My Clonmel Cousin has been getting into the gardening gifts lately – and I’ve been the lucky recipient, getting a cheerful pink petunia and fuschia pot for my birthday and a Christmas present of a hazel tree with a pair of blueberry bushes. We had tried blueberries in the garden previously but they’re big fans of acidic soil and I don’t think we added enough peat moss into the spot where we planted them. This time round, when I was planting the bushes, I landed plenty of peat moss into the hole – with good results.
When we were in college, the Brother’s Housemate came from a catering household. His mother used to make hundreds of superb Christmas cakes and puddings each year, cook for parties and events and, most importantly to us, make the best Caramel Squares known to students.Living on an unbroken biscuit diet of Cadbury’s Chocolate Fingers – our habitual study food (oh, the excitement when a white chocolate variety came on the market) – these were manna from heaven. Every time the Brother’s Housemate was able to sneak or was given (we never knew, never asked) a box of them, we would descend on his house like a plague of biscuit-seeking locusts.
I’ve always liked to bake. As soon as I was old enough to co-ordinate reading recipes and using a wooden spoon, I was anxious for any cake-making excuse – and most of them involved copious amounts of chocolate. Over the years there have been many good chocolate cakes, from my early attempts using chocolate-flavoured cake covering and marg to (when I started paying for my own shopping!) butter and 70% dark chocolate. This cake, however, although it may not look like much, stands head and shoulders above the rest.
When I was small, picking blackcurrants was a big job. My Nana had several large, old bushes in the orchard under her apple trees. Every year, little fingers were pressed into service to strip the bushes of their black bounty so that she could make, or supervise the making, of the pots and pots of blackcurrant jam that were to see the household through the winter.
Since Little Missy arrived on the scene, the breadmaker has been working at full tilt. The loaves aren’t the most beautiful but, then again, looks aren’t everything and the convenience and flavour more than make up for it. A few mornings a week, before the Husband heads out the door to work, he loads it up with the ingredients for a Fennel-Aniseed-Caraway Loaf and, as Little Missy and I snooze away, it kneads, proves, knocks back and bakes a loaf of warm, sweet-smelling bread. At least, that has been the routine.
No longer having the easy access to Arbutus Bread that was one of the perks of my job in Urru Mallow, I’ve gone back to baking my own. At the moment I’m on rotation between three different breads – the Seedy Spelt Bread that I mentioned a few weeks ago, a Brown Yeast Loaf that still needs a bit of work and my old favourite, the Sourdough that I mastered while in Ballymaloe.
Birthday cakes are, almost inevitably, chocolate–based in my family. It is undoubtedly the default option, beloved by everybody, not least by the birthday celebrants. This year, however, we were to celebrate the mother’s (January) birthday on an unseasonably bright February day and – unusually – I wasn’t in the mood for chocolate baking. After a discussion with my normal cooking-partner-in-crime, the Little Sister, and inspired by the amount of citrus fruit in the shops, I went down the orange and almond road instead, making a light but very moist cake. It seemed, at the time, to be the season for lighter cooking – an idea promptly destroyed by subsequent appearances of hail, ice and snow.
I miss Arbutus bread. One of the great advantages of working in URRU Mallow was having regular access to good quality bread – I used to eat the sesame seed-encrusted brown crusts for work breakfast (you can’t sell them but I think they’re the nicest piece of the whole loaf), regularly bringing home spelt or rye loaves or, for a particular treat, one of the tomato and basil breads or a couple of croissants, to be heated up for the following morning’s breakfast.