Grow your own Cake: vegetables

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I’ve never really known what to call my husband on here or in the big bad world of social media. So many other writers have already picked good names for their loved ones that both protects their identity and projects a good image of them and their relationship. Laetitia Maklouf calls her husband the Hunk, others use names like ‘Best Beloved’. I don’t want to go down the ‘Him Indoors’ route – our marriage is alive and kicking thank you very much – nor do I want to be reaching for the vomit bag. Suggestions on a postcard please!

Anyway, my husband doesn’t like carrot cake. This is both a pity (I do), and a Good Thing, (capital G, T) for my waistline. However, it’s nothing to do with the carrots – it’s the additional dried fruit and nuts that are used that he’s not a fan of. So, this year my veg plot will be taking a new direction, and devoted to all things cake. By the autumn I hope to have developed a recipe or two for veg-based cakes not including dried fruit and nuts, and to have eaten a lot of other veggie cakes in the meantime! I imagine I’ll be using lots of recipe books, but to start off, you can’t go wrong with Lily Vanilli’s Sweet Tooth, which has a good number of fruit and veg cakes, not always in the combinations you’d expect. (The picture above is of her recipe for pear and parsnip cake).

Subsequent posts will look at fruit for fillings, jams, jellies and drizzles; herbs and flowers for flavourings; and edible flowers for decorations, but let’s start off with the veg.

Root vegetables are the classic ingredients for cakes, and were used widely during the Second World War to add bulk, moisture (in place of eggs) and sweetness to cakes baked in the face of rationing. I will therefore be growing carrots, good long thick ones (steady on) such as ‘Kingston’ and ‘Resistafly’ that will be easy to grate.

Beetroot, so good in chocolate cakes, will be sown successionally from spring to late summer to ensure a regular supply. It’s hard to beat ‘Boltardy’ for this kind of sowing schedule, but it will be fun to experiment with some different coloured varieties to see how they affect the cake and to find the sweetest roots.

Then there will be parsnips and squash for the autumn and winter, and courgettes for the summer. Savoury muffins often include spinach, so I’ll grow some of that too. There’s a rhubarb crown in what used to be the neighbour’s garden, so I can pinch some from there! My north-facing, heavily shaded, plot is unlikely to give good crops of sweet potatoes and sweetcorn, but if you have the space and sun these would be good baking crops too.

There is never any point to growing things you are not going to eat. If you’re a baker, why not grow veg specifically to bake with? Growing vegetables for cake gives the veg plot a new purpose – and if you’re trying to encourage children to eat vegetables, getting them to help grow the plants, then serving them up as cake, is probably the easiest way there is! Even if you’re an urban baker with no garden, try growing a few crops in pots – beetroot is ideal, and you can get smaller carrot varieties such as the ‘Chantenay’ types that will fit into a pot or windowbox.

Bring the Spring! What you can do now.

It was this time last year I was writing about waterlogged soil, and here we are again. Unprecedented rainfall and high winds wreaking havoc across the nation are hardly likely to encourage us to get out in the garden, but let’s look for a silver lining.

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First, despite everything, spring bulbs are pushing up and flowering. In fact, although the winter’s been wet (something of an understatement), it’s been pretty mild. This week’s snows are the first real cold snap most of the country has seen, with the result that bulbs are getting underway slightly earlier than they usually would.

 

Second, with a bit of protection from a greenhouse, cold frame, cloche or inside on a sunny windowsill, there are things you can be growing now. Seeing the first blob of green breaking the surface of the compost in a seed tray – now that brings the hope of spring like nothing else. It’s easy to get carried away and want to sow everything – but it’s best to rein in that enthusiasm for a few more weeks. If you sowed all your seeds now they won’t get the light levels they need, and will grow thin and leggy (in the world of seedlings, unlike fashion, short and stocky is best) – a process called etiolation. Plus it’ll still be too cold, especially with the soil being so wet, to plant them out the requisite number of weeks after sowing.

So, don’t sow. But you can still get the seed packets out for things that you can grow all year round, like micro-leaf salad. Any salad leaf or greens seeds will do – lettuce, rocket, cut-and-come-again mixes, chard, spinach.

Fill a tray with compost, and give it a few taps on your worktop to shake out any big air pockets underneath the surface. You don’t need any specialist equipment here (not that seed trays are expensive in places like Wilkinsons) – save plastic veg trays from the shops. Water the compost so it’s moist all the way through, then sprinkle your seeds, quite densely, on top. Cover with a thin layer of compost then put it on a sunny windowsill. Keep the soil moist – a spray bottle is ideal – and you should have sprouting leaves in no time. Harvest them by snipping off with scissors at whatever size you like.

DSCF2869If you don’t have space for even a seed tray, what about sprouting seeds? All they require is a jar and a daily rinse of water. Specialist sprouting seed mixes are available, or mix your own – lentils, chickpeas, aduki, mung and alfafa beans are  all a good base, radish and cress add a peppery hit.

Finally, you can make sure you’re organised and ready to strike as soon as spring arrives good and proper. Plan what you’re going to grow this year, mark up a diary with when you need to sow it, make sure you’ve got enough seed, sort your seed packets into sowing order. All jobs best done inside with a cup of tea! Another post on how to plan your plot coming soon – in the meantime (shameless plug alert), try my book!

Clementine marmalade, and what to do with it

Some mornings jam just won’t do, and marmalade is the only answer. Generally I’m a porridge-for-breakfast kind of person, and try to resist a spoonful of jam on that in the name of healthy eating (I’m sure home-made jam is better for you – but having seen how much sugar I put in it, I’m reluctant to eat too much of it!). But when it’s toast, it has to be marmalade.

Apparently, the name marmalade originates from the Portuguese for quince, ‘marmelo’, and while I have never used quince in my marmalade, I have used a lot of other fruits and surprisingly few oranges. Of course there’s the classic Seville orange marmalade, but I find my cravings for hot toast with lashings of butter and marmalade sets in with the cold weather in autumn, and I just can’t wait for the Seville season to start in January. And no, I never seem to make enough to last a year.

So, in the past I have made a Windfall Marmalade. From the Good Housekeeping Guide to Home Preserving, it uses windfall apples with grapefruit for the citrus kick. This is excellent. So good in fact most people are surprised when I tell them it isn’t made from oranges. But this year I capitalised on the buy-one-get-one-free offers on clementines to make marmalade from them instead.

I took the recipe from Pam the Jam’s River Cottage Handbook: Preserving. For 6 half-pound jars, you need a kilo of fruit and two of sugar, plus 75ml lemon juice. Demerara sugar is specified, but I felt too much of that might overwhelm the more delicate flavour of the clementines, so opted for a kilo each of demerara and plain old granulated.

Following the sliced fruit method, the fruit is juiced and the peel then sliced (as thickly or thinly as you like). Soak the peel in the juice and 2.5 litres of water overnight/for up to 24 hours. Then simmer in a large pan for a couple of hours, until the peel is tender and the liquid has reduced by a third. Add the sugar and lemon juice, and stir to dissolve. Bring to the boil and boil rapidly until it reaches setting point. Pot up in warm, sterilised jars and slather on hot buttered toast!

It’s a lighter, less bitter, marmalade than the usual orange, and has a lovely fragrance. Other than on toast, in porridge and perhaps in a cake or two, I use marmalade to make biscuits I call Paddingtons. Inspired by something I had from a biscuit shop in Rome, they are two rectangular basic butter biscuits, sandwiched together with marmalade (hence the name), and half-dipped in chocolate. A delicious alternative to a chocolate orange at Christmas!