Bird Seed Cake

Although our garden may resemble a postage stamp it has slowly and surely become a haven for small birds. Along with the pair of robins who reappeared last week we often see coal tits, blue tits, chaffinch, great tit, goldfinch, sparrows, wrens, very occasionally boisterous starlings…and that is where my bird identification skills end. I may have a degree in Biology but I was far more interested in odd tropical diseases, the mating rituals of fiddler crabs and what centipedes like to eat than the animals in the class of Aves. See, I warned you I was a geek.

Last year at the beginning of the festive season I remember seeing festive wreaths that were adorned with treats for birds. I had all good intention of making one this year, but time flew by. By the time the snow arrived a few days ago I decided to follow in the footsteps of a fellow workmate and make fat balls to keep the feathered friends in our garden warm throughout the winter.

Any good bird cake needs fat and seeds/nuts. Firstly in a large pan melt the fat, I used lard. The fat is not only used as the binding agent but also as an essential energy source for the birds. The fat has to be of the high-saturated kind as birds struggle to process other kinds. Vegetable fats should not be used as these are (unless they have been hydrogenated) liquid at room temperature and can ruin the balance of oils in the bird’s feathers. So best to stick to good old lard or suet. If you are using anything like peanut butter, of which birds love, add it to the fat now to let it soften. Once the fat has melted take it off the heat and stir in your other ingredients including birdseed, cereals (I’m talking oats/muesli base not Frosties!), dried fruit and nuts. These cakes are also a great way of using up stale bread and cake. Though cake in this household is rarely left to get to the state in which it is stale. Once the ingredients are combined pour into moulds. You can use empty yogurt pots, plastic cups or pour it into a lined 2lb loaf tin, leave to set. Once set, the loaf of bird cake can then be sliced and slid into a suet holder. As a rule of thumb 500g of lard plus other ingredients makes 1 x 2lb bird food cake

Of course all of the ingredients in these cakes are edible to humans, but I wouldn’t recommend eating them…unless you have a thing for lard that is.

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Sprouts, glorious sprouts

It’s that time of year when sprouts make an appearance on dinner tables throughout the land. It is often a maligned vegetable that I believe deserves to be given a chance to shine. I know they are a marmite food in that they are either loved or hated. They can be delicious as long as they are not over cooked. Better to be undercooked than overcooked, but then I’m one of those odd people who loves raw cabbage.

As a child I was encouraged to eat sprouts by being told they were fairy cabbages. Come on, I was an innocent child and to get a chance of being closer to the kingdom of fairies I was prepared to consume a sprout.

A few years ago I bought a copy of Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook (a fabulous cookbook by the way) and on the inside cover is an amazing photo of red sprouts, my goodness I can’t believe I’m saying this about sprouts. The type of sprouts took some sourcing but we eventually found out they are called Red Rubines.  A few years ago we had to buy them through a seed catalogue couldn’t get Red Rubines so had to settle on a similar Falstaff sprout, but now Sarah has made it easy and you can buy the Red Rubine seeds through her website .

Thanks to caterpillars we’ve been trying to grow a crop of them for 2 years, many evenings were spent ridding the plants of the eggs and caterpillars. Today, after a lot of perseverance, we harvested our first and last crop of Falstaffs. Unlike a lot of purple vegetables that loose their purple hue when cooked the colour in these vegetables intensify. They are not as bitter as the green ones, almost sweet. Maybe we’re quite sad we went to such extreme lengths to find and grow the Red Rubine or Falstaff but I’m sure that if children were served these rather than their murky green counterparts there would be less sprout haters in the world.

Go on, give sprouts a chance.

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Snowball Truffles

I’ve had this recipe hidden in my recipe file for years after I made them for Christmas pressies a few years back and the recipe resurfaced a few weeks back for a maths evening I did in school where maths was taught through different means including cookery. I had forgotten how easy these truffles are to make and they certainly went down very well with both pupils and parents alike. It’s such a simple recipe. Minimum 2 ingredients and can be easily altered depending on your tastes. For speed it can be done in the microwave making it perfect to make with children…of course minus the alcohol!

When it come to melting chocolate I’ve discovered that if using dark chocolate use either supermarket basics brand or a decent brand of chocolate (like Green & Blacks) as these melt the best; though with dark you will notice a significant difference in taste between cheap dark chocolate and the more expensive brands. With milk chocolate stick to cooking chocolate as Galaxy, Dairy Milk and the like have a tendency to seize when you don’t want them to and for white chocolate I really like G&B as it isn’t too sweet, but I have also used Milkybar with success.

I’ve been making these truffles quite a few times over the last week and given the snow we have at the moment I thought it was quite apt to have a go at making Snowball Truffles by playing around with variations including dark chocolate rum truffle dipped in white chocolate, rum & coconut truffle and white chocolate & raspberry liqueur truffles. My favourite being the white chocolate dipped ones. The sweet white chocolate really brings out the rum in the dark truffle. As it’s Christmas it also means one thing – edible glitter and lots of it. Just remember you can never have too much glitter…or maybe that’s the magpie in me.

Be warned these are very rich so don’t feel bad about being stingy when it comes to the size of the truffles.

Snowball Truffles
Makes 30 (approx)

200g dark chocolate, broken into pieces
4 tbsp condensed milk
flavourings e.g. 2 tsp orange extract or 2 tbsp rum
Cocoa/icing sugar/desiccated coconut for rolling truffles in

1) In a microwave proof bowl mix together chocolate, condensed milk and flavouring.

2) Heat the ingredients. At 10 second intervals stir the chocolate. When the chocolate has melted remove the bowl from the microwave.

3) Continue to stir until the ingredients turn into a fudge-like consistency. It does begin to look like the chocolate has seized but don’t worry, it is meant to do this. Allow it to cool for a few minute.

4) Take tsp of the mixture and roll into balls. Roll in coating then place on baking parchment to set and harden.  If wish to dip the truffles in chocolate allow the truffles to first cool then dip in melted chocolate and leave to set on parchment.

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The Holly & The Ivy

As I sit here on a cold winter night warmed by the heat of the open fire I often wonder the things this 200-year-old cottage has seen during the festive period. What smells would be coming from the kitchen? How is it decorated? If only the walls could talk. Right now the all-important real tree is lit up with a multitude of fairy lights making it barely possible to get in and out of the front door; the chestnuts are by the fire ready to be roasted; my wreath of holly, ivy & eucalyptus is hanging proudly at the door to signify the circle of life and the sprigs of mistletoe have been hung. There is something I love about bringing the outside in during the festive season. As a child I used to attend a church were they had a wreathing service where the interior of the church was adorned in green garlands.

As the years have gone by in the cottage I have tried to make more of an effort with dressing it for Christmas and in turn starting our own little festive traditions. Since picking up a copy of Sarah Raven’s Complete Christmas earlier on this year I was determined to have a go at making my own wreath. One problem our garden is tiny and has none of the traditional greenery required. This meant a trip to my parents to do a sweep of their garden.  There was some hydrangea, but unfortunately they had gone just too far to be useable for decorations. Never did I realise there was so many different types of ivy & holly. Interestingly my parents have an unusual holly bush that produces albino holly. All of the holly bushes at my parents were void of berries. A few days before I arrived the trees had been bulging with berries, but obviously the birds know something I didn’t and literally cleared the trees of all it’s beautiful berries. I grabbed a generous sample of all of the traditional festive greenery and now they have been transformed into decorations around the house and a rather impressive wreath for a beginner like me.  I decided to use the limes and chillis to add a bit of festive colour, but also give the wreath a foodie twist.

There are a few traditions surrounding holly, ivy & mistletoe. The main reason for all these plants being used in decoration is that they are evergreens which in turn represents eternal life and encourage the return of the sun. Rosemary, bay & laurel are also sometimes used. Both holly & mistletoe are used for decoration as they are thought to ward off evil spirits. Tradition states that ivy must not be used on its own or dominate as decoration or it’s unlucky hence why Christmas decorations are often a mixture of different evergreens with each plant having its own significance.

After successfully attempting my first wreath I hope this is the first of many and another Christmas tradition for Hubs & I.

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Beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

New Decade = New Blog. As I decided to move over to WordPress I thought it was a fine opportunity to “rebrand” my blog and make it more inclusive of Hubs and his fantastic foodie projects.Please bear with me with the new look as with the festive season fast approaching time is tight, but both Hubs & I will be back soon.

Lighting in the cottage at this time of year makes photography very difficult, hence my lack of posts recently. Thankfully I have a much-needed tripod on my Christmas List.

Christmas is coming at full force and the to do list is extending at an alarming rate I feel organised but also totally unorganised at the same time. Everything is revolving around getting to the end of term without drowning in a sea of glitter and baking for friends and family with the odd party and ball thrown in for good measure. All the Christmas editions of foodie mags around December are full festive cheer, but to be quite frank there is only so many ways you can carve and stuff a turkey! Baking in the house at this time of the year is very much based around traditions and sometimes I can be a bit too stubbon to change them.

Here the staple for Christmas baking is mincemeat. I’m very particular what goes into my mincemeat, hence why I make my own. I was a bit heavy-handed with the rum this year, but given the latest batch of mince pies were practically inhaled by workmates I don’t hear them complaining! I usually make the mince pies one of 2 ways – either in the style of mini Eccles cakes, or traditional shape but with gluten-free pastry to cater for some friends. Today I finished baking stained glass biscuits with 40 primary aged kids, they loved watching the biscuits transform. This weekend the well-fed Christmas Marzipan Cake is finally being sliced. I just hope it’s as good as I’m expecting.

Hubs has also been busy with the slow food for Christmas. Salami is curing ready for an “allotment swap”, a length of pork belly has just been dry cured and is beginning to dry out in the meat safe plus a leg of pork is brining in a mix of cider and spices ready to be boiled into a ham. Just don’t ask if we have a pan big enough to boil the ham. If these meaty experiments work I’ll get Hubs to post the recipe.

In the final preparations for Christmas I’m getting all Sarah Raven and going to attempt to transform a boring Supermarket wreath into something a bit more us with a foodie twist of chillies and limes and bake my usual biscuits to adorn the tree. If the wreath goes wrong (of which there is a high possibility!) I know that the wonderful Kerry at The Blossom Tree will be coming to my rescue.

So raise a glass of your favourite festive tipple to Christmas, cheers!

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Fresh from the oven – White Tin Loaf

Since baking my own bread I can’t remember the last time I bought a sliced loaf. As much as I love all the artisan style bread I bake, sometimes only a traditional white tin loaf will do and shop-bought bread certainly doesn’t cut the mustard for me any more. When I found out that this months Fresh from the Oven‘s host was going to be Linda from With Knife & Fork and she had chosen White Tin Loaf I was really pleased.

This recipe uses a different kneading method to what I’m used to and sometimes the urge to whack all the ingredients into the KitchenAid can be to much, but this time I stuck with it and was genuinely impressed with the results. When I initially read the kneading instructions I could see how it could work, but I was proven wrong.

It produced a loaf with amazing oven spring and the perfect texture and size for bacon cobs. Although it doesn’t have the strong taste like some of my bread does this makes it great for simple sandwiches. Everyone once in a while wants a basic, comforting sarnie be the filling ham and pickle or cheese and tomato. Don’t be put off by the long looking method. It is truly worth it.

The 1 tip I would give would be that 10 min before the end of baking turn the loaf upside down in the tin. This helps the bottom of the loaf to crusten up.


Dan Lepard says he developed this when he was working full time in commercial kitchens (that made artisan hand kneaded bread) because there wasn’t time for full 10 minute knead of all the different bread batches so he switched to short kneads spaced out and found it works just as well, part of the development of a good gluten structure is dependent on the time elapsed not the vigorous kneading. I liked the idea because I’d not been getting good textures with either a machine or a normal hand knead. I am now a wholesale convert.


You must use oil not flour on the kneading surface and your hands. Something like vegetable oil is good.

The dough must be quite sticky and soft to start with. It will firm up when kneaded and as time progresses.


* Once you have soft sticky dough leave it covered in the bowl for 10 minutes.
* Now oil your kneading surface and hands and tip the dough out.
* Knead for about 12 seconds by folding in the edges to the centre, a bit like shaping a round loaf, rotate the dough as you go.
* Flip the dough over, leave it on the surface and cover with a cloth. Wash out the bowl and then oil it lightly. Put the dough back in the bowl and cover.
* Leave for 10-15 minutes and then do another 12 second knead. You will notice the dough is already less sticky and firmer.
* Leave for 20 -30 mins and repeat the fast knead. You are aiming to have kneaded the dough 3 times in the first hour.
* Leave covered to rise until at least 50% larger but not more than double in size.
* Tip out onto the oil surface and press the air out of the dough using the tips of your fingers so its square-ish in shape. Repeat the fast knead process (or fold in to thirds then rotate through 90, flatten again and fold into 3rds again).
* Shape the dough as required for the particular loaf you are making. Put it in a tin, or supported in a floured cloth in a bowl.
* Leave to rise until at least 50% larger and preferably almost double in size.
* Slash top and bake as per your recipe.

White Tin Loaf (based on Dan Lepard’s Quick White Loaf, p63 of the Handmade Loaf)

2lb loaf tin greased and floured or lined with baking parchment (no need to line the short ends just oil them).

Oven to be pre-heated to its maximum setting (R10/250C) and with a tray of water in the bottom to create steam.


200g semi skimmed milk at room temp (Dan uses whole milk but semi skimmed seems to work fine)

150g water at room temp (remember 1g = 1ml but its easier to be accurate weighing fluids)

1 tsp fast action yeast (or 2 tsp fresh yeast crumbled)

200g plain white flour

300g strong white bread flour

1 ½ tsp fine sea salt


Mix the flours and salt together in a bowl.

Mix the water and milk together in a separate bowl and whisk in the yeast.

Add the liquid to the flour and mix with the fingers of one hand to a soft sticky rough dough. You may need to add a little more liquid do this a teaspoon at a time until you have a soft sticky dough.

Follow the kneading instructions above.

The first rise will probably take about an hour from the last knead.

To shape for a tin loaf, flatten the dough to a square about the same width as your tin. Roll the dough into a cylinder and press the seam firmly, fold under the two short ends and place in the tin seam side down.

Allow to rise (covered) to 1 ½ to 2 times volume i.e. to the top of the tin.

Slash the top of the loaf along it length and put it straight into the oven for 10 minutes at maximum temperature. After 10 minutes check how it’s browning and drop the temperature as follows (these baking guidelines are from the River Cottage Bread Book):

R6/200C if the crust is pale

R4/180C if crust is noticeably browning

R3/170C if crust is browning quickly

And cook for a further 40-50 minutes.

I usually check again part way through this time and either adjust temperature again or cover the top with foil if it’s brown enough. Also note that with a traditional gas oven (i.e. one without a fan) the top may brown far too quickly on the side near the heat at the initial temperature so you might want to start at a lower setting of R8/9 for the first 10 minutes. Adapt the setting for what you know about your oven and how things usually bake.

When it’s cooked turn it out of the tin and allow to cool.

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Festive Muffins

Yes the C word is around the corner. Coca Cola have aired their annual “Holidays are Coming”, Hellman’s Mayonnaise have shown their credit crunching been-showing-the-same-unremastered-ad-since-1980’s, households are beginning to compete as to who can rack up the biggest electricity bill with gaudy decorations and various z-list “celebrities” are battling out in the OZ jungle by eating various parts of a kangaroo’s anatomy.

A great respite from all this was a trip to the Fabulous Places Christmas Market at Blackbrook House near Belper to discover some great Derbyshire independent businesses and people. I Spoke to Julie at Vintage & Cake about 50’s Swing Dresses, discussed gluten-free cooking with Charlotte from Cupcake Corner, debated the virtues of edible glitter with Wendy at Quirky Cookies, picked up some stunning parrot tulips and anemones from Kerry at The Blossom Tree and finally Claire from Things We Make. I’ve been chatting to these businesses via twitter so it was lovely to be able to put a face to a name. Another great business there was Jack Rabbits. They have a fab new little business opposite the Cathedral in Derby, sell gorgeous food and cook on an Aga…need I say more!

I’ve been playing around with festive recipes for a while. Primarily for my Cookery Club Kids. Mince pies went out of the window as a straw poll of my Cookery Kids told me that kids don’t like mince pies, Christmas truffles not idea, (you wouldn’t believe how long it takes to melt 16 sets of chocolate of chocolate in the microwave!) even these festive muffins couldn’t tempt them away from Stained Glass Biscuits. Some of the children have made these biscuits before, but they still insisted in making them again. Kids are always amazed by the way the boiled sweet melts to make sugar glass. So given most of the Cookery Kids claim to not want to make these muffins due to the dried fruit in them these are for the adults to enjoy.

To make these muffins extra Christmassy I cooked them in my star moulds. I have to admit funky shaped silicone moulds don’t cook as evenly as traditional round moulds, but they still taste great. One thing I would say is don’t over mix as this mixture has a tendency to make dense heavy muffins if mixed too much.

Festive Muffins
Makes 16 regular or 8 large

300g plain flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
150g caster sugar
225ml milk
50g butter, melted
1 egg
handful of typical festive dried fruit (eg glace cherries, sultanas, citrus peel, cranberries)
1 tbsp mixed spice
flaked almonds, for decorating

1) Preheat oven to 200oc. In a large bowl mix together the flour, baking powder and sugar.

2) In another bowl whisk together egg, milk and butter. Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients, stir until well combined.

3) Carefully stir in the dried fruit and spoon into cake cases into 2/3 full. Sprinkle with flaked almonds. Bake for 25-30 min until risen and golden.

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