New year, same me and the search for jam perfection.

I do see the start of a new year as a time to review and reflect. I don’t make resolutions as such but I usually think of a few ‘goals’ or things the old me might like to achieve in the next 12 months.
This loose collection of paths to self-improvement might include some new activities to try in the coming year and will always include an optimistic commitment to trying to get better at some of the things I do already.

Practice makes perfect and all that.

Getting back into writing regularly is on my list, having pretty much kicked this blog into the long grass in the past year. I have got out of the habit, and now my writing is reduced to social media posts, work emails, and the odd business report.

Union canal Edinburgh in afternoon light

Aside from an intention to keep writing, following on from a recent batch of marmalade making – next on my list is a quest to get better at making jam- not with a view to becoming a professional preserver, but more to crack the elusive nut of getting my jam to set.

On paper, making jam and marmalade is an easy process – you combine the right ratio of fruit, sugar and sometimes water, heat it to the temperature of jam setting point then Ta Da! It sounds simple, but while my jams and marmalade usually taste good, they are often very runny and the process of knowing when it has reached setting point is a bit of a mystery. 

sunset through the trees

Some of this is a fear of the pan boiling over – and so to avoid this, I  don’t have the temperature high enough – or when it is boiling a fear of letting it boil too long in case it overcooks,( having once made blackberry jam that was like industrial strength glue).

Recipe books offer instructions and guidance, but rarely give much detail around timings. I suppose it is because as with most cooking, there are unknown variables relating to your own kitchen and equipment so success comes through trial and error and accumulated knowledge.

Apparently, there is a magical knack of knowing when the bubbles in the pan have changed – and recognising this I imagine only comes with practice.
As I only tend to make jam or marmalade once or twice a year – reading the jam bubble runes is a skill not yet mastered. This year I had to reboil marmalade when after cooling it still looked more like orange soup than a breakfast conserve. So after that near disaster, I bought myself a jam pan and a thermometer.

Today I gave my new pan and thermometer combo a test drive – making scarlet chilli and red pepper jam, a recipe from Diana Henry’s book Salt, Sugar Smoke.  Intrigued by the prospect of making the evocatively named scarlet jam, I set forth on a new path in my preserving journey – as I have never made jam with peppers or attempted any kind of savoury relish before.


It was an easy recipe to follow, with only a few ingredients and it looked beautiful bubbling in the pan as the peppers and chilli transformed from raw ingredients to jam.
As always it took longer than I expected for it to reach setting point, but this time I persevered, even letting it rise above the mystical 104.5 C.  Using both my thermometer and the wrinkle test as guidance I studied the bubbles, stared into the glossy pot and followed my instinct 😉 


I don’t imagine I will ever win any jam making contests – but it tastes good and looks like it will set.
Bravo to me !

oatcake , cheese and chilli jam

Accidental Edinburgh Fringe ‘Greek’ yogurt

Last week I took a notion to make yogurt.

I was prompted in part by reading Tom Hunt’s Waste not column in Feast in the Saturday Guardian.

Each week in the Feast food supplement, Tom Hunt highlights various ways to reduce waste in the kitchen focusing on a different ingredient each week. This week it was chillies.

To make the most of chilli waste, you can save discarded seeds and dry them to season other dishes, and in something of a revelation to me, it turns out that the green stalks of chillies contain the beneficial bacteria lactobacillus and can be used instead of a starter to make yogurt.

I had chillies that I was using to make Menemen ( Turkish egg dish) for brunch and lots of milk – so was looking forward to trying out this eco tip.

So far so good – except I had not read to the end of the recipe – where I noticed it asks for 10-15 chilli stalks.

While I do like my Turkish style eggs spicy – 10 chillies is a bit too spicy !

Having decided to make yogurt I did a quick trawl of the internet for yogurt recipes – more by way of a reminder of quantities, as I have made yogurt in the past.

In my teenage years, I went through a phase of making soft cheese ( crowdie) and yogurt. I would like to say I was ahead of the artisan foodie curve but probably closer to the truth is that I lived on a farm in a small Highland village & was just a bit of an oddball.

Making yogurt is not complicated – and sometimes can happen by accident as I found out when I left a carton of milk on the windowsill of a Premier Inn hotel room on a business trip a while back. Reader – I ate it.

So back to my yogurt making – having gleaned the essential facts from the internet and reminded myself of the steps and quantities – this is what I did.

1. Gently heated up a pint of full-fat milk.

2. Left milk to cool to the temperature of a hot bath ( 45 degrees C )

3. I then took a couple of tablespoonfuls of Greek yogurt – from an existing tub, to use as the starter.

4. To warm the starter, I mixed a couple of tablespoons of the warmed milk into the Greek yogurt to make it runny and less cold before adding it back into the rest of the warmed milk.

5. I used my slow cooker to heat up the stoneware container so that the mixture went into something warm. If you don’t have a slow cooker – the important thing is to put the mixture into something that can retain heat – a thermos or just a sealed container than will keep the temperature even.

6. Having warmed the container – I put the yogurt ( that I had warmed a bit) into the warm milk then put the starter + milk mixture into the warmed slow cooker pot.

7. I switched the slow cooker off and took the stoneware container up to a warm room where I covered it in a thick blanket and left it for a few hours.

About 5 hours later it was well on the way to becoming yogurt but I decided to leave it overnight.

The next morning TA DA !

Yogurt

It tasted ok – quite mild, but I thought it was a bit runny and as I eat a lot of Greek yogurt I thought I would try straining it to see how it turned out.

I put the yogurt into a muslin lined sieve over a bowl and left it to drip in its own time.

I was heading out to a show at the Edinburgh book festival so I just left it dripping.

We ended up staying out later than planned and going to some more stuff at the Fringe so the yogurt had been doing its dripping thing for about 9 hours by the time we got back.

The result was a small ball of thick yogurt – maybe closer to fromage blanc than Greek yogurt in texture – but with a lovely mild flavour.

As I don’t have any pigs I drank the leftover whey – the strained liquid. No idea if it’s good for you but it was a refreshing slightly tart drink.

To make the yogurt a bit creamier I added back in a couple of spoons of full fat milk and the end result was quite close to the shop bought varieties.

It’s a fairly easy thing to do. I don’t think it gives any better result than buying a tub, but it’s quite satisfying making your own.

I might experiment with different types of milk ( e.g. Jersey or unhomogenised ) and also the length of time I strain it to see if that makes a difference to the end result.

Meanwhile, I have started saving my chilli tops in the freezer ( which I hope does not destroy the lactobacillus) and when I reach 15 I will give the chilli yogurt a whirl.

Christmas cake baking – and running of course. Day 3

IMG_2451Today I decided to bake a Christmas cake. I used to get a bit hung up about baking the Christmas cake on a set day in November, but I decided it does not make any difference to the flavour so I just bake it a few weeks before Christmas whenever I can find some spare hours.

Making the cake is pretty straightforward – especially since I have started using a recipe recommended to me by my friend Sally at fitnaturally. Sally got this recipe from her neighbour and friend – Mrs Williams – sadly no longer around – and it is both the easiest and nicest Christmas cake recipe I have tried. I also like the thought of Mrs Williams skills in baking being shared far and wide, and enduring. That’s the lovely thing about baking and passing on recipes.

So Mrs Williams Christmas cake recipe is kind of an ‘all in one’ method – where you put the fruit, sugar, butter and spices into a pot then heat them up.

Then you add all the other ingredients to the cooled fruit mixture, give it a good mix and that’s it!

I find the hardest part of baking a Christmas cake is lining the tin, and with the long slow cooking, it is important to line it properly.  But though it is a fiddly job – it is an enjoyable ritual of sorts – wrapping the cake in its jacket of brown paper and string. And there is something very comforting about the gathering of ingredients, the preparation and then the aroma of Christmas cake baking that gets me in the festive mood.

Before baking the cake – I went on my day 3 run with Alison. Today we went on another of our weekend routes where we run from Colinton to Stockbridge. It is around 6 miles and pretty much downhill all the way following the water of Leith – so lots of running through woodland. We then get the bus or a lift back, so it’s an easy 6 miles.

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We could run there and back and many runners would do this by way of a longer Sunday run, but I am not training for any race at the moment and one thing I have realised over the years of doing run streaks- is that there is no point adding in extra mileage if you don’t have to.

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As it was, we had a very enjoyable social run rounded up nicely by a breakfast of fried egg roll and coffee at the Water of Leith bistro.

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Day 3: 6.01 miles

December total : 14.32 miles

Weather : fresh and sunny 4 degrees

writing and running in the key of green

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Running in the months of  January, February and quite a bit of March – the skies have been grey, the trees bare and the paths muddy brown.

But this weekend the sun came out and as if by magic everywhere was green.

Wild garlic seemed to grow overnight into a lush fresh carpet of pungent loveliness and even my neglected garden threw up some vibrant colour – bless my everlasting die hard euphorbias.

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With Monday a rest day from running, I picked some of the wild garlic and made pesto.

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Food for free ramsons reminisences

Earlier this month I made wild garlic pesto with my daughter and thought it a very current thing to do. Foraging,making food from scratch and connecting with nature definitely seems in vogue right now.

The day before we had taken a walk to collect the wild garlic from a woodland path and then, with a 21st century twist to our attempts at wild survival,had Googled to verify the plant type lest we pick anything deadly and then referred to Google once more to find a recipe.

Was very enjoyable to first harvest the leaves, then make the pesto together – even if the pine nuts, pecorino and olive oil were neither free nor foraged locally. But satisfying still to make food with a tiny connection to the land and to enjoy a bit of mother – daughter bonding over a shared food discovery at the same time.

After our pesto adventure I  came across my ageing copy of Richard Mabey’s book -Food For Free – given to me as a school prize for Modern Studies in 1976. Prize winners were free to pick their own book and my choice of this guide to feeding yourself from nature’s larder was, I imagine, something that fitted with me going through something of a mildly hippy phase – along with dressing in cheesecloth and listening to Bob Dylan.

In the mid 70s at the school I attended my favourite teachers seemed to me very modern and liberal – certainly after my village primary school. My teacher of Modern Studies,with her views on the Russian revolution and questionable power of the media certainly appeared to be interesting, worldly and cool to my 14-year-old self.

Choosing the Richard Mabey book coincided with a rather fogeyish interest I had at the time around the disappearing skills of food preservation and cooking and wanting to know more about how things were done in the ‘olden days’ – quizzing my  farmer dad about how to preserve food, make butter and making a reasonably successful  attempt at crowdie – basic cheese making.

With the benefit of hindsight I could say  this was me reacting to the change  I saw in eating patterns and dominance of factory produced ready meals – Vesta curry, Findus crispy pancakes  and the like, but I don’t know that I was trying to make a social comment  or that I was ahead of the curve, more likely I was just a bit of an odd child.

Is interesting now as with a renewed interest in food provenance and craft skills  more prevalent to think of that curiosity and my childhood experience. Many things I took for granted growing up in the countryside  around freshly grown food and a kinder approach to farming now seem to pop up on lifestyle and food programmes,  magazine articles as a return to a better way to live and eat. Reassuring I suppose to know that while food trends and fashion ebb and flow the fundamentals of good taste, heathy food and craft survive.

These days I no longer live in the countryside so my foraging is of the urban variety and I am really just a dabbler in  trying to find food for free, but through the small act of gathering wild garlic and making pesto with my daughter, I felt I had gone some way to rekindle my latent hunter gatherer.

jar of home made pesto