Oh so cordial cordial…

A few weeks ago I paid tribute to poor old Blood Orange Posset, the deliciously delicate pudding that got lumbered with the worst name in the world. As if we needed reminding that life isn’t fair, along swooshes the elegant, beautiful, perfectly-named Apple Mint Cordial. If Blood Orange Posset and Apple Mint Cordial were guests at a wedding, BOP would be in the back row, behind a pillar and forced to wear a hat picked by Princess Beatrice, while AMC would be in the front pew dressed entirely in Alexander McQueen.

Not that it’s cordial’s fault. And I do love food that’s both a noun and an adjective. To drink a cordial that is cordial is very satisfying, although that might just be the cranky way my mind works. (While I’m on the subject of grammar, food that’s both a noun and a verb is weirdly full of fat – think of lard, milk, butter and oil).

This particular cordial will quench your thirst at a glance.

Apple Mint Cordial

Makes about 1 litre

1kg apples – Cox’s are best, although I used Royal Gala here

320 grams caster sugar

Finely pared peel of one unwaxed lemon

1 litre water

2 large handfuls of fresh mint leaves plus extra for serving

Chop the apples roughly, but don’t bother to peel or core them. Place them in a large pan with the sugar, water and lemon. Bring to the boil and then turn down to a simmer. Add the mint leaves.

Simmer gently for about 20 to 25 minutes, until the apple is soft and mushy. Turn off the heat and pour the entire lot into a jelly-making bag and allow it to drip slowly through into a bowl for a couple of hours. You can squish it through with the back of a ladle if you like, but I prefer to leave it to its own devices so that it emerges on the other side as a clear rather than cloudy pink liquid. Pour into sterilised bottles. It will keep in the fridge for about a week. Alternatively, you can freeze it into ice cubes and use them at your leisure. Add about 1/3 cordial to 2/3 still or sparkling water and serve with plenty of ice and a handful of fresh mint leaves.

Drink your Apple Mint Cordial while making a consoling, slightly smug toast to poor old Blood Orange Posset.

A feast for Karen Blixen

There are many reasons to admire the writer Karen Blixen and Babette’s Feast is one of them. Her story of a french woman who creates a magnificent dinner on which she lavishes her entire fortune is one I’ve always loved. The two elderly sisters for whom Babette cooks are aghast to learn that she has spent everything she has and will be impoverished for the rest of her life. Her sanguine reply is that ‘an artist is never poor’.

Early this morning I found another reason to admire Karen Blixen. Reading a slightly whimsical but magical book called Writers’ Houses, I discovered that ‘Karen liked to combine old roses with cabbage leaves, or blossoms from her garden with wild herbs gathered in the forest behind the house. On days when she received guests, she rose at five in the morning to go out and gather flowers while they were still moist with dew.’

What? I’m all for making my dinner guests feel cherished, but get up at five in the morning so the flowers for the table still have dew on them? I’m sorry, but you have to be joking. I admit though that I was so impressed by her exacting aesthetic sense that I nipped outside and gathered some rosemary flowers for lunch. It was already 7.30 in the morning, which is practically mid afternoon by Karen Blixen’s standards – but look, they have dew!

Herb flowers are the finest part of the plant. They hold within them a whisper of the flavour of the stems from which they came; a delicate, fragrant memory of their more upfront, bossy, herby relatives. Karen Blixen liked to include herb flowers in bouquets. I like to include mine on my plate.

Pea, Rosemary Flower and Crab Risotto

Serves 4

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 knobs butter

1 large onion

2 garlic cloves

350g risotto rice

1 large glass dry white wine

1 litre vegetable stock

200g frozen peas

100g fresh white crab meat

Handful rosemary flowers – chive flowers are good too

Melt one knob of butter with the olive oil over a medium heat and gently cook the chopped onion and garlic until soft but not brown. Add the rice and a little salt and stir until coated and glossy. Pour in the white wine and stir until fully absorbed by the rice. Meanwhile heat the stock in a neighbouring pan and once the wine has been absorbed, ladle a little hot stock onto the rice and stir. As soon as the stock is absorbed, add more, stirring all the while. If you run out of stock, add a little boiling water. Once the rice is cooked and creamy which will take about twenty minutes, add the uncooked and still frozen peas and stir them through for just a couple of minutes. Don’t overcook them because the last thing you want are khaki-coloured peas. Stir in the second knob of butter, check the seasoning, put the lid on the pan and take off the heat. Divide between four warm bowls, sprinkle with rosemary flowers and top with the white crab meat.

Pea, rosemary flower and crab risotto is, to my mind, the perfect lunch. I like to think the creator of Babette’s Feast would have enjoyed it too, dew or no dew.

The perfect jug and a helping of serendipity…

I’ve found the perfect jug. Designed by Emma Lacey, it has a thumb-sized dimple in just the right place. Pick it up and it feels as solid, safe and simple as a pair of sturdy shoes, brown bread and butter, a picnic on the beach or rhubarb and custard.

Serendipity is both a fantastic word and a brilliant concept. My new jug had already made me think of rhubarb and custard – serendipity sorted things out so that I got to eat it too. My very clever friend, the one who knows how to grow things and even better loves giving them away, left a basket of home-grown rhubarb and a batch of her hens’ eggs on the doorstep this morning.

It’s virtually a ready-meal from the supermarket – the contents of the basket are more than three quarters of the way to being a bowl of baked rhubarb and vanilla custard. And that is what they became….

Rhubarb Baked With Cardamon and Kaffir Lime Leaf and Served With Vanilla Custard

Serves 3 or 4

Preheat the oven to 175 degrees C

600g rhubarb cut into slices

2 tablespoons sugar

5 or 6 cardamon pods

1 kaffir lime leaf

Zest and juice of a tangerine

6 egg yolks

125g caster sugar

600 ml milk

One vanilla pod

Combine the rhubarb with the tangerine zest and juice, 2 tablespoons of sugar, the cardamon pods and the kaffir lime leaf and spread out in a shallow ovenproof dish. I had been planning to add a star anise to the dish instead, but spotted the lime leaves and the cardamon pods in the cupboard first. I discovered that they brought a delicious zingy perfume to the rhubarb – another dose of serendipity as it turned out. Bake for 25 minutes until soft but not mushy.

To make the custard, whisk the yolks with the sugar until pale and glossy. Warm the milk with the vanilla pod to boiling point. Add the milk to the egg mixture. Tip back into a clean pan and stir over a low heat until the custard starts to thicken slightly. Don’t stop stirring and don’t let the custard overheat.

Heap the rhubarb on a plate, add a generous puddle of custard and you will be as far away from school dinner rhubarb and custard as it is possible to be. And that too is serendipitous.

On Mother’s Day…

For those of us whose mothers are no longer here, Mother’s Day is slightly mournful. The old rituals of making homemade cards, tying bunches of mismatched wild flowers and carrying breakfast upstairs on wobbly trays have gone. It becomes a day of absence, rather than joyful presence.

But let’s make today a celebration anyway. Relive the wonderful memories – the moments when you and your mum laughed uncontrollably at something that wasn’t even funny, the day she watched you win at sports day, the day she consoled you when you came last. Because Mother’s Day is Mother’s Day whether your mum is here or not.

It seems to me that the perfect thing to eat on Mother’s Day is afternoon tea – the meal that mothers never make for themselves.

So this afternoon I’m going to eat homemade scones with clotted cream and blackcurrant jam and raise a cup of tea to my mum and to all mothers everywhere.

Buttermilk Scones

This recipe is based on one in British Baking by Peyton and Byrne

Makes 8 scones

240g self raising flour

50g caster sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

Pinch of salt

60g cold butter

175ml buttermilk

Beaten egg for brushing

Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C and line a tin with baking paper.

Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl. Add the cold butter, cut into small cubes. I use an electric stand mixer to rub it in, but you can use your fingers if you prefer. Add the buttermilk and mix until it just forms a dough. Form into a ball and rest in the fridge for ten minutes or so. Roll out until 2.5 to 3 cm thick and with a 5cm cutter make 8 scones. Brush them with a little beaten egg. Cook for 25 minutes and then allow them to cool completely in the tin before you remove them.

And as a little postscript…. my children have just brought me breakfast in bed, homemade cards and a bunch of mismatched wild flowers. So it turns out that life really does go on…