Saturday, 28 July 2018

Making the Seasons: July

Welcome to July's Making the Seasons post, the summer fruits edition. As always with these posts, my intention is to make time for some kind of seasonal and creative activity, be that sewing, dyeing, crochet, gardening or in this case cooking. I'm doing this with my friend Lucy of Attic24 and our hope was that you might feel inspired to do something similar too. The heat has meant that I've felt no inclination to bake over the last few weeks, but I have still enjoyed pottering in the kitchen, always one of my favourite places to retreat to when life gets busy.

In our garden we have one redcurrant and two blackcurrant bushes. I know nothing about growing fruit but I do realise how totally low maintenance these plants are, to the point where I forget all about them and am surprised when I see their stalks hanging with fruit. The blackcurrants are a joy but I do have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the redcurrants. I always feel that I should appreciate and enjoy them more, do something with them other than pick them and put them in the freezer, because they're not my favourite fruit. It's not the tartness, but the texture and the seeds that get stuck in your teeth. With any other fruit that I had stashed in the freezer, I would quickly use it up by throwing it in with apples into a crumble, but I never want to do that with redcurrants. So this year I decided to really go to town with my soft fruit harvest and enjoy every currant that grew on those bushes.

The first thing I did to use up last year's frozen harvest was make a few jars of redcurrant jelly using this recipe, which I would really recommend. And Delia's right, homemade redcurrant jelly is a world away from shop bought jars. Some I turned into a sweet chilli dipping sauce, the rest will get used up later, probably at Christmas. I also made the happy discovery that warmed redcurrant jelly is pretty amazing poured over vanilla ice cream, with the combination of creamy, sweet and tart flavours.

The fresh currants were used in Summer Pudding, a very traditional English seasonal dessert which I'd never made before, probably because I was put off by the redcurrants. You line a bowl with white bread, crust removed, then fill the bowl with stewed redcurrants, strawberries and raspberries, before placing a bread "lid" on top then covering the bowl with a weighted plate and refrigerating overnight. All the juice soaks into the bread so by the time you turn out the dessert and eat, you can slice it and the bread is soft and delicious. 

I wasn't sure how much of this we wanted to eat though, so made four individual ones, which were much bigger and more filling than they looked.

Served with whipped cream they were summer on a plate, although as predicted the children found the redcurrants too "bitty".

Next, blackcurrants, and what to do with the kilo of fruit I picked from my two bushes. I love these berries (providing they are sweetened!) and could have made everything; gin, crumbles, fools, cordial, jelly, sorbet...the possibilities are endless. Eventually I decided upon jam, compote and ice cream.

I've never made blackcurrant jam before and so I followed a recipe rather than just making it up using half fruit/half sugar as I usually do. This recipe suggested simmering the fruit before adding the sugar to soften the currant skins, which I thought was a good idea, and it worked. I love making jam. I love the way the fruit changes throughout the cooking process, the way the liquid becomes glassy when the sugar is added, then thick and sticky at the end, and I find it one of the most mindful and absorbing types of cooking. 

Doubling the recipe gave me three and a half jars of jam, and the half jar went straight into the fridge where I ate some on top of toasted sourdough for breakfast the next day.

Compote (you know I love a fruit compote) is the best way to use up a small amount of fruit, especially the kind which benefits from a little sugar, and I eat it over yogurt, porridge, overnight oats or pancakes. No recipe needed, just throw in a pan over a low heat, add sugar to taste and cook for a while.

And finally - I saved the best for last here - blackcurrant and liquorice ice cream. I've wanted to make this for a while but never got around to it but now I know how easy it is, I will be making this every summer, forever.

The recipe, from the book Simply Nigella, is a no-churn ice cream so very easy, it's just a question of mixing ingredients and putting it in the freezer. I can't see the recipe online but this one is very similar, just without the addition of liquorice.

I bought my liquorice syrup from here and found that, for me, the ice cream needed a little more on serving, but I really do love liquorice.

I feel like I've really made the most of the seasonal fruit this year, and now that the soft fruits are coming to an end I'm thinking about the blackberries I'm seeing in the hedgerows (bramble jelly! crumble and custard!) and the apples and pears ripening on the trees. Before we know it it'll be time for pumpkins and squashes and my favourite time of year. Summer is whizzing by and I want to make the most of every delicious moment.

Please do pop over to Lucy's blog and read her July Making the Seasons post which is just full of summery goodness. 

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Holiday Happies

Hello! Everyone alright? Thank you for sharing your holiday plans. I was happy to see how many involved simple things like yarn, going for a walk, spending time with family. I finished work yesterday. These last few days have been busy, but not as crazy busy as usual, and we are starting to slip into a more relaxed holiday routine. The kids have had some wonderful days already at the beach, seeing friends and cousins, staying up and sleeping in later. Five and a half weeks stretch out ahead of me and they're already almost filled but that's ok, they're not filled with work, they're filled with good things.

A few things that are making me happy this Thursday night:

:: Beach days. This was last Sunday, with my friend Charlotte and her boys. We swam in the sea and ate delicious lemon ice cream with bits of meringue mixed in. The beach is the only place you really feel cool at the moment and the sea is deliciously, uncharacteristically warm.

:: We ticked off the first thing from our holiday list and went out for a family dinner. We chose a local pub with a beer garden right on the edge of the harbour and the breeze was just lovely. The kids were up and down, exploring and paddling, having a wonderful time. It was really nice.

:: Spending a few hours cleaning upstairs earlier in the week. The children were at the beach with my parents and all their cousins and I made the most of the time, sorting and tidying bedrooms, changing sheets, mopping floorboards and cleaning windows. It was wonderful to come back to our bedroom later with clean sheets that were washed and dried on the line, a bunch of sweet peas by the bed, everything tidy and smelling of lemon. I don't like cleaning but I do, if you know what I mean. I like the results. And I love clean sheets. 

:: Overnight oats are my new favourite breakfast and I don't know why I've only just found out about them. I have tried Bircher oats/muesli before but didn't really like it (probably I just need to try more recipes!) but these are different, simpler and easier. Put 50 g oats and around 130 ml milk in a bowl with a little lemon juice and honey, cover, and leave in the fridge overnight. In the morning I just give them a stir and add some homemade blackcurrant compote. It's not like cold porridge as the oats, while soft, have much more texture. I don't know what it's like but it's ice cold and delicious. 

:: My sister gave me a huge bunch of lavender cut from her garden in exchange for a bunch of sweet peas cut from mine. The smell is just glorious - I think that lavender might be one of my favourite scents - and I've hung it for now in the porch where the scent greets me every time I open the door.

:: Giving homemade jam a a gift. When I first started making my own preserves, I was so proud and amazed that I'd actually made something that could be called jam or chutney that I would spend ages making the jars as pretty as possible, with toppers, ribbon and labels. As my cooking skills and confidence have increased, so the time I have to spend faffing with labels has gone the other way, and anyway things like bramble jelly are all gone within a few months - nothing sits in the cupboard for long in this house. But I'd forgotten how lovely it is to spend a little time making a jar of something homemade look pretty, especially when you're giving it to a friend.

:: A new addition to my mug collection by a local independent potter I recently discovered, Rebecca Williams Ceramics. I'm a sucker for anything with cow parsley on it and it's just the right size for a coffee. Her work is quite beautiful and I've seen lots of things on her website that I might have to add to future birthday or Christmas lists...

:: Today, on the hottest day of the year (it's disconcerting how they keep saying that, how the heat keeps on rising), I set aside some time to clean the kitchen. Obviously I clean it week to week, I am not a complete slattern, but every summer I like to clean it. I empty, wipe and organise cupboards and drawers, scrub the oven, take everything off the surfaces and wipe, run things like the extractor fan filters and utensil pots through the dishwasher, bleach whatever needs bleaching, scrub the dining chairs, mop the floor. Some of you are probably appalled that I don't do this more often, while others may think this is too much. That's ok, we all do what we think we need to make our own homes look and feel welcoming and, while I lost about a stone in sweat today, my kitchen is sparkling. 

Of course no-one is allowed to make any mess or cook anything in the kitchen ever again, so tonight we ordered Chinese take away, a rare treat, and ate it in the garden. I think we were all happy with that solution. 

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Summer Plans

The summer holidays are so near I can almost touch them. The children finished school yesterday but I need to go in to work for a few days next week before I'm finished. Bella's last day at primary school yesterday and leaver's assembly wasn't nearly as emotional as I'd feared; rather, I just found myself feeling tired, happy and relived that her time in primary education has been so overwhelmingly positive. She is really looking forward to starting secondary school in September, and so I must too. She's made me proud at every turn this year, in her friendships, her work ethic, her time management, her SATs results. 

Summer and the heat wave rumble along, with rumours that it will get even hotter next week. Ziggy turned one on Thursday and I can't believe he's been in our life ten months, and also cannot imagine not having him in our family, for all his hooligan ways. I'm picking sweet peas all the time and watering the garden with less enthusiasm each week. I've been frantically working on a couple of blanket commissions for colleagues who were leaving, and finished one in time, with the other almost done. I'm ready to think about crocheting something for myself now. I had a lovely day today in the kitchen, cooking up a batch of tomato sauce for pasta with three kilos of tomatoes I was given, making pizza dough, turning my blackcurrants into jam and compote, and making some ice cream. I love days like this.

I sat down with the children a few nights ago and asked them to help me write a list of things they'd like to do over the six week summer holiday. We talk about this at the start of every summer break but the appearance of pen and paper focused their minds and they gave me some great suggestions. Of course they requested days out - to London, HMS Warrrior (Angus), Mottisfont House (Bella) - and asked that we could all go out for a meal in a restaurant, but I told them they had to think of free or cheap options too and this is where they came up with some lovely ideas:

  • have a night in at home with a film and homemade popcorn
  • organise a big family walk with all the cousins
  • have an evening barbecue on the beach
  • make our own freakshakes at home
  • go and stay with my friend Abigail and her family
  • go for a dog walk at a favourite place and then have fizzy drinks and crisps in the pub beer garden nearby
  • print off lots of colouring-in sheets
  • make a mini adventure room in a suitcase (Angus)
  • do some sewing (Bella)

 Isn't it a great list? Most of what we do in the holidays is low cost as I'm really not one for theme parks and would much rather drag the kids around a National Trust property, or go for a walk, or bake a cake, but I'm excited to do these things with them. It also gave me a sweet glimpse into what matters to them, what they value and consider a treat.

I've a similar list myself:
  • eat a cream tea while on holiday in Devon
  • start an English Paper Piecing quilt 
  • go blackberry picking and make bramble jelly
  • start a new crochet blanket
There is also another, more practical agenda, involving cleaning out the loft and garage, deep cleaning the kitchen, sorting out the office, going through the filing cabinet and shredding, booking dentist appointments. Those don't deserve their own bullet points.

Do you have plans for the summer? Please tell me one thing you'd really like to do over the coming months, I would love to hear your ideas!

Monday, 16 July 2018


I don't think we've had any real rain in our corner of England since the end of May. We've had the occasional light drizzle, the kind that evaporates in the heat before it even soaks in to the ground, but no heavy showers. I dreamt the other night that we'd had a downpour and was convinced that I'd turned over in bed to the sound of rain through the open windows, but sadly not. 

I'm watering the plants alternate nights and using the sprinkler as sparingly as I can, maybe twice a week for half an hour at a time, but the grass is more yellow than green now. Every time I run the cold tap for a glass of water I take the washing up bowl out into the garden and throw whatever's in there over the nearest pot, which happens to be the sweet peas, and they are doing nicely.

I'm picking them as fast as they grow and enjoying their sweet fragrance around the house.

My tea consumption has rapidly dropped and been replaced by iced coffee. I still have a cup of tea first thing in the morning, but mid morning and after school I just want something cold. One shot of espresso poured over ice and topped up with milk is my favourite thing.

I extended the theme with coffee and maple ice lollies, from The Modern Cook’s Year. Made up of equal quantities full fat milk and natural yogurt with espresso and maple syrup, you just blend it all together and pour into moulds. They are definitely not for the children, but ideal when I am feeling in need of both being picked up and cooled down at the same time but can't really justify an espresso martini.

I am overrun with redcurrants and blackcurrants at the moment, and very happily so. I forgot to weigh the redcurrants but had enough to make a batch of jelly (this recipe) which I then turned into a sweet chilli dipping sauce, and we ate that with Thai fish cakes and a cucumber salad with a bottle of cold beer, on our laps while watching England play Sweden last week.

I picked a kilo of blackcurrants though, and have half as much again in the freezer from last year. I am thinking ice cream and jam, but all these currants deserve a post of their own. I am obsessed with the soft fruit season and, while I haven't baked for weeks (too hot), I have been cooking and eating so much fruit. Some disappointing plums, a bruised nectarine and some too-soft strawberries were all stewed with a little sugar into a compote and I've been eating it with Greek yogurt for breakfast.

Our weekend dog walks have been shorter and later, and successfully combined with early evening drinks in pub beer gardens. Ziggy does pester for a crisp though.

The last two Sunday afternoons were spent at the beach, with dips in the sea both times, and it's becoming a routine that I enjoy, the upside to this heat. We finish school this Friday and I'm at a point where I am tired, quite grumpy and very busy, with a messy house, full washing basket and overdue phone calls and emails. I'm at once fed up with the heat but not ready to say goodbye to it yet, because it's about to be the school holidays, and no-one wants cool, grey, wet weather for the six weeks that the children are home, do they? I don't. 

Thank you so much for your comments on my suitcase craft room. I haven't had a response to a post like that in ages, and it was lovely. Thank you.