas this year, though I am already thinking about things that we didn’t get around to making or that we will try out next year.

Watch this space…and meanwhile, do drop a line with your own suggestions.

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