Thursday 29 November 2007

Lions and Tigers and Mice . . . Oh MY!

There are many positives to being able to live in a beautiful cottage in the rural English Countryside. The pace is a lot slower here and things are definitely a lot quieter. Our garden is full of lovely garden birds 365 days a year and, of course, we do everything we can to attract them. We have nesting boxes in the trees, several feeders, a birdbath and everything necessary to keep a bird bright and happy, right down to growing teasle in one corner of the garden as they love the seeds so . . .

This time of year, there is not so much for them to eat as far as insects and seeds go, and so our feeders are busy with daily visitors, and in the evening the large Lelandii hedge at the edge of the garden is bustling and alive with the sounds of the little dears bedding down for the night.

Daily, we are treated to the sights and sounds of many garden animals . . . squirrels, hedgehogs, rabbits . . . I love to watch them go about their business, although I do know that the Estate gardeners find them more of a nuisance than anything else.

There is a downside to some of this natural country life though, and it comes in the shape of very tiny and hungry field mice, that come into the house this time of the year seeking it's warmth and readily available food, just sitting there in the larder in flimsy packets, just waiting for them to partake. Really . . . who can blame them?

Yes . . . we once again have mice, and this time I fear. . . they are Italian mice, as they have been rumaging through my larder and have eaten through no less than four packets of dried pasta, nothing left of them except the empty packets with tell tale ragged holes chewed into the sides and some quite visible calling cards left behind.

I thought it was rather strange the other night as Todd and I relaxed on the sofa watching a film and I heard a funny noise coming from the larder, sort of like something falling or dropping from that corner of the house. I was much too tired and feeling far too lazy to go investigate it at the time, and really, it hadn't been a loud noise . . . more like a soft plop. My larder shelves are always full to overbursting with goodies and so I thought perhaps a packet of cereal or some such had fallen down. Plenty of time to rescue it in the morning.

Next morning, in the early dawn, I slid the larder door open to investigate and a packet of delicious egg noodles, the expensive Italian ones, was laying on the floor by my feet. It appeared completely untouched . . . quite unlike the near empty packet of fusilli which lay nearby, a hungry little hole chewed into the side of the packet. Oh dear, I thought . . . mice . . . again.

We have had problems with them from time to time and it's always a real nuisance. We have tried humane traps, but they are largely ineffective. I hate to do anything to them really, but it's not that healthy for us to have them in the house, and, as anyone knows, mice can be very prolific so it's best to get rid as soon as possible.

After work that afternoon, when I had more time, Todd and I did a thorough investigation of the larder and found several things they had gotten into, but mostly it was the pasta. There was a packet of pizza dough mix eaten into as well, once again affirming my idea that these were indeed Italian mice.

We ended up taking everything that was not in a jar, can or plastic container out and moving it to another location while we tackled the problem, which did make for a lot of lugging and shifting, but the larder probably needed a good sort out anyways. It always seem to get so messy after a time . . . a organizing sort out is always a welcome exertion. We hoovered out all their calling cards and washed the shelves with disinfectant.

We then decided that we need to build some more shelves in there, and so the stuff is still laying upstairs in our lounge while we wait for Todd to go get the necessary planks and brackets to do a proper job. I was in the larder today trying to figure out how they are getting in. There is rather a large hole down in one corner where some plumbing pipes seem to be situated and, on inspection, I discovered an empty crisp packet . . . cheese and onion . . . stuffed into the hole, with the telltale ragged hole chewed in it's side as well. Clearly they have eclectic tastes.

Then a bit later on when I was moving some of my rubber maid plastic storage boxes around in the bedroom which lays directly above the larder I found a dead and flattened mouse under one of the boxes . . . perhaps I should get myself a cat, an Italian cat . . . you know . . . one that speaks the same language . . .

Pudding in North America has a completely different meaning than pudding over here in England. Here the term is used to describe any variety of desserts . . . some stodgy, other's not, all delicious. Back home in canada it is a term used to describe a thick and milky cooked custard type of affair and comes in many delicious flavours, one of my favourites being . . .

Monday 26 November 2007

Rising to the Challenge . . .

Here we are again with another month and another Daring Baker Challenge! My, how they do come around quickly!

When I first read about what this month’s challenge would be this recipe , Tender Potato Bread, as decided by Tanna of My Kitchen in Half Cups , I though to myself . . . “Oh NO!! I am SO NOT A BREAD BAKER!” As I have confessed to you before on several other occasions, I am a horrible bread baker, and in reality, anyone who has tried my bread can attest to the fact that indeed . . . "Marie is a BAD BREAD BAKER".

The smaller part of me when I first read the challenge really wanted to opt out of this one. I mean . . . did I really want to parade my sad, pathetic, bread baking skills on the net for everyone in the world to take a gander at??? But then, my sense of fair play and being a good sport kicked in and I realized that I had wanted to be a Daring Baker for so long, and now that I finally was, I just couldn’t just opt out whenever the going got tough. After all, when the going gets tough, the tough get going, right??? After all, isn't the the whole purpose of being a Daring Baker getting stuck in and rising to the various baking challenges presented and jumping in where “Eagles” dared to tread or at least where "Daring Bakers" dare to tread anyways???

The recipe seemed easy enough to follow, and, right from the start my mind was filled with fanciful images of lovely braided fat loaves and puffy foccacia breads, their dimpled tops crusted with coarse salt and studded with herbs. I was so excited that I was going to get to use my new potato ricer as well!!

Potatoes were loving peeled, cooked and then riced into my finest baking bowl, reserved for only the finest ingredients. (Did I mention that I went out and bought only the best Maris Piper potatoes to make this bread with? Each one hand picked especially by me!!) I even remembered to save the potato cooking water, instead of tipping it out . . . as I have been known to do in the past. (A testimony to the fact that, through the years, I have indeed learned to read a recipe, not once, but several times through now before actually executing it!)

Once I had let the mixture cool, I carefully added the flour as the recipe said to do, in the exact amounts the recipe said to add . . . hmmm . . . and then I added and I added AND I added. How much flour would this bread recipe take??? I dumped it out onto the counter and began to knead in flour in copious amounts. This damn dough seemed to be getting sticker and stickier! Finally after adding what seemed like tons of flour, but was in reality only several hundred cups, I finally gave up and put it back into the now washed clean, dried and greased bowl to rise. I covered it lovingly with a clean tea towel as I had seen my grandmother and mother doing for years and, with my fingers crossed, I stuck it on a rack over the AGA (which had been turned down to really low that morning for cleaning)in hopes that it would do what it was supposed to do and what I hoped it would do.

Approximately two hours later, I peeked under the towel and to my great surprise was greeted with the sight of a beautifully risen bowl of what looked to be a wonderful dough. I even did the two fingers test to make sure it had quite risen enough and it had!

Then came the test. I plopped it out of the bowl onto the counter. My goodness, this was one sticky dough. I had forgotten to dust the counter with flour first . . . but quickly rectified that by scraping it off, adding some flour and dumping it out again. It was quite impossible to roll out or shape into anything . . . the dough was so sticky. Gone went my dreams of braided, dimpled or studded anything. I was getting quite tired of this dough by now, so I shaped it as best as I could and popped the larger bit into a large loaf pan and laughingly shaped the rest into what I envisioned as big puffy rolls.

I covered it again with the tea towel and left it to rise some more. At the appointed time I took a peek and thought, wow, this is going to be a huge loaf of bread. The rolls looked more manageable. Nevertheless, I slashed the tops with a sharp knife and dusted them with flour before I popped it all into the oven, telling myself that all would be okay.

WRONG! About 15 minutes later I peeked into the oven and this is the sight that greeted me. My lovely loaf of bread had not only risen up to the top of the pan but well over the pan and was now laying all the way over and down on one side! It looked like some kind of alien form had landed and I began to thank the God’s for the bright idea I had had to put a flat baking tray under the loaf pan when I had put it into the oven to cook. At least I would not have burnt and baked on dough all over my oven racks and floor. (Thank God for small mercies, or rather large ones in this case!)

At the end of this baking challenge I ended up with some rather flat, but nicely crusty and chewy rolls, and a gargantuan crusty loaf of rather eerily spooky alien resembling bread, which by the way tasted lovely.

Would I call this challenge a rousing success?? Not exactly . . . But I did learn a few things . . .

One . . . when it says to put the rolled out dough into a loaf pan, and that it should only come up three quarters of the way, they mean it. There is no use sticking your head in the sand like an ostrich and pretending that the overhang will magically disappear and the resulting loaf will be pretty and umm . . . loaf like.

And two . . . Marie is still NOT a good bread baker . . .

Thursday 22 November 2007

On giving Thanks

Over here at Casa D'Oak Cottage, the weather has turned considerably ucky and wet and decidedly unpleasant this past week. We had a small bit of sunshine yesterday afternoon, but that quickly turned to rain again. It reminds me of my first year over here in England, which turned out to be the wettest autumn and winter on record . . .

Just now as I watch the sun creeping up over the horizon there is the promise of a better day today . . . plenty to be thankful for and, this is the season of thankfulness, and indeed all over American today they will be celebrating one of their most treasured holidays of the year, Thanksgiving.

I know that I now live in England, but Thanksgiving is still a special time for me. I find myself wondering why the English don't celebrate it. Do they not have a reason to be thankful at this time of year . . . when all the apples have been picked and the larders are full to the brim with all of summer and autumn's delicious bounty?

Normally most years I am cooking a huge Thanksgiving Dinner up at the big house, with umpteen different dishes and delicacies, but they have gone away this year, and so I am on my own to do as I will. I do enjoy cooking their celebration dinner. It's always a challenge, and I do so enjoy a challenge. There are always several appetizers to get ready, and normally a beautiful soup on offer for the first course, usually a roasted autumn vegetable one. That would be followed by a traditional American turkey dinner with all the trimmings, and for dessert two delicious pies, both pumpkin and pecan and probably a rich and sweet coconut cake.

The first year I was here, I had a huge turkey to cook for them. It was enormous, as one would expect a turkey large enough to feed 25 people would be. It was so big, that I had to take all the racks out of the big American stove that they have, except for only one, and I had to have that one at it's very lowest position. I carefully prepared the turkey, rubbing it all over with butter and herbs and placed it in the oven, then popped back home here to the cottage for a short break and a quick bite to eat.

Imagine my horror when I returned to the big kitchen and could smell something burning when I entered the kitchen door. Yes, it was the turkey. . . I had managed to burn a very expensive, Bronze free range organic turkey. Imagine my distress when I had to report this to the Mrs, and, this being my first year as their cook and all, I was mortified. What a horrible beginning. She took it in her stride though, and said to me, "Marie, it just wouldn't be Thanksgiving unless something happened to the turkey . . ." Todd was sent down to the local shops to find two smaller turkeys that could be quickly cooked and we managed to salvage what we could of the other. With a load of parsley tucked all around it's base one could hardly tell there was anything wrong with it.

This Thanksgiving as they are away, I am free to cook my own dinner of thanks. Actually the Canadian holiday is alot earlier in the year, falling in October, but I do love the American tradition of holding it much closer to Christmas. It is like the ushering in of the Christmas Season, my favourite time of year . . . a very fitting beginning to what is a very wonderful season of celebration.

Guests have been invited, and I have my turkey thawing out in the laundry room sink. Yes, I know that goes completely against everything they tell you is right and proper when thawing out a turkey, but it's the way I have always done it and I have never had any problems with it. Perhaps I've just been lucky . . .

A huge basket of vegetables is just waiting for my capable hands to start paring and chopping. There will be fluffy mashed potatoes and gravy. My own sage and onion bread stuffing, made with potatoes as was my mother's and her mother's before. Roasted sweet Butternut squash and mashed turnips, carrots and peas, tasty and lightly caramelized roasted brussels sprouts with pancetta . . . freshly made cranberry chutney . . . fluffy white bread rolls . . . and for dessert, pumpkin pie.

A really good pumpkin pie, full of sweet spice and rich pumpkin flavour, a pie that very deservedly goes with Thanksgiving . . .

*Pumpkin Pie*
Makes one 9 inch open pie

You can fancy up pumpkin pie however you want, with a crusted and sweet crunchy pecan topping, or a caramel flavoured filling. Nothing can top a plain old fashioned pumpkin pie however. This is the pumpkin pie of my childhood. It's the best in my opinion.

Basic short crust pastry for one 10 inch tart tin
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 1/2 cups cooked or canned pumpkin, mashed or pureed
1 1/2 cups evaporated milk
1/2 cup whole milk
2 eggs, slightly beaten

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C/425*F. Line a 10 inch tart tin with a removable bottom with the pastry, trimming the sides evenly. Prick the bottom all over with a fork and line it with some tinfoil. Fill with some baking beans or rice and place it on a baking tray. Place in the heated oven and bake for approximately 20 minutes. Remove the foil and beans and bake for 10 minutes longer.

Mix the pumpkin and other ingredients together in a bowl in the order given, whisking all together well, until completely incorporated.

Now comes the tricky bit. I like to leave the tart tin on the baking tray. Pull one of the oven racks about halfway out and place the tart shell on the baking tray on this rack. Carefully pour the pumpkin filling into the pastry shell and carefully slide the oven rack back into the oven. (This helps to keep the filling from slopping over which is what would happen no matter how carefully you tried to carry it from the counter to the stove!)

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 165*C/325*F and bake for 40 to 45 minutes longer, until the filling is firm, and a knife inserted near the centre comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for at least two hours before serving. A lightly sweetened and spiced whipped cream is the perfect accompaniment.

Saturday 17 November 2007

Frosty Nights and Days

I guess it is the middle of November now, and it was inevitable that it had to happen. Yes . . . it has finally snapped cold. All last winter, Todd only had to scrape the windows on our car but once, now, already this year, he has had to do it twice, and it is early days yet. For the past several mornings we have awakened to a widespread frost painting the garden with it's delicate and icy glaze, each leaf and branch and flower petal gilded in it's frozen mantle of cold lace, each petal looking fragile, like porcelain that would break with just a touch, and I fear they truly would.

The water in our birdbath has been frozen on the top these past two mornings, it's watery, ice cold depths covered with a thin crust of ice. We have had to break through it so that the many birds that visit our garden habitat still have water to drink, as cold as it may be. Frozen too, is the water in the rain barrel we keep in a barrel under the drainpipe which hangs from the roof of our garden shed . . . a frozen tendril of the Passion Flower vine that grows along it's backbone, dipping down into the frosty glass like surface . . . all nature is falling asleep for the long winter ahead.

The birds are all puffy looking . . . their feathers all fluffed out to help keep themselves warm. They hop along the frozen ground looking for something to eat, but I think all the worms and grubs have long gone underground and we may not see them again now until a warm sunny day appears. It is time for me to make some fat balls for the birds. I fill them full of apples, peanuts, raisins, bacon fat, sugar, lard and peanut butter, crunchy of course. They love them so . . . as do the squirrels. Perhaps they will tempt the white squirrel into our garden.

The days are much shorter now and when I go up to the big house for my evening shift I am doing the short journey down the lane in dusk. Yesterday afternoon a crescent moon hung low in the sky just over the hedgerow at the back of us while to one side the sun slowly made it's way down past the horizon, bathing everything in it's fading glow.

As I walked I could hear the birds in the trees that surround our cottage and line the lane. "Hurry, hurry," they seem to be calling out to each other, "The day is done and we must rest for the night, hurry, hurry . . ." It is a cheery sound and yet lonely at the same time, quite different than the waking up sounds of the morning.

I must remember to bring my torch with me these days as I now walk home at the end of my working day in the cloak of darkness, down the lane, all is still and quiet, the only sound, the occasional rustle of dry leaves at the foot of the hedgerows as the night creatures that live peaceably amongst us go about their nocturnal chores.

Home I return, tired and content, to the warmth of our kitchen fire and a hot drink of ginger and lemon. That will keep the chills at bay . . . I cosy up on the sofa we keep down here, next to my Todd, with a blanket around my feet as we while away what's left of our evening together. Jess lays quietly on the carpet in front of our feet, basking in the warmth of the fire's glow. All is right with my world. We are a family at home together . . . just us three, as the comforting flicker of firelight threads it's way across our faces. Sigh . . . this is my bliss.

Saturday 10 November 2007

November Days

We've had such a really mild autumn here this year. It has actually been the nicest autumn since I've lived over here. The summer was so wet, bringing us more rainfall than previously recorded in years gone by, but this lovely fall has brought us warm and sunny days, the end result being, fall colours that are more beautiful than has been seen over here in years, and certainly the most beautiful that I have seen.

I am not sure what the reason for it is, but I did hear on the television the other day that it is caused by the combination of lots of summer moisture and warm autumn temperatures. Apparently it develops sugars in the leaves or some such, resulting in a beautifully colourful tapestry for us all to enjoy!

Todd and I took ourselves for a lovely walk around the estate last weekend with Jess, camera in hand so that I could capture some of it with my camera's eye. You never know how long the good weather is going to last over here. It can change in the blink of an eye . . .

I think it was Bob Hope who said about England's weather, "If you don't like it, wait five minutes." We can have it raining cats and dogs in the morning and fairly cold and then by early afternoon it can be sunny, warm and dry. One never knows what each day will bring for sure. It's always a mixed bag . . .

I wanted to capture some of this autumnal beauty before it dissappeared. I'm so glad that I did, for by the time Thursday rolled around, it had turned rainy and cold, and very, very windy, the harsh wind grabbing a lot of the leaves and hurling them to the ground, so that now, a lot of the trees lay bare and the gardeners are working overtime to try to gather them all up and get rid. That's how they spend most of their days in the fall, gathering up the fallen leaves . . . a seemingly never-ending job.

Earlier this week though, when the leaves were still mostly on the trees, enticing us to walk amongst them, it was lovely meandering beneath them, and hearing the crunch of the fallen ones underfoot, while we watched them fall around us in their autumn dance, fluttering to the ground in a slow, enchanting and magical way . . . much like feathery falling flakes of snow.

There was the beginnings of an autumn chill in the air as the sun started to go down in the sky that afternoon, and we took ourselves back to the cottage, our appetites having been stoked by the cooler temperatures, and the exertions of our walk. Hot soup was in order for the perfect autumn supper, served with some warm crusty rolls. . . and then, for dessert, some lovely baked apples with cream. Pure autumn bliss . . .

*Baked Apples with Mincemeat and Cream*
Serves 4

I love baked apples. They are so easy to do and always taste so good when they are done. For a little something extra special try baking them stuffed with mincemeat. These are truly delicious!
1 medium bottle of sparkling apple cider or apple juice (about 3 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup cranberry jelly
2 TBS unsalted butter
4 large baking apples (I used Blenheim Orange Suffolk)
3/4 cup purchases mincemeat
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/3 cup dried tart cherries
1 TBS chopped crystalized ginger
250 ml container of double cream for serving

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C/400*F. Lightly grease a baking dish and set aside.

Put the apple cider, cranberry jelly and butter into a large skillet and bring to a boil. Boil until it is reduced to about 1 1/4 cups. This should take about 12 to 15 minutes.

In the meantime, cut a cone shaped piece from the stem end of each apple, about 2 inches wide at the tip and 1 inch deep. Using a melon baller, remove the core, leaving the apple intact at the bottom. Take a sharp knife and cut a slight slit around the middle of each apple, about halfway up. Try not to cut in too deeply. This will help to prevent the apple from exploding in the oven and help it to keep it's shape.

Mix the mincemeat, walnuts, cherries and ginger together in a bowl. Spoon this mixture into the apples, filling and mounding it up in the centre.

Arrange the apples in the baking dish and then spoon the cider over and around them. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the apples are tender. Serve warm in shallow bowls with a spoonful of cream or two drizzled over each.

Sunday 4 November 2007

Early To Bed Early To Rise . . .

I've always been an early riser. There is something about the morning that calls to me and speaks to my heart that it is the best time of the day. It is when my mind is the sharpest and my thoughts the clearest.

My sister, brother and I were not allowed to lolly gag in bed when we were teens. If my father was up, we all had to be up. Trust me when I say, we were not always happy with that . . .

I love the early mornings when the mist is still rising above the trees over the downs that I can see in the distance from our upstairs library window. It is a scene that changes dramatically with the seasons. In the winter it is dusted in winter colours of grey and white, monochromatic, but no less beautiful than the spring, with it's awakening greens and the sea behind the hedge which assaults us with the scents and colours of a cloud of apple blossoms. Then too the summer with it's lush greens and ripening fruit, but now with the cooler and shorter autumn days , ithas turned to rich hues of amber, reds and golds . . .

In the early morning I sit here quietly and listen to the birds awakening in the brush around our little cottage, their dawn chorus ringing in my ears and making my heart feel glad. It is a cheery sound. I can almost hear them calling from tree top to treetop, from bush to bush . . . good morning glad friends, the day awaits, let us get busy and about our tasks . . . after all it is the early bird that does get the worm.

I love these early moments here in the kitchen as I move about in the solitude with only the birds and Jess for company. The kettle begins it's song on the hearth as the clock ticks on the wall, it's solitary tick tock a necessary reminder to get about my day, for time passes all too quickly.

I think today I shall make some Eggy Bread for our breakfast. I have an aching in my heart this morning for childhood days and the comfort that would bring. I think I'll stuff it though, with rich cream cheese and sweet wild blueberry preserves . . . a most delicious beginning to a promising day.

*Fruity Stuffed Eggy Bread*
Serves 4

Eggy bread, a comforting legacy of a rich childhood. French Toast, a mother's treat and good use of what was always at hand, stale bread, eggs, butter . . . A grown up twist here, with rich and eggy brioche and a lucious stuffing of rich cream cheese and deliciously sweet wild blueberry preserves . . . a little taste of home.

3 large free range organic eggs
3/4 cup whole milk
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
8 1/2 inch thick slices Brioche bread
1/2 cup soft full fat cream cheese
4 tablespoons of wild blueberry preserves*
a knob of butter
powdered vanilla sugar to dust on before serving

Beat together the eggs, vanilla and milk. Put a skillet onto the stove to warm up over a medium heat.

Spread half of the slices thickly with the cream cheese. Spread the other half with the blueberry preserves. Put them together with the cream cheese and preserves facing, pressing gently to adhere together. Dip the resulting sandwiches into the egg mixture on both sides.

Melt a large knob of butter in the warm skillet. Once it is foaming add the eggy bread sandwiches, two at a time if the skillet it large enough, leaving some space in between them. Cook until nicely browned on the one side, then carefully flip over and brown the other side. Keep warm until you have browned all four on both sides.

Place on a heated platter, dust with some powdered vanilla sugar and serve warm. Delicious!
Note* You can use any flavour of fruit preserves you like, perhaps ginger rhubarb jam or even a rich and tangy orange marmelade. For a real treat try some Lemon Curd. I just happen to love wild blueberry preserves the most of all!