Home-made food played a central role in 2011 – from winter stores like jam made from foraged fruit and thrifty green tomato chutney to seasonal treats like nettle soup and indulgent peppermint creams. It comes as no surprise then that this year got off to a similar start.
January sees Seville oranges hit our shores. Just as my mother did decades ago, last weekend I turned a cold January afternoon into a marmalade making session. I squeezed the juice from two pounds of fleshy oranges into my heavy based jamming pan before adding the zest, chopped into chunky strips as Mr M likes his marmalade thick-cut! The pits and pith – normally discarded as waste but essential in the marmalading process – were added in a makeshift muslin bag. And as the fruit simmered for two hours, the intense smell of Spanish oranges filled the kitchen, living room and stairwell, much as it did in my childhood home.
After the sugar had dissolved and before the rolling boil started, I squeezed the goodness out of the bag of pits. Although grown-up, I still felt a child-like delight as the pits gave way in my hand and the gooey jelly, full of valuable pectin, seeped through the fine muslin and my fingers into the pool of orange fruit.
Most cooking enlivens the senses but making preserves is an absolute treat for them. From the heady smell of boiling fruit and sugar to the deep orange colour of the finished marmalade; from the sound of the pits crunching in the fist to the bitter flavour once the marmalade has cooled enough to check the taste; from the sensation of warm gelatinous pectin on the fingers to the feeling of the set crinkled marmalade on a chilled tester saucer… Making marmalade really is an antidote to short grey winter days!
Thrifty jam drops
Whilst waiting for the jamming pan to work its wonders, I rustled up simple biscuits that also remind me of my childhood. My mother, like a whole generation of women who lived with rationing, regarded dried fruits as an ingredient that turns plain biscuits and cakes into desserts, and jam as one that turns them into a luxury. As a child I therefore experienced the whole range of jam-based ‘delights’: steamed apricot jam pudding after a Sunday roast in the winter; victoria sponge with raspberry jam in the summer; a dozen jam tarts as a treat for helping mum in the kitchen… Jam drops, however, were my favourites, being both scrumptious and pretty.
Today these little golden biscuits feel more like a cross between a biscotti and a shortbread. The crackled outer crust gives way to a buttery biscuit that melts in the mouth. And the pièce de resistance… the little drop of raspberry jam in the centre.
As I child I enjoyed these biscuits with milky tea but nowadays I have them with thick black coffee, a nut-free alternative to an amaretti. And with a pantry stocked with marmalade, I may even replace the vanilla essence with orange extract and the red jam with bitter marmalade for a more decadent grown-up version of this childhood treat!
My final foray in the kitchen last weekend was inspired by a meal out with the lovely L. During a light supper at The Junction in Tufnell Park, I opted for two starters, one of which consisted of superior blini with mackerel, horseradish cream and cucumber. This simple starter reminded me just how splendid good buckwheat blini are compared to most shop-bought ones. So, having stocked up with buckwheat flour in our local organic grocery shop, I tried my hand at making my own.
The smell of buckwheat comes alive as soon as the warm milk and yeast mix hits the sifted flour (half buckwheat, half plain) and with it, memories of trips to Poland and Scandinavia. Once the beaten egg white has been folded in, the thick batter with its subtle nutty aroma is ready to be turned into fluffy wholesome pancakes. As mine were intended for a simple lunch, I did not bother with canapé-sized blini but dropped enough batter into the pan to make saucer-sized pancakes.
We enjoyed the Baltic-style blini with smoked salmon, herrings and sour cream but horseradish or pickled beetroot would also have been super accompaniments. And as these hearty pancakes have a slightly sweet nutty flavour, they could serve as the base for a dessert too. With some stewed plums maybe or, in keeping with my mother’s philosophy, with a spoonful of jam!