Wednesday 23 December 2015

The Legend of the Christmas Rose

Do you know the legend of the Christmas Rose? There are a couple of Christmas Rose legends, actually, but the one I've been thinking about recently is originally a Scandinavian folk-tale. It was retold very beautifully by the Nobel Prize-winning Selma Lagerlöf in the early 20th C. Her story, in the original format, is out of print now but you can get a kind of basic, reprint version here

Like all the best folk-tales, it is a mysterious, and slightly unsettling, mix of light and shadow; good and bad; truth and fiction. The bad guys are not all bad and the good guys are not all good, as in real life.
And because one of my favourite things at Christmastime is to enjoy and share a Christmas story I thought I'd share this one with you here. I hope you enjoy it! I've paraphrased the story as told by Lagerlöf (actual quotations are in italics). So get a cup of tea or coffee and may be a homemade Christmas marshmallow (if you insist and only because they are so yummy and it is Christmas!), put your feet up for a few moments well-earned rest and read on:

The legend is set, deep in the forest of Göinge in the province of Skåne, in southern Sweden. It tells of an outlawed family, who live in the forest because the misdeeds of the father mean that they have to live, literally, beyond the pale, to avoid him being arrested. Beyond the reach of the law and outside society.
       Periodically, the endearingly, if slightly unimaginatively, named, Robber Mother leaves the forest hideaway to beg for food – it’s not easy to provide for five children when you are an outcast.
       One day Robber Mother and the ragged robber children arrive at the gates of the local monastery. While a monk fetches bread for them, one of the children spies the cloister garden. It is a work of art. Robber Mother pushes open the gate and walks along the neat, gravel paths, lined with box-hedging, beside beds planted with herbs and a profusion of flowers – roses, wall-flowers and lavender, among aromatic bushes of rosemary, thyme, dill and chamomile. The air hums with bees in the sunshine. The whole thing is a vision of Eden and Robber Mother and her children love it.
       The gardener - a lay brother novice - however is not pleased at the invasion of Robber Mother and her unruly brood and tries to turf them out. Hearing raised voices, the Abbot comes out and talks kindly to Robber Mother. Abbot Hans is astonished at her delight in the garden. She is a wild, uncouth creature. What on earth does she know about the beauty and order of a garden like this?
       Robber Mother turns to Abbot Hans, “First when I saw this, I thought I had never seen a prettier garden but now I see that it can’t be compared with one I know of.”
       Abbot Hans is even more astonished and the gardener, laughs mockingly at Robber Mother. “We all know that this is the most beautiful garden in Skåne. How can you who live in the wild forest know of a better one? I’ll wager my soul you’ve never ever been in a garden like this before.”
       Robber Mother is angered by this response. “It may be true that I have never been in a monastery garden before but if you are holy men, you must know that every Christmas Eve Göinge Forest is transformed into a beautiful garden to commemorate our Lord’s birth. We who live in the forest have seen it every year and the flowers are so beautiful I dare not pick a single one.”
       Abbot Hans is intrigued. He’s heard the old story that every Christmas Eve the forest blooms as if it’s the garden of Paradise but he’s assumed it was just a myth. He begs Robber Mother to let him come up to Robber Cave on Christmas Eve and show him the garden. Robber Mother is uncertain – she’s worried about revealing where they live but Abbot Hans promises she can trust him and she agrees.
       The weeks go by and Abbot Hans can’t wait for Christmas Eve! He visits the Archbishop and tells him about the robber family living in the forest which blooms every Christmas and he asks for a pardon for Robber Father. “For if they can see God’s glory, they can’t be wholly bad.” The Archbishop is unconvinced but he promises the Abbot that the day the Abbot sends him a flower plucked from the Christmas garden in Göinge, he will sign a pardon for Robber Father.
       Christmas Eve arrives and Robber Mother sends one of her ragged youngsters to show Abbot Hans, and the lay brother who accompanies him, the way. The route is long and arduous. They pass through villages where preparations are in full swing for Christmas. Floors are being swept and scoured; spiced bread is being baked; children’s faces are being scrubbed and new clothes put on; doorways and rafters are being decorated with evergreens. People are joyful and merry together.
       Soon the villages are left behind. The road is steep and desolate. Snow is falling thickly, adding to the drifts that already cover the banks. Rocks litter the path and mountain streams gush in freezing torrents across the way. Finally as the daylight fades, they arrive. The child opens the door of Robber Cave and the visitors enter. There is a log fire but little else. Robber Father lies asleep on a bed of pine branches and moss while the children sprawl on the floor eating a watery gruel from a common pot. Abbot Hans is shocked. “Robber Mother has neither brewed nor baked; she has neither washed nor scoured.” A few of us might, in our heart of hearts, own to a pang of envy of Robber Mother bypassing the cooking and cleaning tyranny that can sometimes beset Christmas, but that’s by the by!
       Abbot Hans talks to Robber Father and Robber Mother about the Christmas merriment down in the villages from which the family is excluded and explains his hope of a pardon from the Archbishop.
       Robber Father and Robber Mother laugh at him. “If I get a pardon from the Archbishop, I’ll never steal again.” Robber Father mocks.
       Now midnight is approaching and on the cold, night wind, through the snow, they hear the faint clang of the first Christmas bells chiming in the valley below. Everyone rushes outside into the dark, frozen forest. After a few moments, there is a glimmer of light and the darkness begins to lift. The snow on the ground begins to melt and in its place is fresh green moss and new fern shoots. Blossom appears on the trees and there are crimson, bell-shaped flowers on the heather. Butterflies, woodpeckers and finches fly among the leafy branches. A warm wind blows up from the south scattering wildflower seeds that take root, spring up and bloom the instant they reach the earth. Purple blueberries, lingonberries and juniper berries are everywhere. Russet cones deck the spruces. The whole place is a version of Isaiah’s vision of God’s holy mountain with peace and plenty throughout Creation. There are even the faint strains of harp music and angelic singing on the breeze.
       Abbot Hans’ heart is filled with wonder and delight. His face is radiant. Never did he think he would get to taste the joy of heaven on earth or hear the Christmas angels sing. He kneels down in adoration of the heavenly vision before him.
       But the lay brother is sceptical. Instead of recognising the glory of God, he thinks it is all a work of deception and devilry. A forest dove flutters down to nestle on his shoulder but he strikes out at her and cries out, “Be gone, you sorcerers!”
       Now, suddenly, everything changes. The light and warmth vanish abruptly and the darkness rushes back. The frost inches its way back over the moss and green plants. The fresh leaves shrivel and drop. Abbot Hans is so struck with grief that he drops down in a dead faint and when they carry him back to the monastery, they find he is indeed dead. The lay brother is full of remorse. He knows it was his fault for scoffing at the miracle.
       As they come to bury the Abbot they realise that he has something clutched tight in his hand. A pale-fleshed bulb. The lay brother gardener plants it in the cloister garden but all year there is no sign of life from it.
       Finally it is nearing Christmas again and on Christmas Eve he sees that the bulb has sprung into life with green stalks and fragile, white flowers. He realises that the bulb had been plucked by Abbot Hans from the Christmas Garden in Göinge Forest and so he takes a flower from it to the Archbishop and secures a letter of pardon for Robber Father. The Robber Family are now able to leave their cave and rejoin the warmth of human society and share everyone’s Christmas joy and merrymaking.
       But the damage has been done, for after the lay brother’s outburst of cynical scoffing, Göinge Forest never again bloomed on Christmas Eve. Of all its glory only one flower remains – the Christmas Rose that Abbot Hans plucked. Each year, the legend goes, she blooms again at Christmastime and “sends forth from the earth her green stems and white blossoms as if she never could forget that she had once grown in the great Christmas Garden at Göinge Forest.”

       It is a poignant tale, albeit a very charming one. Like all the best stories, it holds some precious kernels of timeless truths. Nothing earth-shattering, in fact most of them are well-worn truisms, but somehow seen through the lens of the story, there is a freshness about them, I think. 

 The story reminds me that “The whole world is a series of miracles, but we are so used to seeing them, we call them ordinary.” (Hans Christian Andersen)  It nudges me to remember that to experience miracles depends on faith and a willingness to see. It's so easy to become cynical especially when you look around at what's going on in the world. But it's a slippery slope I would like to resist.

It reminds me that the magic of Christmas is not about a perfect family enjoying perfect presents, a perfect house, perfect hand-made decorations, and a perfect turkey dinner – go, Robber Mother! - it is about having room for wonder in one's heart at God coming among us.

It reminds me that sometimes we have so much "stuff"in our lives that if we're not careful, we can miss the real gifts that come our way unbidden, without fancy wrapping or a hefty price tag and that sometimes our certainties are the things that cut us off from light and joy and peace.

It reminds me that sometimes it takes the outsider, the stranger, the one who is different and even unwelcome to show us what really matters and that sometimes we realise that, only when it is too late.

It reminds me that Christmas is still a magical time even when I feel snowed under with work and other stuff.

Inspired by the legend and among all the unexpectedly time-consuming busyness that this autumn has brought, I've made a Christmas Rose wreath. Like to see?

Wishing you all 
a wondrous and blessed Christmas 
and Christmas Roses of hope and faith to light your 2016.


Saturday 17 October 2015

Rubbish Talk

Seriously. This content of this post is rubbish. You might argue that how a society disposes of its waste tells you something fundamental about it, in which case there are some signs of hope for us all, as we've become a lot more conscientious about waste than we were. Long gone are the days of my childhood when you put your rubbish (all of it, shamefully unsorted) into galvanised metal bins that the dustmen (so-called) came and collected from your back door, emptied and put back, outside your back door, every week. Now rubbish has to be carefully sorted, segregated and placed in the correct, coloured wheelie-bin which must be placed at the roadside, (but not on the road), by 7.00 am on the correct morning for collection on designated dates, once a fortnight unless there's a public holiday, when the whole system goes haywire and a whole new temporary timetable has to be digested. Waste disposal is no longer a simple business. And failure to comply at any stage of the process  - not sorting rubbish according to the guidelines; filling the  brown garden-waste wheelie-bin so that the lid does not completely close; not placing any wheelie-bin in the correct location for collection, or failing to get any bin in position by 7.00 am sharp - is a serious matter and not taken lightly.

Keeping track of which colour wheelie-bin is due for collection, which day, in which week, is not always easy, when one's life mostly revolves around matters other than rubbish, but it's a shift in the way daily life is lived, that basically, I think, is a rather good thing. Partly because sometimes one man's / woman's waste is another man's / woman's treasure, and partly because the idea of piles of waste fouling the landscape and polluting the earth, sea and air we all live alongside is, obviously, pretty nasty. Something that seeing (and smelling) some of the city's rubbish mountains on a trip to Cairo, a few years back, really brought home.

Having said that, every time the goal posts are moved on the rubbish front, it takes me a while to adjust. For example, when waste-food bins were introduced in Oxfordshire for collecting stuff that wasn't suitable for home-composting, back in 2010, I got myself in a ridiculous quandrary over the correct destination for various items. Where do you place a used muffin paper, for example? It's paper, so, presumably it goes in the normal paper, glass and tin recycling bin, but hang on! What about that muffin-residue that's still stuck to the wrapper? Does that make it food waste? Or where do you put that wad of kitchen paper-towel, soaked in excess roasting-fat, that you used to wipe the dish out before washing? The dilemmas seemed legion at the time although of course one adjusts after a while and it becomes second nature. (Biodegradable paper muffin-wrappers do go in the food bin, I decided.)

The latest goal-post-moving, here in the UK, is in relation to plastic carrier bags which, apparently, take a terrifying one thousand years to decompose. In order to cut down their indiscriminate use, most UK retailers must now charge for supplying plastic carrier bags and the day of the plastic carrier as the disposable receptacle of choice, for everything from muddy wellington-boots to cooking-apples, gifted from a friend's tree, is gone.

I tend anyway to use an old-fashioned shopping basket for hands-on food-shopping. Though, if my eyes are bigger than my basket, I've always fallen back on accepting a free carrier. No more.

I have also always used plastic carriers as bin-liners. In fact, in my kitchen, a plastic carrier on the inside of the cupboard door, under the sink, has, for the last twenty-years-plus, I am ashamed to say, been the bin itself - free, space-saving, hygienic, convenient. Or it was, up till now.

Shopping for clothes or other items, I've never bothered to take a receptacle for my purchases. But I can't stuff half a dozen pairs of socks from Marks and Spencers in my handbag or squirrel bulky stationery supplies in my coat pockets. Habits must change.

So I've been experimenting with a few novel solutions for this new phase in the rubbish dispensation. One is rather frivolous while also functional, the other is a bit more utilitarian. Both recycle stuff that would otherwise probably be heading for one or other of the wheelies.

Want a peek?

This is my first effort. A bin made out of an old Malteser tub and a bit of hooky. It's not huge but adequate for a small room. No liner required. Though I have imposed s few restrictions on what may be placed in it! See below!

The pattern for the crochet flower fabric is taken from a pattern for a gorgeous bag in Nicki Trench's Cute And Easy Crochet With Flowers.

I love that bag! But it requires 207 flowers which is a lot of flowers. In fact the bin idea came about when I'd made and sewn together about 20 and was beginning to baulk at clocking up another 187. I was also becoming concerned by the fact that the way the flowers tessellated together once sewn, was distinctly un-linear and it looked as though it might prove distinctly tricky to create the rectangular bag shape. Could I find something where the way the flowers tessellated was an advantage, rather than the reverse? I could! It's worked like a dream. The Malteser tub, as you can see, is a flower-pot kind of shape ie its circumference is smaller at the bottom than the top.

This is not the easiest shape in the world to crochet a cover for in straight rows, I've found, but the flowers negotiated easily what is difficult otherwise to accommodate, namely the sloping sides. 

I had to keep trying the cover on with the wrong side turned outwards to see where to join on the flowers as I went but it worked fine. I made sure I joined enough flowers to hold together first of all and then went round filling in the gaps, keeping the flowers fairly taut so that it held up nicely.

I think I've used about 80 flowers in total - it's very difficult to count them, once sewn together, without losing track of which ones have been counted and which ones haven't. Certainly nowhere near 207 anyway. The yarn is Stylecraft Classique DK Cotton in a variety of colours left over from various other projects and I've used a 5mm hook which is big for this yarn but works well as the flowers hook up quite densely.

Then there was the question of how to attach the cover to the plastic tub. I considered threading some elastic through the top edge of the flowers but wasn't sure it would hold firmly enough - the cover needs to be stretched quite taut, for the best effect. So I persuaded D to drill small holes all along the top edge which he did very kindly.

I was then able to stitch the cover in place directly on to the tub itself using red yarn to match the colour of the plastic.

Very easy to do, and it can easily be snipped off in order to wash the cover and re-sewn, as and when need arises.

I am thrilled at how it's turned out. The tub is ages old - I got it one Christmas and once the Maltesers were finished - what is it about Maltesers that makes them, even in a tub this size, last so short a time?! - it's served, very occasionally, as a useful container for fruit-picking etc but has otherwise been cluttering up a cupboard and falling out on anyone so foolish as to open the door unwarily. It now has a permanent useful function and has become a delightful object to the eye as well as very useful rubbish container.

This is the base which I decided to make solid.

No nasty rubbish in here, please, though! Yarn ends? Yes! Waste paper? Yes! Pencil shavings? Possibly!

Chewing gum, the contents of the dust-pan, detritus off the bottom of people's shoes? No thank you! I am as pernickety as the local council, on waste disposal protocol, clearly!

OK, now for my second experiment. These are very simple and very functional bags made from old shirts. They aren't disposable but neither are they at all special and if one gets irretrievably snagged, or damaged I shan't have the slightest compunction in getting rid of it (into the textile recycling bank) and replacing it with another. I have taken to using them as my kitchen bin and as other bin-liners as well as spare shopping bags than can be stuffed in the car, my handbag or anywhere else. They go in the washing machine at whim, on a hot wash and I don't care if they get marked or dirty. They aren't particularly pretty but they don't need to be. They are quick to run up and all you need is an old man's shirt. An old shirt, I mean, not an old man! Men's shirts are best as they are more generously cut but you could use any shirt that's reasonably sized. I used some old shirts where the collars and cuffs had become so frayed as to be unwearable but the body of the shirt fabric was still fine.

What you do:

1 Lay the shirt out on a table with the front facing you. (Unbuttoned, as in the pic)

Cut off the button band and the button hole band on each side of the front of the shirt, cutting up from the bottom edge, in a straight line -  the existing stitching will guide you - no need necessarily to use a ruler.

2 Now cut up alongside the side-seams nice and close to the seams. When you reach the sleeve, cut across the shirt front horizontally. You now have two similarly shaped panels each with a straight edge lying adjacent to one another.

3 Place the two edges of these pieces together, with right sides facing, and stitch in a straight seam. Press the seam open.

4 Now turn the shirt over so that the back is facing you. Cut up alongside the side seams as you did for the front and when you reach the sleeves, cut across horizontally.

5 Place the stitched panel and the panel cut from the back together with right sides facing and cut out a simple squareish bag shape. The pattern I drew out was 16"/ 41cm square

6 Cut out small, identical-sized squares from the bottom corners. (Mine were 2"/ 5cm) This helps to make the bag nice and boxy when you come to stitch it up but you can omit this stage if you like. You can see how I've cut mine in the pic of the panels waiting to be sewn together below. The panel on the left is the one made from the two pieces from the front of the shirt, stitched together down the centre as in Step 3 above.

7 Place the cut panels together, right sides facing and pin and stitch the long sides and the bottom edges together leaving the boxy bits flapping, if you cut boxy bits, that is. If you did this, once you've stitched the main side and bottom seams, you need to align these so that the end of the side-seam matches the end of the bottom seam. Pin and stitch across to seal up the bottom of the bag.

If you didn't cut boxy bits out, just carry on sewing down one side, round the corner, along the bottom, round the second corner and up the remaining side. Even simpler.

8 Fold over the top of the bag, press and the fold in the raw edge. Stitch all the way around the top.

9 Cut two strips for the handles about 16" / 41cm long by 3"/ 7.5cm wide from the shirt fabric that remains. I cut mine from the bottom of the back panel but you could also use the sleeves. Try to cut the strips along the straight grain of the fabric from wherever you cut them.

10 Fold each of the handle strips together, right sides facing, lengthwise. Stitch. Turn out and press.

11 Position the handles where you want them along the top edge of the bag and stitch in place.

12 Snip off any loose threads and you're done.

A rather roomier, bigger version could be made from old bed-linen. I have some elderly duvet covers in my sights next which might become boot-bags or potato-storing sacks! And of course although these homemade bags aren't waterproof like plastic ones are, I am not sure that their breathability isn't more useful. Neither muddy boots nor fruit and vegetables do well, wrapped in plastic. And for rubbish? Well, so far, I've found they've worked a treat. Anything wet and messy is generally destined either for the garden compost heap or the waste-food bin. What happens when I have something that falls outside the remit of those receptacles I will have to discover, as and when! Meanwhile, I have no plastic carriers in the house - they've all gone in the bag-recycling facility offered by the supermarket. A small insignificant planet-friendly effort may be, but from small acorns and all that.

Anyone have any any inspirational rubbish tales to tell or frugal rubbish makes you'd recommend? Do share them.
E x

Friday 9 October 2015

Autumn Delights

1 Pumpkins. I really do love pumpkins and when their bright orange faces first appear in October, I always feel buoyed up.

I bought one of those beautiful duck-egg blue ones the other day (although I think technically it's a Crown Prince Squash and not a pumpkin at all) but felt that on balance it was a bit like the idea of wearing blue lipstick. Fun, in theory, but better to stick to the more tried and tested classic colour zone, in practice. I roasted the the flesh in its blue-green skin and found the skin turned the beautiful vivid orange flesh disconcertingly murky; the flavour was a bit murky too. One lives and learns these things. In case you're wondering, I have not actually worn blue lipstick to live and learn that, but I can probably anticipate that particular "learn", without bothering!

Back to the pumpkins. I always make roasted pumpkin soup at this time of year. Simple; delicious and full of vitamin A.

This version was about as simple as you can get. A splash of olive oil, an onion, two sticks of celery and a pile of roasted (classic orange) pumpkin, water, salt and pepper. Thick. Satisfying. Cheerful.

I also make spiced pumpkin muffins with grated, raw pumpkin. The pumpkin flavour is subtle and unobtrusive but it makes the muffins deliciously moist and sticky. I look forward to making these every year and they never disappoint. Ever.

You can find my recipe here, if you're interested - just scroll down past the crochet slippers.

This year I wanted to experiment with making pumpkin scones. I'd seen a few examples around on the Interwebs and loved the idea of a bright yellow scone hit. The first version I made was disappointing - not enough pumpkin purée and too many spices so that they tasted wonderfully of "pumpkin spice" but were a very miserable brown colour. I can make spiced, plain, brown scones any time. What I wanted was the colour pop! (Is it the blue lipstick thing again, perhaps?!) So I had another go, using my own family scone recipe as a base and "pumpkinising" it, if that's a word. It worked. These yellow jobs are vivid, to say the least, even on the outside.

And on the inside? Well, see for yourself... Sunny side every side! Even allowing for the fact that it had got dark by the time I took this photo last night and the light had to be lamplight.

To make these, you need 250 g cooled roasted pumpkin purée on hand for which you'll want about a quarter to a half of a culinary pumpkin weighing approximately 1.5 kg  to 2 kg in the hand. Cut the raw pumpkin into wedges and cut out all the woolly fibres and seeds. Don't peel it. Roast, skin-side down, in a baking tin for an hour at 190 C until the flesh is beautifully soft. Cool and then peel off the skin before mashing the flesh with a fork or whizzing to a rough purée in a food processor.

For the scones, put 500 g white self-raising flour, a generous pinch of salt, half a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg, two teaspoons of cream of tartar and one teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda into the food processor, Whizz briefly to aerate and mix. Add 50 g cold unsalted butter in pieces and whizz to the consistency of breadcrumbs. Tip the mix into a big bowl and when you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 220 C and line a baking sheet with baking parchment.

Whisk 250 g of the cooled, roasted pumpkin puree with enough natural yoghurt to make about 350 ml of liquid overall. Pour into the bowl of dry ingredients and mix with a knife to a dough. It makes a nice well-behaved kind of dough, I found. Roll out thickly, (or just press out with well-floured hands which is what I do) and cut into rounds or triangles. Brush with milk and bake for 10 - 12 minutes until well-risen and golden.

I omitted adding any sugar because I fancied them as savoury scones with cream cheese but you could add a tablespoon of sugar or two, if you wanted to serve them with jam. They are very good. A hint of nutmeg but not too spicy and the colour is just glorious. A brilliant, unshadowed, sunflower-yellow. Not remotely a blue lipstick experiment! The marriage with cream cheese works beautifully and I think they'd also be very good with soup.

And because every home needs a pumpkin or two that aren't roasted, but sit cheerfully on the window-sill on grey, wet autumn days, I made these.

Not remotely functional, but completely charming and I love them. They are weighted down with plastic, bean-bag pellets tied up in a little nylon stocking bag stuffed inside the filling to give them a bit of authentic heft - the best real pumpkins feel heavy for their size. So actually, they work as paper-weights should they need usefully to earn their keep! You can find the pattern here. It's in German but very nice and straightforward to follow. When you come to the decrease part, the pattern only specifies the first couple of rows. Don't worry - just keep on decreasing in exactly the reverse order in which you increased on the way up. You can alter the number of rows you do in the middle (without increases or decreases) to vary the size of your finished pumpkin. My pale green and lighter orange pumpkins are done with eight of these rows (as per the original pattern) and the larger, darker orange one is done with twelve rows instead of eight to make him a bit bigger than the other two. I made up the leaves and curly tendrils myself, using this pattern here as a starting point and adapting it, as I went, to suit.

Lurking in the pumpkin patch is not just a toadstool or two - hooky or otherwise - for luck, but also one of the hedgehogs I made a couple of years ago. Clearly enjoying a bit of autumn rootling before hibernation calls!

2 Potatoes. While we are talking vegetables. Not for eating, this time, but printing.

Inspired by the turning leaves in their vivid reds, russets, and yellows against the evergreen ivy in the hedge, I turned some potatoes into leaf-stamps for printing wrapping paper. Fun. And easy. I used real leaves for the templates and water-based printing ink to print with.

I find it works best to paint the ink on with a brush rather than dip the potato in a pool of ink as printing ink is quite thick and you risk overloading your design area and wasting ink. It's also a good idea to cut a couple of wedges out of the wrong side of the potato stamp to make something to grip them by when you're printing as they can be slippery customers to manipulate otherwise.

Some of the prints are more imperfect than others but somehow they work OK all together, I think.

I started off trying to print in some kind of ordered pattern but the potatoes had other ideas. And when potatoes have their own ideas it's best to go with them. The overall effect reminds me of autumn leaves eddying and floating to earth in a sunny, autumn breeze.

3 Crab Apples. I promised myself that I would make no more jam this year. The larder shelves are full and there is only so much jam one household can eat. But my little crab apple tree, planted only eighteen months ago has been unexpectedly dripping with tiny, rosy, crab apples and I couldn't resist. I will give it away at Christmastime, I promise! (Well, some of it, may be!)

4 Dulce de leche. I thought I would have a go at making my own dulce de leche to spoon on, well anything really, pancakes, fruit, yoghurt, whatever. H tasted my efforts cautiously but when I told him how I made it, he went off the idea. Can't think why - it's just boiled milk and sugar, but there you have it. Feeling that as a result, the temptation of it sitting uneaten in a jar, in the fridge, might lure me into secretive, midnight spoon-raids, and that temptation might be less, if it were incorporated into a composite dish, I wondered how to use it. Various possibilities proffered themselves but I opted for swirling it into freshly churned, homemade vanilla ice cream. I am not sure however, that the tub of finished ice cream is not a substantially more powerful temptation than the original jar was of the stuff, neat! What was I saying about living and learning?!

You can buy dulce de leche ready-made, of course, and if you do want to make it, you can go an easier route by simply boiling up an unopened tin of condensed milk. However, making it from scratch was, although time-consuming, not at all difficult. I didn't want to go down the boiling tin route - comes out a bit too dark and thick for my liking and then there's always the risk of the tin exploding "in media re" which, although potentially exciting, would also be messy. Anyway, I wanted something slightly more gooily runny but still unctuously thick, and you can control that much more easily if you use the fresh milk method. I used Claire Thomson's recipe from The Guardian which you can find here.

Claire specifies that you need to cook the milk mixture for about an hour and a half and up to two. I cooked mine for an hour and twenty minutes. Couldn't wait any longer as I had to go out but you could go on a tad longer, if you want it sit-up-and-beg-stiff. Get a good book or go through your emails on your laptop to wile away the time usefully, as you stir. The precise time will depend in part on the size and shape of your pan as well as the vigour of your heat source. If you have an extractor fan over your hob, use it - speeds up the evaporation. Do not leave the mixture unattended. You want to avoid it catching and burning at all costs. The beauty about this method is a) you can see the milk begin to caramelise and progressively change colour which, if you like seeing a bit of kitchen chemistry in action, like I do, is fun and b) you can control the timing of the process to end up with the consistency you prefer. A little less long and a lighter, caramel shade, for a runnier sauce and slightly longer and a darker, more treacle-toffee shade, for a stiffer one. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Carefully spoon and scrape the cooled dulce de leche into a jar; cover and store in the fridge.

Lick the spoon and that spatula you used to scrape the sides of the pan - it would be wasteful not to! - yes, it is as delicious as you hoped it might be! Apparently keeps for several weeks but I doubt if I will be able to road-test that.

Swirl into freshly churned, homemade, vanilla ice cream, if you want to taste the ambrosia of the Homeric gods come to life, from the pages of myth!

5 Late blooming of flowers in the garden that I thought had gone to their eternal rest for good. In the golden autumn light the colours are peculiarly intense and alive.

6 And finally, a delightful autumn visitor to my apple tree earlier this week. I apologise for the blurry quality of the pic but it had to be taken through a window to avoid disturbing him. I think he is not after apples, but earwigs and other creepy crawlies in the bark of the tree, to which he is very welcome. If he would care to venture inside and see off the enormous house-spiders which currently seem to be launching a takeover bid here, I'd be even happier.

Autumn delights. 
In many ways. 
Wishing you a pumpkin-shell full of them!

E x

Thursday 10 September 2015

Making My Way Into Autumn Via Aprons and Apples

So it's September. And the summer is gone. The swallows knew it weeks ago and had made themselves scarce before August struggled to its bedraggled end here, but I've been slower to catch on, I think. Sometimes the ebb and flow of life sits harmoniously alongside the ebb and flow of the seasons and sometimes it doesn't and I find myself trying to catch up, slightly out of synch. I've found that recently anyway.

There are special joys to be found in September even though I find the deep golden light that is characteristic of a nice day at this time of year somehow carries a feeling of melancholy that always makes me feel wistful.

I've not wanted to go looking for any extra melancholy and wistfulness however and have been concentrating instead on the uplifting qualities of the following:

1 A new sewing project that was originally going to be a one-off but looks as though it might be set to replicate itself, possibly more than once. It started with me playing around with bits of fabric from my fabric boxes that were having some difficulty closing. They seemed to me to murmur a little autumn poem.

Then I unearthed a bunch of old lace and trimmings that have sat in my sewing basket for years. Some of the lace, like the two bits, in the bottom centre of the pic above, have lain there for at least forty years, to my certain knowledge. And a happy idea was born to make an autumn apron out of strips of all these fabrics, sewn together, and trimmed with the oddments of lace. The plan was to evoke some of the browns, russets and hunting greens of autumn leaves together with the filigree adornment of those lacy spider-webs, you see in the garden, beaded with dew on early, autumn mornings. No, I was not tempted to add an embroidered eight-legged resident or two!

There is a nice large pocket sewn out of the off-cuts, with the strips going vertically, instead of horizontally and the top edge of the pocket is trimmed with a bit of grey lace.

A pair of wooden buttons (that came free, a while ago with an issue of Simply Crochet, I think) finish off the top. They are purely decorative but I like them.

To hide all the seams and to give the apron a bit of extra strength, it's lined with the cream, dusky pink and soft green fabric that you can see  in the pic below, where the apron is turned back. It reminds me of end of-the-summer roses lingering in the September sun - still blooming but in slightly more muted tones than those of June.

The ties are deliberately mismatched; stitched together using two spare strips for each, before turning out and pressing and sandwiching between the outer and the lining fabrics to secure them in place.

Almost all the strips are pieced together, some in several places, as I only had a few fabrics in large enough widths to cut the strips in single pieces but that doesn't matter - it's part of the joy of the thing that it's been made from odds and ends. It's been a delightful, frugal make that has made going into the autumn seem a good deal more appealing. 

2 Baking with berries from the hedgerows and pears from a friend's garden.

It's a tweaked variation of Ruby Tandoh's Pear Blackberry and Coconut Cake which was featured in The Guardian last weekend. I tweaked it by replacing the coconut oil with almond oil and the desiccated coconut with ground almonds to make a Blackberry, Pear and Almond Cake.

I do like cakes made with oil that only require you to get out a whisk and a bowl rather than the whole faff of the food processor. Life is never too short to make cake, I feel, but sometimes, when time is short, a quick cake-making fix is better than a long one!

3 Drying apples from our elderly apple tree. It is so weighed down with fruit this year that I am wondering whether it needs crutches under its low-slung branches. Most instructions tell you to dry apples in slices but I want chunks for using in bread, porridge, buns and cakes over the winter.

I haven't treated the cut fruit with acidulated water or anything so it's inevitably gone a bit brown in the drying,

but that doesn't worry me - it's the flavour and consistency I am after, particularly for adding to bread recipes where fresh apple is too wet and too fragile to hold together under the kneading process. I could probably have dried these a bit longer but I don't want them too leathery, as an ingredient, so I'm freezing what I am not using immediately, in case they have not lost quite enough moisture simply to store in jars, or paper bags, in the larder. An initial experiment in using them in these spiced apple buns promises rather well - the apple pieces remain definite but are neither hard nor dry and the apple flavour is very good.

I am making a lot of these kinds of fruited, yeast-raised buns at the moment - they satisfy my need for something sweet to nibble on around 4.00 pm without being too heavy on the old sugar (and fat). They would also be rather good in lunch-boxes should you find yourself needing to fill same or, for that matter, lightly toasted for breakfast.

If you want to have a go, my recipe is as follows:

Spiced Apple Buns

3tsp active dried yeast
350 g strong white flour
150 g strong wholemeal flour (you could just use white flour but I quite like the nuttiness of a bit of wholemeal in here - means they qualify as health food!)
1 tsp salt
2 tsps ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground mace (or nutmeg)
1/4 tsp ground cloves
50 g unsalted butter cut into pieces
50 g runny honey
2 large eggs (or 3 bantam eggs) whisked with c 100 ml whole milk and enough water to make up the liquid total to c 380 ml
100 g home-dried apple pieces (or you could use commercially dried apple rings snipped up)
100 g sultanas (or raisins)

For the glaze: 1 egg whisked with a teaspoon of water
pearl sugar or demerara sugar to sprinkle on top

I've used an assortment of spices that I think go well with apple - I've got a particular fondness for ground mace at the moment which I think is made from the outer casing of the nutmeg seed. Its taste is similar to nutmeg but slightly warmer and stronger. It works very well in breads like this one anyway. But you can vary the spices according to what you like / have in the cupboard. The same applies to the fruit. You can change the make-up of the liquid as well, so long as you end up with the about the same quantity of liquid overall so feel free to use all milk and no water and one egg rather than two if that suits you. Some egg and some milk is needed though so I wouldn't simply replace with all plain water if you want the same tender-crumbed results, especially for eating just as they are.

I make the dough for these buns in my automatic bread-maker on the wholemeal raisin dough programme. Not all the fruit will go in the fruit-and-nut dispenser of my machine so I just add the extra by hand when I hear the portcullis-like trap on the dispenser fall and know that the automatic hopper has released its payload at the right moment. You can, of course, make them by hand following any fruited bread or hot cross bun recipe for the method.

Once the dough is risen and ready, preheat the oven to 200 C (195 C for fan ovens). Shape the dough gently  - it's quite loose and tender - into twelve nice, round, cushiony buns and place on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Brush each one with the slightly diluted, beaten egg and sprinkle with pearl or demerara sugar. Bake for around 13 - 14 minutes until well-risen and golden. Watch them carefully towards the end of the baking time to make sure they don't overcook. You might need to turn the baking tray around if some of the buns seem done before the whole tray is ready.

Cool the buns on a wire rack before eating just as they are ...

... or may be with a bit of unsalted butter. Any leftover buns freeze beautifully.

4 Mastering a knitting pattern for a vintage-style tea cosy for my big enamel teapot that pours beautifully but is too big for any of my existing tea cosies. There's a gorgeous pattern in Handmade Glamping for a tea cosy like this made with five colours, rather than just two, but I got in such a pickle trying to follow the (somewhat elliptic) instructions and keep five balls of yarn separate and in the right places that I gave up and found a simpler pattern for the traditional two-colour version here.

I love the Handmade Glamping book, it's one of my favourites and full of inspiration but I do find the technical instructions for how actually to make the projects are sometimes insufficient. It's fine, if you're fairly confident with the required crafting skill and can supply what is not explained from your own experience but trickier if you aren't. And with knitting, I am not at all confident, and should only really be let loose under the watchful eye of a minder!

But this has, in the end (and perhaps despite me), worked OK. It keeps the tea as hot as can be. The design of these vintage-style cosies with their self-pleating folds, means that the teapot is effectively wearing something like an eiderdown, with a pocket of insulating air trapped in each fold. Perfect for brewing up tea to go in a flask, without the tea losing its heat, as well as keeping a pot of tea alive and well, some time after making it, even when you're not "taking it out." Do you use a proper teapot and a tea cosy when you make tea? I'd got rather lazy and had fallen into bad tea-bag-in-a-mug habits that were quite wasteful really, both of electricity and tea.

5 Photographing my late summer sunflowers in the early morning sun which despite being planted quite late, have come good and cheered these late summer / early autumn days with their wonderful, yellow, mop-like heads.

6 Changing up breakfast a little by switching from porridge to a very simple, but oh-so-good, homemade granola. Just oats and chopped almonds turned in maple syrup, honey, vanilla extract and a spoonful of rapeseed oil and baked on a tray in a slow oven before being cooled and nibbled, stored in a large jar for quick and easy, nutritious breakfasts served with with ice-cold, unpasteurised, whole milk. Absolutely deeelicious and popular with the whole household.

Small things, but good. 

And hopefully providing momentum for navigating the rest of the autumn, 
regardless of what falls from the trees, 
either literally or figuratively.

E x