And scones, too

I don’t want to give the impression that all I do is bake stuff and then eat it, though that does seem to make up a large part of my life. But I am particularly proud of these cheese scones that I rustled up to go with a chilli. Very tasty. And incredibly quick to make.

I’m still plucking up the courage to try my hand at croissants, but I definitely need to to something with all of the butter I have left in the fridge. Any suggestions gratefully received.

Cheese scones

Hot buns

Having had a nice long weekend over the Easter break, I decided to do a bit of baking. And the logical thing to start with was some hot cross buns. So I got out some of my baking books, found a recipe that I liked the look of and got on with it. It took a little while, as the dough needed to rest after I’d done anything with it, but pretty soon I had some fairly respectable buns ready to go in the oven.

I even made a flour paste to decorate the tops. But I got bored with crosses after the first couple, so splurged a variety of letters and random shapes onto the rest. This means, I guess, that they’re technically not hot cross buns, but rather just hot buns. But I can tell you one thing: once they’d come out of the oven, they smelled – and tasted – delicious. The floppy anaemic ones we get from the supermarket quite literally paled in comparison.

Oh, and here are the finished articles…

Hot 'cross' bunsClearly, they’re long gone now. But, mmm, they were yummy. Even if I do say so myself. Next up: croissants. Anything that involves battering a block of butter with a rolling pin (honest, that’s what it says in the book) has got to be worth a try.

The cost of things

I’m a big fan of the ‘slow’ movement. For those not familiar with the concept, ‘slow’ is about doing things mindfully, taking the time to focus on what we are doing and making a conscious effort to do it well. ‘Slow food’, for example, encourages people to choose fresh, high quality ingredients, to cook them with care and to take the time to enjoy eating them, preferably with family or friends.

This approach has spread – slowly – to other disciplines, so that we are now starting to see things such as ‘slow cities’, ‘slow working’ and, indeed, ‘slow living’. Often dismissed as a new-age, lefty indulgence, it is, rather, a welcome rally against the cult of speed that threatens to take over so many aspects of our lives. For adherents of slow, life is something to be savoured and enjoyed. The journey is as important as the destination.

One of my favourite slow concepts is that of ‘eigenzeit’. It comes from the German ‘eigen’, meaning one’s own, and ‘zeit’, meaning time. The idea that everything, if we are to do it well, requires a certain amount of time. Now, the particular amount of time required clearly depends on the specific task in hand, but if you try to do it any quicker than its ‘eigenzeit’, then you will inevitably do it badly or not at all.

Take my garden, for example. I know that it’s going to take me an hour to cut the grass, if I include trimming the edges and tidying up the clippings afterwards. I’ve done it quite a few times now and it has never taken me less than an hour. It sometimes takes me more time, particularly if I’m having an off day or stop to chat with my neighbour, but never less. Now, I could save time by only cutting the more visible parts of the lawn, by leaving the edges to fend for themselves or by not bothering to tidy up afterwards. But that’s not ‘cutting the grass’ as I’ve defined it. My task has an eigenzeit of sixty minutes. It’s a fact.

In a similar vein, I would like to propose the concept of ‘eigenkosten’. We already know what ‘eigen’ means, and ‘kosten’ is German for – and you may be able to guess this – costs. If we are to produce a good or a service to a certain standard of quality, there is – in my view – a minimum amount that it must cost. We might be able to shave a few pounds off here and there by being more efficient or whatever, but we will eventually reach a point where we can’t cut costs any more. That’s the ‘eigenkosten’.

If we try to drive down the cost of something below its eigenkosten, bad things happen. Some producers will just stop what they are doing and go off and try something else. We’re seeing this at the moment in the dairy industry, where farmers are selling off their herds due to the unrealistically low price that they are able to get for each pint of milk that they – or, rather, their cows – produce.

Alternatively, producers might simply struggle on, making a loss on what they do, in the hope that something will turn up or that circumstances will change. Or they might change the goods or services that they provide, sticking to the ones that they can afford to deliver or reducing the quality of what they produce. This is the situation, for example, in local government across the UK, where funding cuts are having a direct impact on the nature, scope and quality of public services.

Sometimes, however, producers will opt to respond to cost pressures by trying to hoodwink us. They will cheat. They will reduce the cost of their goods or services below the eigenkosten by using sub-standard raw materials, by cutting corners in production or by claiming to have done things that they have not. It is looking increasingly likely that this is what is happening across Europe with the substitution of horse-meat in beef products, for example, but this is hardly the only instance where producers have responded in this way.

The slow movement tells us that we need to think carefully about how much things cost to produce and how much we are willing to pay for them. We need to be prepared to pay a fair price for the things we need and to challenge those who seek to do otherwise. We need to recognise that everything  has a minimum cost – its eigenkosten – and that to seek to drive prices below this is to pay disrespect to the goods and services that we consume, as well as to those who work hard to produce them.

It’s baking time

When it comes to Christmas, my thoughts turn immediately to food. But I know that if I make a big tin of fudge or toffee, I’ll inevitably end up eating it all myself. (This is, apparently, a Bad Thing.) So I decided at the weekend that I’d make a selection of sweets and send them to the various members of my family.

I started off with biscotti. This gets baked twice, once as a loaf and for a second time once it’s been sliced into biscuit-sized portions. Mine wasn’t as crunchy as I’d have liked, as the temperature control in the over seems to be playing up, but it wasn’t too bad for my first attempt. Here’s the finished product.

Biscotti

I then moved on to fudge. I’m a big fan of the Roly’s Fudge franchise and buy a big bag of their fudge whenever I’m near their shop in Sidmouth. I’ve never been able to replicate Roly’s fudge at home, though, so was very excited when I found a recipe on the internet purporting to be theirs. Needless to say, it wasn’t. But I did end up with some rather crunchy, chocolately fudge. Here is it.

Chocolate fudge

Eager to get at least one thing right, I turned to one of my old favourites – white chocolate fudge. When you mix sugar, double cream and white chocolate, it’s very difficult to go wrong. And the result is delicious. This is the only fudge recipe where I use liquid glucose, and it gives the mixture a very silky texture. Here it is on the boil.

Making fudge

And here’s the fudge itself. I really should chop it into tinier pieces. My brother-in-law once had three chunks of this at one sitting and was on a sugar high for about a week.

White chocolate fudge

At Natalie’s request, I then tried a Nigella recipe: Hokey Pokey. This is, essentially, honeycomb and is supposed to be extremely easy to make. In fact, if you are able to tell the difference between a pot of bicarbonate of soda (the required ingredient) and baking powder (what I used), it is indeed remarkably straightforward. I noticed my mistake when the mixture (below) still hadn’t set after 24 hours. I tried again the next morning, though, this time with the right ingredients – and it worked a treat. (This time, it set in two minutes.)

Hokey pokey

Next up was sea salt caramel. This recipe is similar to the one for fudge, except that you boil it to a higher temperature. (The temperature goes up as the water evaporates.) It’s much chewier than fudge but not as crunchy as toffee. If you can resist the temptation to chew, it melts really slowly in your mouth. (Not that I ate half of it, or anything.)

Sea salt caramel

Last up was a recipe that I’d tried before but not really been very happy with : Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s vanilla fudge. This time, though, I followed the recipe very carefully and let it stand to cool in all the right places. And the result was divine. Sorry I doubted you, Hugh. Here’s the fudge cooling in the tin, waiting to be sliced into squares.

Vanilla fudge

A very productive afternoon. And immense fun. I hope my family enjoys eating these sweets as much as I enjoyed making them. I’ll have to make some more, now, so that Natalie and I have something for Christmas, too.

I appear to have overdone it with the plants (again)

I’ve done it again. I’ve got a little bit carried away with my seed-sowing and I have far more plants than I know what to do with. I do the same thing every year and each year I promise myself (and Natalie) that next year it will be different. And now I have a greenhouse, three cold frames and part of a garden full of little pots of plants that are looking for a loving home.

Tagetes seedlings

They didn’t seem much of a problem when they were this small

I could claim that it’s not my fault. I plant a few extra seeds in case they don’t all germinate and, when they inevitably all do germinate, I can’t bear to discard any of the tiny seedlings (I mean, they’ve kept their part of the bargain, so surely I have to keep mine) and pot them all up. What kind of heartless gardener would throw away perfectly good seedlings? A sensible one, probably, so we’ll move swiftly on.

Regardless of fault, the upshot is that I now have more plants than you can shake a stick at. I’ve got six varieties of tomatoes, two sorts of mint, loads of tagetes, four varieties of chilli, four or five sorts of courgette, ipomoea, mina lobata and more. Oh, and squash. Lots of squash.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing my best to rehome them. I’ve had a stall at my local country market, I’ve given some to my neighbours and I spent last Saturday morning selling some of them off at a plant sale in the town centre (total takings: £19). My wife has also got on the case, securing orders from several of her work colleagues (who benefit from a very generous 100% discount).

Plants for Stuart

A tray of plants for my neighbour

I’ve manage to find homes for about two thirds of my surplus stock so far, and will be off to market again tomorrow morning with the rest. On the basis of experience so far, I suspect that I may be bringing a fair few of them back home with me afterwards, so I will have to think of a further plan for any stragglers.

Plants for market

Ready for the market tomorrow

But anyway, there’s gradually a bit more space appearing in the greenhouse and the cold frames, which will give me room to pot up and grow on the other seedlings that I have yet to plant out. I know, I know – I’m doing it again. But the little fellas have done their bit and now it’s my turn. I shouldn’t have planted so many. I’ll do better next year.