The cool stillness of the first day of autumn and the kitchen feels like a nice place to be. Using a recipe from my friend, home economist and food stylist Sue Ashworth, I’ve been trying to perfect lemon curd – my lifelong crush of the preserve world. Fresh farm eggs and a slab of Cornish butter mixed with sugar, lemon juice and a soft mound of zest is never going to taste and smell anything short of amazing when it hits the hob, melting and thickening into a silky, lemony spread. Practice is all part of the fun. I just need to amp up my zest levels (thanks, testers) then it’s on to lime and raspberry in time for Christmas potting.
Cold meats, a freshly baked cake, and bottles of ginger beer; I spent my childhood dining out on Enid Blyton’s mouth-watering food descriptives – from suppers shared around the family kitchen table to the gloriously naughty midnight feasts squirreled away in the shadows of the common room. I was then happier than Darrell Rivers herself to stumble over some pristine Enid Blyton story books while on a family weekend in Margate this month – including a 1972 edition of ‘The Children of Cherry-Tree Farm’ (1940). After their parents leave for America, siblings Rory, Sheila, Benji and Penny are sent to the thatched farm-house of Uncle Tim and Auntie Bess, whose wholesome home cooking underpins the children’s new-found appreciation of country living…
‘Auntie Bess had made them a lovely picnic lunch. There were ham sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs in their shells, each with a screw of salt beside them, slices of sticky gingerbread, last autumn’s yellow apples, and half a bottle of milk each.’
When I saw this wrapping paper by Cavallini Papers and & Co in the Kew Gardens gift shop, I knew it was never going to cover anything other than my kitchen wall. ‘Sweet Treats’ is a collection of 16 mouth-watering cakes and desserts featuring Grape Jelly, Lemon Cream, Iced Oranges and a small layered mountain of Apples a la Parisienne. Printed on Italian cream-laid paper stock, I’d like to think these beauties could feel as at home on an Italian Renaissance-inspired banquet in the 16th century as on the dessert menu at a doomed yet delicious wedding feast in the literary realms of Westeros.
A lazy bank holiday weekend has been punctuated by several excellent cake and pastry pit stops. An iced pain au raisin from the Blackbird Bakery in Crystal Palace kicked off a sunny Saturday, with greedy forethought to bag a Chelsea bun encrusted with sugar for afternoon tea. Both were delicious, however the star of the show was waiting in The Albion deli, attached to its hearty English caff in east London. Multi-checkered layers of rosewater sponge cemented with raspberry jam amounted to one of the finest pieces of Battenburg I’ve ever tasted – only to be seconded by one of the signature all-star chocolate brownies.
In hindsight, I should have saved some cake space for the Crystal Palace Food market, which saw a tiny back street off the Triangle alive with home-made produce for the second week running – pedaling everything from home-grown herbs and local honey to organic meats and Moroccan soul food. I took home a box of biodynamic eggs that had been laid at Brambletye Farm in East Sussex, about an hour’s drive from south-east London. After poaching and popping creamy yolks the colour of sunshine on toast – and looking up the term biodynamic: (like an extension of organic where holistic methods of farming are applied to nourish the earth) – I’m not sure there’s any going back to Sainsbury’s for my next half a dozen.
Judging cake is a serious business. We’ve all seen Calendar Girls. The self-crucifying repercussions of taking short cuts down M&S’ sponge aisle to claim the glory of a home win is a nod to the unwaivering regulations in place at real life village and county shows across the UK, brought in to measure fair play for both the home producer and the white-coated judge. The picture above (circa 1950s) is one of my all-time favourites, depicting members of the Women’s Institute in training to become certified WI Cookery Judges under the watchful eye of the WI Trainer. Their bible-like reference manual, the Produce Guild Guide and Handbook, underwent several interpretations and revisions over the years and is now known as ‘On with the Show’ which, if you’re thinking of putting your best loaf forward this summer, is a pretty invaluable place to start for show-perfect produce. I wax on about this here.
Last month I worked at the inaugural Cake & Bake Show in Earl’s Court, assisting in the pop-up kitchen for TREX – a pure vegetable fat still going strong after 80 years and witnessing a revival as a retro, multi-purpose baking ingredient…
‘TREX!’ yells a tiny Scottish man in a white overcoat, punching the air with gusto. Myself and ‘Team Trex’ (a band of three led by my good friend, home economist Sue Ashworth) are furiously weighing out flour and sugar just minutes before the Show doors open. We’re stopped in our tracks by the man in the white coat – Eddie Spence MBE. As cake and icing fans will know, Eddie is one of the most respected cake decorators on the planet (he’s iced many cakes for the Royal family including the Queen’s Golden Wedding Anniversary Cake), his courses continue to sell out in minutes, and what isn’t in his book, The Art of Royal Icing, isn’t worth a piping bag.
Last week I was interviewed by BBC Food for an online article discussing the cost of tea and cake today. Read it here – and let us know your thoughts. Do you make a cake on a Sunday? Would you rather splash out on a coffee and a slice of home-made cake at your favourite cafe or is there nothing nicer than baking from scratch in the comfort of your kitchen?
If only all afternoon tea could be served with a spoonful of Complicite. It was the creative learning arm of the renowned theatre company, that, this weekend, staged a pop-up afternoon tea event with dream-like qualities, transforming a communal lounge in over-55’s centre Dora House (St. John’s Wood, London), into a spotless, 1940’s-esque tea-room. Flanked by paisley wallpaper, sweeping net curtains and live classical music, an impeccably styled cast of waiting staff and actors played out themes of love, regret and distant memories as customers looked on in disbelief over a pot of Earl Grey.
Everyone has a culinary short-cut up their chef whites. Or knows someone who does. Mine is to dis-obey the all-in-one microwavable method for the perfect white sauce and stick to the timely process of milk and butter roux plus lots of whisking of milk in pan. In the long-run it can save crucial minutes after third attempt of electronic version leaves me in a puddle of full-fat. Note to self: must try harder.
When your ginger biscuit or flapjack recipe calls for a spoonful of syrup or treacle, there’s nothing quite like prizing open the shiny metal of a new tin and diving right in. Lyle’s Golden Syrup, with its iconic gold and green packaging and official Royal stamp of approval, has become one of the world’s best-loved baking brands and a cupboard staple for generations of home-cooks. Now, in line with worldwide Jubilee celebrations, it’s getting a ‘happy and glorious’ makeover as a limited edition tin.