The icing on the cake

Lindeth Howe

Whilst in the Lakes recently we found ourselves near to Lindeth Howe, a country house once owned by Beatrix Potter.  Here follows a piece I wrote following a previous visit and which won me a place as a finalist in the Birmingham Press Association’s Midlands Media Awards in 2015.

The Icing on the Cake

Sitting in the shade of a majestic magnolia, I enjoy the luxury of unseasonably warm April sunshine. A small brown rabbit pokes his head out from behind a lavender bush and hops forward, followed soon after by two even smaller ones. Perhaps not impressed by finding us invading their territory, they dart back behind the bush only to reconsider and reappear sporadically to entertain us for the remainder of the afternoon.

Lindeth Howe Country House is steeped in grandeur and history. Built in 1879 the Queen Anne style house with its wide white painted frontage and black timbered gables stands in 28 acres of abundant woodland.  It was here that a young visitor, Beatrix Potter, drew the  illustrations that she later used for my favourite of her books, Pigling Bland, and so completely did she fall in love with the  house that, in adulthood, she bought it for her mother.

A glimpse between trees of every hue shows the still snow-capped peaks of Claife Heights towering above the western shore of Lake Windermere. The lake shimmers today, silver and ribbon-like in the sunlight, just as Wordsworth must have seen it when he likened it to a ‘vast river, stretching in the sun’. The pretty informality of the garden, where fragrant roses, lavender and buddlia , proving irresistible to butterflies and bees,  invites exploration but I stretch lazily and decide to save this treat until later.

The air is almost still; the faintest of breeze barely cools the sun on my face and I concentrate on the surrounding stillness in hopeful anticipation that I might hear the Crier of Claife. Legend has it that this medieval monk rescued fallen women and was spurned when he fell in love with one of them. He lost his mind and his heart-rending cries may still be heard from time to time. Today is not one of those times for there is no sound but the harmonious song of a pair of tiny goldfinch and that of a lone blackbird taking a rest by the lily pond. Leaning back, I rest my head and close my eyes, and I can’t help feeling more than a little pleased that there are no other guests with whom we must share this idyll.

Our tea is served: sparkling white china cups and saucers with matching tea and coffee pots and a plate of the daintiest sandwiches; the freshest bread, light as air, with fillings so generous that they threaten to spill out – smoked salmon topped by wafer thin slices of cucumber, beef with creamy horseradish, honeyed ham, spread with wholegrain mustard and, reminiscent of the Sunday afternoon teatime of my childhood, chopped egg with a sprinkling of cress.

“Don’t eat too many,” warns my husband. “Leave room for the cakes”.

The waiter laughs. “There’s always room for cake,” he says as he turns back toward the house.  I suspect he senses my penchant for the sweet things in life! A few moments pass and he returns with a three tiered cake stand and accompanying tiny forks with pretty ceramic handles.

The cakes; oh my goodness – the cakes!  More cakes than any sane person could wish to eat but I’ll give it my best! Where to begin? Tiny fresh strawberries topple from one plate to another as I select a scone, take a spoonful of thick clotted cream from one of the miniature ramekins and another from the one filled to the brim with strawberry jam. Jam first or cream? I can never remember. I opt for jam, certain that either way, the taste will be sublime. I’m not disappointed. An exquisitely pretty éclair drizzled with white chocolate calls out to me. This is no six inch finger of dry supermarket choux topped with a machine squirted smear of artificial chocolate. This éclair is the lightest confection imaginable; an inch and a half of melt-in-the-mouth heaven oozing with silky smooth passion fruit cream.  A small glazed pastry case filled with intensely sharp lemon curd; a miniscule square of rich pecan nougatine and a perfectly executed pear and ginger trifle, liberally laced with something that tastes suspiciously like brandy and served in a delicately etched shot glass; an explosion of flavours –  all decadently divine.

Again, I lean back against the cushions – replete, quiescent. The sun has momentarily disappeared behind a cloud and I am able to watch the birds circling overhead and then I see it – a Red Kite.   It lands inches from our table and stays for a moment before soaring, once again, high in to the sky, and for all the deliciousness of our afternoon tea, this truly is the icing on the cake.

A nice way to spend Sunday and how to make a fat-free, sugar-free, flour-free cake.

Strawberry or raspberry roulade

Roulade

I like Sundays. I like the fact that I don’t have to go to work (although very occasionally I swap with someone who wants a Sunday off. This means I get the Saturday off and I like non-working Saturdays even more than Sundays).

The day began with a lazy lie-in, but I was up in time to greet the Ocado delivery man at 9.30. It’s rare that I get my shopping delivered, mainly because I like food shopping, but a voucher for £15 off a £50 online shop, a whopping 30%, seemed too good to miss. By choosing some of the half price or two-for-one offers, I ended up with £69 worth of food for just £36. Given my recent ‘using up what I had in the freezer and cupboards’ challenge, I did need to do a bit of stocking up. I also popped to Tesco yesterday to buy a few things that I can only get there. Apart from fresh fruit and veg, milk and bread, I shouldn’t need to shop now for at least a couple of weeks.

Shopping put away I turned my thoughts to cooking. My eldest son and family (including three sons) were coming for tea – a little birthday tea for my grandson who had his second birthday whilst we were away last week. I never think of cooking as a chore; I find it quite relaxing.  I made a salmon, broccoli and potato bake and a rhubarb cake using the recipe for apple cake that I’ve been using for years. I substituted rhubarb for apple and ginger for cinnamon. It tasted fine but another time I think it needs a little more of each. For the baby, ten months old, I made a cheese and potato pie. Mummy had offered to bring something for him but I think if you invite people to tea, you should be prepared to feed them all! Then I made a salad including a ‘red slaw’ which consists of thinly shredded beetroot, red onion, red cabbage and balsamic vinegar. Very tasty! Also for the elder grandson (ten and a half) I cooked some baby sausages as I know he enjoys them.

Now to the unlikely sounding free from fat, sugar and flour cake which I also made today.  Trust me on this -it’s really not bad at all. I’ve served this to friends many times and they always seem happy to have a second piece!

Strawberry/raspberry Roulade :  Separate 4 eggs and beat whites until stiff.  Beat yolks and add 2 heaped teaspoons baking powder and 3-4 tablespoons sweetener. I don’t buy anything with aspartame sweetener so I use Natvia, a natural plant based sweetener. This definitely improves flavour of cake over the usual artificial taste. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla essence. Fold the yolk mixture into egg white. Spread over parchment lined Swiss roll tin. Bake at 160-180 for approx 15 mins. Cool, remove from tin and gently peel off paper. Spread with a small tub of 0% Total Greek yogurt* and cover with fresh strawberries or raspberries, crushing them slightly. Carefully roll it up. Sometimes it cracks, sometimes not. It will last in the fridge for a couple of days.  Defrosted raspberries may also be used but eat soon after as the juice is inclined to make the sponge soggy.

Natvia

*I must fly the flag here for Total yogurt. I not only use it in this roulade but in several other ways too.

  • As I dislike buttercream I make a delicious cake topping by mixing Total with icing sugar and coffee (just make sure you keep the cake in the fridge as the ‘icing’ is inclined to go a bit runny at room temperature).
  • Make a very quick mackerel pate by mashing a cooked smoked mackerel fillet with a squeeze of lemon juice and three tablespoons of Total. I like it coarse with flakes of mackerel but you could put it into a blender for a smoother finish.
  • Add to mashed potato to make it creamy without adding calorific butter.
  • As a substitute for cream in any recipe (quiche, creamy sauces etc.)

Total

I always made my children’s birthday cakes but I’m afraid I bought one for today. I wasn’t sure how I’d be fixed for time so ordered it from Ocado. Clearly, since I made the rhubarb one and the roulade, I could have made one but I have to say that we did enjoy the very chocolaty ‘Cedric the Caterpillar’. Grandson loved blowing the candles out. He is adorable but a very lively little boy so we were quite tired afterwards, but I just remember how it must be for his mum and dad who spend a lot more time with him, of course! I can’t help reminding my son that he was exactly the same and according to his other nanny, his mum was also a handful.  Is that what they call Karma?  The baby and the big boy are much quieter, calmer children, as were my other two.

I hope you’ve had a nice Sunday too.

Hooray, it’s over!

Thank goodness for that – my shopping challenge is complete.

The last couple of weeks of trying to keep to a pre-determined spending limit in order to reduce my overstocked food supplies have proved very taxing indeed, not least because I’ve had food-shopping withdrawal symptoms! The £90 limit May challenge update and a new one for June was a step too far. Although I managed to keep on track during May, I struggled in June and ended up with a £31 deficit. I could have tried harder, I could have resisted a few of the purchases and we could have eaten a few odd combinations sans vegetables during the last week or so, but I just couldn’t do it.

The exercise has, however, proved that my shopping habits needed a serious overhaul and I believe that I have learned a valuable lesson in shopping more mindfully. There is still a fair amount of food left (especially cous cous which husband has now declared he doesn’t much like) both in the cupboards and freezer so, whilst not setting a stringent budget, I will build meals around the remaining items and look forward to restocking (more carefully) later in the month.

Although I got fed up, I do like a challenge so though I have no plans for a July, I’m thinking about what to do in August. Perhaps a commitment to try two new recipes a week, or maybe three no-meat days each week. What do you think?  Suggestions welcome.

 

Coffee cake disaster

Whilst no Mary Berry,  I know that I am a reasonably competent cake maker so glancing through the glass door of the oven this morning I had expected to see my two coffee cakes rising nicely and browning lightly. I’d no reason to think otherwise; it’s a tried and tested recipe that I have been using for years with no problems.  This was the sight that greeted me:

Coffee cake disaster 1

Should I leave it alone, let the loaf tin do its worst and save the round cake, or should I intervene and have two ruined cakes?  Thoughts of having to scrape burnt cake from the oven floor made me choose the second option.   I scraped away what I could (and took a quick photograph) and returned both cakes to the oven hoping that some miracle might occur. It didn’t.

Coffee cake disaster

I just don’t understand what went wrong because I made the same quantity as I always do and used the same tin. I even checked in the bin to make sure that I hadn’t inadvertently added the eggs twice!

Never one to waste food unnecessarily, I salvaged what was ok from the loaf cake and cut it up into chunks. These are now in the freezer awaiting inspiration – probably some kind of tiramisu-type pudding in due course.  Then I scooped out the centre of the round cake to half depth and filled it with coffee ‘cream’ . I make this by mixing icing sugar, coffee and Total 0% fat-free Greek yogurt as I don’t like butter or margarine. Then I popped the centre back on, put more of the ‘cream’ over it and decorated with walnuts. It doesn’t look up to much but husband will eat it quite happily!

This is the second time of late that something I have made previously without any trouble has gone wrong. A couple of weeks ago it was toad-in-the-hole which turned out heavy and solid. BUT ……. my daughter is staying for a couple of nights so who cares about cake or sausages in Yorkshire pudding  – I have my girl home for a little while and that’s one of the best things in the world.

 

May challenge update and a new one for June

Fruit salad

An undertaking to spend no more than £100 on food during May was a pretty spectacular success – in one way. Total spend on fresh fruit and veg, bread, milk, cheese and yogurt came in at £101 and if I’m honest I could have reduced that further by not buying a few things where, instead, I could have improvised with items I already had.  So I certainly met the challenge in terms of keeping to my budget.  However, since the key objective was not actually about saving money but about preventing waste by using the over-full contents of my cupboards and freezer, that success has been rather more muted. How we have managed to eat for a month yet seemingly made such minor inroads to freezer and cupboard contents, I have no idea. Certainly there are things that have run out and that I need to replace but there is STILL way too much.

However,  I’m determined that the objective WILL be met so I hereby undertake to repeat the exercise during June. This time I’m going to focus more on trying out new recipes where I tweak and improvise to make even better use of what we have.  And to make it even more of a challenge, this month I’m reducing the spend to £90. I’ll keep you updated.

The fruit platter is one I made a while ago but I couldn’t think of what picture to take to accompany this post!

 

May challenge update, homemade soup and an apple sauce experiment

soup

Regular readers will be aware that I set myself a challenge to spend no more than £100 on foodstuffs this month. The idea is to make a considerable dent in the contents of the overstuffed cupboards and freezer. So here we are half way through the month – how’s it going?

Firstly, when I decided that £100 would suffice to cover the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables, fruit juice, milk and bread, I forgot about cheese and yogurt. Fortunately, even with these additions, the experiment is pretty much on track. Whilst I make cheese & onion quiches and cheese & potato pie from time to time, they are not featuring in this month’s menu, so the limited amount of cheese I buy can be eaten with crackers. Total expenditure thus far is £60.38. Although that is more than half the target,  I did spend a little extra at the start of the month stocking up on juice as it was on offer. I only buy the ‘not from concentrate’ variety which is a little more expensive than the concentrated stuff.

Tomorrow I need to buy tomatoes and potatoes. Depending on what Tesco have on offer, I shall add some green veg and fruit.  There are still French beans, petit pois and red cabbage in the freezer, plus plenty of sliced peppers (I bought three large bags for 20p each a couple of months ago, chopped them up and froze them that day). Using some of these and a carton of cherry tomatoes that I found in the depths of the freezer (like peppers, I freeze them ready to pop into casseroles, make sauces etc) I made a delicious roast tomato & pepper soup for lunch. We ate it with some (also from the freezer) Mediterranean bread left over from a recipe that my husband made a few weeks ago.

cake applesauce

I also made a cake this morning using some of that excessive store of  dried fruit that I wrote about. I’ve read several times lately that apple sauce can be used in place of some of the sugar or fat in cakes. The suggestion is that you start by replacing half the fat or sugar in your recipe with the apple sauce. From there, depending on how successful it is, you can replace a little more in the next one.   I replaced half and can report that it tastes absolutely fine if a little apple –ish, but since it’s a fruitcake, that’s not a problem.  I had a jar of applesauce in the cupboard (I cannot imagine why I bought this but at least I have now made use of it).   I also want to try another cake using applesauce to replace the sugar instead. I note, however, that the jar sauce contains added sugar which rather defeats the objective, so next time I shall make my own,  and I’m planning to have a go at a savoury cous cous cake – there’s still an awful lot of cous cous waiting to be eaten as well as several packets of quinoa and buckwheat!  I’m not sure yet what I’ll serve it with but something will spring to mind, no doubt.

To be honest, apart from the fact that I like, and therefore miss, food shopping, I can’t say we’ve felt deprived in any way or noticed anything different. Despite eating almost solely from the freezer and cupboards, we’ve enjoyed much the same kind of meals as usual. The difference is that instead of buying four portions of chicken and putting two in the freezer which I then forget about when I’m out shopping and buy more fresh chicken (and inevitably put another two in the freezer), I’m using the stuff that’s in there already. You would not believe how many portions there were …nor how much fish the freezer ‘audit’ turned up!

I think (I hope) that the outcome of this experiment will be that I become more aware of what I’m buying and more disciplined about using stuff up. I like to eat fresh when possible so I have to stop overbuying.

 

A challenge for May

image

I have a challenge for May. No, not Theresa; I think she has enough of her own with a General election happening soon.  This is a challenge for me. The above photograph shows the contents of just one shelf in one of my kitchen cupboards. Really, who needs this much dried fruit and nuts?  Other cupboards are similarly overfilled with all manner of provisions and the freezer is so full that I can’t get anything else in there. I reckon we could survive for a couple of months without buying another thing!  In the case of cous-cous,  probably a couple of years!

One of my quirks (don’t we all have them?) is the need to constantly challenge myself. If it’s not something altogether new, then I want to better my previous ‘performance’. It would be a useful trait if I was a sportswoman, but as I’m not, it can be a tad trying at times. Anyhow, I’m feeling the need for a stretching target so here it is: during May we will eat the food we have in already and I aim to spend no more than £100 on food during the entire month. This will mainly be used for fresh fruit & veg, fruit juice, bread and milk. I began, as one would, on 1st May and so far, so good. I think food shopping has become a habit. My husband might say an obsession!

Then, at the end of the month, I expect I will go and fill the freezer and cupboards up again!