Friday 29 August 2014

Preserving Moments

Summer has come to an abrupt end in the UK in these last few weeks. One moment it was warm and felt like high summer and the next, it just wasn't. The light has changed as well as the temperature - softer; more translucent and subtle. And it's damp; verging on clammy in the mornings which are now, slightly depressingly, still dark well beyond 5.00 am. The change in weather precedes a return to routines and to a more structured pattern to the days and in truth that's quite welcome although, like the weather, the sudden shift is, or will be, a bit of a shock to the system. And then there's the underlying shift that runs deeper than the purely superficial.

I have always regarded the start of a new academic year that comes with the beginning of September with optimism - new chapters opening, new beginnings, new horizons, new books, new pencils (especially new pencils!) - all hopeful stuff. I felt it for myself as a child at school, and then at university and after, when I was teaching in my twenties. I have felt it again, vicariously, through H's progression though school. This year feels a little different. After this coming academic year, H only has one more year of school and so this is almost the last academic new year with which I shall feel a direct connection. It's made me sit up and think a bit

"Time and tide wait for no man" and all that. And suddenly I want to stop "time and tide". I am reminded, not for the first time, of something Dennis Potter talked about in an interview before he died, that "life can only be defined in the present tense". Now is all we have. The past is gone in an immediate sense; the future is not yet with us. He's right. "Now" is all we have, in this life. And yet that "now" slips through the fingers as driftily* as any sand. *Is that a word? I don't think so, but I feel it ought to be!

What was "now" when I typed it, a few seconds ago, is no longer "now" but has gone ephemerally into a gossamer pile of moments that I cannot relive, even if I can retrieve them in some way through recorded memory. In Virgil's epic poem, "The Aeneid", the hero, Aeneas, goes down into the underworld and meets a lot of long dead characters. Hardly surprisingly, he finds it a patently unsatisfactory and unsettling experience, not least because the souls are, as Virgil puts it, "tenuis sine corpore" (Aeneid Book VI, somewhere in the middle, if I remember correctly) "virtual souls without substance"; empty and ephemeral. You cannot engage with or pin down these souls of the underworld, either physically or in any other way. I feel that's a good description of many moments of time. Blogging them, of course, or photographing them, helps to give them some body and some substance; in a strange way makes them less "virtual", (despite the virtual medium of the Internet and digital photography), which is why so many of us do it.

Our forebears preserved, bottled, salted and dried in order to make sure they had enough food to survive the winter. Any airy-fairy notion of wanting to put a brake on time was probably a million miles away from their thoughts but I find my urge to preserve stuff is as much about this as anything more fundamental. After all, I won't starve if I don't turn my blackberry-pickings into jam or if I fail to dry my herbs. And let not me kid myself that it's about saving money either, because homemade is not always cheaper; in fact, it often isn't. There's always the unanswerable realisation that "no jam is always cheaper than any jam".

But homemade preserving is, for me anyway, not about survival or about saving money, it's a way of pinning down moments, "nows" that would otherwise be gone completely. And this year I am in a quandary because I really shouldn't make any more jam or jellies - my shelves are still full of previous years' efforts. (See my previous Larder Confessional post - and thank you for all your sympathetic comments on that - I don't feel quite so guilty now.) But even though I can't justify making any more jam, I feel the desire to apply the preserving brake to time, very acutely.

So I've had to find another direction for my preserving instincts. It was Viola, who also has a cupboard well-stocked with jams and jellies from previous years, who wrote in a comment that she had decided to preserve her fruit harvest in the form of fruit syrups, who started me off. (If you don't know her lovely blog colourcrochetlove, have a look - gorgeous crochet and baking to boot!)

I've been experimenting a bit with small quantities of flower syrups this year - elderflower and lime blossom - and I usually make blackcurrant and mint cordial in the summer for immediate consumption but I've not really ventured into preserving anything like that for the longer term. I've frozen a few plastic bottles of the early summer syrups but there's not much room in the freezer for more.

Anyway the long and the short of it is that I've ventured into a bit of drying - like my marigolds above  and these herbs

and some wild-fruit-syrup-bottling. No more jars of jam for my overpopulated shelves but a raft of squat bottles for the lower decks underneath them where, after my bit of tidying, there is now some room. And for the space I've newly made on the upper shelves, there is now some capacity for some pots of dried herbs. It's salved my urgent, preserving-as-putting-a-brake-on-time, desires nicely.

And one of the most pleasing things about the results is that they are about as solid and earthed as you can get - nothing virtual or floaty about these solid, glass bottles, nothing washed out or watered down or pastiche about their vivid colours, scents or tastes even though the herbs outside the kitchen window are beginning to wither, the flowers in the garden have faded, and the berries will not be here for much longer. It's been a good exercise for these end of summer days. Steadying and anchoring.

What I've been making a lot of is Spiced Elderberry Syrup. There are a lot of elderberries in the hedgerows near here and although you can use them in fruit pies or crumbles, they are extremely pippy and I find a few of them go a long way. The pips have an earthy taste to them too, which I don't much like. Researching a little as to how one might use these shiny, black berries to better effect, I discovered a lot of references to making Elderberry Syrup as a winter tonic against colds and 'flu.

Intrigued by this, I've experimented a bit and I have to say the results are absolutely delicious. Even if it doesn't head off colds and 'flu, I can see a lot of this getting consumed over the winter.

Drizzling it on pancakes, waffles or ice cream seems to be popular or adding it to yoghurt, as well as simply dishing it out neat by the spoonful as a food supplement. A jelly made from it would also be good especially if you made a two-layer one with some elderflower cordial forming the base of the other layer so that you had both flowers and fruit in one jelly. Yes, Anne, I am thinking of you! Because if anyone can bring such a beautiful jelly to life, it's you! I also have in mind to use it to paint over the bald patches in unmoulded summer puddings where, if you use homemade bread, the juices don't quite soak through uniformly and you get the odd patch of bare bread which always looks a bit unsatisfactory. You can use blackberry or sloe gin for this but I think the elderberry syrup would be better (and more economical, if without the alcoholic kick!) You don't get this problem if you use commercial sliced bread to make summer pudding, of course, but then it doesn't taste nearly as good either.

All the recipes for elderberry syrup I found are basically variations on the same theme. This is my version but it's very similar to many others out there. My method is slightly different from others I found - steaming the fruit rather than boiling it to extract the juice and using sugar not honey. I was too mean to use expensive, raw, local honey that so many recipes recommend. Obviously raw honey has its own health benefits so if you want this purely as a health-boosting food supplement you might want to go the whole hog and stick to honey. The post-bottling sterilisation is important if you want to keep the syrup over the winter without freezing it. The spices, steamed with the fruit to extract the flavour gently, are subtle and fragrant, not remotely assertive or oppressive. Adding powdered spices to the syrup, as most recipes suggest, rather than steaming whole ones, produces too aggressive a spice note for my taste but if that's what you're after, don't let me stop you!

What you need:
about 700 g / 1.5 lbs elderberries (weighed still on their stalks)
a cinnamon stick
a teaspoonful of whole cloves
a fat thumb of fresh root ginger

a steamer (with a lid)
a deep saucepan with a trivet to fit in the bottom
scrupulously clean short bottles or squat jars with tight-fitting lids - I've used a variety of stout bottles recycled from their previous incarnation as bottles containing maple syrup or Starbucks Frappuccino. These were the only ones I had which would fit easily into a saucepan without their heads sticking up over the parapet of the water level when it came to the sterilisation bit. If you don't want to keep the syrup long-term you can use any (very clean) bottles and omit the post-bottling sterilisation part
a jam thermometer (ideally)
a very clean sieve and jug

What you do:
Pick the elderberries in sprays from your chosen elder tree. I snip the heads off with scissors. Aim for heads with ripe, shiny, black, beady berries and avoid any that have gone mouldy or shrivelled up.

Soak the elderberries on their stalks, in a big bowl of cold water, for an hour or so to dislodge any insects or bits of dust. Rinse.

Strip the berries off the stalks using a fork.

Doesn't matter if you have the odd little bit of stalk left in there. Measure the stripped berries by volume. Make a note of the figure in case you forget. You should get around 4 cups of berries. Place in the top part of a steamer and add exactly the same volume of water as berries to the base of it.

Add a teaspoonful of whole cloves and the cinnamon stick, snapped in two, to the berries.

Peel the ginger, grate it coarsely and add that too.

Now put the lid on the top and heat the water in the base of the steamer to boiling point. Reduce the heat but keep it boiling gently and steam the fruit and spices for 25 minutes. At the end of the steaming time, turn off the heat and allow the steam to subside a little. Then, remove the lid and squash the spiced pulp with a wooden spoon to extract as much juice as possible into the base of the steamer.

Discard the pulp and spent spices onto your compost heap.

Now you need to add the sugar to the fruit juice in the base of the steamer - you need half a cup of sugar to every cup of berries you had originally. So if you had four cups of berries you need two of sugar.

Stir the sugar into the juice, bring to the boil and boil steadily for five minutes.

Remove from the heat and strain through a very clean sieve (in case any rogue pips have got through) into a very clean jug and then into your bottles leaving an inch or so's headroom for expansion. Fix on the lids firmly.

Now place your filled, lidded bottles into a pan deep enough to allow you to cover the bottles completely with water. Place the bottles on a trivet or a folded tea towel in the pan to protect them from the direct heat. Add water to cover and bring to simmering point - 88C to be precise. If you have a jam thermometer, use it - the sterilisation level is usually marked on it. Simmer for 20 minutes. This sterilises the bottles and contents and enables you to keep them in long term storage without freezing.

Remove the bottles from the simmering water pan carefully,  - use a pot-holder or an oven glove because they are mighty hot - tighten the lids if necessary and allow to cool, before labelling and using. Store in a cool, dark place. They should keep for six months or more treated like this, apparently.

The smell of the steaming elderberries and spices is uncannily reminiscent of church incense. Your house will smell beautifully like a monastery church, where faint wafts of incense hover among the rafters for hours after the thurible, in which it originally smoked, has burnt out and the bells have fallen silent. I thought may be it was just me who smelled the likeness, in a rather fanciful fashion, but yesterday H came down and asked why I was burning incense on a Thursday morning in the kitchen. So it isn't; it isn't just me, I mean.

The finished syrup doesn't taste a bit like it though. Not that I've ever actually nibbled any grains of incense but you get my gist!

A spoonful just to taste! Mmmm! 

And somehow I feel that in the "nowness" of the intense taste and colour from the work of my own hands, time has slowed down just a little. An illusion perhaps, but one I find comforting.

Wishing you all a happy weekend with moments that stop kindly for you.

E x

Thursday 21 August 2014

Confessions From My Larder

Opprobrious remarks have been forthcoming recently, about the state of my larder. Particularly when D has been trying to put away the contents of assorted shopping bags. An experience that has become increasingly reminiscent of a battle of some ferocity, without any obvious winner. And, in all fairness, I have to admit that the larder space has resembled something akin to preparations for a six-month siege in there or alternatively perhaps, the depositing area for some kind of foodie jumble sale. It's been like that for a while and extracting or searching for an elusive packet or jar of some ingredient lurking in this jungle has exacerbated what was already a crowded mess.

It had got so bad that you entered this walk-in cupboard at all, at your peril.  Cake tins that had been optimistically cantilevered on top of one another, would break loose from their tenuous moorings on a whim and catch the unwary a sudden and unexpected blow to the side of the head;

jars, piled at least three deep, teetered precariously and threatened an avalanche of glass and crab apple jelly when a hapless searcher after a replacement jar of Marmite, disturbed their serried ranks; bags of rice immured spice jars like sandbags awaiting a flood; tins of tomatoes and kidney beans jostled and elbowed their way among delicate packets of dried, pink rose petals, ruffled paper muffin cases and floaty, white rolls of rice-paper like a bunch of unruly football hooligans trampling a troupe of ballet dancers who had inadvertently found themselves on the terraces; cartons of UHT milk, bought in bulk for yoghurt-making, trying to get an inadequate toe-hold on the edges of shelves already full to bursting, were inclined to fall headlong and give the unwary a nasty bruise, on their way down. The floor was no better - inserted ingeniously among the wine bottles stored in their rack, were surreptitious rolls of baking parchment, clutches of freezer bags that had long since parted from their boxes and some very long, black, squid-ink spaghetti that I could find no easy home for on the shelves above. The five litre tin of olive oil (and a couple of smaller olive oil tins) stood like bruisers in the doorway and unfailingly stubbed your toe as you endeavoured to reach for something. The box in the back corner where I store small bottles of homemade sloe or blackberry gin was giving unwanted asylum to a number of spindly spiders and their friends. It was, in other words, a disgrace.

In the Second World War it was illegal to hoard food items and whenever I've come across references to that, I've felt uneasy. It's guilt. I fear, I may be a hoarder!

In my defence, I feel I should say that none of the things in the said larder are things I don't or won't use. Many of them have been bought because they were "on special offer" and buying three bags of flour, or rice, or whatever, for the price of two when you use flour, or rice, or whatever, all the time makes a lot of sense. Or I thought it did. Now I am not so sure.

In addition, living in a village where the nearest supermarket is a five mile drive away and working full-time to boot, means that I am simply not passing shops in the way that I did when we lived in London and wasn't working full-time. It makes sense to "have stocks" and run a proper store cupboard so that when I run out of an ingredient there's a spare one in the larder waiting. A spare one may be, but not a spare five, Mrs T!

And of course almost two shelves in my larder don't hold food at all - they support part of my collection of cookery books and it's very convenient having them there to hand. I probably have too many recipe books but they are my cooking friends and I like their company.

"What you need," both my best friend and my son told me, is a "stock-taking system set up on an Excel spreadsheet." The idea has something to recommend it but I know I'll never remember to update it and if that's the case, then, what's the point? As a compromise, I've taped up a handwritten list on the larder door itself, tallying what's in there and hope because it's on the spot, I will remember to use it to cross things off. (I've managed to cross off a tin of olives and one of tomatoes already, owing to H's pizza-making fest yesterday)  ; )

In the meantime, an exercise of sorting, tidying and rationalisation has taken place.  This, despite what you may think, is tidy!

And a systematic tally has been made and the arresting facts noted - a shameful roll-call of thirteen tins of chopped tomatoes, - thirteen! How can I have amassed thirteen tins of tomatoes?  - three kilos of porridge oats - I know you eat these for breakfast every day, Mrs T, but three kilos?! - five pounds of ground almonds - what are you thinking of making, macaroons for Britain? - six jars of olives - even H who adores olives doesn't eat them at that rate - and so on.

No more of these and their ilk will be bought until they have been eaten. No more jams or jellies will be made until those that remain from the last few years are down to single figures from the, slightly startling, figure of forty five or so currently up there.

The figure is actually more than forty five but my nerve for counting further quailed, when the tally reached forty five.

A cache of items that I feel are too elderly really to risk eating have had to be exiled to the food bin. Not as many as I feared though. Only some food colouring pastes whose "best-before dates" were well into the last century, a nearly empty jar of wild rice that I am sure is at least a decade old and a bottle of Worcestershire sauce which seemed to predate even having a sell-by date. Could have been worse. Could have been a lot worse! "Could have been Granny's jam cupboard!" H reminds me, conscious of a never-to-be-forgotten occasion when my mother produced from her cupboard a jar of ancient, homemade, plum jam, dated some thirty years previously. It was, remarkably enough, all right. A little stiff and dark after its long incarceration and needing the addition of a little boiling water to make it spreadable but otherwise perfectly good. Sell-by and best-before dates have their place but sealed tins and jars, I feel, can go some way beyond them. Not thirty years, normally, perhaps! And one has to use common sense and inspect "vintage" items for any sign of deterioration that might be harmful, obviously.

But I love my larder and the feeling that I can rustle up food without having to go shopping should need arise. I particularly love the fact that here, on its cool, dark, wooden shelves are stored things that I need no power supply or gizmo to preserve and that if the electricity or water supply fails for more than a few hours, (as it has done, in both cases, a number of times this last year), I can conjure up something good to eat by entering its friendly, hallowed space and raiding its inner sanctum.

As the year turns perceptibly, I have one eye on the coming autumn and winter and,perhaps in a rather old-fashioned way, I shall continue to cherish my hoard, but after the above saga of revelation, it aims to be a rather slimmer hoard than before!

Do you keep a store-cupboard in the old-fashioned sense of the word? Any secrets you've found that help you to manage it? All suggestions gratefully received!

And now I shall go and see what my larder's newly and pleasingly arranged shelves might suggest for supper. Possibly mushroom risotto, as I seem to have six bags of risotto rice and three of dried mushrooms!
E x

Sunday 10 August 2014

Mandala Mitts

Have you been bitten by the crochet mandala bug that's been going round this year? After resisting for ages because I kept thinking, "They're lovely, but what am I going to do with them?", eventually I had to have a go and, predictably, discovered how addictive they are to make. I promised myself I wouldn't go overboard. I'd just make one. Or two. One for Lucy of Attic 24's Yarndale yarn-bombing project ...

... and perhaps just one more, strawberry-themed one, as a summery teapot stand. End.

But of course one mandala led to another and another and another and before I knew it, there was not just "one or two" but a pile of six. OK, Mrs T, now what are you going to do with these?

I felt that there really must be a practical use for these colourful, crochet circles if only I could think of one. For a while I couldn't. And then I was in the supermarket one day and saw some plain, denim oven gloves for sale in the barbecue equipment section. A light bulb switched on! Why not make some plain, denim oven gloves and add mandalas to the glove bits for decoration and extra insulation? Bingo! And if I added a mandala to each side of each glove bit, I would use four mandalas in total! Happy Day!

Now as it happened, I'd been having one of my periodic clear-outs and an old pair of H's jeans, now much too short, was waiting to go to a charity shop. They were in quite good nick, the denim softened through laundering, but the fabric otherwise intact. So, instead of sending them to the charity shop, I cut them up. As in the pics below.

I ended up with one long panel for the outer part of the oven glove and two pocket size pieces for the inner part. A perfect, neutral, blue canvas for my hooky mandalas!

There would probably have been enough denim to cut lining pieces from the jeans as well but I wanted something a little more colourful for a lining so I went for a piece in my fabric box that seemed to echo the colours I'd used in the mandalas.

The pattern for the gloves is very simple. I drew a rectangle 30 inches by eight inches and rounded off the ends for the long piece. I then drew two eight inch squares for the pocket sections and rounded off two of the corners on one side of each, as you can see in the pic. This was to accommodate my mandalas which are 7 inches in diameter but happens to be pretty much standard oven glove dimensions.

You need to cut exactly the same pieces again in your chosen lining fabric and in some kind of wadding (cotton, quilting wadding is good or you could use an old towel). Polyester or acrylic wadding is not so good as it can't cope with extreme heat and isn't such a good insulator. You end up with three identical sets of pattern pieces, three long panels, (one in each fabric type) and six pocket section pieces, (two in each type of fabric). You also need some bias binding to bind the edges and to make a loop to hang the gloves up by. I chose a plain, inexpensive, navy blue bias binding, partly because I already had it in my sewing basket and partly because I wanted something plain and neutral that wouldn't distract from the hooky mandalas.

Once you've got all your pieces cut out, you need to sew the mandalas on to the denim panels. I tack (baste) them in position first, by hand, and then machine sew in a matching thread just inside the outermost row. Very easy. Don't position them too close to the edge of the fabric pieces or they'll get tangled up in the binding seam.

Then you need to start sandwiching your fabrics together. Careful pinning is essential at this stage and tacking (basting) as well is a good idea so that everything stays where it's meant to be.

Start with the pockets. Lay a lining piece, with the wrong side of the fabric facing you, down on the table. Lay over a corresponding quilting wadding piece and then place a mandala-ed denim pocket piece, right side up, on top. Line up a piece of bias binding against the straight edge and pin in place as in the pic.

Machine stitch along the fold line and then, if, (like me, ahem!) you didn't bother to tack it, stitch all the way round the pocket, beyond where the binding joins - this helps to hold everything in place during construction. Repeat with the other pocket piece.

Now fold over the bias binding so that the raw top edge of the pocket piece gets enclosed and pin the folded edge of the tape down. You might need to trim back the wadding and / or lining, if it's crept out at all. Hand stitch in place with hemming stitches.

Now sandwich up the long panel in exactly the same way as you did the pocket pieces. Lay the long lining piece, with the wrong side of the fabric facing you, down on the table, add the corresponding wadding piece on top, and finally add the denim panel, with the right (mandal-ed) side facing you, on the top. Pin and tack. And here, do not wing it and think you won't bother with the tacking. You're going to have too many layers that might decide to do their own thing otherwise.

Once tacked together, turn the whole piece over so that now you have the right side of the lining fabric facing you. Place each pocket section at either end with the denim (mandala-ed) side facing upwards.

Pin to secure the layers together in a few strategic places and turn the whole thing over again.

Still with me? Good!

Now get your bias binding and with the long denim panel facing you, line up the raw edge of the binding against the raw edge of the fabrics and pin all the way round.

Again, you may need to trim back the wadding to the edge of the denim if it's crept out of alignment, as it has here a bit.

Stitch all the way round along the fold line of the binding ie about a quarter of an inch in from the raw edge all the way round; that is to say through seven layers of fabric (binding, denim, wadding, lining, lining, wadding, denim) at the pocket ends, and through four layers of fabric (binding, denim, wadding, lining) in between the pocket sections. Make a hanging loop from a small piece of bias binding and stitch in place in the centre of the long panel between the pocket bits, as in the pic below.

Press. Turn the bias binding over the raw edge and pin the folded edge down on the lining side. Hand stitch the folded edge in place. Your mandala mitts are finito!

Bake a cake (or a sizzling tray of roast potatoes) and try them out!

This is Sue's gorgeous Plum Traybake cake that she posted the other day - you can find her recipe here. I've tweaked it a tiny bit, that is to say, I've swapped light, soft, brown muscovado sugar for the caster sugar, thinned the cake batter with some elderly, I mean, vintage!, damson gin rather than milk and baked it in a deep, round tin rather than a shallow rectangular one but otherwise it's as given. I recommend it. Perfect material on which to try out my new mandala mitts, at the end of the baking time.

And I am pleased to report that from an ergonomic perspective, the mitts are The Business. Good insulation without being like boxing gloves (or boats). Years ago I made a pair of oven gloves that featured appliqué vegetables - a carrot and a rather fetching green cabbage, that I was particularly proud of, on the ends. I was very pleased with my fledgling appliqué skills but the oven gloves have never been entirely satisfactory from a functional point of view. I made them using some thinnish, polyester, fleece wadding left over from a baby quilt for the padding and you have to be mighty careful not to burn yourself in use, as the wadding is really too thin and transmits the heat too easily. The beauty of this new mandala-ed version is that the mandalas add extra (heat-proof) padding in exactly the right places without making the mitts too bulky to manipulate, not just around cake tins straight out of the oven, but also on other perilous hot-spots, such as roasting hot baking trays and scorching cast iron casserole handles.

The mandalas are all Zelna Oliver's beautiful Sunny Flower Mini Mandala pattern made in Stylecraft Classique Cotton on a 4mm hook. Cotton is the best choice of yarn for mandalas for this purpose - won't burn or melt in the oven and it's easy to wash. A washable wool yarn would probably work fine too but do make sure it's machine washable as oven mitts that can't be washed easily get manky pretty quickly. Or they do in my house, but may be I am just a messy cook! The only real no-no for the mandalas is an acrylic yarn which isn't heat-proof and might melt!

You can use any mandala pattern you like but I'd recommend not choosing one that comes out bigger than 7 inches or so in diameter or you will have to make the mitts themselves significantly bigger and then there will be too much slop in them. Oven gloves need to be roomy enough to slip on and off easily but you don't need to have room for a party in them!

The idea would work equally well using any plain, reasonably tough, cotton fabric as a base, so you don't have to cut up a pair of old jeans if you haven't got any to hand, but for the mandalas to shine to best effect, something plain, darkish and neutral is what you are after.

And if you fancy the idea but don't want the faff of making the oven gloves from scratch, Waitrose are still selling the denim ones; (reduced, I saw a few days ago in my local branch, from £10 to £7.50, which is pretty bargainous). You won't be able to machine sew the mandalas on, if you use pre-made oven gloves, because you won't be able to access the areas of fabric freely with a sewing machine but nothing to stop you sewing them on by hand with small oversewing stitches in a matching thread. For sheer, frugal satisfaction though, there's nothing to beat cutting up something you'd have otherwise thrown out and making it into something that is not only pretty, but really useful.

What's more, I think they'd make a nice Christmas present for a cooking-minded friend or two, so that means I have the perfect excuse to make at least another four mandalas!

Tee hee!
I'll consider that further when I've sampled my cake!


Happy Sunday evening everyone!

E x