Do I have to eat it?

Nance is a small yellow fruit popular in Panama. When my husband and I first arrived there, chicha de nance (a drink made from crushed nance fruit) was something we could barely choke down out of politeness to our hosts. The flesh of nance fruits is oily, gritty, acidic, and has a funky cheesy flavour. If you think too much about it, chicha de nance is reminiscent of watery vomit.

So you’ll understand why we didn’t like it.

But during nance season (and for several months afterwards, because people store it in bottles of water—yeah, don’t even think about what grows in those bottles) it’s impossible to avoid nance. Everyone you visit serves chicha de nance. Neighbours give you bottles filled with nance fruit.

You learn to drink it without grimacing. Before long you’re drinking it without even thinking about vomit. It’s a slippery slope from there, and next thing you know, you’re looking forward to nance season and wondering if you can trade some eggs for a bottle of nance from your neighbour.

I’m thinking about nance today as I contemplate the feijoas dripping from our tiny feijoa bushes. This is the plants’ first year producing fruit and I am amazed and a little terrified at their productivity.

I’m terrified because I hate feijoas. I don’t even like the smell. Simply walking past the fruit bowl when there are a few ripe feijoas in there makes me wrinkle my nose in disgust. I find it hard to breathe around them. Eating one makes me shudder—I swallow quickly to avoid tasting it too much.

Fortunately for me this year, my husband has been keeping up with the feijoas—he loves them. But those feijoa bushes are only going to get bigger. Next year I will have no excuses—I’ll have to eat them. 

So I’m thinking about nance. If I could learn to love a fruit that tastes and feels like vomit, surely I can learn to love feijoas, right?

They say a child needs to try a food up to 15 times before they’ll eat it. That’s a lot of feijoas …

Lazy Lemon Cake

Sometimes you want cake, but don’t want to work for it.

A head cold this past week has left me craving cake, but without the energy to do much baking. Consoling myself with cookbooks from the library, I came across a recipe for Greek Lemon-Yoghurt Loaf Cake that was so easy, I couldn’t resist. Nothing else really caught my eye in the Great British Bake Off cookbook this came from, but I think this one is a keeper.

Here’s the recipe, in case you’re feeling lazy …

150 g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
50 g ground almonds
200 g caster sugar
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
3 medium eggs (I used 2 large)
125 ml Greek-style yoghurt
125 ml mild light olive oil (I used a mix of canola and extra-virgin olive oil, because I didn’t have light olive oil)

for the glaze:
125 g icing sugar, sifted
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 – 1 1/2 tbsp Greek-style yoghurt

Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and almonds into a mixing bowl (tip in any almonds remaining in the sieve). Stir in the sugar and lemon zest.

Combine the eggs, yoghurt and oil in a measuring jug and beat well with a fork. Pour into the flour mixture and stir until well combined.

Pour into a greased loaf pan lined with a strip of baking paper. Bake at 180℃ for 55-65 minutes until golden brown. When the cake is ready, cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then run a knife around the edges of the pan and lift the cake out by the lining paper and allow to cool on a rack.

Make the glaze by sifting the icing sugar into a bowl. Mix in the lemon zest and then add just enough yoghurt to make a smooth, shiny glaze with the consistency of double cream. While the cake is still hot, spoon the glaze over the top.

I have lots of ideas for variations on this cake—using a blackcurrant glaze, replacing half the flour with barley flour, stirring in frozen blackcurrants … it’s a recipe that invites you to make it again and again. 

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.

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. 


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

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. 

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.

Zucchini and Tomato Tart

We’re in the bountiful days of summer right now. And while I’d like to be sitting in a chaise lounge enjoying that bounty all day, someone’s got to pick it and process it. At the moment, the processing mostly involves making pickles and chutneys, but there’s a lot more to come. Then there’s the necessary watering, weeding, tying up of tomatoes, planting of winter crops (because as John Snow says, winter’s coming)…

zucchini tomato tart

But at the end of each day, we do get to enjoy the fruits of the season. Last night I made one of my favourite mid-summer meals—zucchini and tomato tart.

The beauty of this tart belies its simplicity—just tomato and zucchini, embellished with a little parmesan cheese, garlic and basil. 

Back when I had dairy goats, I’d spread a layer of chevre on the bottom, too, which was divine. It also had the bonus of preventing the crust from getting too soggy. These days, without an unlimited supply of goat cheese, I put up with a soggy crust—the tart is still amazing.

This tart relies on having the best tomato and zucchini possible—it’s not a dish to make with out-of-season vegetables—so if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, hang in there and enjoy this gem in July and August instead.

Download the recipe here.

The Grumbling Gardener

Like every serious gardener I know, I complain a lot.

The weather’s too hot and dry. It’s too cold and wet.

The winter was too cold. The winter was too mild.

The frost came too early, it came too late.

Aphids have killed this, a fungus has stunted that.

Poor germination, poor pollination, nitrogen deficiency, weed growth, pest birds … I can always find something about the garden that’s not right. Because there is so much that’s out of my control, it can’t possibly all go right.

And like all good gardeners, I hedge my bets.

Sixteen varieties of tomato, nine types of beans, six varieties of pumpkin, four different kinds of broccoli, and three different eggplants is betting on at least one or more of those varieties not surviving, not producing anything. Twelve zucchini plants, twenty-one peppers, and fifty-nine tomato plants is betting that some will die, fruits will be eaten by the birds, and many will underproduce for one reason or another.

So today, after grumbling about dry soil, nutrient-deprived plants and destructive blackbirds, I returned from the garden with more than we could eat, as I did yesterday and the day before, and the day before that. I’m awash in garden largess, in spite of the birds, the aphids, the weather.

I’ve largely ignored rising food costs and the current egg shortage crisis. I don’t worry about what we’ll eat the next time we contract Covid and have to isolate. I plan my main picking for weekdays, when excess can be given away at work. I bottle, dry and freeze as much as I can, squirreling away the extra for the winter (hedging my bets that the winter crops won’t germinate, will be eaten by birds, will be flooded out …).

It is the precarious wealth of the garden, and January is the time when my grumbling is often silenced by the next mouthful of delicious vegetables. I can occasionally walk through the garden in January and be overwhelmed by the abundance.

Of course, once I get over that, I’m back to my grumbling. I mean, just look at this photo—the yellowed corn, the stunted pumpkins, the prematurely senescing potatoes …