Heaven at Eleven

I love cupcakes. A whole cake is great for company, when you know everyone is going to have a slice. But for an elevenses treat, nothing beats a cupcake. No-one is going to notice if one cupcake is missing – where as a slice out of the perfect Victoria sponge is definitely going to raise eyebrows at tea.

Heaven at Eleven

Heaven at Eleven

And they are so versatile! You can literally put anything in a cupcake. Even bacon. Aaand, the recipe is super simple. Have I convinced you yet? There’s even a celebration of cupcakes, its this week. So you really have no excuse not to make them this weekend.

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Eat it with relish

Like most countrymen (and women) I love getting into a pickle. Many an Englishman (and woman) has professed to loving good, plain English food, but very few of them would turn down a little spicey chutney or a tangy relish on the side. Preserving is an ancient way of keeping yourself topped up with the good stuff all through the winter. My grandmother taught me to make jam, along with many other things, and unfortunately there has been a shortfall of education in the current generations when it comes to many of the ‘olde’ ways that are now considered old fashioned. I love how a good spoon of tomato relish can turn a slice of cheese and a hunk of bread into lunch but chutneys and jams also appeal to my innate frugality, my inability to waste anything.

As some of you may know I used to run a preserve making company in Plymouth called Spread the Love (before I decided to drop everything and start galavanting about on boats). None the less I still love making jams and chutneys and there is no better season than Autumn in which to do this. There is a glut of food about that is just begging to go into jars, its saying ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ and well, I am happy to oblige. A few hours of calming, rhythmic chopping and simmering, steaming up the kitchen with a comforting fug of spicy aromas, is as soothing a way of passing a dingy autumn afternoon as I can think of.

The best marmalade in the world...

The best marmalade in the world…

Any gluts that might have caught you off guard on the lottie (I am notoriously incompetent at successional sowing…) or those that come free of charge from nature have to be taken advantage of but eating 3kg of blackberries all in one day is definitely not the way forward (trust me). There’s always a joy in eating seasonally, devouring the day’s harvest minutes after I’ve brushed the soil from it, but there’s also a real pleasure in preserving the moment in a jar, like a snapshot of plenty for the lean months of winter.

Tomato Relish Makes about 600g

500g cherry tomatoes, red onion, 3 cloves garlic, tsp fennel seeds, 1/2 tsp hot paprika, small red chilli, 4 cloves, 100ml balsamic vinegar, small glass red wine, 100g sugar, 2 tbsp honey, salt and pepper.

Toast the fennel seeds in a dry pan then add a little oil. Chop the onion and garlic into teeny tiny pieces then fry until soft. Add the paprika and cloves, measure first – don’t ever just tip spices in straight from the pot as you always end up with a massive pile when you only need a pinch… Pour in the wine and simmer for a few minutes then add the vinegar. Add the tomatoes, roughly chopped and then put the sugar and honey in too. Stir until sugar is dissolved and let it simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated. You should be able to draw the spoon across the bottom of the pan and see the bottom before the chutney closes in again – like the Red Sea trick…

Jars: sterilize clean jars in the oven at 100 degrees C. Put the chutney in while it is still hot (being super careful), filling the jar all the way to the top. Put the lid on and then turn the jar upside down. Allow to cool and put in a cool, dry place.

This is a relish as it doesn’t have loads of vinegar and sugar in it. You can eat it after just a few days of mellowing rather than the usual 3 months for chutney. It is delicious with hard cheese in a sandwich or on sausage rolls.

Autumn Chutney

The basic ratio for 1kg of chutney is about 2kg fruit to 500ml vinegar and 250g sugar.

1kg pumpkin or squash, 300g cooking apples, 300g pears (or if you can get your hands on quince 150g of each), 300g red onion, 100g raisins, 500ml cider vinegar, 250g brown sugar, 3 star anise, cinnamon stick, 6 cloves, 2inch chunk of fresh ginger, 10 peppercorns, salt.

Chop all the veg into small chunks of the same size for a nice even cooking time. Put all the ingredients in the pan and bring to the boil, turn down to a simmer. Leave it simmering uncovered, stirring occasionally. It’s ready when it’s glossy, rich and thick, but with the chunks of fruit and veg still clearly discernible. It should be thick enough to do the Red Sea trick.

Pour into warm, sterilised jars. Pack down with the back of the spoon to remove any air pockets, and seal with vinegar-proof lids. Make pretty labels for jars with the ingredients and when you made it. Store in a cool, dark place and leave for a couple of months to mature before using. So making it now will mean perfect timing for Christmas presents (homemade is best afterall). Use within two years.

Just make sure you get the basic ratios of vegetables to vinegar and sugar right, and you can then vary the recipes to please yourself, which is part of the charm of most of my recipes. Substitute apples for quince or pears, throw in a handful of dried cranberries instead of raisins for a Christmasy treat, add some diced carrot or parsnip, add a pinch of chilli flakes, substitute horseradish for ginger, coriander seeds for cumin. In other words, experiment until you get a combination that is entirely, gratifyingly, your own.

Raspberry Jam

I adore raspberries, almost as much as my Dad who may possibly wish to marry them… They are tangy and sweet, soft and yielding, beautiful to behold. They are my favourite fruit right now and I eat raspberry jam for breakfast everyday at the moment.

I hope you like jammin' too!

I hope you like jammin’ too!

Jam is like chutney in that it is all about the ratios. For most jams its a 1:1 ratio of fruit to sugar, some use less though and it depends a little on your own taste, as well as the sweetness of the fruit you are using. I like a very sharp raspberry jam so I tend to use a little less. To get a good set for jam you need pectin, a naturally occurring chemical found in many fruits, though there is more in some than others. You need to add a little acid to your mix, and lemons is a good way to add this and pectin.

1kg raspberries, 750g light brown sugar (don’t buy jam sugar, its expensive and pointless), 1 lemon (juice squeezed out and halves retained)                                                                                  *You could add a cinnamon stick too for a nice winter warmer

Put a side plate in the freezer. Put the raspberries, lemon juice and lemon halves in a large pan with 2 cups of water. Bring to the boil and simmer until the fruit is a soft pulp. While at the boil add the sugar, stirring until dissolved. Once the sugar is dissolved and the mix boiling hard do not stir. I know its hard not to stick your spoon in but it needs to boil really hard to reach setting temperature. There are actually temperatures you can read on a thermometre if you want to be precise. I don’t know what they are and I don’t own a sugar thermometre in any case. The way I test for a set is using the cold plate method. After boiling for ten minutes, get your plate out the freezer and spoon a little jam onto it. After a moment see if its jammy. Complicated eh?! If it isn’t jammy, boil for a little longer. If it is turn off the heat and put it into sterilised jars, being super careful as this stuff is like molten larva and really hurts when you spill it all over your hand because you’re too impatient…