That time of year again

Every year some friends generously allow us to go and collect apples from the old trees behind their house. The trees are tall and there’s always fun and games with a long pole to knock the apples off – they are simply too high up to pick by hand. Every year I completely forget to take photographs, and 2021 is no exception. Anyway, the apples end up a little bumped, but since they are cookers and I process them quite quickly, this is not a problem. The upshot is that every year in late September or October, I end up with a big tub full of apples and several days of work to convert them into a product that will be useable through the coming year. This seasonI have decided that the majority will be stewed and bottled, plus some used for sweet hot chilli sauce. Some years I make lots of juice, but we haven’t been drinking it much lately, so that is not my current priority. Of course, the abundance means that there is lots of opportunity for apple cakes, crumbles and pies, and today we indulged and had them with waffles and cream for brunch.

This old-fashioned approach to storing the the glut and not having to rely on what’s in the shops at any given time of year feels very much like rebellion – a quiet protest against the food system that most of us find ourselves unavoidably bound to. I love the seasonality of harvesting food; I love making use of local produce and exploring inventive ways to preserve it and value it; I love a cupboard full of sealed jars, squirrelled away for use during less productive seasons; and I love the kindness of those who share their bounty freely.

Currant Affairs

Whilst not quite as prolific as last year, the redcurrants have fruited well in 2021. I’m not a particular fan of blackcurrants, but the red ones I do like – both to accompany game and with yoghurt for breakfast. The vast number that appear all in one go makes it essential to preserve them and, unless I want a large part of my freezer entirely filled with the things, the answer is bottling. Actually, I like bottled fruit because it’s instant – at least when it comes to serving it. The preparation takes a little while, but redcurrants are an ideal candidate for bottling because they are nice and acidic, so preserve well.

Once picked (quite a time-consuming activity), they have to be stripped from their stalks (I use a fork) and any debris removed. This year, I still had some fruit left in the freezer from pervious harvests, so I bottled that with most of the current currant crop and put about a kilo of raw, fresh fruit in the freezer to use in baking in the coming year.

I simply cook the cleaned fruit with a bit of sugar – no need to add water, it’s juicy enough – then ladle into hot Kilner jars. Once the lids have been screwed down, the jars go into a water bath for about 25 minutes. Seals form once the jars are out and cooling, and the crop can then feed me for the coming year.

Redcurrants are one of my favourite things to grow and preserve – they aren’t particularly demanding in the garden and they bottle easily and successfully. I just wish all my crops were this easy!

Ten kilos of cheese

Deep in the mists of time I supported a crowd-funding project to help Duncan, a local farmer, set up a mozzarella dairy… like you do. He didn’t manage to collect as much money as he had hoped, but there was enough to get him started. The buffalo herd was established and milk production commenced. Once that was going well, they started experimenting with producing the cheese on a commercial scale, but they had some problems getting it just right. Slowly things moved forward, including experimenting with other cheeses and producing a very acceptable cheddar for a while, and then illness struck and things ground to a halt for ages. All was quiet and then a few months ago an email arrived to say that finally, they were in production and “would I like some cheese?” Of course the answer was “yes”, but the logistics in this time of covid can be a bit challenging, so we’ve only just had our first lot… kindly delivered to the door, in fact, as Duncan was passing.

It turns out, however, that the money I “invested” in cheese futures now equates to 10kg of mozzarella! So far, I have had 750g, so there’s quite a way to go yet. I made a lovely pizza with some the other day, but now I invite you to share with me your mozzarella recipes… all suggestions welcome.

Something new

Those of you who read Mr Snail’s recent ScrapHappy post will know that we have a had a new oven. When we moved to Chez Snail at the end of the last century the house was about 10 years old and it already had a fitted kitchen complete with oven. This was very useful since we moved from a house with a gas cooker to one where the kitchen was only supplied with electricity. And, thus, we di not need to buy a new one. Sadly, having reach an age of about 30 years, the poor thing was struggling to do things like reach the required temperature – in fact the temperature dial was so worn, you had to guess what temperature you were selecting anyway. Mr Snail was reluctant to replace it as it still got hot, but was finally persuaded one evening when it took an hour and a half to produce some roasted vegetables for dinner… hunger is a great motivator.

Mr Snail had liked the oven in the flat that he rented down in Reading, so we decided to go with something similar and thus it was ordered, arrived and installed in less than a week. After some discussion, we were amazed to realise that this is the first brand new oven either of us has ever owned – when we were younger, we both rented flats that had ovens in them and when I moved to an unfurnished rental, I inherited an electric cooker (along with a house full of furniture) from my nan. That cooker was then passed on to another friend who used it for a few more years. The first house I bought came with a gas cooker already installed and then we moved here… and 20 years later we have a new oven!

It’s a bit of a revelation, to be honest – the thermostat seems to be very precise, so when a recipe says to cook something at 170C for 18 minutes, that’s exactly what is required. Pies and cakes are coming out beautifully – done to a turn – plus is can be used as a proving cabinet, so when the house isn’t warm, the bread dough can still rise. Whilst I’m glad to have avoided buying new up until now , I really am loving our new purchase… I bet it doesn’t last 30 years like the last one, though.

Rising to the occasion

One of the joys of 2020 has been my success with sourdough. I love the fact that Homer (my starter) is unique to me, because how he has grown has depended entirely on the micro-organisms available here Chez Snail and in the ingredients that I use. I also love the fact that Homer’s offspring (Bart) is leading a happy and healthy life round the corner with a friend who we have got to know (rather than just saying hello) during this time of restrictions (we chat when we meet during our dog walks).

Recently, at the recommendation of Kim (The Material Lady), I bought a copy of Emilie Raffa’s book and have had great success with some of her recipes, including some really lovely chocolate chip bread. So, thank you, Kim.

Next experiment is going to be brioche – drool.

“D’oh”

Back near the beginning of the year, you may recall, I began my experiments with sourdough. It was before lockdown and it was just a whim… a vague desire to see whether it was really possible to create, from scratch, a viable culture of micro-organisms with which to make bread. And then came coronavirus and everyone had to stay at home and madly started hoarding random things… including yeast. There was no yeast in the shops and so, suddenly, sourdough became “the thing”. By this time my culture was well established and I was using it for most of my yeasted baking. I’m sure that most cultures that were started during lockdown have long since passed away, but mine is going strong.

Anyway, a couple of months ago Kate (Tall Tales from Chiconia) mentioned that it is traditional to name sourdough cultures. I wasn’t feeling inspired, so I asked Mr Snail to come up with a suggestion. He though about it for a while, and finally proposed Homer… “because ‘D’oh!'”

And so, Homer is our sourdough starter. This meant that when we passed a portion on to a friend, it was naturally named Bart. Apparently Bart too is still going strong.

Anyway, in recent months I have become a little more adventurous with Homer and was delighted to discover what beautiful sweet, enriched dough it is possible to make. I found a recipe for cinnamon rolls that I adapted slightly to make apple Chelsea buns, and it was a triumph… better than my previous attempts made using commercial yeast.

The filling is grated apple with the juice squeezed out through a cloth, then mixed with melted butter, cinnamon and brown sugar. The glaze was made from the apple juice mixed with a bit of sugar (rather than the traditional milk and sugar mix), Although the dough is sweet, it actually doesn’t contain too much sugar, so the result is not sickly, especially if the apples are a bit sharp.

Homer is also now our go-to source of yeast for all bread-making and the packet of commercial yeast is languishing in the fridge, being used only occasionally because I feel I should use it up.

A fruity post

Over the years I have become fastidious about bottling fruit, so that I have a supply all year round with which to make desserts and breakfasts. It all started with apples given to me by friends and family. With limited space in the freezer, I learned how to preserve the (free) bounty in jars. I progressed on to bought fruit – pineapple, peaches, nectarines, plums… available cheaply and in abundance for limited times of the year.

This year, however, we’ve tried to minimise our travelling (for quite some time we were only allowed to go out for essentials and then ideally only distances less than 5 miles) and so there were few opportunities to acquire exotic fruits (the place we get them from is local for a rural area but many more than five miles away). It’s probably been a good thing, though, because it has encouraged me to use what’s on the doorstep. So this year the jars are once more filled with apples, but there are also red currants (it was a spectacular year for them) and rhubarb. There are still some jars of plums and pineapple, but most of the produce came from our garden or the gardens of friends. I’m currently still working on the 2020 apple harvest and have yet to juice any of them, but the cupboard is looking nice and full, and it will certainly see us through many more months with relatively few food miles.

Lockdown Dinners at The Dogs’ Diner (and other suspiciously similar-looking places) — writinghouse

Mr Snail has saved me the bother of describing our eating adventures during lockdown – do check out his post:

PROLOGUE There are three things that you need to know about Chez Snail: There is an attention-loving, and hence pesky, spaniel-based lifeform called Daisy who is involved in the day-to-day running of some eating and drinking establishments shown here. There is a squeaky-ball-obsessed terrier-based lifeform called Sam, who also appears to be involved in self […]

Lockdown Dinners at The Dogs’ Diner (and other suspiciously similar-looking places) — writinghouse

Dough!

A few weeks ago, before we were all confined to barracks, I decided that it would be interesting to have a go at making sourdough bread. It takes a while to get the starter in a usable state and my first attempt just didn’t work – ending up watery and smelling rather unpleasant. Attempt number two was much more of a success and I have been carefully nurturing my lovely culture for a couple of weeks now. And then yesterday I noticed that it had gone mad and was bubbling out of it’s jar. So, the time was right to give it a go. I wanted to start simple and so I settled on a white loaf.

There’s mixing and kneading and leaving it to prove twice before finally knocking it back, shaping it in a basket and leaving it overnight in the refrigerator. after all the investment in time, I was itching to find out what it would be like. And the result? Delicious – a wonderful light loaf, not at all sour, but with a different taste to yeasted bread and a great texture. The next challenge is to keep the starter (now transferred to a much bigger jar) happy long-term and to experiment with some other flavours.

The recipe I worked from was in the Shipton Mill book A handful of flour. The starter is made with 1/5 wholewheat flour and 4/5 strong white flour, mixed with the same weight of water. I fed it every day for over a week, then every couple of days for another 10 days or so.

I like yeasted bread, but this is a rather good alternative – and how bread was originally made before commercial yeast was available. I’m really taken with the idea that every culture is unique because it’s the result of the person who makes it and the place and the specific conditions as well as the ingredients selected. So my sourdough will taste different to that made by anyone else – how great is that? Do you have experience of making sourdough?

Ready

Much as I like cooking, I’m not always very good at eating, at least not when I’m at home on my own. I often just don’t feel like bothering. I get distracted by something I’m doing, in the evening particularly, and by the time I think about eating, it feels like it’s too late. A few weeks ago, I was so remiss that I ended up rather unwell and having to visit my doctor, where I was prescribed something to help calm my digestive system. This seems rather silly, since the issue is completely avoidable – I just need to eat!

The solution (obviously) is to have things available that I want to eat. Things that can be prepared quickly, but that are nutritious and appealing, especially since I frequently can’t even think of anything that I actually fancy.

Ready-to-heat

So, over the past few weeks, as well as making lots of individually portioned soups for the freezer, I’ve been cooking extra so that I have some home-made “ready meals”. I’ve now got several portions of bolognaise, pork casserole and lasagne all waiting for evenings when I can’t bring myself to prepare anything. As you can see, there’s some room on the shelf for more – I’d like to be well-stocked with lots of variety.

It’s not the prettiest meal I’ve ever cooked, but it served its purpose

Indeed, yesterday I found myself not wanting to cook and not in the mood for food. However, I was able to extract a lasagne, defrost it and then pop it in the oven to warm up without really having to consider that I actually didn’t feel like eating. I’m making sure that all my ready meals contain lots of vegetables, so I get some nutritional balance. Hopefully this will prevent further medications and trips to the GP.

And now I am looking for suggestions and recipes: what do you suggest I might include in my ready meal repertoire?

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