New Garden Challenges

We’re nearing the end of September and the garden work is ramping up. It’s exciting watching the new garden come together, even if it is moving more slowly than I’d hoped.

Everything is new this year, and it’s no surprise problems are cropping up. I’ve already lost most of my first tomato planting to frost, because I don’t have a heated indoor place to start my seeds anymore. I could have prevented the loss and brought the plants indoors for the night, but I haven’t had to worry about that for years … I’ve learnt now, so hopefully won’t get caught out again.

I’ve created my garden plan based on planting at the old house, but as I start to plant out peas, lettuce and spinach, I’m finding the need to adjust. How does one convert a set of six to seven metre long beds and a few odd-shaped ones to a rank of 3-metre and 8-metre ones? Add to that the fact the soil is dramatically different at the new place, and I don’t know how all the plants will respond to it and to the amendments I’ve added (cow poo, organic fertiliser, compost, green manure). Will my carrots be harvesting size before the zucchinis sprawl across their bed? Will the lettuces grow quickly enough to self-mulch? After fifteen years at the old place, I knew intuitively how each crop grew, how to get the most from the space I had by timing plantings and spacings, which varieties did best.

This year, I’m starting practically from scratch. I will plant as I am used to planting, because it’s a place to start, but I’ll be taking copious notes. Next year, I’ll have more information to go on, and the following year I’ll have more … and some day, planting at the new place will be as second-nature as it was at the old place.

Kitchen Disaster

A beautiful new kitchen is no proof against disasters.

Yesterday I baked a batch of chocolate cupcakes. I used a devils food cake recipe from Tartine. It’s an intensely decadent recipe that uses 1 1/4 cups of cocoa. The result is a dark, rich cake that could satisfy any chocolate craving.

The recipe makes two dozen cupcakes, and as I walked across the kitchen to put the trays into the oven, one of the trays slipped out of my hand. A dozen unbaked cupcakes flew through the air to splat on the floor and all down the kitchen table. 

I was so stunned, I didn’t even swear. Half my cupcakes had just been ruined, and there was cake batter splattered across the kitchen.

After a few moments I began to laugh. Then I took some photos before trying to salvage some of the batter and clean up the mess.

I managed to retrieve enough clean batter for six cupcakes, so all was not completely lost.

And I got a blog post out of it—always look for the silver lining …

And the cupcakes? Delicious!

Pumpkin Scones

Necessity is the mother of invention.

That may be so, but laziness is invention’s maternal grandmother.

I was lazy on Sunday morning. I wanted pumpkin muffins, but I didn’t want to have to grease and then wash the muffin tins.

So I made up a new scone recipe to satisfy my pumpkin cravings. The results were delicious and satisfying. Best of all, there was no greasing and washing of muffin tins. Here’s the recipe in case you’re feeling lazy too.

2 cups barley flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp each of cloves, nutmeg, ginger and salt
125 g (1/2 cup) butter
1 egg
1 cup cooked, mashed pumpkin
1/4 cup cream
1/2 cup brown sugar

Sift together the flours, baking soda, baking powder and spices in a large bowl. Cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, pumpkin, cream and brown sugar. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix until just moistened. Knead lightly and briefly until the dough comes together into a ball. Divide the dough in half. Pat each half into a round about 2 cm (3/4-inch) thick and cut into 8 wedges. Place the wedges on an ungreased baking sheet and bake 11-12 minutes at 200ºC (400ºF) on fan bake.

*I added nothing to these scones, but they’d be excellent with dried cranberries incorporated into the dough. I expect that replacing half a cup of the barley flour with cornmeal would be a nice variation too.

Weeding Magpies

Photo: Eric Weiss

We’re still getting to know the local wildlife at the new house. The marauding sparrows are pretty much the same—devouring young lettuce and chicken feed in large flocks. The black-backed gull’s evening flights to their nightly roos on the gravel banks of the Waimakariri River are also familiar—though at the old house, the birds were headed to the sea.

The magpies are also familiar, but I’ve noticed some intriguing behaviour here that was absent at the old house.

The magpies here are weeding my garden.

Well okay, not really. Not on purpose. But they’re doing a nice job of it, regardless.

Our yard and garden here are cursed with wire weed. This aggressive plant’s long tough branches sprawl up to a metre or more from a strong central tap root. They tangle in the lawnmower and garden tools, and can trip the unwary. Their only saving grace is that, at least in our lousy soil, their foliage is small and sparse—they may tangle all through my crops, but at least they don’t smother other plants entirely.

And apparently, they make superior magpie nesting material. For weeks, the local magpies have been avidly stripping wire weed from the garden and hauling it to the tops of the pine trees across the road. They started with the easily obtained dead plants that I’d pulled out and left lying about. But now they’re ripping up live plants and taking them away by the beakful.

All the more reason to love these feisty feathered thugs.

Cinnamon Muffins

I’m still revelling in our glorious new kitchen—it’s such a pleasure to cook and bake in! It inspires creativity.

This morning I tried out a new recipe for cinnamon muffins, and I think I hit on a winner. They’re quick to make and taste delicious!

1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup wholemeal flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 Tbs cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs

Topping: 2 tsp sugar and 1/2 tsp cinnamon

Combine the flours, sugar, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Whisk together the milk, oil and eggs in a separate bowl. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet, mixing only until combined. In a small bowl, combine the sugar and cinnamon for the topping.

Fill greased cupcake tins with the batter. Sprinkle sugar/cinnamon mix over each muffin.

Bake 15-17 minutes at 190ºC (375ºF). Allow to cool 5 minutes in the pans before turning them out.

Makes 16 muffins.

Enjoying the New Kitchen

Rain pounded on the roof and hissed against the windows. Wind whipped around the porch, tossing deck chairs everywhere. I lay warm in bed, only vaguely registering the weather, grateful once again to be in the new house and not in the shed.

We’re still settling into the house, but we’ve already given the kitchen a workout. Some days, when I step into that room, I wonder what we were thinking—it’s so huge! Then I cook something and appreciate every inch of space.

It’s been hard to get a photo of the foods we’ve baked–they’re eaten so quickly.

We’ve been craving all the baked goods we haven’t been able to make in the past three months. In the first twenty-four hours after moving in, we baked eight loaves of bread, three dozen cookies, and a batch of lemon scones. Over the next four days, we added pizza, Not yo’ mama’s mac and cheese, quiche, apricot tart, chocolate cupcakes, and homemade granola to that list. Moving into our second week in the house, we’ve made Mum’s fluffy buns, bean burgers, oven baked French fries, Irish soda bread, spaghetti with tofu meatballs, and roast vegetables.

Visiting some of our favourite foods after too many months without them has been a delight. It may be time to head to the library for some inspiration now—think what new things we could make in the fabulous new kitchen!

Chocolate Currant Upside Down Cake

Usually I bake a fancy cake for Queen’s Birthday, because any birthday is an excuse for cake. Heck, any day is an excuse for cake. But Her Majesty’s birthday is an excuse for FANCY cake.

This year, however, my cake baking abilities were limited. I made a chocolate blackcurrant upside down cake in the microwave, of course, since we’re still living in the shed. 

It was, perhaps, the ugliest cake I’ve ever made—rivalled only by the red currant upside down cake I made a couple of weeks ago. Something about the currants makes the cake slump in a truly unattractive fashion when flipped.

Good thing Her Majesty was busy this evening and couldn’t make it. We slathered the cake in generous helpings of whipped cream to hide its ugliness.

But there was no hiding the amazing flavour. I’m quite fond of blackcurrant and chocolate together, and the cake featured both flavours perfectly.

Below is the recipe. I’ve made this with frozen red currants as well, and it’s equally good.

Topping:
60 g (1/4 cup) butter
1/2 cup sugar
approx. 1 cup frozen (thawed) black currants

Cake:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup wholemeal flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla

Make the topping: Melt butter in a 23 cm (9-in) square microwave-safe baking pan. Sprinkle sugar over the butter and then spread the currants evenly over the butter-sugar mix. Set aside.

Cake: Combine flours, cocoa, salt, and baking powder in a large bowl. Whisk the sugar, eggs, oil, milk and vanilla in another bowl until well mixed. Pour wet ingredients into the dry and stir until just moistened. Pour batter over the topping in the baking pan and bake in the microwave on high for about 7 minutes (the top should still look quite sticky and wet). Turn the cake out onto a plate immediately and leave the pan over top for a few minutes to let all the sticky goodness drip onto the cake. Serve warm with whipped cream.

Microwave Sticky Citrus Cake

I’ve been playing around with microwave cakes since my last cake post, and in particular upside down cakes. The topping soaks into the cake, taking care of any dry bits if the cake is accidentally overcooked. And who can resist upside down cake anyway?

My most recent concoction was a citrus cake. I was aiming for something akin to sticky orange cake, but within the abilities of my pared-down shed life. It didn’t quite get there, but it was pretty darned good nonetheless. I see more of these cakes in our future. Here’s the recipe, if you want to give it a go.

Topping:
60 g (1/4 cup) butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 lemon
1 orange

Cake:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup barley flour
1/4 cup fine cornmeal (polenta)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 tsp vanilla
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 orange

Grate lemon and orange rind into a medium bowl and set aside. 

Topping: Peel the remainder of the white pith from the lemon and orange and slice them thinly. Melt butter in a 23 cm (9-in) microwave safe pan. Sprinkle brown sugar over the butter, then arrange citrus slices on top.

Cake: Mix flours, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Whisk brown sugar, eggs, vegetable oil, orange juice and vanilla together with the citrus zest. Combine the wet and dry ingredients and pour over the topping in the pan.

Bake 6 minutes on high in the microwave. Invert the pan immediately onto a plate and allow the pan to sit on top for a few minutes for all the gooey bits to drip onto the cake. 

Cake and Kindness

Not the best or most attractive cake, but satisfying in trying times.

As we settle into shed life, we’re learning how to have our luxuries in spite of our circumstances.

One of the hitherto unexplored sources of comfort we’ve been learning about is microwave cakes.

The first, made by my husband, was good, but terribly dry. Some brandied cherries on top (with extra brandy drizzled over) fixed the dryness problem, and I was encouraged to try again.

An opportunity arose through the kindness of strangers. A few days ago, we passed a box of free quinces along the sidewalk. I picked up a few to bring home.

Sliced and pre-cooked, they contributed to a very nice microwave upside down cake. The gooey quince topping kept the cake moist, and all of us went back for seconds (Decadent? Yeah, but we’re living in a shed. Give us a break).

The recipe I used was largely my own, based loosely on a couple of online recipes and the fact my electric mixer is packed away in a box somewhere, so all the mixing had to be done by hand.

Topping:
60 g (1/4 c) butter
1/2 c brown sugar
1-2 large quince, peeled, cored, sliced and cooked in a small amount of water until soft, but not falling apart

Cake:
1/2 c sugar
125 g (1/2 c) butter
1 egg
1/2 c milk
1 c all-purpose flour
1/2 c wholemeal flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

To make the topping: Place 60 g butter in a microwave-safe 23 cm (9-in) square pan and melt the butter in the microwave. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the butter and lay quince slices on top.

To make the cake batter: Mix flours, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, melt the 125 g of butter and whisk well with the sugar, egg and milk. Add the dry ingredients and mix well. Pour the batter over the topping and spread evenly.

Bake in the microwave on high for 6 to 8 minutes, until the cake is firm but still sticky and wet-looking on top. Immediately run a knife around the edges of the cake to loosen it and invert it onto a plate. Let the pan sit on top for a few minutes so all the yummy topping can drip onto the cake. Serve warm.

Pandemic Poetry: Poem of the Day, 18 April 2020

I put today’s poem up in pouring rain, and the fence was a little too visible against the wet building wrap, so here’s today’s poem typed out, in case you can’t read it on the photo:

I have thrown my watch away.
The magpie tells me when morning’s arrived.
My stomach announces lunch.
It’s time for tea when the water is hot.
And anytime’s good for brunch.
Dinner we make as the sun’s light fades.
And wine is for after dark.
Bedtime is sometime when boredom takes hold
And exhaustion puts out our spark.