Natural history adventures sailing the culinary seas...

Thursday, 20 January 2011

A Yorkshire Autumn

Last autumn sowed the seed of the Battenberg's voyage, as I introduced Pedro and Radish to my little corner of Yorkshire. Our wanderings took us to tea shops, through woodlands to hilltops and to kitchen tables. The spell of unemployment took me to recipe books and experimental afternoons with the Aga. One particularly glorious day, well supplied with snacks, we three headed to Hardcastle Crags, a wooded valley extending to moorland, owned by The National Trust. Many stepping stones, funny looks from dog walkers and ginger beer in the Pack Horse pub later, we'd found huge ant solaria, flowering Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) and Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) and many fungi, including a bank of moss cushioning numerous puffballs of some sort. We also came across a teepee made of branches and bracken.

The Northern Hairy Wood Ant (Formica lugubris)

Unidentified purple velvety fungi - any ideas?
Tidying up the garden I salvaged the old lavender flowers from the compost's clutches and decided to try making lavender shortbread to welcome my sister home for a short visit. It was lovely, and floral baking will be making a reappearance in my kitchen when the flowers reappear in the garden.

Purple sparkly sugar is perfectly respectable
After stripping the most appetising flowers from their stalks I roughly ground them in a pestle and used this recipe:

250g very soft slightly salted butter
250g plain flour
75g mixed cornflower and semolina (just what I had left)
70g golden granulated sugar
~ 2tsp ground lavender flowers (more or less to taste)

Preheat oven to 160C/Gas 3 and line a 6x10 inch glass dish with baking paper. If you use a smaller dish it'll take longer to cook....
- Mix butter, sugar and lavender.
- Sift flour and cornflower/semolina onto butter and lightly mix until a smooth dough is formed.
- Press the dough into the prepared dish until vaguely even. Bake for about 30 minutes until top and bottom are both light brown.
- Cool in the dish, cut when just warm but remove when completely cold.
- Decorate with what you will, we used Divine dark chocolate, small purple elephants and purple sugar.

In October my father spent a week at a conference discussing sustainable food and gender in Italy. While he was there he learnt to make gnocchi from an Italian grandmother, and when he returned we spent a morning learning from him and feasting on the tiny dumplings for lunch.

Gnocchi with cherry tomato sauce
All you need to make them are some starchy potatoes and plain flour.

- Boil your potatoes until soft, drain and allow to cool completely.
- Next you have to get them into a useable form for kneading, which technically means using a potato ricer. We didn't have one, so used a rotary cheese grater, but I think a normal grater would work too. So, rice or grate your potatoes into a big pile on a floured work surface.
- Now you shake some flour onto your pile of potato and start kneading. Flour must be added and the dough kneaded until it no longer feels sticky, but is instead bouncy and you can feel it stretch slightly. This will probably take a while, maybe 15-20mins.
- When you're happy and no longer sticky, split your dough into three or four and using the flat of your hand roll each portion into a long thin sausage shape. When it's a couple of centimetres in diameter, use a sharp knife to cut small dumpling portions.
- The gnocchi need to be thoroughly floured when then have been cut, so they do not stick together, and laid on a tray for a couple of hours to dry out.
- When you are ready to eat, drop the gnocchi into a pan of boiling water, and remove as they float to the surface, which will take a couple of minutes.
- We ate ours with a sauce of cherry tomatoes cooked in a little olive oil and torn basil. 
- Any uncooked gnocchi you don't need, freeze and save for a midnight dumpling picnic in midwinter.

October offered a great deal of baking opportunity this year, and feeling especially childlike on All Hallow's Eve my sister and I made a lot of very garish creepy crawly biscuits. We did supplement this with a slightly more mature, dairy free pumpkin pie, made with butternut squash. It still had a spider on it though.

Bats in my biscuit tin
A pumpkin stares into the future
Autumn slowly crumpled towards winter, and ice appeared on the inside windowpanes in November. Watching the icicles melt one morning I was surprised to see a disorientated and dozy wasp basking in the early sun on my windowsill. I have his photograph, but we haven't stayed in touch.

Hairy, but is that enough to keep warm?
And then, it was winter.

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