Mother’s Day

It is Mother’s Day tomorrow and even though I am not at home right now and unable to make one of the greatest people in my life a special cake, give her a hug and a bouquet of primroses from the garden and I can’t spend the day with her, I offer you the link to my baking blog to inspire everyone to roll up their sleeves and get baking for the perfect, homemade gift for their mum. Top the baked item with edible primroses from the garden, the perfect spring celebration!

https://bellasbakingsite.wordpress.com/2017/03/25/mothers-day-make-something-special-for-a-special-person/

Flowers for the buzzy bees – link to edible flowers post for future cake decorating ideas

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Chestnuts

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What has my mum been doing while I have been absent at uni? Collecting chestnuts. No, no, not just a handful. I am talking kitchen-overflowing-with-chestnuts sort of collection. There will not be enough for the squirrels despite ht productive year.

Last year (luckily) we got away with a poor chestnut harvest – I had too many apples to deal with that autumn – but the year before we had a similar glut. I am ashamed to admit that I don’t like chestnuts. It is a nice little fantasy of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, a Victorian Christmas treat, but I just don’t like them. Give me walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, brazil nuts and I am fine – dare to wave peanut butter under my nose and you risk a slap. Again, just don’t like the stuff!

However, in an attempt to find a way to a) preserve chestnuts, b) see if I can like them and c) just for fun, we tried making chestnut jam last winter with what we had.

Unfortunately, I still don’t like it but for anyone who likes chestnuts, vanilla or fun things like this, it might be a good gift this winter.

The recipe is from the River Cottage Handbook: Preserves. It is also on their official website. They recommend dolloping it on top of meringues or ice cream or buttered toast. I tried mine on toast, a bit like Nutella. If you like the idea of mixing it with whipped cream in a chocolate swiss roll it might be nice?

Play time!

Chestnut Jam

(Makes 5 x 225g jars)

  • 1kg sweet chestnuts
  • 400g granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
  • 100g honey
  • 50ml brandy
  1. The first task is to remove the leathery shells and skin from the chestnuts. Use a sharp knife to make a knick in the top of each chestnut. Plunge them into a pan of boiling water for 2–3 minutes – sufficient time to soften the shell but not to let the nuts get piping hot and difficult to handle. Remove the pan from the heat. Fish out half a dozen or so chestnuts and peel off their coats. With luck, the thin brown skin under the shell will peel away too. Continue in this way until all are peeled.
  2. Put the chestnuts into a clean pan and just cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 25–30 minutes, or until tender. Strain, but keep the cooking liquid.
  3. Purée the chestnuts with 100ml of the cooking liquid in a food processor or using a stick blender.
  4. Pour a further 100ml of the cooking liquid into a pan and add the sugar. Heat gently until dissolved. Add the chestnut purée, vanilla paste and honey. Stir until well blended. Bring to the boil then cook gently for 5–10 minutes until well thickened. Take care, as it will pop and splutter and may spit. Remove from the heat and stir in the brandy. Pour into warm, sterilised jars and seal immediately. Use within 6 months. Store in the fridge once opened.

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Pears

PRUNE: November – February

HARVEST: August – November

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Pears are a species of the genus Pyrus in the family Rosaceae.

Pears supposedly originated in the Caucasus from where they spread to Europe and Asia and that they were first cultivated more than 4000 years ago. There is evidence of its use as a food since prehistoric times. Many traces of it have been found in prehistoric pile dwellings around Lake Zurich. The word ‘pear’ occurs in all the Celtic languages. In Slavic and other dialects, differing appellations, still referring to the same thing are found. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans valued the fruit for its flavour and medicinal properties. The Romans ate them raw or cooked, just like apples. Pliny’s ‘Natural History’ recommended stewing them with honey and noted three dozen varieties. The Roman cookbook ‘De re coquinaria’  included a recipe for a spiced, stewed-pear patina, or soufflé. They also attributed aphrodisiacal properties to pears and the fruit was consecrated to Aphrodite and Venus, the goddesses of love.

Pears were cultivated in Britain during the Roman occupation but the production of the fruit was slow to develop although there is mention in the Domesday Book of old pear trees used for boundary markers. By the 13th century, many varieties of the fruit had been imported from France and was used mainly for cooking rather than eating raw. Towards the end of the 14th century, the ‘Warden’ pear had been bred and became famous for its inclusion in British pies. The variety is mentioned in Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and the Michaelmas Fair at Bedford was renowned for baked ‘Warden’ pears. In 1640, about 64 varieties had been cultivated in the UK. Grafting onto quince rootstock began to replace pear and crab apples rootstocks. In the 18th century improved strains were introduced from Belgium however the majority of pears continued to be used for cooking rather than raw consumption. Dessert pears were grown in private gardens but were unsuitable for commercial cultivation. One exception was the ‘William’s Pear’, introduced in 1770 by a schoolmaster in Aldermaston, Berkshire. It became very popular and is still produced today but on a limited scale. Another old variety, the ‘Worcester’, has the distinction of being in the coat-of-arms of the city of Worcester although this russeted culinary pear has virtually disappeared from production today.

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During the early 19th century, renowned horticulturist Thomas Andrew Knight began developing new pear varieties. The RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) encouraged pear growing and in 1826 there were 622 varieties in their gardens at Chiswick. The breakthrough in dessert varieties occurred in 1858 with the introduction into England of ‘Doyenne du Comice’. The first significant English pear to be produced by controlled breeding was ‘Fertility’ in 1875, although this variety is no longer produced commercially. Well-known ‘Conference’ was introduced in 1894 and with ‘Comice’ quickly overshadowed all other pear varieties that have declined in production today. During the 20th century both the sales and production of ‘Comice’ declined whilst ‘Conference’ increased in popularity and today this variety represents more than 90% of UK commercial production. The 5 top pear producers in 2012 were China (17,325,831 metric tons), the USA, Argentina, Italy and Turkey.

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Pear trees can take a while to start fruiting properly and they do not appreciate the cold of an imperfect supply of water.

The varieties ‘Conference’ and ‘Doyenne du Comice’ are popular to grow in the UK. Both are recommended as reliable and relatively easy to expect a productive harvest from during October-November. For earlier pears, ‘Beurre Giffard’ produce in August. ‘Fondante d’Automne’ fruits September-October as does ‘Louise Bonne of Jersey’ and for a really late crop, ‘Clou Morceau’ is ready at the end of the year, December-January.

New varieties are self-fertile so if you only have space for one tree, look out for these brands. However, as with all fruit trees, even self-fertile trees will produce a better crop if there are other varieties of trees nearby. Some varieties do not pollinate with each other. Pears are usually grafted onto ‘Quince A’ (semi-vigorous, 4-6m in height) or ‘Quince C’ (semi-dwarfing, 2.5-5m).

Pears can be temperamental. ‘Conference’ is meant to be able to ‘rough it’ a little but that was our one pear tree that struggled last year, came back to life a little when we moved it to a better location earlier this year before dying on us a few weeks ago. Pears require a sheltered, sunny location with a fertile, well-drained soil that is neutral or acidic. Apparently, they do not like sandy soils – oops for us. However, if you can get your pear tree to survive and fruit, it is well worth it – they taste so much better than shop pears and you can grow varieties that your local supermarket would never dream of selling.

Plant your pear trees 5m from its neighbour if it is a ‘Quince A’ rootstock, 3.5m if it is a ‘C’. Pear trees are pruned as for apples. For the first winter, prune the central leader to a bud that is around 25cm above the highest lateral. Cut back the laterals by half, 6mm above an outward facing bud. Remove any other ranches that develop along the trunk. For the second winter, prune the laterals by 1/3, just above an outward facing bud to encourage an open centre to the tree. Sublaterals will have grown so choose three on each branch that are not facing the centre and are as equally spaced as possible, cutting them back by 1/3. Shorten other sublaterals to 3 or 4 buds to encourage growth into fruiting spurs. Remove any shoots that have grown along the trunk. For the third winter, choose further well-placed sublaterals to prune back by 1/3 to extend the network of beaches and prune back others to form short spurs of 3 or 4 buds as before. Remove nay branches that are crossing or growing towards the centre of the tree.

Water pear trees through any dry periods in summer and add well-rotten manure and Blood, Fish and Bone and mulch as a fertiliser at the base of the tree (not touching the trunk) in early spring, say March. This will really benefit your harvest and the health of the tree.

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Harvesting pears is an art. There are three stages: Picking, storing, ripening. You should pick nearly all of your pears while they are still hard. They need time to ripen and mature when they are off the tree. Judging the time for picking is the key. Look out for the first windfalls, a subtle lightening or flushing of the skin, or when you cup a pear and lift it upwards and gently twist it separates from the tree with the stalk intact. Check frequently as they ripen very quickly and will become mush or ‘sleepy’ – grainy, soft and sometimes brown. This will be the same on the tree or in storage. This year I picked all of mine when there were windfalls. Some were getting slightly soft, others were still very hard. They are sitting in a container in the kitchen and every day I check which ones are ready for cutting and slice and serve them alongside pudding every night as an option. We freeze any of the leftovers. You can freeze sliced pears as they are (coring them will make it easier to use them once they are out of the freezer as they do become soggy once defrosted) or you can layer them up and squeeze lemon juice over the top to prevent them from browning. I have tried both ways and they are fine. I would recommend only freezing pears you want to cook with. Eating them raw after freezing them will not be pleasant. Eat your fresh ones raw and same the frozen ones for cooking. You can also cook any that refuse to ripen or if you have a glut and are impatient for them to stop being so rock solid. Last year we had a glut of red pears that refused to ripen. I cooked them all in cakes and they were delicious.

Pears can suffer from scab, fireblight and pear leaf blister mites or pear midges that cause the leaves to roll up. In both cases, pull off and burn the leaves. Also, net your fruit if you can. Birds and foxes love to knick any they can.

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A pear in a 100 g serving (small pear) is a good source of dietary fibre. They are also rich in important antioxidants and flavonoids. The fiber content in pears prevents constipation and promotes regularity for a healthy digestive tract. A high fiber diet is associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes and keeps blood sugar stable. Increased fiber intakes have also been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. A review of 67 separate controlled trials found that even a modest 10-gram per day increase in fiber intake reduced LDL and total cholesterol.Recent studies have shown that dietary fiber may even play a role in regulating the immune system and inflammation, consequently decreasing the risk of inflammation-related conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. High fiber diets have been shown to decrease the prevalence in flare-ups of diverticulitis by absorbing water in the colon and making bowel movements easier to pass. Eating a healthful, fruit and vegetable and fiber-filled diet can reduce pressure and inflammation in the colon. Although the cause of diverticular disease is still unknown, it has been repeatedly associated with a low fibre diet.

Pears are the sort of fruit that goes wonderfully well with salads and salty cheeses (think pear and goats cheese salad). Walnuts are another great accompaniment. You can poach pears and serve them with a sauce or ice cream or cream or other spices. Pear crumble is probably a good option for a warming winter pud and I have seen pear and chocolate puddings floating around on the internet that look yummy. I do think that pears in a plain sponge cake go very well and even better with raspberries too (they make a good pairing). I offer you my take on the traditional Welsh Plate cake. These were historically currant cakes. I was inspired to try my own variation when I saw a white chocolate and cherry welsh plate cake. I was not so keen on the combination but saw the opportunity to create my own version using pears and raspberries as a fresh fruit alternative to currants. The cooking time will vary completely on the amount of liquid you use so give it time to bake and practice patience with this cake. Otherwise, it is very easy and quick to make and delicious hot or cold. I even had one of my slices with some homemade chocolate sauce which was OK, but plain was better in my opinion. Give it a go.

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Pear and Raspberry Welsh Plate Cake

(Serves 10, makes one 20cm cake)

– 225g plain flour – 2tsp baking powder – Grinding of nutmeg – 110g salted butter – 110g caster sugar – 2 large eggs – About 100ml milk/ pouring yoghurt/ buttermilk – 100g pears, cored and sliced into segments – 100g raspberries – Demerara sugar, for the top

  1. Preheat oven to 180C. Line a 20cm/9inch deep cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. Tip the flour, baking powder and nutmeg into a large bowl. Using your fingertips, mix in the butter until the ingredients combine and resemble breadcrumbs.
  3. Using a spoon, mix in the sugar and then the eggs until well combined.
  4. Add a little milk/yoghurt/buttermilk at a time until you have a dropping consistency – you may not need all of the liquid. Stir in the fruit.
  5. Scrape into the lined cake tin and smooth over the surface. Sprinkle Demerara sugar over the top. Bake in the oven for 40minutes-1hr until a cake skewer inserted into the centre leaves the cake clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool a little before serving.

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Raspberries

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Raspberries, Rubus, are of the rose family. They are a widely commercial fruit crop, grown in all temperate regions across the world. Many of the modern commercial raspberries are hybrids of Rubus ideaus and Rubus strigosus. Recent breeding has resulted in thornless cultivators that stand upright strongly without the need of staking.

They are believed to have originated from Eastern Asia. Archeological evidence has shown us that Palaeolithic cave dwellers consumed raspberries and that the berries have been part of the human diet for centuries although the canes were not cultivated until about the 4th century. Raspberries were associated with fertility and in Greek mythology, raspberries were white until Zeus’ nursemaid, Ida, pricked her finger on a thorn and stained the berries red. Rubus ideaus translates as ‘bramble bush of Ida’. During the 13th century, the juice of the berries was used to stain artwork red.

The black raspberry is Rubus occidentalis with a distinctive flavour. Purple raspberries are hybrids of red and black types. They can be found wild in a few places, such as Vermont. A blue raspberry is a cultivator called ‘Columbian’, a hybrid of a purple raspberry, black and red. There are about 200 different species of raspberries in total. Raspberries have also been crossed to create the wonderful boysenberry and before that, the loganberry. My gran gave us a loganberry last year and we purchased a boysenberry plant this year after discovering ‘Bunny Loves: Boysenberry Jam’ when on holiday in Dorset a couple of years ago.

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Raspberries are grown for their fresh fruit market and their ease at being frozen, pureed, dried and made into wonderful conserves. Traditionally they were a midsummer crop but due to cultivation and travel, they can be obtained all year round. We often start picking our own around June until late autumn, often coinciding with the frosts.

Raspberries need ample sun and water and thrive best in a soil pH 6-7.

Raspberries are a rich source of vitamin C, 26g per 100g serving, and dietary fibre, 6% total weight and one of the highest recorded in whole foods.

Raspberry leaves can be dried and used for a flavoured tea that can soothe the digestive system and ease cramps. There was a time when the leaves of the raspberries were values higher than the berries due to their medicinal uses.

Raspberries have long been associated with herbal remedies. Today, we recognise cancer and heart disease fighting properties within these berries, notably ellagic acid. Raspberry tea is recommended to women after childbirth to ease pain, a mouthwash can be made including raspberries that prevent gum bleeding and the tannins in dried raspberry leaves can soothe sunburns and other minor burns. Raspberries also contain antimicrobial properties that can inhibit Candida albicans, a trigger for IBS. Like strawberries and other dark berries, raspberries fight macular degeneration and promote healthy eyesight.

The biggest threat to your raspberry fruits will be birds. If you have a severe issue, netting or bird scarers are the only defence. We fortunately have so many, our birds seem to run out of steam and target the strawberries, blackcurrants and redcurrant bushes more often. As far as diseases are concerned, raspberries can develop severe root rot from an overly-wet ground that can destroy the plant itself. You want to make sure the raspberry is well-watered when it is fruiting but is planted in well-drained soil to prevent this tragedy from happening – otherwise you will be forced to get rid of your plants and start again and Verticillium wilt can stay in the ground for years at a time.

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Raspberries are usually sold as dormant bare-rooted canes. Plant them 45 cm or so apart in well-fed soil in rich, rotted, organic matter. Leave 2 metres between rows of summer-fruiting varieties and 1 metre for winter-fruiting varieties. Raspberries are shallow rooting so resist planting them too deeply. Summer raspberries produce fruit on canes that grew the year before so do not expect any produce the first summer. Each cane fruits only once so remove the old canes after harvest is over to leave room for new ones to grow. If the canes flop over, tie them to bamboo sticks or some other prop to hold them up and make them easier to pick (we finally did that this year and it is making it a lot easier for us, and regrettably most likely the birds too, when harvesting them). Autumn raspberries ripen their fruit on the current year’s canes so they will not produce anymore the next year. Raspberries are very good at spreading suckers and creating new plants, hence why we have so many which we are very pleased about! If you do not want to extend your crop, pull up the baby plants as the sprout. It is recommended to replace your raspberry plants at around ten years. If you are considering growing one in a container, autumn varieties are smaller and are more suitable for you.

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Summer raspberries should be ready for picking from mid-June to August and autumn varieties will ripen from August to October. Keep an eye on them as they ripen and mould quickly. Keep picking as it encourages more growth from the plant. They are delicious eaten fresh but we almost always have a glut which I am happy about as I freeze them and make them into our ever-popular raspberry jam. Otherwise, I am happy to use frozen raspberries in baking, such as cakes.

Fresh raspberries can be eaten on their own, with yoghurt or ice cream, whipped in cream to make a fool, baked in a crumble, tart or pie, made into a fruit leather, bottled for preserving or juiced with apples or blackberries for a drink.

I start the raspberry recipe collection with my latest discovery, Nigella Lawson’s lemon and raspberry muffins (‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’). 

Lemon and raspberries pair quite nicely together. I would try replacing the raspberries with blueberries when they are in season, or bilberries if there are any ready for picking now. Happy baking!

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Nigella’s Lemon-Raspberry Muffins

(Serves 12)

– 60g butter – 200g plain flour – 2 teaspoons baking powder – ½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda – 150g caster sugar – ¼ teaspoon salt (omit if using salted butter) – Juice & finely grated zest of 1 lemon – Approximately 120ml milk – 1 large egg – 150g raspberries

1. Preheat the oven to 200C and line a muffin-tray with 12 large paper cases.

2. Melt the butter in the microwave or in a pan over a medium flame. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, bicarb, sugar, salt (if using it) and the lemon zest, finely grated.

4. In a measuring jug, pour in the lemon juice, then enough milk to reach  the 200ml mark. Beat in the egg and melted butter.

5. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry ingredients and stir briefly , until just combined. Fold in the raspberries gently.

6.Spoon the mixture into the muffin cases and bake in the centre of the oven for about 25 minutes. When cooked, the tops should spring back to your touch and be golden coloured. Leave in the tray for about ten minutes before turning them out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

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