Autumnal Assessment

April is upon us, and it’s time to assess how the garden year went.

In a word, it was disappointing. 

It started off bad, with my seedlings in fungal-infected seed raising mix. That problem was made worse when I contracted Covid and couldn’t move those seedlings into better mix quickly, so they languished for a while. Many were planted out late or small.

And the problems continued once plants were in the garden. Flooding last winter sucked the nitrogen out of the soil in about half the garden, leaving my pumpkins, corn, peppers and eggplants all looking anaemic. To be fair, I harvested pumpkins—enough to enjoy fresh, but not my usual quantity that lasts us all year. We also ate sweet corn, but had none extra to freeze. The peppers and eggplants were so slow to grow this year that they’re only now ripening fruits—just in time to be killed off by winter temperatures.

The tomatoes and peas grew well this year, but were decimated by birds.

The cucumbers and melons were slammed by phytophthora during an early summer wet period—most died, and those that survived grew slowly. The only cucumbers that grew well turned out inedibly bitter, and I tore the plants out of the ground.

On the positive side, the potatoes were great—died off a little earlier than I expected, but produced plenty of tubers, with little trouble in the way of pests and disease. 

The perennial fruits did well overall, too, and the freezer is stuffed with berries for the winter. Even the 3-year-old fruit trees gave us crops this year (small ones, but the trees are still tiny themselves).

So, as usual, there were wins and losses, and now I’m looking forward to how to increase the wins for next year. I spent the past several weekends digging a drainage ditch and soak pit to draw flood water off the garden this winter. Hopefully that will help retain the nutrients I’m hauling to the garden in the form of manure each week. My husband and I have also been discussing improving our bird defences before next spring—permanently netting an area of the garden for the most bird-ravaged crops. I’ve also identified some new varieties of bean that are doing better in the new garden than my standards from the old garden, and I’ll adjust next year’s planting to allow more space for the more vigorous varieties. 

That’s the best part of gardening, really. You always get another chance to do it better. So I head into autumn a little disappointed in last year’s garden, but with high hopes for what next year will bring.

Cheese and Quince Tart

Our quince tree gave its first harvest ever this year, which is exciting. I picked them today, and my husband went looking for some new (to us) recipes that use quince.

He came across Tarta de Queso y Membrillo con Almíbar de Cardamomo—Cheese and Quince Tart with Cardamom Syrup. How could I resist? 

It’s been a while since I followed a recipe in Spanish, so there was an added level of adventure for me making this recipe. I don’t think I ever bought or used azúcar flor (icing sugar) when we lived in Panama, so I had to look that one up.

Even in your native language, this is not a tart you whip out quickly—nothing using quince is, and this has lots of different things to prepare—but it is delicious! It’s essentially cheesecake with caramelised quince in a pie crust. What’s not to like?

I modified the recipe slightly—here’s my version, in English.

Cheese layer:
1 package cream cheese
1/2 cup unsweetened yogurt
2 Tbs honey
1 egg
1 Tbs fresh lemon juice

Quince layer:
3 large or 6 small quince
1/4 cup brown sugar
25 g butter
1 Tbs cinnamon

Enough pie dough for 1 crust (see my pie dough recipe here)

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Cardamom syrup:
3/4 cup icing sugar
3 Tbs fresh lemon juice
3 cardamom pods

Make your pie crust and refrigerate until needed.

Mix the ingredients for the cheese layer with a handheld mixer until well combined. Set aside.

Peel, core, and thinly slice the quince (you should have 7-8 cups of fruit). Place the quince, butter and brown sugar in a large skillet and cook on low heat for about 10 minutes, until the quince has softened. Stir in the cinnamon.

Roll out the pie dough and line a pie or tart pan with it. Pour the cheese mixture evenly over the bottom of the crust. Layer the caramelised quince on top, and sprinkle with chopped walnuts.

Bake at 190℃ for 40-45 minutes.

While the pie is baking, make the sugar syrup. Place the icing sugar, lemon juice and cardamom pods in a small saucepan and boil gently for 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. Drizzle over the pie when serving.

The recipe I used said to serve the tart warm, which is how we ate it this evening. But I’m looking forward to a second piece tomorrow, because I think it’ll be even better cold. 

Next time I make this (because there will no doubt be a next time), I’ll crush the cardamom pods so that the syrup is more strongly flavoured. I also think it would be even more spectacular with a cup of ugni berries (Chilean guava) tossed into the quince mixture.

If you don’t have quince, this tart would be lovely made with apple or pear, too.

Release Day!

Demonic Summoning for the Modern Woman is here! Woo hoo!

Alex Blackburn is not a witch.

So how the hell did she summon a demon?

More importantly, how is she going to get rid of it?

When Alex Blackburn returns to small-town Rifton to settle her grandmother’s estate, she doesn’t expect to uncover Gran’s secret affair or to accidentally summon a giant centipede from the netherworld.

With a pet-eating demon on the loose, Gran’s things to dispose of, and only two weeks off work, she doesn’t have time to waste. Getting rid of the creature is her first priority. 

Shelby Saunders, grandson of Gran’s lover, might just be the one to help her. If she can convince him the demon is real.

Can two people who don’t believe in magic conjure enough of it to send a demon home? In Rifton, you never know what might happen.

This cosy urban fantasy set in small-town New Zealand will have you checking under your seat for centipedes and cheering on Alex and Shelby as they bumble their way around magic and each other. The first in a brand new series of magical adventures set in Rifton.

Crazy Cake #2, 2023

My husband’s birthday cake request this year was simple—make something I’d never made before.

Little did I know how difficult that would be—let’s face it, I’ve made a lot of cakes. I pored over my cookbooks and googled ‘unusual cakes’. So many of the cakes I came across were simply variations on a theme. An ordinary butter cake, but with unusual ingredients—rose water and pistachios, beetroot and sour cream, tomato soup. 

I considered some of those cakes—they would certainly be different from my usual cakes. But to really comply with his request, I felt I had to do something outside my comfort zone.

So I went for a chocolate mousse cake—there is no flour in this cake, nor are there ground nuts to replace the flour. 

No.

This cake is a chocolate souffle with chocolate mousse on top, garnished with cocoa nibs and ganache. Eggs, chocolate, and sugar constitute the bulk of the cake (and honestly, there’s not much sugar—it’s mostly eggs and chocolate).

It’s not the prettiest cake I’ve made, by a long shot, and I would definitely do it differently next time to avoid some of the unnecessary faffing around in the recipe. 

It is rich. If you like chocolate—I mean really like chocolate—it’s definitely a cake for you. I’m not certain it’s my kind of cake, though. It’s more fluffy candy bar than cake, and while I like chocolate cake, this is a bit much for me. I like a bit of flour, some nuts—something to cut the chocolate a bit, something to give a cake a little more substance.

That said, I am happily doing my part to get rid of this cake, and I’m glad I gave it a go. Next year, though, if he makes the same request, I’m going for the zillion-layer apple spice cake in which each layer is about 5 mm thick and the filling is essentially apple butter. 

Harvest Days

My hands smell like onions. My fingernails are stained purple. The walls and cabinetry in the kitchen are festooned with colourful splatters and drips. The floor is sticky underfoot.

It must be harvest time.

The garden gushes vegetables in late summer, and the shorter days warn that it’s time to start preserving the bounty before it’s gone.

One of my favourite ways to save summer’s vegetables is in summer soup (which I’ve blogged about nearly every year since 2015). Because soup uses a bit of everything, there’s no need to have vast quantities of any one vegetable. And it doesn’t matter if, say, the sweet peppers bombed or there’s an overabundance of sweet corn. Soup accepts what you’ve got and returns lovely meals all packaged and ready to go on those winter evenings when you come home late from work. It is both forgiving and giving.

So it’s worth a long day in the kitchen to make and bottle (can) a big vat of the stuff.

And while you’re at it, it’s super easy to toss carrot peels, corn cobs, celery tops, and other ‘waste’ from soup making into a large pot to simmer for stock. Run the stock through the canner after the soup, and you’ve got delicious summer flavouring for winter risottos and stews.

So I may have spent fourteen hours in the kitchen on Saturday, but at the end of the day, I had fourteen quarts of soup and six quarts of stock (and another four quarts of pickled onions, because you know, if you’re going to spend all day in the kitchen, you may as well make the most of it.

In the coming weeks, I’ll bring in the pumpkins and potatoes, freeze sweet corn, and string hot peppers for drying. The kitchen will be messy, and I’ll have too much to get done.

But when it’s all over, I’ll be able to relax, at least for a while, until the winter crops need to be weeded …

Enjoying the Shoulder Season

sunflowers
Summer sunflowers are still in full swing.

The end of February marks the end of official summer in New Zealand. The shift to autumn is full of ups and downs. The first half of this week was as hot as it gets here, with temperatures in the low 30s (around 90℉). On Tuesday, it was hot enough that my husband and I headed to the beach for a swim after work, and I didn’t even need my wetsuit—the water and the air were both warm. 

But on Wednesday, a front came through, bringing rain and a decidedly autumnal chill. By Thursday, the porcini were sprouting—a sure sign of autumn.

Of course, also on Thursday we harvested plenty of summer vegetables from the garden—zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers. The transitions between seasons are drawn out, messy affairs. The weather forecast for next week includes more summery weather intermixed with the rain and chill of autumn.

Autumn mushrooms are coming on.

So for now, we get to enjoy the delights of both seasons, harvesting summer’s bounty amidst the treats autumn brings. This weekend, I’ll plant out my winter crops, giving them time to establish during the shoulder season, before summer’s warmth leaves entirely. I’ll also harvest the soy beans and bottle up some summer soup before the vegetables are gone. Summer’s not over yet, but it’s time to start packing up. 

Demonic Summoning for the Modern Woman

I’m thrilled to announce that the e-book edition of Demonic Summoning for the Modern Woman is now available for preorder, and will be released on 20 March along with the print edition!

Alex Blackburn is not a witch.

So how the hell did she summon a demon?

More importantly, how is she going to get rid of it?

When Alex Blackburn returns to small-town Rifton to settle her grandmother’s estate, she doesn’t expect to uncover Gran’s secret affair or to accidentally summon a giant centipede from the netherworld.

With a pet-eating demon on the loose, Gran’s things to dispose of, and only two weeks off work, she doesn’t have time to waste. Getting rid of the creature is her first priority. 

Shelby Saunders, grandson of Gran’s lover, might just be the one to help her. If she can convince him the demon is real.

Can two people who don’t believe in magic conjure enough of it to send a demon home? In Rifton, you never know what might happen.

This cosy urban fantasy set in small-town New Zealand will have you checking under your seat for centipedes and cheering on Alex and Shelby as they bumble their way around magic and each other. The first in a brand new series of magical adventures set in Rifton.

A Great Start to 2023!

January was a good writing month. I was blessed with three weeks of full-time writing—no kids, no day job, and even the garden was relatively low-maintenance.

Fatemaker, the third and final book of my Fatecarver series, had been hanging over my head for months. I’d meant to write it during the winter school holidays, but a different book jumped out and wrote itself down instead (more about that in a moment). In the lead-up to Christmas, I finally wrote out a detailed outline of Fatemaker, so when I hit January, the writing flowed at a rate of over 4000 words per day for weeks. On 25 January, I typed The End on the series, which felt amazing.

But I didn’t just write a novel in January. While banging out Fatemaker, I was also preparing for the publication of Demonic Summoning for the Modern Woman—a cosy urban fantasy I wrote when I meant to be writing Fatemaker during the winter. I sent a brief to the cover designer and the manuscript to the editor early in the month. Working with the cover designer was a nice distraction and break throughout the month, ending with a fun and bold cover I love. Then, on the last day of the month, I got the manuscript back from the editor, so Demonic Summoning for the Modern Woman is well on its way to a March publication date.

But that isn’t all. I wrote a new short story, almost finished a second short story, and fired off a bunch of magazine submissions, one of which resulted in an acceptance that squeaked into January on the 31st.

January was supposed to be focused on marketing—I’ve got a fun promotion project in the works—but I simply didn’t have the time or headspace to do it. I did, however, manage to make some progress, and at least get the ball rolling.

Weekly blog posts and my monthly newsletter rounded out the workload of January’s 10 to 12-hour workdays.

In fact, I accomplished so much in January, I’ve ticked off the majority of my 2023 first quarter goals. It was a great way to start the year!

Crazy Cake Season 2023

Crazy Cake seasons have become far less crazy, now that the kids are out of the house. Last year, my daughter didn’t ask for anything specific, but this year she slyly said, “I’ll be happy with any cake … but a peripatus would be cool.”

Behold, the velvet worm cake!

Naturally, I made a red velvet cake for the body. The legs are walnut shortbread cookies, usually shaped into crescents, but in this case shaped into peripatus legs. The antennae are cinnamon sticks. I covered the whole thing with light blue cream cheese frosting, and then piped dots of coloured white chocolate on top. The moss is coloured coconut.

It’s not the most biologically accurate peripatus–I couldn’t fit all 30 legs on (I couldn’t even fit in all the legs into the inner loops of its body)–but the extra legs I made gave me something to snack on as I decorated the cake.