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?

Apples of my own

As you may know, our garden isn’t very big. I do what I can with it, but there is only limited space. As a result, I don’t have room (unlike Sister of Snail) for an orchard. However, a few years ago,we were given an apple on a very dwarf rootstock, which now lives with the chickens… which liberally apply fertiliser around it and make it very happy.

The variety is an interesting old one “Ashmead’s Kernel”, which is a good dual purpose variety with a great flavour, although visually it’s not very appealing. It takes a few years to start fruiting well and, apparently , it can be quite pernickety about pollinators, but this year in our garden it thrived. I used some of the fruit in my most recent batch of sweet hot chilli sauce, but this morning I picked the rest of the crop for bottling.

Not the prettiest apples, but maybe the most delicious

It doesn’t look much in the bucket, but once prepared, there were enough apples to make six 500ml jars. I’m so happy to finally be bottling my own apples from the garden. It’s not enough to keep us going through the year, but it sure is satisfying.

Bubbling away

Autumn kitchen

I’m always in two minds about this time of year – one the one hand, I hate the days getting shorter and the reduced opportunities for walks with the dogs, but on the other these couple of months are always associated with happy times in the kitchen, as I preserve the harvest (mine and that of others). So, I am choosing to concentrate on the positives and spend time enjoying the abundance.

I went and bought lots of lovely vegetables – many locally produced – on Friday and have spent the past couple of days combining these with some home-grown produce to make passata, delicious soups and a second batch of sweet, hot chilli sauce. This year has been particularly good for chillies in the limery: I grew lemon drop, trifetti, Trinidad perfume, red and purple jalapenos and hot cayenne. In total, I’ve harvested approximately 2kg, but I haven’t kept track exactly, as I often pick a few to use immediately. Anyway, there’s more than 1.6kg in the freezer, we’ve eaten lots and each batch of chilli sauce uses 100g. In addition, there are still some yet to ripen in the limery and also there are the outdoor ones to bring inside.

Since we are close to ScrapHappy day, I do want to point out the use of “scraps” in my soup-making. Whenever we have meat bones, I boil them up to make stock, then freeze this in blocks. I never use a stock cube or stock powder, I just use my frozen stock and add whatever herbs and spices I fancy. On the bottom left above, you can see two blocks of lamb stock added to the chopped and lightly fried vegetables that became leek and potato soup.

And so, my freezer is filling up nicely – soup, chillies and little blocks of passata, as well as stock and roasted peppers from earlier on in the year – all ready to fend off the winter blues.

Going crackers

I’m rather a fan of crackers and cheese and of cheesy crackers on their own, but recently I’ve been unable to find any that didn’t give me pause. First, there were some lovely locally made crackers… they were delicious, but came with a lot of packaging. Then there were some lovely crispy treats that I bought from a farm shop in north Wales when I was on my travels… and discovered had been imported all the way from Australia (WHAT?) plus they had a lot of packaging. Then I found some different local ones, that not only had loads of packaging, but also were made with palm oil (I didn’t even buy these as I noticed before I put them in my shopping basket).

It’s just like the saga of the biscuits… the only solution is to make them myself. A quick internet search and I found a simple basic recipe (flour, salt, oil and water) that could be adapted. I made some with freshly ground black pepper and some with added cheese, and voila… plastic-free, palm oil-free, yummy crackers…

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