Things I cooked over Christmas

I made some cocktails for gifts before we broke up.

Chocolate orange martini: chocolate liqueur and triple sec with vodka in a 1:1:2 ratio.

Nigella’s Christmas martini: chambord and creme de cacao blanc and vodka, again 1:1:2

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Some of my friends also got tasters of my vintage elderflower gin – this was originally a mistake because I steeped elderflowers from my garden for far too long and the gin took on a very bitter taste. But later I added a lot of sugar, and over the 8 years or so it’s been on the shelf, it almost took on a Parma violet note. This is pretty much all gone now.

Also crab apple vodka. The old way of making this was to clean and halve crab apples then leave them in a jar with vodka for a couple of weeks until the sugar is dissolved and the vodka has gone a pinker a colour. Now I’m experimenting with making a sugar syrup by boiling the crab apples with water and sugar and simply adding that to the vodka. The best version I think comes from a mix: some crab apples in a jar with vodka and no sugar, some in a syrup, mix all together into final bottle.

Before we broke up I made some speculoos fudge out of Lotus spread – but couldn’t find last year’s recipe. This recipe is the one I don’t recommend. Jane’s patisserie version is much better and I think it’s the one I used last year.

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It’s great to start the festive season with a big batch of fudge… you have something in the fridge that can be turned into gifts to take with you or buffet contributions or feeding unexpected gifts. It keeps a couple of weeks, provided you don’t eat it.

The first Saturday of the holidays found me in front of Saturday Kitchen where I saw a recipe for mulled wine chocolate truffles, similar to this one from Waitrose.  If you are mulling wine anyway, just reserve a glass, otherwise the recipe gets you to make mulled wine especially. Looks like this technique could be easily adapted to getting other flavours into other chocolates… how about espresso into milk chocolate or mulled cider into white chocolate or …  Just as with the fudge you can make the ganache and leave that in the fridge to turn into truffles whenever you need them. And rolling ganache into truffles is a good activity to get children and non-cooking boyfriends involved in too.

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I had my friends and godkids over before Christmas for fondue, ham sandwiches, my own banana cake, and this “next level poke cake” – purely because I love the coffee flavour and don’t make enough coffee cakes.  I borrowed the key to church and we roamed all around it, including climbing the tower and looking at the bells, and we all ended up at the carol service, which was delightful.

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For Christmas day (I deliberately spent it on my own and had a lovely time) I roasted a chicken, with loads of roast potatoes, carrots. I repurposed leftover fondue as cauliflower cheese and made this strange Jamie Oliver red cabbage recipe with tinned pears and chorizo. It was nice enough but the ingredients did not really blend together at all. It fed me on Christmas day, did two of us on Boxing Day and there was plenty of chicken left to make a huge risotto much later in the break (after a long facebook thread about whether it was safe to eat roast chicken a week after cooking. No ill effects, but be careful out there!)

To Scotland I took the remainder of the fudge and truffles and made again a version of this very forgiving peanut and Crunchie bar rocky road recipe, which went down well.

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Yesterday, for pudding club, I made a fridge cake from a fridge cake recipe book, amended slightly but a super simple idea: melt 400 grams milk chocolate, add 300ml of double cream, tinned pears, chopped, and a pack of shortbread biscuits, also chopped. Fridge for a couple of hours in a cling-film lined 1lb loaf tin. Then whip together cream cheese, another pot of double cream and a little sugar (vanilla sugar adds awesomeness) turn out the chocolate loaf onto a cake plate and slather the cream on the outside. Grate chocolate over the top, because if it’s not garnished, it’s not finished.

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Dinner for David

My friend from choir, David, who lives in Cornwall was up in Nottingham visiting friends, so I planned a dinner for a few of us. Our choir is from all over the UK and a bit further afield, so having a few of us together in one place is unusual except of course during choir week. One of my guests had alcohol- and gluten-free dietary requirements which meant no poached pears, no pastry, no pasta…

Dinner for David

We had…

The mulled apple juice that I always do. For those that were drinking there was the offer of crab apple vodka to enliven it. I left out any ground spice, so it was just roasted apples, cardamom, star anise, cloves and a cinnamon stick, no mace or nutmeg, and it was much easier to serve with no grittiness.

Then smoked mackerel pâté – essentially this BBC recipe but no horseradish and wholegrain instead of Dijon mustard, because that’s what was in the fridge. Served in espresso cups with oat cakes and crispbreads that were naturally gluten free, and with an antipasti jar of roasted peppers and some almond stuffed olives.

Dinner for David

Nigella’s chicken shawarma, that I wrote about recently here. I forgot to buy yoghurt, although I went out of my way to get pomegranate seeds. I asked my guests to pick up yoghurt on their way and then forgot to do anything with it. Served with salad, cucumbers and tomatoes, and hasselback potatoes.

Dinner for David

For pudding was vanilla crème brûlée – a trial run in the week had shown me that you need to leave them in the oven for almost double the time in the recipe to get a set custard rather than a liquid vanilla cream. A garnish of a slice of kiwi and a fanned strawberry – the strawberries were so unseasonal they crunched like carrots when sliced. This is a very simple thing to make, just four ingredients. The only faff is owning a blow torch. I brought them to the table and let my guests brûlée their own crème, which all seemed to enjoy.

With coffee I made white chocolate salami again. This time it came out really well. Such a simple thing to make, looks really impressive. In it, I put a half a bag of shelled pistachios, some chopped glacé cherries and some chopped dried apricots.

Dinner for David

I did boast at one point that no individual dish took more than about 10 minutes to make – some of them longer to cook and marinate etc, but only a few minutes of my time. Cleaning and tidying the house, however…

 

Into the coop

Just over a year after coming home, one of the rescue ladies from the battery farm died, so this has necessitated more birds for the hen house.

I went back to  Hens4Pets to get two hybrid birds, a Magpie (black) and an Amber (white).  When they asked what I was looking for, I just said “not brown.” It’s good to have birds you can easily disambiguate.

They’ve been with me a couple of weeks now, settling in. The pecking order is very clear and the old ex battery Attila the Hen is not letting the new birds eat from the feeders, just the corn on the ground. This is when I’m standing there, anyway. Given that all of the food is going, the new birds must be able to manage to eat some of it when Attila is not looking.

The new ladies in the coop reminded me of some common chicken behaviour that the battery birds have never learnt to do. They dig through the ground. They fly up to the perches. They dust-bathe. Attila just doesn’t do those things. I’d forgotten that was odd.

On the whole the ex-battery hens have not been great. They haven’t laid well. The eggs they have provided have had extremely thin shells. Towards the end I’d resorted to paying for eggs and chicken feed, and that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

Attila is not laying, but the new black chicken is very consistent and provides a tiny egg every day.

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(eating leftover pomegranate from pudding club.)

Look how overgrown the coop is now compared to when it was built five years ago!

New chicken palace constructed

 

Best nine 2017

Just as last year, I intended to sneak some of these off the amazing colour printers at work, and just never managed to get that done before breaking up. So the Christmas cards went out with no newsletter and I’ll just have to hope you read it here and care.

Quite a hard job narrowing it down to 9 photos this year!

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New Year in Glencoe in 2016 – up to the NE coast of Scotland to Torridon for 2017/8

Fudge the cat is old and ill and we are getting used to two tablets a day.

Holiday in Wales in Feb, some lovely but cold walking on the Gower peninsula

Went from crew cut to quiff during the year… but now what?

Attempted some interior design and made a feature on my landing of the sign that used to be over my grandfather’s shop

Attended an awesome wedding as my cousin on my mother’s side of the family got married

Bought a new tent and didn’t use it enough. Wanna go camping in 2018?

Took my brother, father, sister-in-law and all three nephews to Madeira

Refreshed soul and wine rack on a trip to Normandy in the October half term.

 

2018… August in Norwich… 40th birthday approaching…

A crazy week of reading

For some reason last Monday I felt the urge to read a book, something I’ve barely done at all since the last summer holidays.

It’s mostly Kindle these days. In bits and dabs I have finished the John Milton series I wrote about last summer and as I came to the end, Amazon started recommending other similar stuff. Every now and again there’s a special offer and I pay a couple of quid to download a whole series of something, then lose it somewhere on the Kindle as the user interface is not brilliant at reminding you of what is where and when.

So last Monday I started reading a really short novel that I had bought the year before in a sale by Damien Boyd, an author with no wikipedia page but a series of novels on Amazon. I started As the Crow Flies, a police procedural lead by DI Nick Dixon focusing on climbing and taking us down (or up, I suppose) some unusual paths. It had a well signposted denouement that turned out to be rather satisfying. That I finished in a night, so I moved on to the next one.

(I love a good series, me – and it’s nearly time for Sue Grafton’s penultimate novel, Y is for Yesterday)

Head in the Sand is the punning second in the series. Its title is literal not figurative, as the book opens with a severed head in a golf bunker and moves on from there. It was rather satisfyingly guessable and I was slightly ahead of the plot all the way through. I have a whole series ahead of me

Knowing I was away camping for the weekend, I stocked up on the next ones in a few series I am reading rather than rely too much on the Amazon sale spectaculars.

So over the weekend, I read Dust to Dust in the Dr Dunbar series – again, rather satisfyingly, I guessed a major plot twist in the first few pages, although the book has a rather spectacular McGuffin that kept us guessing to the end as well. There is tense drama in the middle and it certainly got my heart racing to turn pages.

I kept going in the Sara Paretsky / Warshawski series and read Hard Time with an extended women’s prison section as suggested by the title. I am still enjoying these books very much, but it is taking me years to read them all, and there are some very obvious plot manoeuvres that happen every time. Our protagonist always gets beaten half to death, usually more than once in a novel. If there is any mention of files, or the location of files, or whether the files are in her office or in her apartment, then you know there’s going to be a break-in and the files will be stolen. And this novel features at least the third time Warshawski ends up looking after a small child who has spectacularly fallen out with its parents…

I bought a few more P D James / Dalgliesh novels too, haven’t got around to those yet, because whilst I was spending money I don’t have on Amazon, the site kindly pointed out to me the very latest in the Janet Evanovich number series, so have been finishing that over the last few days. Turbo Twenty-three is still in hardback so the Kindle edition was three times the cost of anything else I bought.

Now if you’ll excuse me, this post has prompted me to go digging through my Kindle account and I have only just realised I pre-ordered the latest Mary Roach book, Grunt, it got downloaded last September, and I’ve not even looked at it!

Bring back ma girls!

New additions for the hen house – Tallulah and Attila the Hen – who come to me from the British Hen Welfare Trust, who rehome chickens from battery farms when they come to the end of commercial viability.

BHWT are very well organised – you sign up online, phone them to have a quick chat, and book into pick up some hens.  I needed two – the minimum you can have – to add to my existing lone hen, Perry. There’s masses of information on their website and it’s well worth having a read through all of it at an early stage.

On the day, pickup was fast and competent. They gave a guideline arrival time by surname within a whole afternoon, had people on the road to tell me where to park and checked my pet carrier was suitable on my way in. They guided me to sign in, sent me around the corner, and I was back in my car with my new birds in… literally under two minutes.

Tallulah and Attila

The girls are not in best condition. They have a lot of feathers missing and nasty floppy pale combs on top of their head. They are supposed to be red and a lot tighter. They are a heat dissipation method for the birds, and they grow large in their cages where they are kept warm.

Tallulah and Attila

The feathers are either missing or sparse in large chunks – the birds look almost skeletal!

But apparently both the combs and the feathers will start to sort themselves out reasonably quickly and the girls will be almost normal within a few months.

I had great plans for segregating the coop and finding ways of keeping the new hens separate. I have a large 2m cubed walk in run, an Eglu Classic hen house and half of an Eglu run which is covered from rain.  My plan had been to fence off a portion of the run using Omlet fence/netting, and let the new birds live in there for a while, sleeping in the cat carrier they came home in.

This plan lasted about an hour. Perry, the existing chicken, at first was just curious at the new girls, but when I went back later, she had managed to tunnel in under the fence but get stuck inside the fenced off area. The new girls were stuck in a corner at the opposite end.  So I lifted the fence to let Perry out, secured the bottom of it more with tent pegs, and went away to give them a further bit of time.

There was lots of shouting from all sides, without any actual pecking…

Tallulah and Attila

Interestingly, in their minimally feathered state, you can see their tails move in sync with their throats when they are shouting and crowing.

The next hour I went back to find Perry roosting on a perch over the fenced off area – she’d managed to fly over the fence – and one of Tallulah or Attila had flown out of the fenced area to perch on a rod.  That was a surprise – I didn’t realise they had enough feathers to be able to fly.

Perry perching

At that point I had to give up. The fence was more of a danger than a help! I removed it for bedtime and let the girls get on the best they could.

When I went down this morning, the new girls had found the chicken house and were in there. Not sure if cowering or sleeping – but I am pretty certain that Perry was keeping them in there and chasing them back in if they tried to come out and feed.

So I’ve had another go at separating them. This time the new girls get the real chicken house and I’ve fenced off the end of the tunnel. Perry gets the entire run and can sleep where she pleases – on a perch or in the cat box. She hasn’t got much rainproofing though. We’ll see how this continues and it will be interesting to see where she lays.

And on that, this morning, the first morning with the new girls, there have been three eggs, so despite the upheaval and the trauma of a new flock, everyone is laying…

More photos: album on Flickr

Did anyone else read Nicholas Fisk?

Last night we went to see Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell. It was visually pretty but was definitely retreading the steps of sci fi movies we’ve seen before. Nothing in the plot was a surprise.

It put me in mind of young adult sci fi I read as a young adult in the late 1980s, and in particular the Nicholas Fisk novel A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair, the title, I know now, a quote from a Kipling poem. It’s a story of a family who have been resurrected from remains found in a graveyard, set in the future, but the family were killed in the second world war and their clones are also given a 1940s house and environment to live in. The story explores whether people from the past can be cloned to live in the future and there’s a clever twist in the end.

Twists in the end is a feature of Fisk’s writing and my strongest memory is of reading Grinny. It’s a fantastic YA novel and possibly I was reading it when I was too young, almost certainly pre-teen, having exhausted the library’s supply of Famous Five and Secret Seven. The story ramps up the tension throughout, with the children of a family realising their elderly aunt who lives with them is actually an alien, and then having to take matters into their own hands when unable to convince their parents there’s a problem. The ending really shocked me and upset me because I didn’t see it coming at all and it’s much more violent than earlier parts of the book. It ended up with a Serious Talk in the Middle of the Night with my parents about how to deal with books that are scary but also prepared the way for voracious teenage reading of Stephen King.

His Wikipedia page shows there were many more books than I realised – I think I only really ever read about five. Trillions is good and so is You Remember Me, the sequel to Grinny. I vaguely remember the title Antigrav  but nothing else about it.