Chocolate beetroot cake

First of all, reassurance: you will not taste the beets in this cake. Your children will not taste the beets in this cake and will (almost certainly) eat it happily, even if they watch you whizz the beets up in the blender and put them into the cake batter. They might refuse the opportunity to scrape the bowl because “it’s got icky beets in it, Mommy!” But this is to your advantage. (Yum!)

cake cut open

Ingredients:

  • 250 grams beetroots
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 100 ml lowfat yoghurt
  • 150 ml vegetable oil
  • 3 eggs
  • 225 grams plain flour
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 300 grams sugar

You can buy precooked beets from the supermarket (great if you’re in a hurry), or you can cook your own. I had some beets in the allotment, so I dug up three of them, twisted the leaves off (and save those leaves!) rather than cutting them, to avoid getting red juice everywhere. I gave them a quick scrub and plopped them into a baking dish with a tablespoon of olive oil put a lid on and bake 40-50 minutes at 400F/200C/gas mark 6. After taking them out of the oven, let them cool a bit, rub off the skins, and chop up your beets.

beets

To make the cake, first preheat your oven to 350F/175C/gas mark 4. Grease and flour two 8-inch layer cake pans.

In a large bowl, combine all the dry ingredients and whisk together until well blended. Set aside.

Put your chopped beets, oil, yoghurt, eggs and vanilla into the blender and blend until the beets are thoroughly pureed and everything is well mixed and gorgeously pink.

mixing

Scrape the beet mixture into the bowl with the dry ingredients, stir all together until complete combined, and divide equally between the two pans. Bake 25-30 minutes until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool on a rack, then fill and ice.

The all-important icing

Option 1: a light and frothy buttercream

  • 140 grams (5 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 280 grams (10 oz.) icing sugar
  • 1-2 tablespoons milk
  • food colouring

Cream the butter (which just means beat it until it’s uniformly soft and creamy), then beat in half of the icing sugar. Beat in 1 tablespoon milk, then beat in the rest of the icing sugar. Add a little more milk if the mixture is too stiff. Put in a few drops of food colouring to get it to the colour you want. In the pink cake pictured, I filled and iced the cake with a light pink icing, then added a few more drops of colour to the remaining few tablespoons of icing to create a design.

pink icing

Having tried both varieties of icing, I prefer option 1. Its lighter flavor complements the richness of the chocolate cake. However, if you like your cake super-rich, you can go for

Option 2: chocolate decadence

For the next cake, I used the following chocolate buttercream icing:

  • 100 grams (4 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 200 grams (7 oz.) icing sugar
  • 50 grams (1 3/4 oz.) good dark chocolate

Chop up your chocolate and put it in a heavy glass bowl (I used a pint-sized Pyrex measuring cup). Bring a pan of water to a simmer and set the bowl carefully in the pan – you should have enough hot water to come a little bit up the sides. Stir the chocolate occasionally with a knife as it melts.

Cream the butter, then gradually beat in the icing sugar.

Remove the chocolate from the heat, drying off the bottom of the bowl to avoid dripping water into your icing, then scrape the chocolate into the buttercream icing and beat until thoroughly combined. There you go.

choc icing

If you want extra fancy effects, you could remove a couple of tablespoons of icing before mixing in the chocolate. Put this small amount of buttercream in another bowl and add some food colour if you like. Pipe it onto the cake after you’ve iced it with the chocolate buttercream.

What about those leaves?

If you went for the cook-your-own-beets method, now that you’ve got the cake out of the way, you’re left with a dilemma: what to do with the leaves. You’re in luck: beet leaves are the most tender and sweetest of garden greens. Use them in any recipe that calls for spinach. They’re lovely in a quiche or pasta, but here’s a quick way to eat them on their own:

leaves

Give the leaves a wash, pop them in some boiling water for three minutes, drain them and cool them quickly by immersing them in cold water and then draining again, squeezing out all the water. Chop the leaves roughly and set aside.

In a dry frying pan, toast 1-2 tablespoons of sesame seeds until they’ve darkened by a few shades and give off a nice aroma. Remove them from the pan and crush them slightly. A mortar and pestle come in handy here.

Mix 1 ½ tablespoons soy sauce and 1 ½ tablespoons mirin (or any sweet cooking wine).

In a large bowl, toss the cooked greens with the dressing and the sesame seeds until thoroughly mixed.

Serve at room temperature.

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Toasted teacakes

Robert loves his Percy the Park Keeper books. We have three of these, by Nick Butterworth, and there are more in the library. In each one, Percy potters around doing his gardening work while simultaneously solving the problems of a host of friendly woodland creatures. Our collection comprises One Warm Fox, The Secret Path, and The Hedgehog’s Balloon (in which Percy turns to the reader and says earnestly, “I think everyone should be able to play with balloons. And that includes hedgehogs.” Good luck with that, mate.).

Robert’s current favorite is The Secret Path, which finds Percy doing some hedge trimming and topiary work before playing a gentle practical joke on some furry friends. In the end, he invites them all back to his house for toasted teacakes.

So Robert was all afire to eat toasted teacakes. I’ve never made teacakes before, but although it takes a while, the recipe turns out to be fairly simple. Teacakes aren’t really cakes, by the way – they’re fruity, yeasty buns with a hint of sweetness and a little bit of spice.

DSCN0618

You’ll need:
230 grams strong white bread flour
1 ¼ teaspoon active dry yeast
1 heaping tablespoon brown sugar
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
75 grams dried raisins, currants and/or sultanas
40 grams butter
120 ml milk (you can use whole, but I was happy with 2% or semi-skim)

Put all the dry ingredients into a large bowl and whisk together until well combined. Stir in the dried fruit. Put the butter in a saucepan and melt over low heat, then remove from heat, pour in the milk and whisk together before pouring the milk-and-butter mixture into the flour mixture. Stir together with a fork to make a soft dough.

Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for around 5 minutes, until you get a smooth and elastic dough. (What my recipe didn’t tell me was that, every time I folded the dough, I’d have currants popping out and skittering across the kitchen counter, so I’d have to run after them and stuff them back into the middle of the mixture. But it’s a very forgiving dough and easier to knead than bread dough, owing to the warm milk. Dough made with warm milk has a nice plasticine sort of texture.) Anyway, shape it into a ball and put it into a lightly oiled or buttered bowl. Cover and leave it to rise in a warm place until doubled in size. (Or if you’re me, leave it in a cold kitchen then go off to church and forget about it for a couple of hours. Did I mention it’s a forgiving dough?)

Put the dough back onto your lightly floured surface, punch it down and divide into 8 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a ball, flatten slightly and arrange on a nonstick cookie sheet. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise about 45 minutes, until doubled in size again.

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Brush the tops of the tea cakes with milk and bake 15 minutes until risen and golden brown. Cool on a rack.

These are very nice just warm from the oven with butter, but they really come into their own when they’re left to cool, then split in half and toasted on the cut sides (leave the other side untoasted). Spread with a generous amount of butter and serve immediately.

DSCN0619

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Elderberry pancakes

It’s the end of summer, and now in addition to the nearly unmanageable amounts of produce coming out of the allotment (why did I plant so much squash?), we now have the bounty of the English hedgerows. Conditions this summer have been perfect for fruit; the trees are full, and the birds and animals are stuffing themselves silly. So are the people: a patch of rough ground nearby is covered in brambles, and there are usually two or three people out picking blackberries for jam, crumbles, pies, liqueurs and other delights. I’ve canned three pints of blackberries and I’ll be gathering sloes to make sloe gin in a month or two, but today we went out looking for elderberries.
Elder trees are plentiful in the countryside, easy to find in parkland and peeping over the walls of gardens. We walked out to Basing Fen this morning in search of nice ripe berries, but the trees were surrounded by impenetrable thickets of brambles and nettles. We enjoyed the walk but found some good berries on the way back home.

A bunch of elderberries

A bunch of elderberries

Elderberries are tiny and fiddly to pick. We brought scissors along to snip off the bunches of berries, and when I got them home, I used a fork to push the berries off their stems. After a little work picking out unripe berries and the occasional stray earwig, they were ready to use.

fork
My son was keen to make elderberry pancakes, and that is one of the easiest and most tasty ways to use the fresh berries. I’ll keep another cup of berries in the fridge to make more pancakes later this week, but I plan to dry the rest in my food dehydrator. They turn into tiny currant-like raisins and are excellent in any cake recipe that calls for dried fruit.
These are American pancakes with baking powder. The rest of my English family likes to top them with sugar and lemon juice, but I think they’re best with a pat of butter and some maple syrup.

Gently fold in the berries

Gently fold in the berries

Elderberry Pancakes
1 cup plain or all-purpose flour (about 160 grams)
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1 pinch salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup milk (6 ounces)
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1/2 to 1 cup elderberries
Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl and whisk together. Add egg and milk, and mix with a wooden spoon until just combined. Stir in melted butter, then gently fold in the elderberries.
Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a skillet on medium heat, then drop in 1/3 cup pancake batter. My skillet can hold 3 pancakes at a time if I arrange them carefully. Cook the pancakes, adjusting heat if necessary, until the bottoms are golden brown and the tops are nearly dry and bubbles have appeared. Flip the pancakes over to brown the other side, then remove to a plate.

pancake2
You can serve the pancakes immediately, as they’re cooked, or keep them warm in the oven until you’ve cooked all the batter. (If the cook wants to eat any of them, I recommend the latter method.)

Delicious!

Delicious!

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Ground elder: Evil weed or tasty snack?

When we first had a look at our allotment, we weren’t aware of how large it was. On further inspection, we realised an overgrown patch at the back of the allotment was ours as well. Unfortunately, the healthy green growth that covered the area consisted mostly of ground elder.

Ground elder is one of the most pernicious weeds known to the British gardener. Introduced by the Romans as a pot herb, it gradually fell out of favour for a number of reasons, chief among them its annoying habit of spreading like wildfire, taking over a garden and crowding out any other plants in its way. It spreads through rhizomes, forming a thick mat of roots just below the surface of the soil and twining around the roots of other plants, gradually choking them.

Opinions differ as to how to get rid of the wretched stuff. The most popular choice is a weed killer called glycophosphate, easily available in the form of Roundup. Some people choose to dig out the roots, but as the plant can regrow from even the tiniest fragment of root, you can find yourself having to dispose of as much as six inches of topsoil from your garden. James declared his intention of pulling up the leaves and stems of the plants and covering them with a thick layer of newspaper mulch. He reacted with disgust to any mention of glycophosphate, while I planned some underhanded activity.

While we were arguing over how to kill off the ground elder, though, we decided to make as much use as possible of what was there already. Since the Romans liked it so much, we might as well try it. The young leaves of ground elder can be eaten raw as salad, and they have a strong celery-like flavour. The older leaves can be cooked like kale. I picked three carrier bags full of leaves and brought them home.

groundelder

After a couple of hours of processing (sorting through the leaves, removing the odd snail, chopping, blanching, draining, chopping again), I had nine 200-gram freezer bags of ready-to-use ground elder.

groundelder2

Most of that went into the freezer. Our first recipe was hortapita, a rustic Greek pie similar to spanikopita but rougher and tougher in every way. I got the recipe from a lovely blog called NAMI-NAMI: http://nami-nami.blogspot.co.uk/2007/06/its-wild-thing-hortapita-or-greek-pie.html

James and I judged it delicious, if incredibly rich, although Robert refused to eat it. Persuaded to try a bite, he made retching noises and spat it out.

hortapita

I can confirm that ground elder also makes an excellent ingredient in saag paneer. It’s very strongly flavoured and works well in dishes with lots of spices.

 

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A very fierce dog

There are a lot of social people on this allotment. People seem to be curious about who has taken over a disused plot and what they plan to do with it. James and I are comparatively young, and when I tell the first person I speak to that this is our first allotment, the idea seems to go round that we are novices. This is slightly deceptive, since James is a gardening obsessive and has a great depth of book learning, if not quite as much practical experience. We’ve been growing vegetables and fruit in our garden at home for years.

During the first half hour of today’s digging, I am approached by the friendly woman who talked to us when we first came by to inspect the plot. She hands me a stack of seed packets, surplus from her job at a gardening centre, and wishes me the best of luck. When she’s gone, I look through my loot: beetroot, turnips, courgettes, leeks, a tasty-looking variety of winter squash, carrots, swiss chard and purple sprouting broccoli. I’d already planned to sow some summer squash (patty pans and courgettes — or as I prefer to call them, zucchini), and I might as well put in some winter squash while I’m at it.

I go back to digging up grass roots. By and by another old man strolls up with a dog. He stops a few yards away from our plot, grabs his dog by the collar and clips a lead onto it, crying ‘Stay, girl, calm down now,’ before ambling up to where I am now standing, amused. ‘Hello, my gel!’ he cries, and then speaks again urgently to the dog: ‘Whoa, now, sit girl!’ He manages to give the impression that he is barely restraining the beast from tearing my throat out. The dog, a small, grizzled, black-haired creature that looks about twenty years old, sighs and leans against his leg for support. ‘You’ve got quite a job there, my gel!’

We briefly discuss the history of the plot. My visitor expresses annoyance with the council for cutting down a row of old grape vines whose roots I have just been struggling with, and encourages me to keep up the good work. ‘The first year on an allotment is always the hardest. Better you than me, gel!’ he chuckles as he leads his dog out the gate.

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Allotment Diaries entry 1

I went out to get a start on removing the tall grass that has colonised a large portion of the allotment. The plan is to start clearing at one end and fill the cleared space with seeds and plants, so the allotment will gradually change from a wasteland to a garden.

I brought a garden fork with me. My usual technique for clearing ground is to dig up a forkful of grass-covered earth, hold on to the grass and beat the clods of earth against the fork until they fall to the ground, leaving me with a handful of grass and roots, which I can later deposit in the compost heap. I had cleared a space of about 3×4 feet when the first visitor appeared: our nearest allotment neighbour, a gentleman of perhaps 82, who approached with a smile and a cheerful wave. I introduced myself, but unfortunately, he was a mumbler — one of those (usually older) men who, whether through natural reticence, lack of teeth or shock at suddenly encountering a woman in shorts and a sleeveless top, find it difficult to enunciate clearly enough to make themselves understood. He gestured, smiling, at the grass-covered allotment and said ‘Grumflashment brambly mummelbrm, eh?’

‘It’ll be all right once we get all these weeds out,’ I reply.

He peers at my fork, shakes his head and speaks enthusiastically if not comprehensibly: ‘Hrrmmm, snogoodthat. Whuzzyneedzn abrmmnd.’ He makes sweeping motions with his arms, and I understand that he is describing some sort of tool.

‘Like a scythe, you mean?’ I ask doubtfully. ‘I want to get the roots out too.’

‘Nah, nah, grumblemumble, show you!’ he declares and totters off, out of the allotment gates and down the street.

Puzzled, I return to my digging. A half hour or so passes before I hear a squeaking noise near the gates and look up. Our allotment neighbour is parking an ancient bicycle. He walks towards me, muttering cheerfully and brandishing a large metal blade attached to a heavy pole.

‘Oh, a mattock!’ I say, glad that I at least know what it is. The man steps down off the path into our ground and indicates that he will now demonstrate the use of the tool. I step back a good way and watch as he chops down into the earth, neatly severing the roots of a clump of grass, which he picks up, knocks against the ground and tosses onto my heap of weeds.

He hands me the mattock, makes a noise and a gesture which I interpret as ‘Leave it over there when you’re done with it,’ totters back to his bicycle and disappears.

With some difficulty, I lift the enormous mattock and get to work. After five minutes, I’m not sure but that I don’t prefer the garden fork, but I’m determined to make an effort so I keep it up. Ten minutes later, the old man cycles past the gates, peeks in to see me hard at work with the mattock, nods approvingly and cycles off again. After twenty minutes, muscles I seldom use are protesting to such a degree that I have to put the tool down and go back to the fork.

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Women’s work

It’s funny: you can be married to someone for eight years before you find out he thinks women can’t caulk bathtubs.

I’ve been scraping the old paint off our bathroom ceiling in preparation for repainting. (It’s been peeling ever since shortly after we moved in, the previous owner having apparently used the wrong sort of paint.) This morning I put on a coat of primer and then decided, since we won’t be able to use the shower for at least a day anyway, that I might as well recaulk the bathtub while I was at it. So I’m happily scraping off the old, moldy caulk when James strolls past, sees what I’m doing and begins to freak out. He really does’t think I should be doing that. I had never said anything about messing with the caulk (actually I had, but he had been practising the husbandly art of not listening), and if the bathtub leaks it could cause a lot of problems for us.

I ask him why he thinks the bathtub is going to leak. Does he think, perhaps, that I am not going to do a good job? He hems and haws for a bit: “Caulking is a fiddly job, it’s very complicated.” Does he think, perhaps, that I have never caulked a bathtub before? “Well, no, have you?” he asks. “Yes I have, actually,” I say. “My daddy taught me how to do it. And it’s not complicated. Why didn’t you make this sort of fuss when I said I was going to scrape and repaint the bathroom ceiling?”

“Because painting isn’t that difficult,” he says. “Oh,” I say, “is it so easy that even a girl could do it?” He looks embarrassed, and I start to be amused. Over lunch, I tease him a bit about not thinking women can use a caulking gun, and he asks whether this is a Kentucky thing: “Can a real women caulk two bathtubs before breakfast?” Then he asks if I can please do the kitchen sink while I’m at it.

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