Apples and Cornkisters

Sunday 30 September 2012
The annual Apples & Cornkisters event at National Trust for Scotland's Pitmedden Gardens is something I have always wanted to go to but unfortunately it has always clashed with prior commitments.  But this year we got lucky.  I had been advised by a friend to get there early for the best choice and I'm glad we did as the sales tent was already heaving.  
Unfortunately we learned that this year has not been a good one for apples and pears with the harvest down by 80% due to a combination of poor summer, late frosts and lack of insects for pollination.  In 1845 the local minister recorded that the apples and pears from Pitmedden were 'superior to any in Scotland'.  Grown against granite walls, some over a century old, tons of fruit are hand picked each year.
I was still impressed with the sheer variety on offer.  Trade was brisk with may buyers having very specific requirements of varieties. We untilised our full quota of three bags and went for 1kg each of:
Pears - Conference.  Juicy but firm flesh. 
Desert Apples - Cornish Aromatic. Firm flesh, dry, good flavour with a hint of pineapple.
Cooking Apples - Arthur Turner.  Ideal for baked apples, needs little sugar.
In addition to the fruit there was also a selection of baked apple goods for sale. Crumbles, cobblers, pies, cakes, loaves and muffins.  A wide range of apples jellies too.  I opted for a jar of the Apple and Juniper reflecting my fondness for G&T.  I'll be making some of my own Spiced Apple Jelly in due course.
The marquee also contained a small selection of local producers and craftspeople.  I purchased some Banana Chutney from Isabellas Preserves in order to make one of the Taste of Angus recipes I picked up at The Forfar Meerkat.  Looking forward to trying out Hot Banana Chicken at some point this week.
Rapeseed Oil infused with Chilli and Chilli Jam were purchased by husband and boy from Ola Oils.  Clearly a hint that I need to get a move on and make a batch of my own chilli jam.
We are National Trust Members so also got access to the full gardens and museum of farming life under our family membership. Was really interested to see come of the conservation volunteers in the farmhouse cooking oatcakes over an open fire.  This is something that I have long wanted to try and was on the entry schedule for the Industrial Tent at Glenbervie Flower Show.
The ladies readily confessed that they were in no way bakers but were there in a purely voluntary capacity and their initial crumbly attempts were somewhat comedic.  However various visitors gave them advice throughout the day and by the time I was leaving they had mastered the technique.  I really must give it a go myself but need to source a suitable griddle.
No mention yet of the Cornkisters.  For the non doric speakers an explanation may be necessary   Unmarried male farm workers were accommodated in a simple room known as a chaumer or bothy.  A bed was provided and a kist (chest) contained all their possessions.  Before TV and radio provided entertainment it was self made in form of bothy songs or ballads.  Cornkisters are such songs that were sung whilst sitting on the Corn Kist.  Alas because we made the decision to come early for the apples we missed the Cornkisters that were the afternoon entertainment.  We did however take part in "The Great Apple Day Quiz" and learnt lots of fascinating facts.
So what to make with my harvest produce?  Earlier in the week I had picked up the October copy of the Asda Magazine and spied a recipe for Apple, Pear and Cinnamon Crumble with Hazelnut Praline topping.  Fate or what.
Almost ready for the oven
Hazelnut Praline
The end result was lovely but very, very sweet. Next time I'd cut down the quantity of sugar in the crumble and only make half the quantity of praline. I'd probably also add a splash of water to the fruit to encourage more juicyness.

I wonder where all the other fruit bought today at Pitmedden is now? It would be so interesting to know its variety of culinary outcomes.  Perhaps there's even some cider making in progress.  Now that's a thought for next year.

Blooming Great Tea Party

Thursday 27 September 2012
One of the many hats I juggle is that of a volunteer with Marie Curie Cancer Care.  I'm to be found in the North East Scotland fundraising office and also helping out and about with various events. One of Marie Curie's major annual campaigns is the Blooming Great Tea Party. Pop the kettle on, do some baking and raise money for a fantastic cause.  How could I refuse? Today I received a thank you letter and certificate from them for my own party prompting bloggage.  
£182.37 raised providing 9 additional hours of nursing care
The official tea party season is the whole of June and July which this year encompassed the Diamond Jubilee so I jumped on the bandwagon with a themed tea party on Jubilee day itself. This meant that lots of people had the day off work/school and could attend.  Over 50 did.  Thankfully many of them also offered to bring along homebakes so we had a fantastic royal spread.
I can only stake claim to baking a small fraction of the feast.  My kids made Marshmallow Top Hats with blue and white limited edition Jubilee M&M's, boy saw the Jubilee Jellies on Blue Peter and was determined to make them.  Both helped with Oreo Pops (double stuffed Oreos on lolly sticks dipped in white chocolate with red, white and blue sprinkles)  
Jubilee Jellies and Oreo Pops
My Norwegian friend A produced one of her amazing Apple Cakes (Eple Kake) and some fantastic Sjokolade Boller (chocolate buns).  Star Baker award had to go to L for her fantastic Union Jack cake and a special highly commended mention for K's cucumber sandwiches.
We didn't just drink tea...
My own contributions were muffins, scones, shortbread and pancakes. The pancake, shortbread and scone recipes are those of my maternal Grandmother who baked them daily when she ran a Bed and Breakfast - something that she did well into her 80's. They don't make them like Grandma Monearn any more.  I'll just share her shortbread recipe for now - its super easy to make.

12 oz plain flour
8 oz butter (room temp)
4 oz caster sugar
2 oz cornflour

Put everything in a food processor and blitz until it comes together.  Roll out on a floured surface and cut into shapes. Transfer on to a baking tray and prick with a fork.  Cook for 30 minutes at 150 degrees.  Cool on a wire rack and sprinkle with caster sugar.
Every tea party really does count and the Aberdeen Marie Curie team held one in our our office complex where we asked our neighbours to bring along empty tummies and full purses. A Vintage Tea Party donated crockery hire and Starbucks Union Square donated coffee.   
Thousands of Tea Parties were held up and down the country and so far the 2012 campaign has raised over £550,000 which will provide free high quality care and support to people with cancer and other terminal illnesses in their own homes.  Its not to early to register to hold your own Blooming Great Tea Party in 2013.  Who knew tea and cake could make such a big difference.

Center Parc Life

Tuesday 25 September 2012
Seems like the kids have only just gone back to school after the Summer Holidays but already we have a long weekend.  The perfect opportunity to take a trip with friends to Center Parcs at Whinfell Forest.  We've been on four previous occasions so are seasoned parc life pros.  It's a four and a half hour trip from our neck of the woods so entailed a stop at motorway services.  Least said about the food offerings there the better.  

On our very first trip we booked the kids in for Pizza making at the Bella Italia restaurant on site however being thrifty Aberdonions we now opt for the DIY version in our lodge.
Although the kitchen was pretty well equipped there's no rolling pin so the traditional tried and tested wine bottle method was adopted.  At home I'd make the dough in the bread maker but we just used a packet mix. Toppings assembled and it was time for the kids (and adults) to get creative.
Some were more adventurous than others with their flavour combinations but as everyone made their own there could be no complaints.  I brought my trusty Pampered Chef stoneware from home but someone forgot to pack the pizza wheel.  Into the oven and time to uncork the rolling pin for a quick aperitif before our masterpieces were ready. 
Stuffed to the gunnels but still room for desert when my friend C produced a bag of the hugest marshmallows I have ever seen. Rocky Mountain Mega Marshmallows. The kids eyes popped out of their heads and the fire was lit as we prepared to toast them.
Alas it was a case of eyes bigger than belly syndrome as even the kids struggled to eat a whole one.  Fantastic idea but somewhat sickly.  You can have too much of a good thing.
A further foodie revelation contained in C's pre trip supermarket shop was a range of Jus-Rol ready to bake goodies. Over the weekend we had Croissants, Pain au Chocolat and a White Rustic Loaf. These were all super easy to make and produced "home baked" items with minimal effort and maximum yummy smells wafting round the kitchen.
The packaging is really clever. The fresh dough is contained under pressure in a kind of cardboard tube with metal ends.  You twist it and it pops out.  The croissants and pain au chocolat are perforated and you just shape and bake.  There are a couple of chocolate sticks to roll into your pain au chocolat and the loaf has semolina to sprinkle over the top.
They got the thumbs up from our taste test although our bake wasn't the most even due to a bit of a temperamental oven in the lodge.  The pastries were a bit well fired on the bottom but pale on the top whilst the bread was still a bit doughy in places.  Not sure Mr Hollywood would approve in any way, shape or form.
There are a large range of options on site for those who don't choose to self cater in their lodge.  We sampled Dining In takeaway, Hucks and The Pancake House.  Dining In is an interesting concept as its a takeaway which encompasses Indian, Chinese and Pizza.  Clearly trying to please the whole family but not quite succeeding.  We ordered food for the eight of us from across the menu and whilst most was reasonable the chicken and prawn kormas were bland, tasteless and reminiscent of baby food. Trying to be all things to all people doesn't always work.  Complaints were made and we received a discount voucher to use on site.

We had a much better experience at Huck's Bar and Grill. This is an American grill style restaurant new since our last visit so we were keen to try it.  The four small humans went for the kids buffet option and children's cocktails. The gents opted for Fajitas and Philly Cheese Steak whilst the ladies chose a selection from the snacks and appetizers menu.  The presentation was quirky with the fajitas on a cake stand style three tier platter, onion rings piled up high on a spike, prawns and chicken wings in small tin buckets and calamaris in a cone.  Really great dips and sauces to accompany too.  Alas no photographic evidence.

Lunch on our final day was in another new eatery since our last visit. The Pancake House. As big fans of Pannenkoek when on holiday in the Netherlands we were keen to see how this compared and it did not disappoint.  We were down to a party of four by this point and ordered two large sweet and two large savoury pancakes to share.  
The American
Cheese and Bacon with Maple Syrup (why the need for the parsley sprig?!)
Caramel Crunch
Caramel & Chocolate Ice Cream, Cream, toffee sauce & honeycomb pieces.
Service was swift and the pancakes were tasty with resulting empty plates all round.  And what gorgeous plates they were too.  The whole restaurant had a cute kawai theme running throughout the décor, menus, crockery and kids activity sheets.  
Fantastic weekend with friends, fun, food and new experiences.  The Center Parcs strapline is "Memories Start Here" and we certainly have some great ones from our most recent weekend.  Swimming, cycling, orienteering, spa, badminton, willow weaving, lawn bowls, aqua jetting and roller skating.  Its a wonder we had any time for food.

Pinnies And Petticoats

Thursday 20 September 2012
The first rule of Cake Club is Don't talk about Cake Club.
The second rule of Cake Club is Don't talk about Cake Club.

Thankfully Aberdeen's new Pinnies and Petticoats Cake Club has no such Fight Club type rules. Otherwise this would be a rather empty blog post.  I first heard about the inagural meeting of this informal Aberdeen based baking club on Twitter (@foodiequine) Someone once said to me that the difference between those on Twitter and those on Facebook is that you want to punch your Facebook 'friends' but go out for a beer with your Twitter ones.  In this instance substitute #cake for #beer

The first meet was scheduled to take place at Tiger Tiger with instructions to "bring along a homebake and a copy of the recipe used".  Open ended or what?!  Inspired by a demo from Charlotte's Chocolates at The Forfar Meerkat I decided to give Cakepops a try. Killing two birds with one stone when I went to buy the ingredients I remembered about the Foodies 100 #bakeitfair challenge so these are Fair Trade Cakepops.

There are three main parts to your cakepop. The cake, the butter icing and the chocolate decoration. Actually I forgot the vital forth part. A stick is prettymuch essential. I used what were classed as toffee apple sticks. For my cake I followed the most amazing chocolate cake recipe that a Kiwi friend (hence the cups) had been kind enough to share. I don't know its original source but its amazingly rich and moist. If you'd like to make a vegan chocolate cake check out the recipe at Veggie Desserts.

185g butter (room temp)
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp baking powder
1-1/2 Cups FAIRTRADE sugar
2 Cups flour
1 Cup cool tap water
3 eggs
2/3 Cup FAIRTRADE Cocoa Powder

Beat everything together in a mixer or with an electric whisk until the colour lightens. Bake in two sandwich tins (greased and lined if yours are not silicone) at 160 degrees for 30 minutes.

6oz Icing Sugar
4oz Butter
2oz FAIRTRADE Cocoa Powder
couple of tsp water if required

When the cakes are cool blitz one half in a food processor until it forms breadcrumbs. Then gradually add the butter icing and keep blitzing until it starts to form a dough like consistency. Half a cake and half the icing should give you 25 cake pops. Ice the other half with the remaining butter icing and I can assure you it will be gone in no time or keep going with the pops if you want 50.

Next you roll the cake/icing mix into balls. I was rather anal about this and weighed out 25g balls. Those with less OCD tendancies can freestyle it. Secure sticks to the pops by dipping in melted chocolate then pressing into the ball and leave to set in the fridge.

Now the fun part. Decorating your pops. I used Fairtrade Dairy Milk Chocolate (it was actually the only Fairtrade milk one I could see in my local Tesco) as the base and sprinkled with an assortment of coconut, butterscotch chips chocolate crispies and chocolate strands.  My self created Blue Peter style patented egg tray cakepop holder wasn't entirely the success I'd hoped for so I'm going to have to work on another method to keep them upright whilst they set.

I was pretty chuffed about how they turned out for a first attempt but still very nervous bringing them along to "Cake Club" in case they fell below the expected standard. I needn't have worried as the small but perfectly formed group of Cakies had none of Mr Hollywood's sacastic put downs.  Adorned with sticky label name badges we quickly bonded over tales of baking disasters and got straight down to the serious business of taste testing.

Rye Apple Cake from Dan Lepard "Short and Sweet" 
Peanut Butter Cookies and Passion Cake
There was a fantastic spread of goodies on offer. Rye Apple Cake, Black Velvet Cake, Sherbet Lemon Meringues, Pale Ale Parkin, Peanut Butter Cookies, Cupcake Bites, Peanut Butter Cookies, Passion Cake, Peanut Butter Chocolate Balls and Tablet. I hope I haven't forgotten anything. 

Lots of food history too. We learned that Passion Cake does not contain passion fruit but is so named because it was the cheaper alternative to traditional wedding cake. The tablet recipie used was a traditional family one typewritten on a worn sheet of paper with olde worlde measurements and instructions for cooking on the fire. It was also lovely to discover that one of the attendees has her very own "bun in the oven" due to be fully cooked on Valentines Day. 

There was no competition element at all to the evening (everyone's a winner at cake club!) but my own personal favourites were the Peanut Butter Cookie's and Lou from Please Do Not Feed The Animals Rye Apple Cake.   

Tablet. Peanut Butter Chocolate Balls, Passion Cake
Cupcake Bites
My first plateful (yes there was a second...)

After the cakefest you would have thought that the night just couldn't get any better. Bit it did when we were invited to go downstairs to Tiger Tigers new Polynesian themed Kanaola Bar and sample a complimentary cocktail. I couldn't resist the Pina Colada served in a real life pineapple. Surely that must count as one of my five a day.

Cake and Cocktails quaffed, new friendships formed, tupperware boxes full of baked goods and alas it was time to head for home.  But first we had to finalise our next cake meet.  The date for your diary is Wednesday 17th October, 7 pm at Tiger Tiger.  Bring along a spooky / Halloween themed sweet or savoury bake - all welcome.  Leave me a comment or drop me an email if you fancy coming along and I'll put you in touch with Ms Pinnie or Ms Petticoat.

Until next time - keep baking.  And if you can make it Fair Trade then so much the better #bakeitfair

Let them eat Biscuits

Tuesday 18 September 2012
There are many areas where I don't make the grade as the perfect Mum but one of my major failings is that I don't bake birthday cakes for boy and girl. I can cook, I can bake, I'm reasonably arty crafty but I'm scared to try and put them all together and even attempt a birthday masterpiece.  So year in year out I resort to supermarket birthday cakes. 
I have wonderful memories of my own childhood birthday cakes. My Mum had an amazing Readers Digest Cookbook "The Cookery Year" which has a fantastic birthday party feast double page spread the highlight of which is a clock cake. The sheer genius behind this idea being that you could make exactly the same cake every year but just change the time that the little hand pointed to so it matched the birthday number. These pages were poured over so regularly by both me and my sister that that they are ripped. Alas my mother can produce no photographic evidence of any clock cake made for me. But she and my rose tinted memories assure me they happened.
Readers Digest - Published 1973
In the absence of homemade birthday cake for my kids I've resorted to biscuits. Girl is turning 8 this week and had an ice skating party at the weekend. On browsing the time waster that is Pinterest I came across Cookie Skates and decided I had to make them.
Pillsbury Cookie Skates - my inspiration
First problem - sourcing candy canes in September. Not easy when you have left it too late to order online. Thankfully Wowzie came to the rescue with a box of Jelly Belly ones.  Next I had to cut them to size.  This is where the mini saw from boy's tool kit came in handy.  Not a utensil I've had cause to use up until now in the kitchen.
The cookies were made following a Nigella Lawson recipe that an internet friend emailed me many years back when I was first making Tractor birthday biscuits for boy. Alas I don't know its  name or which book its from. It has served me well as its failsafe, makes loads, is super easy to work with and holds its shape very well.  
Boy has moved on from his 3rd birthday Tractor biscuits and is now keen to help make them.  The farmyard apron may well have been a 3rd birthday pressie as it now barely covers his 10 year old bum.
Once cooked the serious business of decorating commenced.  The recipe said to attach the candy canes with icing but I feared that wouldn't actually be secure enough to work so I went for sugar syrup.  First attempt burned. Fingers also burnt. Much swearing. You need to heat it unbelievably slowly.  Thankfully second try worked like a charm.  Went for simple water icing but chickened out of the piped laces and opted for silver balls.
Was the effort worth it? I fear not. My sixth sense tells me that 12 out of 13 eight year olds would have preferred a party bag with a bouncy ball and whistle. They did however seem to like the Hello Kitty Cake from Asda.

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