Home sweet home

It is a truth universally acknowledged (even in secret) that there is nothing worse that other people’s travel photos, except perhaps other people’s travel stories. So as much as I am tempted to mark the end of our grand adventures abroad with an endless parade of photos and a stream-of-consciousness piece about the joys of frolicking around Europe for two months, I’m going to restrain myself. I’m going to pretend that we’ve just bumped into each other:

You: ‘Oh, so you’re back. Did you have a good time?’

Me: ‘Yeah, got back last Thursday. We had the best time ever. Honestly, it was just fantastic. We…’

You (eyes glazing over, hatred mounting): ‘Oh. Great. Oh look, I have to go… (rushes off)

Jetlag, what jetlag?

We ate, we drank, we caught up with old friends and made new ones, we laughed, we walked miles and miles, we watched my beautiful niece marry her lovely partner, we read thousands of stories, did oodles of colouring-in and dragged the Small Girl away from every playground/carousel/toy shop/ice cream merchant in greater London/Paris/Berlin/Hong Kong. Every now and then, just to make sure I remembered how, I cooked. Or at the very least I pottered around in a strange kitchen, enjoying the novelty of it all.

Kreuzberg, Berlin, August 2013

Best of all, I got to do it with these two. I won’t pretend that there was never a cross word between us (and, I do admit that on day two, crippled by jetlag and the sudden switch from 9C to 33C in temperature, I did think, ‘what have we done?! This is a terrible idea!’) but we actually had a ball. Aren’t they great?

Now though, it’s all about channelling that holiday love into catching up with normal life. I’m certainly not expecting any sympathy, but it is REALLY hard returning to the daily grind. I feel like I’m acting out the lyrics in that Talking Heads song:

“And you may ask yourself

How do I work this?

And you may ask yourself

Where is that large automobile?

And you may tell yourself

This is not my beautiful house!

And you may tell yourself

This is not my beautiful wife!”

I can’t use the jetlag excuse any longer but I am still not match fit in the kitchen. Tonight I made sushi that would make Jiro Ono cry, while yesterday I decapitated a silicon spatula by absentmindedly sticking it into a running food processor. On Friday I made my first loaf of bread in two months and forgot the salt. But, like the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, I’m getting there. Slowly.

In the meantime, what I’m really dying to hear is what you’ve been up to in my absence. No, really, I am! What’s the best – and the worst – thing that’s happened to you in the last two months? Fill me in!

Me and my kitchen rules

I write this standing in my kitchen – standing is the next sitting, don’t you know? – trying to make a list of its various oddities. This time next week I’ll be far, far away (in fact, hopefully I’ll be here) as our household go on a bit of an adventure for a couple of months.

Obviously I’m beside myself with excitement, but as I write this, still in that terrible miasma of anxiety and to-do lists and hideous mess that comes with leaving the country (in some cases, just leaving the house).

More than anything, I’m hoping that the people who will be living in our house while we’re away (they’re a family of Mexican wrestling champions with a pack of snarling attack dogs), will appreciate the quirks of our kitchen. We’ve written them a list of operating instructions for the rest of the house, but I thought I’d stop short of adding ‘please be nice to all my kitchen things’. Then again, there are things I want them to know… perhaps just a top five will do it.

MY KITCHEN RULES

1. Don’t use the insinkerator – it leaks down into the cupboard under the sink where I store all my cake tins. There is nothing worse than realising that you have to clean every single cake tin you possess – or worse, not realising they are collecting mucky water for days.

2. That funny grill thing beside the stove top? It doesn’t work. It does make an excellent cake rack though.

3. Please enjoy opening and shutting the oven. We’ve had it fixed just for you and it cost so much we could nearly have bought a new oven – or a slap-up high tea for the three of us – instead. 

4. We thought about putting away various precious bits and pieces but then decided it was just too hard. So please don’t break anything. Especially the stuff from my mum’s house. Please? And don’t go scrubbing the cast iron frying pans with detergent. That glossy sheen has taken a lot of building up.

5. All useful bits of kitchen kit – wooden spoons, graters, whisks, poultry shears – are in the second drawer down. If you happen across a set of measuring spoons and a green spatula, let me know. They have gone AWOL.

Given we’re going to be itinerant for the next seven weeks, I’m not sure I’ll be able to help you with advice on what to have for dinner. If you miss me that much you can always keep up with our adventures here or here. I’ll drop in when I can – and I’ll be back, cooking stone stoup, in mid-August.

Lucy x

No-knead spelt bread

A mystery visitor changed my life last Friday. I went out for a few hours and returned home to find crumbs all over the kitchen floor and a tea towel draped artistically over the stovetop. Now, neither of these things are that unusual – our floors are usually so covered in crumbs it looks like Hansel and Gretel have been passing through and tea towels are often appropriated by a pair of small hands to make doll beds or princess dresses. But the strange formation of these crumbs, and the teatowel’s odd positioning, spoke of something else. All at once it dawned on me – the oven man had come! I jumped up and down on the spot beside the oven, both in utter joy and to test whether or not the door was going to fall open. It didn’t budge. I pulled on the door handle and it reluctantly opened, eager to spring back into position. I was so excited I took a video of myself opening the oven door and sent it to my beloved. “This is one of the nicest things you’ve ever done for me,” I wrote.

You may think this indicates that a) I need to get out more and b) that my relationship is in serious trouble, but if you’d spent the last 18 months grappling with an oven that didn’t close properly, you’d be excited too. I’ve spent all weekend marvelling at how easy it is to cook things when the oven door doesn’t fall open at whim and how quickly the oven heats up now that half the heat isn’t escaping. One of the first things I made was a spelt version of my ye olde DIY Vogels bread. Here’s how I did it.

Slices Of No-Knead Spelt Bread

No-knead spelt bread
I’m on a bit of a spelt kick at the moment, not least because I can buy organic spelt flour from a great shop just minutes away – but most supermarkets stock it now too. If you can boil a kettle and stir (not simultaneously), then you can make this bread. I use my own toasted muesli – like this one or this one – when making this but any decent bought one will suffice. If you leave it out, consider throwing in some seeds instead.

300g white spelt flour
300g wholemeal spelt flour
120g toasted muesli
2 tsp dried yeast
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp honey
300ml milk
350ml boiling water

Put everything into a large bowl and mix well – it will be like porridge. Scrape into a very-well oiled and lined large loaf tin (internal measurements roughly 20cm x 10cm x 8cm).
Put into a cold oven and turn the dial to 50C. Leave for about 25 minutes, until the dough has risen to the top of the tin. Turn the heat to 200C and bake for another 40 minutes, until crusty on top and hollow when you tap it on the bottom.
Turn out to a rack to cool. This makes excellent toast, or you can cut it into canape-sized bits and have it with cream cheese and pickled ginger or smoked salmon.

What was the best thing that happened to your kitchen last week?

Treat me: Ginger cider cake

Two of my favourite redheads have birthdays this weekend – so in their honour I have devised a ginger-y cake. You don’t have to have redhead or suffered years of school yard torment to enjoy it, but it helps if you like light, lovely cake studded with nuggets of crystallised ginger and walnuts. Who’s in?

Ginger cider cake
This is an adapted version of a cake in Margaret Fulton’s ‘My Very Special Cookbook’, a book worth hunting for in your next charity shop raids. I used a bottle of Rekorderlig Orange-Ginger cider (which is actually very drinkable, for once you can believe the hype), but you could use any cider or beer and change the fruit/spices accordingly. It makes a very big cake suitable for baking in a bundt tin – but make sure you grease and flour it really well or you’ll suffer the consequences. I can confirm the cake is still edible when it comes out of the tin in two pieces, but it’s less suitable to present to someone as a birthday treat.

250g soft butter
400g brown sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
100g crystallised ginger, roughly chopped
100g walnuts, roughly chopped
500ml beer or cider, at room temperature
450g plain flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 180C and grease and/or line a large bundt tin.
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy – easiest done with a stand mixer or food processor – then beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the ginger and walnuts.
Sift the flour, baking soda, salt and spices together then add about a quarter of it to the butter mixture. Fold in, then add a quarter of the beer or cider. Repeat until all the ingredients are combined.
Scrape into the prepared tin and bake for about 45 minutes, until the cake is well risen and a skewer plunged into the centre comes out clean.
Leave in the tin for 10 minutes to cool, then carefully turn out onto a rack to cool completely.

Have a great weekend, everyone x

Little House polenta porridge

When I promised this week would be free of pink food and party cakes, I didn’t quite anticipate spending the weekend eating very little. I’ll draw a veil over the nasty details, but suffice to say two-thirds of our household spent part of the the weekend in the clutches of (or recovering from) an unpleasant stomach ailment. If this was a different sort of blog I’d be posting selfies of my resulting washboard-ish stomach – but instead, here’s a recipe for a soothing sort of warming winter breakfast.

Polenta porridge
Do you remember the Laura Ingalls Wilder books? I can’t wait for the Small Girl to be old enough to read them. Perhaps then she’ll be keen on having this modern version of Ma’s cornmeal mush for breakfast. This can be dressed up any way you like – the photo below shows it with vanilla paste and a dollop of crème fraiche – but it’s also good with stewed fruit, grated apple, slices of frozen banana (hot/cold, hard/soft) or in true Little House style, butter and proper maple syrup. If you’re in peak health, a splash of cream goes down well too…

For one person:
1/2 cup fine cornmeal/polenta
1 cup water
Flavourings – 1 tsp vanilla paste or extract, 2 tsp butter, a spoonful of honey or the additions mentioned above

Put the polenta in a small saucepan and add the water slowly, stirring all the time. Put it over medium heat and cook, stirring often, until it thickens and begins to simmer like lava. Turn the heat down and continue to cook for five to 10 minutes, adding a little bit more water if it seems very thick. When it’s done, stir through the vanilla, butter and honey, if using, and pour into a waiting bowl. Eat while hot.