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Make: Elderberry Vodka

foraging for elderberries

Autumn, my favorite time of year. Not least because it brings with it an abundance of fresh produce ripe for picking. On my daily commute to work I’ve been keeping an eye on the progress of elderberries. The way nature transforms through the seasons never ceases to amaze me, the soft lacey white flowers that lined our hedgerows just a few months ago have given way to deep burgundy stalks, their heads hang heavy with berries.

So, I am happy to announce that they are now officially ready.

Last weekend, C and I took a little Sunday afternoon walk. Armed with scissors and a box to collect our loot in, we had our first foraging adventure of the season. Elderberries aren’t commercially grown so the only way to get hold of them is to get out there and explore the English hedgerows

hedgerows lined with Elder

We collected around 15 heads of elder, which is the amount needed to make the below recipe. Usual foraging rules apply, always pick above waist height and leave a few heads for the birds who will also be needing these berries over the coming months.

collecting elderberries

To Make Elderberry Syrup you will need:

  • 1 litre of vodka
  • 500g elderberries, stalks removed
  • 200g sugar
  • The zest of a lemon
  • 2 x clean, sterilised 1 litre capacity bottles to store the booze in

The fastest way to separate the berries from their stems is to gently pull them away from the stalks with the back of a fork. It can get messy and elderberry is a natural dye so can stain. I recommend taking this task outside if possible.

Once ready, discard the stalks and split the berries between the two bottles.

Next divide the lemon zest and sugar between the two bottles, I used elderflower sugar made earlier in the year as I like to layer up the flavours. Vanilla sugar would work well too, if you have it to hand.

Finally, add half a litre of vodka to each bottle and, lid on, give both bottles a good shake to get the flavours going.

removing the berries from the stalks

Store the bottles in a cool dark place so the booze can infuse. shake the bottles regularly, about once a week, to ensure the sugar dissolves completely. I find it’s always worth having a cheeky taste once in a while too, just to check progress.

The booze takes around 3 months to infuse, so if made now it will be ready just in time for Christmas.

elderberry vodka

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No bake: Watermelon cake

watermelon cake

This week saw the return of The Great British Bake Off to our TV screens, it’s one of my very few must watch programmes and i’m very excited to be tuning in every wednesday over the next few weeks to watch the competition unfold. It was great to see the series kick off with some magnificent cakes, (And some less so!) its also a hot topic of conversation amongst my foodie friends, so strangely enough all this baking got me thinking about not baking.

Sometimes there just isn’t time, sometimes one of these fabled warm weather days arrives in the UK and the thought of turning the oven on is just a little too much to bear and sometimes its good to have a healthy cake on the menu. It just so happened that this weekend the weather has been a little brighter and a summer BBQ was called for to celebrate this momentous occasion. C and I planned a feast, pork belly, burgers, sausages, meat, meat, meat basically! So we decided watermelon would provided the perfect antidote for desert

We live on the Narborough rd in Leicester, Aka “the Narb” to us locals where one can pretty much acquire anything your heart desires, it’s entirely possible to exist solely on the offerings of the Narbourgh rd, should you want to.

I’ve spotted quite a few enormous watermelons on my weekend strolls and decided that this was to be the weekend to purchase the largest watermelon I could find. 10kg to be precise.

So, I carried the Watermelon,

In a blue plastic bag Down the Narbourough rd, it wasn’t terribly glamorous but my head was spinning with ideas of what to make. Watermelon vodka is always a winner at adult BBQs but I was tempted to try something a little different and created this refreshing three tier watermelon cake instead.

watermelon cake 1watermelon cake 5

The good news is watermelon cakes are pretty simple to make, all you really need is a good sharp knife. Here follows an explanation of how to achieve this for next time you have an enormous watermelon handy. There are many virtuous qualities to this cake also. It’s vegan, refined sugar free, gluten free, nut free so no need to feel guilty about diving in!

Slice your watermelon across the middle into 3 even slices to create the three tiers. Cut circles out of the flesh inside the watermelon, for this I used bottomless cake rings, 8″ for the base, 6″ for the middle and 4″ for the top tier. once you have the three tiers cut you can sharpen up any edges or straighten the tops of each tier if necessary so each layer stacks evenly. That being said, if the cakes are a little wonky this adds a little drama so don’t worry too much! Stack the layers on top of each other. No dowels needed as the watermelon itself is pretty sturdy. Once stacked, it’s time for the fun bit, get creative and decorate your watermelon cake with fresh fruit and berries and if you have any to hand edible flowers work a treat. Here i’ve used nasturtium, lavender, sweet peas, fennel and dahlia petals so the cake is entirely edible.

So next time you fee like baking consider this colourful, refreshing and above all healthy option, and of course you could also douse the cake with vodka too if you wanted to liven things up a bit!

watermelon cake 2watermelon cake 3watermelon cake 4

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Make: Chilli, garlic and herb infused olive oil

The next addition to my Christmas gift hampers will be chilli, smoked garlic and herb infused olive oil.

Olive oil carries flavours fantastically and this is a brilliant way to capture fresh flavours in a bottle. It’s also a tasty way to to recycle old wine bottles and use up any herbs that are waiting to be harvested before the frost comes. It’s fairly swift to make too, you just need to be a little patient whilst waiting for the oil to infuse.

I’ve used pomace olive oil here, which is a little less expensive than virgin olive oil but still very tasty. Virgin olive oil is cold pressed whereas pomace oil is hot pressed, its just a slightly lower grade of olive oil. I picked up this 5 litre drum from my local supermarket.

For this batch of infused olive oil i’ve used the following:

  • 6 empty wine bottles, i’ve used little ones here too. 4 small bottles are equivelant to 1 large bottle
  • 5 litres pomace olive oil
  • fresh whole chillis washed- i’ve allowed for one or two per bottle
  • fresh herbs washed- i’ve used sage and rosemary
  • 1 bulb of smoked garlic
  • a handful of juniper berries
  • a handful of pink and black peppercorns
  • a funnel to help decant the oil into bottles

The possibilities are endless, you could use all or just one of the above ingredients. Other delicious variations are Cinnamon, lemongrass, curry leaves, cumin, fennel, caraway, citrus, etc, etc, etc!

Step one- steralise your bottles this can be done with some hot soapy water, rince well to make sure no soap bubbles remain, then leave the bottles upturned to dry.

step two- Evenly distribute the herbs, chillis, garlic and peppercorns amongst the wine bottles. I’ve used assorted sizes of bottles, so i’ve used two cloves of garlic and two chillis in the larger bottles and one chilli and garlic clove in the smaller bottles.

step three- gently warm your olive oil on the stove to about 75 degrees- do not boil it as it will be too hot to handle. Place a funnel in the top of a wine bottle and carefully pour in the warm olive oil.

The oil should be ready to use in 3-4 weeks time. It’s great to use for salad dressing, can be used in stir frys to enhance flavour or paired with a good balsamic vinegar this is perfect for dipping  foccacia into!

The oil lasts for up to three months, or until the herbs begin to loose their colour. The oil does not preserve the herbs, garlic and chilli, only their flavour. To make the oil last longer the herbs, garlic and chilli can be strained out, and the oil re-bottled.

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Bake Autumn: Part 2

I cant really think of a fruit that makes me happier than a fig, these soft frosted purple fruits with their sweet pink centres remind me of childhood holidays in spain. We would pluck them straight from the tree and eat them on the spot, they are that delicious. Their sweetness is complimented best when paired with salt and tart ingredients such as parma or preshutio ham, blue cheese or balsamic vinegar, and perhaps a touch of honey to enhance their natural sweetness

This is the inspiration for my fig, stilton and parma ham tart as follows…..

What you need for the pastry case:

  • A 23cm/9″ loose bottomed cake tin- oiled
  • to pre-heat your oven to 160C
  • 200g plain flour
  • 150g butter at room temporature
  • chilled water to mix
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ceramic baking beans or dried pulses such as chick peas to blind bake your pastry case.

Ingredients for the filling:

  • 5 ripe figs cut into quarters
  • 4 slices of parma ham
  • 75g of blue cheese such as Cropwell Bishop stilton
  • a 150g pot of mascarpone cheese
  • a splash of balsamic vinegar
  • 2 whole free range eggs
  • black pepper to season

Begin by making your pastry. sift the flour into a mixing bowl and add the butter. Rub the butter and flour together until the mixture has a light breadcrumb texture. Mix in the egg yolk then, if necessary add a little of the water until the mixture comes together to form a dough. Wrap this in cling film and transfer to the fridge to chill for 30-40 minutes.

Once the pastry is chilled lightly flour a work surface and roll out the pastry to a thickness of around 3mm. Make sure your pastry is a nice even thickness throughout so it will bake evenly. Line your prepared tin and trim off the overlapping edge, use a sheet of silicone baking parchment to line the inside of the pastry case them pour in the baking beans/chickpeas to weigh down your pastry. Transfer the lined pastry case to the pre-heated oven and bake for 20-25 minutes until the case is an even light golden brown colour, the case will go back into the oven to cook the filling so it doesn’t want to be too dark.

I have a temperamental oven. It has two heat settings- on full blast or off! So sometimes it bakes the sides of the pastry case faster than it bakes the base. When this happens I take the beans out once the case has set and there is no danger of the sides falling in, this helps me achieve a more even bake.

Once the pastry case is ready transfer to a cooling rack and set aside while you prepare your filling.

In a mixing bowl whisk together the mascarpone and egg yolks until well combined. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar and a good pinch of black pepper- mix again to incorporate. I don’t add salt to this mix as this is provided by the parma ham and stilton.

Remove the baking beans and paper from your pastry base. place the figs and parma ham in the base of the pastry case, arrange them so each slice will include a piece of fig and a piece of ham. Crumble over the blue cheese then pour over the mascarpone and egg mixture, it should be runny enough to find it’s own level but if it needs a little help use a spatular or the back of a spoon to spread the mixture into the corners of the pastry case. Return the tart to the oven and bake for a further 15-20 minutes until the filling is golden and set but still has a slight wobble in the center.

Cool the tart for a few minutes on a wire rack before taking out of the tin. allow the tart to cool to room temperature.

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Perfect comfort food for an Autumn lunch served with a light salad, and perhaps a glass of wine?!

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What ingredients are you most excited about this season?

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Grow: Sunflowers

It was a sad day today, our homegrown sunflowers had to be chopped down. I grew these from seed earlier in the year, along with some nasturtiums (which haven’t fared so well!) and was amazed at the size and speed at which they grew – they have really brightened up the garden so we were very sorry to see them go.

I was left with hundreds of sunflower seeds which I harvested. I have a few plans for these little tinkers………

imageI’ve made some little seed envelopes to give to people as gifts, these will be part of my christmas hampers I started working on last week with my rhubarb and raspberry jam. Each envelope will contain 10 little seeds to be planted in the recipient’s garden.

A simple gift provided by my garden.

To make these I used:

  • 10 brown envelopes
  • a potato which I cut in half and carved into a sunflower (ish!) shape with a craft knife
  • emulsion paint for printing ink
  • A little Alphabet stamp set I bought from Muji
  • home grown sunflower seeds

I’ll still have a few seeds left over to use in my next batch of granola!

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