Thursday 21 June 2012

Meet the ladies

Had I mentioned that we became beekeepers this year? It's something we've wanted to do since our holiday in New Zealand a few years ago. That was the holiday that we realised that city life is not for us, that things had never felt more "right" than when we were in a small place surrounded by open space, and animals, and bees. It was a bit of an epiphany holiday, and since then we have been inching towards making the changes that mean one day we can have that life every day.
 First we moved out to the suburbs to get a house of our own and a bigger garden. Then things got a bit stagnant. Career changes, and the British weather conspired against us. Until we spotted the local honey show whilst walking round the town one Saturday afternoon and popped in. We expected to leave fifteen minutes later having seen some wax, bought some honey and observed some bees. Instead we walked out after well over an hour, having ooh-ed and aahh-ed over the comb, spoken at length to beekeepers about the size of our garden and signed up to the winter theory course!

It all very exciting and a bit daunting. What were we thinking?! Our garden is bigger than the last one, but certainly not big, and although we'd talked about chickens soon, possibly, and bees "one day" we hadn't expected to leap in and have it the other way around. That was October, the classes started in January, and we thought no more about it.

Christmas came and went, 2012 began and along with it our new venture, and we were hooked. The nights of our theory class became the highlight of the week, we were theoretical beekeepers, and we couldn't wait to see actual bees.

We had to wait a while, once again the British weather got in the way, every night we went to the apiary in the spring it rained, and on one occasion the site even flooded so we had to de-camp to the local pub instead. But about a month ago the sunshine finally arrived, and so did our time with the ladies of hive J. And I fell in love.

I am in awe of how amazing this little colony is, and how week after week I feel like I know them a little better. It is a little colony as they didn't have the best start to their year, but they are the best tempered bees most of the beekeepers have seen. So much so that there is a fight going on for who gets the queens the colony produces.

At the moment our garden isn't ready for our own group of ladies. But we're working on that, and hopefully by this time next year we can spend leisurely evenings lighting the smoker and enjoying the (hopefully) gentle buzz of bees working. Until then Hive J is keeping us very happy indeed!

We really are covered in bees! 

Friday 8 June 2012

Their new game.

The cats have a new game to pass the time in the bad weather. I'm not sure what they call it, but I call it "dead mouse, live mouse." I don't know if you've come across it but the rules are as follows:

- The game involves two or more players, one (or more) of which must be a cat, the other(s) human.

- The game may commence at any time regardless of whether the human player(s) realises they are playing.

- The game is played in a "playing area" that is made up of the living area of the human players (house, flat, etc) and any areas in the immediate vicinity (porch, area immediately outside the back door etc).  Any garden areas more than a few feet from the back/front doors are not counted as playing area.

- In order for the game to start the feline players must have concealed two mice in the playing area. One live, one dead.

- Feline players then sit back and relax and watch as the human players discover the hidden mice.

- The game is played over an indefinite time period, and only finishes when the human players have discovered both mice. The only exception to this rule is if the ex-mouse is not longer in a recognisable state. If the game is played long enough for this to be the case it is considered to be in stale-mate until the playing piece is replaced.

- The live mouse does not have to have been successfully captured for the game to be over, just discovered.
- Bonus points are scored if the dead mouse is discovered whilst a human player is in pursuit of the live mouse. 

- The feline players always win. There is no situation in which the feline players cannot win.

Friday 9 March 2012

Sometimes all you need is an excuse.

The last weekend did not go entirely as planned. We had aimed for two days of gently sorting out the garden, of wading through the mountains of weeds that have sprung up, and of uprooting the debris from last years veg growing attempts.
However, it wasn't to be. A late night on Friday, perhaps accompanied by a few too many drinks ensured a late start to Saturday. This, coupled with the rain and the cold made us less than enthused, then there was the discovery that once again the kitchen appliances are ganging up on me. First the dishwasher (which hasn't been playing ball for months, tricksy little thing),  and now the fridge. I'm telling you, they're in leagues against me. So yes, we did not begin the weekend quite as expected, and even a batch of cinnamon pancakes couldn't boost the energy levels.

There was only one thing for it. A trip to the local farm shop in search of treats, fruit and cream. Yes, when life gives you a rainy weekend there is only one thing to do.

Make pie.

I used frozen cherries that I defrosted and then cooked slightly with a dash of brandy and a handful of dried tart cherries to take the edge off the sweetness. I then drained them (to avoid a soggy bottom on my pie). Then I discovered that we didn't have quite enough butter for a full pie, so Plan B was put into place. Small tart, topped with crumble, and not a smidgen of butter remained.
But I didn't stop there, oh no. On Sunday, when we actually ate the pie, it was no longer raining, it was sleeting. Drastic times call for drastic measures. We needed custard! Thank goodness I'd bought cream and then remembered that due to the lack of fridge it would need to be used immediately. Such a shame.

A couple of hours later, huddle in the warm embrace of the living room, with two very happy cats (they love it when we stay in and help them guard the sofa), we indulged completely in pie, and custard. And I'm not ashamed to say it, but we even opened some Prosecco. Why? because a Sunday that forces you to slow down and catch up sometimes deserves celebrating.
This pie/tart/crumble is super simple, and easily adaptable. I rolled the pastry, N whipped together the crumble and in went the fruit. The hardest bit was remembering to stir the custard, and not be distracted by the sight of the pie cooling slightly across the kitchen.

If you use frozen fruit I would defrost it and drain the juice, not only does this help stop your pie base being soggy, and eliminate the need for an initial blind bake of the pastry, but it also means you can reduce this down and use it as a posh "jus."

Pastry: - makes just enough for the base of an 8' fluted tart pan.
165g Plain flour
50g light muscovado sugar
90g cold butter
1/2 beaten egg
1 tbsp cold water

I make my pastry in a food processor as I find it quicker and easier and helps to keep it cool. However, I find this pastry to be very forgiving and will be light and crumbly even if overworked slightly. If you don't have a food processor, just bring the ingredients together as lightly and quickly as possible into a dough.

Then chill for 30mins/1 hr in the fridge before rolling out and file the tart pan. Once laid out in the tart pan chill for a further 30mins. I put mine in the freezer to get really cold.

Then you can turn the oven to 190C to preheat and make the crumble.

63g butter
75g plain flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
38g ground almonds
20 rolled oats
25g demerara sugar

Bring all the ingredients together in a bowl until it looks like large piece of clumpy gravel! 

I used around 700g of frozen cherries, and 100g tart dried cherries

If using frozen fruit, make sure you defrost it and drain away most of the juice (not all you don't want a completely dry tart)

I'm afraid I don't have anything more accurate than this, But I think that if you were using fresh a good combination would be two or three bramley apples chopped with around 100g raisins soaked in brandy. Yes...I'm already getting ideas for what to do with this next!

When the base is chilled, pour in the fruit and then top liberally with crumble (the mix will give you more than you need to cover the fruit, but I like to leave slight gaps where the fruit juices can ooze through)

Bake for aprox. 20mins, until the both the pastry and the crumble are turning golden. Remove and cool for ten minutes before turning out and slicing. Best eating with lashings of cream or custard.

Monday 5 March 2012

Crack out your marmalade!

 Last week in the UK it was National Marmalade Week. A fact that gave preserving enthusiasts and toast munchers alike cause to celebrate.
But wait! There's much more to marmalade than just smearing it on your toast in the morning. By all means smear away, but don't be too hasty to push that jar of marmalade back in the cupboard just yet. Why not give your marmalade a whole new lease of life by putting it in a cake?
That's exactly what I did at work last week in order to share National Marmalade Week with our customers. It helped that I'd just delivered my new stock and could display it proudly next to a cake that was filled with marmalady goodness.
Before I start, I should mention that the oven at work has been a little temperamental of late, and so I cooked this cake at a lower temperature for a long time in order to get the texture I wanted. This means that you might want to keep an eye on it whilst baking. Mine took around an hour and a half at 170C, but I think in a more conventional oven an hour would be enough. Best thing to do is bake it on a day when you can keep an eye on it, and test it before you think it's done. It's done when a toothpick comes out with moist crumbs on it, not batter.

Marmalade cake with cinnamon and marmalade glaze - serves 8, generously!


350g unsalted butter
350g light muscovado sugar
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
350g self raising flour
150g thick cut marmalade (I used my malt whiskey marmalade, and cut the peel down into chunks)
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Juice of one orange,
2 tbsp marmalade
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 170C and line a 24" round cake tin with parchment.

cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, adding the cinnamon and marmalade towards the end. Slowly mix in the eggs, a little at a time alternating with a spoonful of flour to stop curdling. When all the eggs are combined gently mix in the flour.

Pour the batter into the tin and smooth the top.

Bake for aprox. 1 hr - 1,5hrs, depending on your oven. You can stop it browning too much with a layer of foil towards the end of the cooking period.

Meanwhile make the glaze:

place all the ingredients in a small pan over a medium heat. Stir until combined and then bring to a gentle boil. Allow to boil for around five minutes. Leave to cool.

Once the cake is done, leave to cool for ten minutes before removing gently from the tin, pricking gently all over with a toothpick and then spoon the glaze evenly all over the cake.

This cake is delicious still slightly warm with gently whipped cream, but lasts for at least three days if kept airtight. 

Wednesday 29 February 2012

In the past week I have been mostly...

...celebrating two new products on the shelves of the local deli...

...and using one of them to perfect a delicious new cake (recipe soon!)

...getting my teeth into a fabulous new book, remembering how much I enjoy academic(ish) reading, dashing into a shop to buy a pencil so I can underline bits whilst on the move, and hunting out more non-fiction to keep me going.
...and finally, (or rather firstly, as we did this on Saturday) eating here. Finally. A couple of months later than planned, but very much worth the wait. We're already planning the return visit. Oh Giorgio how I adore thee!

Sunday 19 February 2012

In the name of research.

This weekend I went on a jaunt across to Oxford to see a good friend of mine. It was a weekend to sit back and relax, to catch up, and do some serious research into a certain Monsieur Raymond Blanc.
Having started watching his new serious A Very Hungry Frenchman, Lady K and I have been enjoying a barrage of amazing food, and a cacophany of "ooh la la"'s. It's been most wonderful, and gave us the perfect excuse to head straight to Maison Blanc for a post-breakfast pastry and coffee.

It didn't disappoint. We spent a long time deciding what to have, and eventually settled on sharing two pieces. We then went a little mad in the shop and came away with bread and pastries for the next day. I somehow managed to resist the preserves. I'm not quite sure how!
I've been pondering my future a lot at the moment. I'm know where I want to be (geographically), but am not entirely sure what I am going to end up doing when I get there. It's a long term plan, and there is no real cause for alarm, and yet I feel like I should be taking steps. I'm hoping some connections made this week will help.
So in the meantime I have turned to two comfort past times. Knitting and baking. A new jumper is off the needles and and old recipe improved on. Remember these? I've been mucking about with them again.
This time I added maple syrup and more butter. It works wonderfully. The real trick is to add about 2 tablespoons of maple syrup to the melted butter, and then any of this mix you have left, add icing sugar and use it to then glaze them. Amazing!
It's sunny today, and feels rather like spring. It has been a rather mild winter here, as I think it has for many people. For some reason, this has meant I am even more desperate for the milder days and sunnier moments than I have been in previous years. I think because my body has been tricked into thinking that the mild winter means it's actually been a slightly rubbish spring all along. I want to get into the garden, stomp through the fields, and start things afresh.

Exciting things are afoot, I'm sure of it.

Monday 6 February 2012

Snow day!

So the mythical snow finally arrived on Saturday evening. Whilst wandering about in town book shopping after the match we pondered stopping for a drink, perhaps even eating out. Then, while standing discussing whether we knew anywhere close by to stop for aforementioned beverage a few small white flakes settled on our shoulders and the decision was made: head to the station and home for wine and a curry.
What seemed like a few innocuous flakes in London Town, turned into a blizzard of white out in the depths of Surrey, and trudging up the hill to the house we were glad we made the decision we did. We've been caught out like that before! "oh, it's only a bit of snow, the trains will be fine" and suddenly six hours later you're staring at departure boards willing a train to appear.
So home it was, curry it was, and on went the fire.

The next morning we awoke to the telltale hush and magical light that snow brings, and opening the curtains revealed a lovely seven inches of white glittery fluff! One cat was totally unimpressed and tucked up on the sofa frowning, whilst the other dashed in and out of the cat flap to tell us how exciting it all was!
We too thought it was pretty exciting and armed with the knowledge that there was hot chocolate in the house, and this year even heating! We headed out to play.

Our lovely stomp in the snow was marred only by the discovered that there wasn't the beautiful view at the top of the hill! So back down it was for a brief sojourn to the pub for a pint of the local ale, and then home for hot chocolate and pyjamas. The perfect snow day.

I hope you had a good weekend too and the weather hasn't disrupted your Monday too much!

Back soon with some baked treats and (hopefully) knitting reveals!