Wednesday, 30 November 2011

November 30th - wobbly cheesecakes and single mothers

Dear Nigel,

Had a wonderful baked New York cheesecake at my Mum's the other week; so today i thought i would make a couple to put by for Christmas, to have with sour cream and mixed berries. It's interesting that i should have tasted this wonderful cheesecake at my mum's as, i have to say, it's the cheesecakes i had at home as a child that put me off going near one for years. Even when they had a bit of a revival a few years back i couldn't be tempted.

The cheesecake, as i remember it, was a 70's invention which came out of a packet from Greens and to which a lemon jelly was somehow added, which gave it it's characteristic wobble. On top my Mum would add a revolving layer of tinned mandarin and a little jug of evaporated mild was passed reverently round.

Setting to, to replicate this New York vanilla  cheesecake, the cordon bleur cook in me was struggling to get out again - mainly out of the kitchen - as i remembered, a little too late, that my 9" springform tin is a little battered and therefore not as snug-fitting as it should be. I watched the liquid filling start to pour out from underneath and went for the shove-it-on-a-baking sheet and into the oven approach in the hope that it would start to set before the entire contents dripped out of the tin. This method appeared to work. No doubt the same thing will happen next time as i will, in all probability, forget to replace the offending tin. I don't suppose you suffer battered tins gladly, Nigel. But then, how often do you find when you want to use them that someone's gone off with them and stuffed them with blue Playdough?

I was considering the plight of single mothers today. It occurred to me that i am simply following in something of a family tradition. My great-grandma was a young mum during the first world was when her husband died, leaving her four small children to bring up on her own. My granny was a young mum during the second world war and was left with two small children and a fish shop to run whilst grandpa went to war. My own mum fairly brought us three up on her own during the 60's and 70's as my dad was away working in the far east most of the time. So, the modern epidemic of divorce and separation (and i've achieved both) is nothing to spill the milk over.

You make a simple miso broth with prawn dumplings, i make a more substantial soup with spiced beef and red pepper. It relies heavily on smoked paprika and sour cream and i love it: just what i need to keep this foul dark weather at bay. Took the kids to the ice cream farm to see the animals and taste- test the tubs we want to buy in for Christmas. There was a time when i made all my own ice cream, but several episodes with a bouncing ice cream maker, and the fact that here in the Peak District we are at least blessed with five really good ice cream farms in a very small radius (bet you can't say that in your neck of the woods )  has made me change tack.

Yours from the bottom of a good bottle of wine,


Monday, 28 November 2011

November 28th - Not all Sticky Toffee Puddings are made equal

Dear Nigel,

Thought i'd make headway with the first of the Sticky Toffee Puddings today. They freeze well and are perennially popular, especially in wintertime. Last Christmas was a white Christmas - here in the Peak District anyway -. lovely for the kids sledging and avoiding schoolwork, less popular for all  those of us with heavy presents to deliver to relatives upcountry.( I think i still have one tin of quality street  wrapped  last year sitting in a cupboard somewhere.)

I have tried many a Sticky Toffee Pudding in pubs and restaurants and from farm shops and am becoming a bit of a connoisseur on said item. Sometimes there is a definite meanness with the toffee sauce - this is one recipe where more is definitely more and a veritable lake is far preferable to a dried-up spring. The choice of cream, ice cream or custard i usually leave open to the scoffer as everyone has their own favourite and this is not the time of year to be dictating such things. I like to use Lucy Young's recipes as i find them so practical, and this is a particularly good one. (Lucy Young is Mary Berry's side -kick, though i'm not sure she'd like to be described as such).

You find a particularly nice Celeriac in a farmers market; one of my favourite winter vegetables. I like mine mashed with potato but  you come up with a remoulade with shredded raw celeriac and walnuts in a dressing, using the rest of the walnuts in a coffee cake. Yum! I don't think i've ever tried celeriac raw before so i'm tempted to give it a go. Our farmers market is on Thursday and the nobbly vegetable man is always there.

Yours from comfort-food heaven,


Sunday, 27 November 2011

November 27th - Soup to soothe the soul

Dear Nigel,

The kids put their requests in for Christmas - not the over-ambitious present lists, but the list of their favourite foods. One wants Millionaire's shortbread, another Sticky Toffee sauce (with or without the accompanying pudding), and there is a sizeable minority who just adore my Smoked Salmon soup. I'd love to include the recipe here but, as i have no idea where i got it from and thus who to attribute it too, i don't want to get into trouble. Suffice to say it includes a large dollop of Boursin and much smoked salmon. It's a good one to make on a grey windy day when i'm feeling just a little bit low and i need some comforting - a nice man like yourself would do nicely, but in its absence a bowl of this special soup makes a fair replacement. The rest will have to add to my increasing stock in the freezer.

I read your entry for today and i see you're having the same kind of day as i am. You say, "sometimes you just need comfort food of the highest order". You make a "cheesy pie to warm the soul", - a molten mix of mashed potato, caramelized onions and stilton - a good choice to provide a concrete lining and ground you once again. Does this whole idea of grounding rely on a certain heaviness? I can't imagine being grounded by a light mixed salad or a sorbet.

The days are getting shorter and shorter and the thought of a nest of blankets and a DVD suddenly seems a very good idea. The dog seems resigned to her fate and the cats have already monopolized the best seats in the house. A more assertive person would probably turf them off but they look so comfortable and so relaxed. Who am i to deprive them of their pleasure? So i'll probably squeeze in beside them hoping they'll give me enough room to breathe in.

Pass the chocolates, Nigel,


Friday, 25 November 2011

November 25th - Bananas to Biscuits

Dear Nigel,

When i look around my kitchen i see two obvious areas of friction which probably don't exist in your quiet. contemplative space. The first stands at the far end of the kitchen on the welsh dresser. It is a rather scuffed and battered Brigewater biscuit barrel, scarred by many episodes of contact with the floor by over- zealous children.

I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. Rather like the reverse of the magician pulling rabbits out of a hat, i carefully unwrap a packet of biscuits and empty them into the tin. However, the next time i come to open the tin  i invariably find that all the biscuits have disappeared. This magical occurrence happens whether i am in the house or not, even in the same room or not. I never witness the perpetrator in action and it seems to make no difference whether they are handmade gingersnaps, expensive little french affairs or value packets of bourbon biscuits (indeed i still haven't decided whether there is any loss in quality between an upper class boubon and its value equivalent). To this end, i am considering writing to Emma Bridgewater with a request for a modification to be made to the said biscuit barrel. I would like the addition of a sound- activation so that on removal of the lid a voice bellows "STAND AWAY FROM THE TIN". This might give me time to save the day, or at least the biscuits.

The other point of friction most noticeable is the second fruit bowl. This is a large bowl on top of the microwave which houses only one product - Bananas. The reason for this is that when left with their friends they seem to ripen with amazing speed - great if you like them that way, and foodies always seem to be trying to convince us that this is the true way to eat a Banana. But, in our house we like them spotless and yellow. If even the slightest brownness is detected it will be cut out or the whole banana disregarded. You try reasoning with a four year old over this issue. I have partly managed to deal with too infrequent shopping trips by the introduction of a particularly naff-looking item from Lakeland which seems to work (much to my aesthetic side's disgust). This is a kind of mini bright yellow duvet for Bananas which cossets them in the fridge and seems to prevent the onset of brown bits. Once you get over the idea that it reminds you of cheap nylon puffa jackets and concentrate on the time saved, it becomes a modern miracle.

I see you're dining on "a slithery, cold noodle salad" today, and i'm in no mood to cook as i'm on my own. Difficult to rouse the motivation for one at times. The last time i had a day like this, i found myself eating a whole tin of artichoke hearts straight out of the tin. And it was bliss. Heston, eat your heart out.


Thursday, 24 November 2011

November 24th - Two accusing aubergines

Dear Nigel,

I had been watching the pair of them for some time as they sat there expectantly in their sussex trug. They looked back today, accusingly. "Use us or else"...they seemed to say. It always seems to get to this part of our relationship. They, in their first flush of youth, looked so inviting, so comely on the greengrocer's shelf , that i couldn't help myself and brought both back home with me. Now, the first flush of youth having sallowed and gone, they threaten to turn nasty and pull on my conscience so that i have no choice but to choose to have them both on a plate for tea. I turn to your "30 minute cook" book and soon they are grilling nicely in the oven with a sprinkling of garden thyme. I am experimenting with freezing herbs - my own, and shop-bought pots. It is time to use up all the hundreds of little lock'n'lock boxes i bought to fill with pureed baby food when my little ones were tiny. I think it works well - as good as fresh, or nearly, and topped with canned cherry tomatoes and parmesan, serves me well.

You eat quail and complain how stuff seems to jump into your basket in the supermarket when you're not looking. I have that problem too, only the basket is by necessity the largest trolley available and the stuff that jumps into my trolley is not avocados and mangoes and other scrumptious delights, but seems to be pringles and chocolate buttons and more chocolate and the sort of sweets i won't let them have. And i wonder how they got there. Often it is too late and the cashier is ringing them through the till as i spot them half-hidden on the belt.  It is less easy to be culinary creative with half a tube of pringles and a curly wurly.

Enjoy your quail. I suspect my larger teenagers would consider it finger food and remain waiting for the main event. Quantity over quality seems to be the order of their day.


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

November 23rd - An Aga is not a fashion accessory

Dear Nigel,

Good news, my bereavement period due to the loss of my Aga - still in the old house- is coming to an end.My ex- has promised to bring it over and install it by late february. It is a well-travelled Aga as this will be its fifth house, but then i wouldn't choose to leave the dog behind either. It does mean it won't be here for Christmas, but  we'll cope with this strange whirring cooker from which things keep falling off all the time. My ex- says it is a superior machine but i notice he's not planning to use it but is getting another Aga for himself; not particularly for cooking  on but for its looks and comfort, i suppose. - Could see a direct parallel there if i thought about it, so i won't.

I look at your ritual for cooking rice with awe and amazement. I still haven't completely sussed the route to the perfect rice. Sometimes i think i've got it right and then the next time i'm busy taking a lode of washing out of the machine and i forget and it's turned to wallpaper paste. I still make them eat it, though, and if anyone looks as if they're about to say anything, i frown.Come to think of it, you never see Nigella going upstairs with a pile of freshly laundered knickers or Delia removing the Turkey from just beyond the dog's jaws in the nick of time. Why not? I think i would prefer to see a bit of real life going on around these television presenter/cooks, all working supposedly from their beloved homes.

You say you ate too much yesterday so cook something light and simple today. We either have a feast or famine here. Sometimes the reasons are to do with time and what's been happening - last night, for instance, i was rushing out early to a concert. The children had been making shortbread shapes, pummelling them into submission on the baking sheets and throwing most of the mixture on to the floor, where the dog was eagerly hoovering up. Consquently, dinner was a batch of boiled eggs and soldiers. No longer from my beloved hens - Esmerelda, the tart, and my stand-offish cream legbar with her beautiful blue eggs, and the other girls - but free-range, at least, from the supermarket. Must find myself a decent supplier locally . I just haven't bothered to make the effort as yet. Keep hoping the house will sell and we'll be able to have a little patch of garden somewhere big-enough for the children to be able to take their little wire henbasket out to collect the  still-warm eggs from out of their straw beds.

Hope you feel cleansed and purified once more,


Tuesday, 22 November 2011

November 22nd - Cat out of the bag

Dear Nigel,
Had to go for a work-focused interview today. My baby is four year's old, my ex- shovelled us out eight months ago and i need to swallow my fear and do something about it. I'm one of those last breed of Dinosaurs known as the stay-at-home mother: i've been one for twenty five years now.I have my first family of five from my previous marriage, mostly grown-up now, and my two babies from my last partnership of six years.
I sit in the job centre hoping no-one i know saw me come in and i find myself telling this very nice lady that what i want to do is start my own business making puddings. I hadn't planned to say this but every time i think about what i want to do i come back to the same idea. I'm passionate about food and eating and the fact that the only qualification i have is that i've cooked for my family for the past twenty five years does not deter me.
Even our holidays have been focused around food - the detour to the little Lakeland village of Cartmell to pick up a sticky toffee pudding from its original post office home, to a cider farm in Herefordshire to see them making my favourite Dunkerton's Black Fox cider. The rest of the holiday has always had to fit in with the main event.So i'm back home armed with contacts for my research and feel curiously lifted.
I'm making soup for the freezer today. Christmas for us revolves around a series of soups for lunches over the festive period. Teenagers rise at all different hours and it's much easier to have something substantial ready and available than to hang around expecting cheer and conversation at a time to suit you. Dinner is a different matter altogether. This way the dog and i and the little people can take a flask of hot soup and get out into the hills - snow permitting. Today the soup is Butternut squash, orange and ginger, one of my all-time favourites, which i make every year due to its universal popularity in our household. Luckily i have my chest freezer back now. It had to be dug out of our old garage and the straw removed from it as i had been keeping supplies for my chickens next to it. Due to lack of space here it was necessary to throw out the sofa so it now sits comfortably beside the piano - but no one liked to sit in that room anyway
You make a mushroom lasagne with basil and cream for your vegie guests today. I love the indulgence of a real homemade pesto, too. I used to grow my own basil especially for the purpose but found i resented giving over my entire lovingly-tended supply for consumption in one single meal, preferring  to buy pots from elsewhere to use and keep my own plants for garnishing and for sinking my whole face into at intervals when i want to be transported out of a grey day to somewhere sun-drenched and vibrant.
Dreaming of dappled shade and bowls of sun-warmed olives,

Monday, 21 November 2011

November 21st - The best-equipped Bedroom this side of Bakewell

Dear Nigel,
You may not know this, but i have the best-equipped Bedroom this side of Bakewell.
I once lived in a large house with a wonderful walk-in pantry, but after finding silverfish in my Bread flour sacks due to the damp, i immediately decanted all my flours, sugars and other dry goods into hundreds of 2 litre le parfait jars. Living now in a much smaller house in which i don't have a walk-in anything, i found the best thing to do was to fill my fitted wardrope with the jars. So, should i wake in the middle of the night with an urgent desire to knock up a cake, i need only lean over and get everything i need from beside my bed.Of course it does rather enlarge my ideal work triangle in the kitchen having to leg-it up two flights of stairs every few minutes i'm baking.
I had to resort to the chocolate today after a very stressful meeting. I ate a whole bar of Green and Black's milk     chocolate without stopping. I can't abide the chocolate snobbery that looks down on anyone who dares to claim they like anything less than 70%. Probably one of the first things i ever heard you say which drew me to you was the admission that you liked to eat mars bars in bed. Man after my own heart, i thought.
I'm not sure i want to try your recipe for stale bread and mushy tomatoes today, it reminds me too much of the kind of meals i used to invent when we got our first house and the choice was eat or sort out the dry rot - the dry rot always won.
Hope you enjoyed your mushy tomato bread. No doubt all that work in the garden would have worked up an appetite, and everything tastes better then.
All the best,

Sunday, 20 November 2011

November 20th - Last of the Summer wine

Dear Nigel,
I was in feastive mood today, busy making things for the freezer and Christmas. For me, the most evocative aroma has always strangely been that of Summer berries gently poaching in their own juice, ready to made into Summer Pudding. This is because i don't particularly care for Christmas Pudding. So, while everyone else is busy tucking in i like to be reminded of long golden days and sunshine. Usually my mum gives me some raspberries and the blackberries are picked from the hedgerow by the children and i.
Dinner was a traditional Sunday Dinner of Spaghetti Bolognaise, as the maverick in me would prefer a roast on almost any other day. Years of my mother's splendid roasts have somehow left me with a memory of debilitating lunches, the smell of congealed gravy and dishwasher and an afternoon of best clothes and boredom: I hated Sundays. So now it's a down day and i can be creative once again.
I see you had a large salad with coppa and pecorino. The cheese i know and love but coppa? - no mention in my dictionary so can only suppose it's some kind of salami. I don't think salad really does it for me at this time of year.But i suppose it's a tad warmer in London than here in the highest town in the country. I bought a snow shovel in town yesterday and people stopped me all the way back."Come the snow", I found myself saying to some poor old dear, like an ancient sooth sayer, "there won't be any snow shovels to be found". This happened to me last year and snow lay thick on the ground for about three months as the council refused to spend any money moving it.The year before i had to dig my ex-partner out of a totally dark and empty Goyt valley at midnight with the aid of my trusty Landrover, Archie, - no Chelsea tractors here. So, if i give your salad a miss while i go and dig out my thermals, you'll understand.
Hope you get your appetite back again soon,

Saturday, 19 November 2011

November 19th - frugal food and fudge

Dear Nigel,
my apologies for calling you a top chef. ( I think you would rather be referred to as a good cook). There are far too many men in checked trousers out there on the tele, anyway. I want someone who will get me out of my armchair to make something because my life will be the richer for it and it's suddenly become something i can't bear to live a moment more without.
Today, i see you've been shopping in Chinatown, for pak choi and lychees and other delights that only townies and those in the more plummy provinces seem to have the option of foraging for. It always seems an irony to me that choice in the country in comparison is still so limited.
I could eat the slow-cooked duck with star anise and ginger you tucked into, right now, though i should be heading off to bed. I took the children to a switching on of twinkly lights in the little Peak District village of Castleton. Trooping round the village we tucked into bars of the most mouth-melting fudge from the real fudge shop.And, though i'm not usually a huge fan of the stuff, their triple chocolate layer made with Green and Black's finest had me polishing the lot off. Consequently, i wasn't feeling too peckish when we returned so we dined on bread and soup.
The soup was one i made a couple of days ago in large quantity. I like to keep one nestling on the back of the stove ready for any of my grown-up fledgelings to heat-and-eat on their way to somewhere else. This time it was creamy parsnip, leek and lemon  - another success from the New Covent Garden Soup Company people, whose recipes i seem to have systematically worked through. Counting the cost of a pressing Christmas with seven children descending makes any sort of little economies a blessing.
The little children don't eat the soup.
I don't suppose you have this problem? Guests who turn up and refuse to eat what you put on the table, or say,"Yuk , 'gusting." 'Gusting was one of my five year old's first words. Everything i provided was 'gusting for a long time. No doubt she would take one look at the pieces of plump, tender duck nestling on their little mounds of fluffy rice and declare "'Gusting",whilst pulling a strangulated face. Me, on the other hand, would be quietly licking the sticky juices off the plate with my finger.
Sweet dreams on an empty stomach,

Thursday, 17 November 2011

November 17th - Home to an empty fridge

Dear Nigel,
i choose today to start writing to you and am almost heartened to find myself echoed on your page as you fly back from America to an empty fridge. Instead of throwing things together from nothing to come out with a gourmet treat you decide to phone out for pizza and beer - a wise choice; why should a top chef always be singing and dancing for others delight?
Back home i'm looking at a small piece of cold chicken and considering my offspring - a fairly amenable sixteen year old boy and two little girls who eye everything new with suspicion, prefering to starve indefinitely if need be.I think it will have to be fajitas for Tom and i  and something slimy out of a tin, covered in a tomato sauce, for the little ones. We did make our Christmas Pudding last night; them weighing out and mixing all the ingredients. Molly dipped her spoon into the rum because it looked like water. i think she was too  embarrassed to make a fuss about the taste - either that or a i have a potential four year old alchie on my hands. Perhaps i shall have to start drawing lines on the bottles, all too accessable beside the fridge?
Best Wishes,