Lemony Currant and Rosemary Cake

I can’t come home from the library without at least one cookbook. This week’s gem was Snacking Cakes by Yossey Arefi. The general premise of the book is cakes you can whip up with a whisk and one bowl. How could I resist?

There are 50 recipes in this book, and they’re not all just the same recipe with one ingredient changed. Along with standards like pineapple upside down cake and several different chocolate cakes, there are some intriguing and unusual ones.

My first foray into the book was Lemony Currant and Rosemary Cake. There are four teaspoons of chopped fresh rosemary in the cake (along with the obvious lemon and currants), and the top is sprinkled with sugar and coarse salt. The result is a delightful sweet/savoury combination that invites me to snitch a bit every time I walk through the kitchen.

I’d invest serious time in making a cake that tastes this good, and yet this cake mixed up in just a few minutes. The return on investment is huge!

I can’t wait to try some of the other cakes—Salty Caramel Peanut Butter, Oatmeal Chocolate Chip, Powdered Donut, Buttered Walnut, Grapefruit White Chocolate, and Coconut Lime Cake all sound fabulous. The speed at which these cake can be made, I could make a different one every day after work! 

Never mind dinner—I’ll just have cake 🙂

You can’t always do what you’re supposed to do

papers on a desk
Some of the notes about this story I’ve been scribbling over two years.

There’s a live Arlo Guthrie album (I can’t remember which one) in which he’s talking between songs, and at some point he says, “I know I’m supposed to be singing. But you can’t always do what you’re supposed to do.” To which the audience roars approval.

It’s true. You can’t always do what you’re supposed to do.

The second Fatecarver book (Fatewalker) is with the editor, and I really should be working on book 3 if I want to keep the books in the series coming out at a reasonable pace for my readers.

But a couple of weeks ago when I sat down to start book 2, a different book began pouring out of my fingers onto the keyboard.

It was like a flash flood. Within a few days, 15,000 words of a book I shouldn’t be spending time on right now had flowed out. I gave in and have let it flow. I don’t even have a title for the story, which has been kicking around in my head since New Zealand’s first Covid lockdown in 2020, but it’s already over a third written.

Here’s the gist of the story. I can’t wait to be able to share it with you. If things carry on this way, it won’t be long before I can.

Alex Blackburn has inherited all her Grandmother’s possessions. And all her secrets.

When she discovers an ancient book on summoning spirits among Gran’s books, she … sort of accidentally summons one of them.

It’s three metres long and looks like a centipede. 

And it’s just eaten Gran’s dog.

She drags Gran’s neighbour, Shelby, into the drama because the book came from his great-great-great-grandmother. Alex can’t work out how to get rid of the demon, but maybe Shelby’s inherited some of his ancestor’s ability with magic.

Or maybe he’s just terrified of centipedes.

While the demon munches its way through the neighbourhood pets, Alex and Shelby scramble to find a way to send it back to where it came from before it …

Has babies.

This fantasy set in small-town New Zealand will have you sitting on the edge of your seat (while checking underneath it for centipedes), and cheering on Alex and Shelby as they bumble their way around magic and each other.

Bundt Cake!

I have a kitchen full of bakeware—muffin tins, mini-muffin tins, individual mini tart pans, specialised slice pans, a set of tiered cake pans, square tins, round tins, heart-shaped cake tins … the list goes on and on.

But until two weeks ago, I did not own a Bundt pan.

This icon of 1970s baking somehow never ended up in my kitchen. Every time I came across a recipe calling for a Bundt pan, I just used two loaf pans. And of course that worked just fine.

But I still wanted a whimsical, circular tube pan.

For a while, I did have an angel food cake pan—a beaten-up old aluminium one that tended to leak out of the removable bottom, due to a ding it suffered at some point. That pan vanished in a clean out some time ago. Last I used it was for my daughter’s birthday 12 years ago, when she asked for a ‘flower’ cake—I stuck a vase of fresh flowers in the middle, which she thought was pretty. (She was only 6 then, and hadn’t yet learned to ask for crazy impossible things like octopus cakes, or alpine vegetation cakes). 

My first Bundt cake ever, made last weekend, was a chocolate coconut pound cake. I was intrigued with how glossy the cake appeared—a product of the brand-new non-stick interior, no doubt. 

I normally wouldn’t ice pound cake, but the Bundt shape begs for it. The result looked a bit like an iced turd. But it was every bit as delicious as the same cake baked in loaf pans.

I’m tickled with my new Bundt pan, and looking forward to more delicious iced turds. 🙂

Autumn Stocktake

Green beans were one of the winners this past summer.

We haven’t had a frost yet, and there are still lots of carrots to harvest, and a few tomatoes and peppers in the tunnel houses, but the summer garden is done, for all practical purposes. Next weekend, I’ll let the chickens loose among the weeds to enjoy the summer’s buildup of insect pests. 

Now’s the time for taking stock of the summer’s endeavours. 

What went well?

More than I expected to! I was thrilled with the glass gem corn—the plants were gorgeous and tall, and the yield was spectacular. I won’t know for several months whether the corn pops well, but so far it looks like a winner. 

I was also pleased with my watermelons. they got off to a slow start, but once they took off, they really took off. And my patience paid off—every melon I picked was ripe and delicious. It was fun to have both red and yellow varieties this year, and both provided lots of small and yummy fruits.

Once again, my carrots have done spectacularly well. The reason there are still lots to harvest is because the fridge and freezer are both crammed with carrots, and I have nowhere to go with the rest. After last year’s carrot success, I thought it could be a fluke—I had the occasional good carrot year at the old house, too—but two years in a row makes me think I can probably plant half as many carrots next summer, leaving more space for something else! I’m already scheming …

The pumpkins were another winner—I picked 54, which is way more than we can possibly eat (though we’re doing our best—yum!).

What didn’t go well?

The sweet corn was disappointing, but I’m not surprised by that—it was in one of the beds that didn’t get manure last winter, so it was pretty nutrient stressed. We had plenty to eat and some to freeze, but I would have liked to have more for the freezer. Next summer, I’ll be sure to give it a well-fertilised bed. 

Tomatoes were also disappointing—they were clearly nutrient stressed too, in spite of being in manured beds. Add to that the fact the birds managed to eat more of the fruit than we did, and the harvest was less than hoped. I’m considering fewer plants next year, but netted. And, of course, more manure!

The basil was also strangely disappointing—in spite of a nice wet summer, it bolted early and remained fairly small. I blame lack of nutrients.

Peppers and eggplants struggled this year, too. I blame the overhead sprayers I switched to this year after my drip irrigation finally gave up after 17 years. Combined with wet weather, I think the sprayers provided too much moisture to the leaves and too little to the roots—plants were small, and the fruit tended to rot before ripening. I’ll be making a new drip irrigation system for them next year. 

Though the watermelons thrived, the rock melons were pathetic. They set almost no fruit, and most of those set rotted before ripening (or at least before I noticed them, because they were small). 

The jalapeños were beautiful—big fruits and plenty of them—but had absolutely no heat. I still don’t understand why some years they do this. Fortunately, the serranos I planted were nice and hot, but they struggled to ripen before the end of summer—I’ve been picking them as soon as they begin to blush red, rather than waiting for them to turn fully.

Overall, I was quite pleased with this summer’s garden. By all objective measures, it was pretty pathetic, but given the point I started at just two years ago, it’s improved dramatically. I just need to keep pumping in the organic material—manure, compost, pea straw. I’m thrilled with how much good it’s done already.

Aftermath: Stories of Survival in Aotearoa New Zealand

Aftermath: Tales of Survival in Aotearoa New Zealand is SpecFicNZ’s new anthology.

The anthology explores Aotearoa in a post-apocalyptic world. Disasters have occurred around the country and the world. New Zealand, in our isolation down under, may have escaped most of what happened around the world, but it was pretty bad out there. As Kiwis are apt to do, though, we’re “getting over it”. You know, she’ll be right …

This is not just an anthology of disaster stories. The pages are filled with hope in the form of short stories, poems, flash fiction and artwork about what comes afterwards. The contributions are exclusively from SpecFicNZ members and reflect the diversity and breadth of this country we love to call home … even if the edges are a bit torn and tattered.

I have had the pleasure of working on this anthology for the better part of the past year as a co-editor with Gary Nelson and Jill Winfield, and I can heartily recommend it.

Pick up your own copy today!

Glass Gem Corn

I’ve been growing popcorn for years now, and I’ve always saved seed. I’ve been pleased with the variety I’ve grown—it is so wonderfully flavourful, it turned me from someone who wasn’t a big popcorn fan to a real lover of popcorn.

Unfortunately, over the years, my popcorn has crossbred with my sweet corn, and I got to the point where it wasn’t reliably popping anymore. So at the end of last summer, I figured I’d buy a new packet of seed and start afresh.

Horror of horrors! When I scanned last year’s seed catalogue, popcorn wasn’t in it! What was I going to do if I couldn’t get fresh seed?

Why, plant a different variety of popcorn! Although the catalogue didn’t have the variety I was used to, it did have Glass Gem—a flint corn useful for popping and for cornmeal. 

I’ve planted Painted Mountain corn before—a beautiful flint corn which we turned into excellent cornmeal. I loved growing corn that was as beautiful to look at as it was to eat.

So I wasn’t upset to switch to Glass Gem as my popcorn. The plants grew beautifully, topping out at about 2 metres tall, with up to three cobs on each plant. A fabulous result in my nutrient-poor garden. 

I was itching to harvest them and get a peek at the cobs, so last weekend I harvested the few ears that were drying off already. 

Oh. My. God. It makes Painted Mountain look dull. 

The kernels come in the most unlikely colours, including blue, pink, yellow, white, and green. But even more striking than the colour is the kernels’ translucency. They really do look like highly polished gems. The photo in the seed catalogue did not do the plants justice.

I don’t know how they will do as popcorn—they still need to dry more before we can use them—but even if they don’t pop, they were worth growing, just for their stunning look. And I have no doubt we can grind them up into some excellent confetti-coloured cornmeal if they don’t pop well.

Curious, I Googled Glass Gem, and was surprised to see it’s a modern variety. Its roots can be traced back to a man named Carl Barnes, from Oklahoma, who died in 2016. He began growing traditional flint corn varieties in order to connect with his Cherokee roots. He collected and isolated a wide range of native varieties, and began selecting the most colourful cobs for replanting. Over the years, he ended up with the variety now dubbed Glass Gem.

You can read more about Glass Gem corn here.

Come to the Dark Side … we have cookies

With our switch back to standard time last weekend, we’ve most definitely entered the darker half of the year. My husband and I took our first evening walk in full dark yesterday, and we can expect months more of the same.

fig and date cookies

Part of me mourns the loss of hot sun and long days. I certainly feel the dwindling abundance of the summer garden as plants die off. But I also enjoy the darkness.

Summer is bright, noisy and frenetic. Everything is in motion. I’m in motion. Long days mean more tasks on the to-do list—an expectation to ‘make hay while the sun shines’. Summer gardening can start as early as 6 am and continue past 9 pm. It feels wrong to lay about in bed when the sun pops up at 5 am, and who wants to go to bed at 10pm, before it’s even dark?

The bonus of all that work is abundant fruits and vegetables, weed-free gardens, clean gutters, tidy lawns …

But it gets exhausting after a while.

About the time we go off Daylight Savings Time, my body has had enough. That extra hour we gain isn’t enough to make up for the post-summer exhaustion, and I find myself going to bed by 9 pm, happy that it’s dark long before then.

In addition to the extra sleep, I appreciate the calm of night. A walk in the dark is an entirely different experience than a walk during daylight hours. The chatter of sparrows and starlings is absent. Magpies are silent. Neighbourhood dogs are indoors instead of barking at passersby. Quieter sounds come to the fore—the zit-zit of katydids, or the trill of a frog. A lone sheep maa-ing in a distant paddock. The gurgle of the local water race. There is peace in the darkness that is difficult to find during the day.

In the morning, I feed the chickens in the dark. They are groggy and slow—instead of racing toward me as soon as I enter the paddock, they wander my way, muttering their greetings. 

Although there are too many streetlights near our new house that obscure the fainter stars, I still take time every morning to greet the night sky—moon, planets and constellations.

I am comfortable in the dark—it is a soft velvet cloak wrapped around my shoulders.

And when I choose to come inside in the dark of longer nights, there is the warmth of the light. The smell of cooking. The rows of pumpkins stashed on top of the cupboards. Summer’s bounty stored up for winter.

During the dark half of the year, I have extra time to spend on baking—I can make fiddly cookies, cakes with cooked frostings, fancy decorated cupcakes. I have more time for sewing, spinning, and other crafts. I can sit and read a book without feeling guilty about wasting daylight.

So while there is some sadness to the end of summer, there is also joy in the darkness. And there’s the knowledge that summer will return and I will miss the books and baking of the dark side.

Weird and Wonderful Ugni

One of the most interesting autumn fruits we grow is Ugni molinae—known as ugniberry, Chilean guava, strawberry myrtle, New Zealand cranberry, and Tazziberry. The plant is native to Chile and Argentina and is little grown outside of South America. 

The pretty little bush is sometimes grown as an ornamental here, the fruit being mostly ignored. That’s a shame, because ugniberry is such an interesting fruit. 

The small aromatic pink/red berries have a tough outer skin and a seedy interior. I think the flavour is reminiscent of vanilla custard, but others have likened it to bubble gum, cotton candy, or a combination of strawberry, pineapple and apple. Regardless of how you try to describe it, their taste is unique and delicious. 

Until recently, we had never cooked with ugniberries—we’d always eaten them fresh. In fact, few ever even made it into the house—we’d just grab handfuls to eat while we were out in the garden.

This year, however, we’ve been trying to expand our use of ugniberries. Two weeks ago I made ugniberry scones for Sunday breakfast. I made an ordinary oat-based scone with a touch of vanilla and threw in a couple of handfuls of fresh berries. The resulting scones were lovely.

Earlier this week, my husband picked several cups of ugniberries and combined them with a quince, a few tiny apples and a bit of sugar, cooking them into a thick rose-coloured sauce with a flavour/texture combination that made me think of figs crossed with cranberries. 

I used his ugniberry sauce in a filled bar cookie laced with lemon peel. The result was so delicious that by the time I thought to take a photo of them for this blog, they were nearly gone. 

I can see why people might not like ugniberry—with tough skin and lots of tiny seeds, the texture could be off-putting—but I’ve grown more and more fond of the little fruits, and I look forward to coming up with more delicious baked goods that feature them.

Autumnal Buzz

As an entomologist, I love early autumn. Insect numbers are at their peak, and most insects are adults—their most active and visible life stage.

As a kid growing up in rural Pennsylvania, early autumn nights were nearly deafening with the cacophony of cricket and katydid chirps. Days buzzed with the sounds of cicadas and grasshoppers.

New Zealand is quieter, but autumn still has its distinct voices. Our katydids’ sharp ‘zit zit’ seems to echo from their favourite ake ake trees. Crickets twitter in the grass on sunny days. Cicadas and grasshoppers buzz from trees and bushes.

Bees and butterflies are particularly active on autumnal blooms. Many of our showy butterflies overwinter as adults, so they can be seen flitting about on warm days into late autumn.

Of course the clouds of invasive cabbage white butterflies on the brassicas and the German wasps swarming the compost pile aren’t terribly welcome. But still, I enjoy the leggy hum and flutter of the season.

Autumnal Assessment

It’s been just two weeks since I blogged about a late summer garden, and now autumn has truly set in.

tick bean in freshly fertilised garden beds
Tick bean green manure planted next to furrows filled with cow manure.

I harvested much of the remaining sweet corn, and it is now in the freezer. The pumpkin vines are beginning to die off, as are the tomatoes, cucumbers and basil. We’ve been eating lovely melons, but their days are numbered.

It is cool and drizzly today—feels like autumn.

Taking stock of how things have grown this year, it’s clear that the cow manure I incorporated into the garden over winter did amazing things. Overall, this year’s crops produced much better than last year’s. Corn in beds that got manure is twice the height of corn in beds that got none. I’ve come quite a ways from the practically nutrient-free clay I started with two years ago. 

There’s still a long way to go, though. All the plants are showing nutrient deficiency at this point of the year, and none have grown as well as they did in my old garden.

So I’ve started fertilising early this autumn. As crops have finished, I’ve been clearing garden beds and incorporating manure. With luck, I’ll be able to incorporate poo into all the beds this winter (I ran out of time last year because my weekly manure supply is limited to the production of the neighbour’s two cows.)

I’ve also included a lot of manure in this year’s compost pile. By spring, I hope to have a good six cubic metres of nutrient-rich compost to add to the garden as well. It feels good to be reclaiming this stripped paddock, restoring the mauri (life force) of the soil. I can’t wait to see how things grow next year.