back at the plot

beaSeptember is always a busy month. This year it seemed crazier than ever: Bea started at secondary school and two weeks later we celebrated her twelfth birthday; the roof was fixed and in the process scaffolders failed to arrive several times (what is it with scaffolders?); a stray cat wandered into our lives for a few days, filled the house with fleas and helped herself to Bea’s birthday cake — if you look closely at the photo above you can see the slightly ‘bald’ patch where she licked the icing away; Martha went off to school camp and returned with her head full of nits, a suitcase filled with stinky clothes and her body covered with bites: it was “the best camp ever!”

And last, but by no means least, Matilda’s lovely German exchange partner, Lisa, arrived. We’ve had fun introducing Lisa to English treats such as marmite (she’s not a fan), scones and clotted cream (big thumbs up), and this Friday she’ll get to try fish and chips (I hope it lives up to her expectations).

P1230018Beyond the chaos on the domestic front, the garden has been quietly doing its thing, and now that October has arrived, the mood is distinctly autumnal. I feel the garden peaked in early July and looked pretty, though increasingly frazzled, until the end of August. But some pruning, cutting back and general poking around on my part pulled it all back into focus. I need to think about how I can extend next year’s show.

IMG_0879P1240975 P1240974 P1240962I’m planning to sift through all my garden photographs so that I can write a proper round-up of what worked and what didn’t. Until then, I’ll leave you with Sybil, my ever-present, ever/over-eager and often quite annoying gardening assistant…

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eek!

It’s Bea’s eleventh birthday on Tuesday and so we threw a little party on Saturday.

Matilda and Martha usually have very clear ideas about what they want to do for their birthdays, who they want to invite and what they want in the way of presents.

Bea is only ever clear about one thing – the cake.

This year she wanted a zombie.

Hidden beneath the thick layer of green icing is my go-to birthday cake – Nigella’s buttermilk birthday cake which I have written about many times (prettier version here).
I make one cake, slice it in two and then layer it back together again with Nutella into which I whip lots of double cream. If you are tempted to try this, be warned: the Nutella always resists the addition at first, and then sort of gives up and goes soft and glossy and completely delicious.

milestones

After a somewhat stormy start to the new school term, life has calmed down a little. That’s not to say that the days aren’t without their explosive moments, but generally everyone is a little less fraught (apart from my relationship with Sybil and her relationship with the garden, that is) and we have established a rhythm to the week. Martha has moved up to the juniors, and I feel we have passed a major milestone now that we no longer have a child in the infants.

On Sunday we celebrated Bea’s tenth birthday and another milestone was reached – two children whose ages are in double figures*. As ever there was a cake, the last birthday cake of the year for my immediate family. It was the usual buttermilk number from Nigella’s How to be a Domestic Goddess, but with 25g of cocoa powder replacing the same weight in flour. The middle is Nutella mixed with whipping cream, which blends more easily than the extra thick double cream. Bea and Matilda decorated it, Sybil caught the crumbs.

It didn’t last very long.

* I had an odd moment when I typed that phrase, and wondered whether it should be double digits instead. Naturally enough I googled “double figures vs double digits” and came across a lovely book on British English, which I can’t seem to link to, though I will try later – must go now, as I am already late for the school run. Ooops.

wet walks and walnuts

This morning, whilst walking the dog, a sudden downpour left me sheltering under a tree. As the dog whizzed around gleefully, I realized I’d chosen to wait out the shower under the wrong tree: its canopy, though wide, was far too open and offered no cover at all. But just as I was about to make a soggy dash for a group of large beech trees, the leaky tree redeemed itself  – all around me the ground was covered with walnuts.

A vision of coffee and walnut cake replaced all thoughts of staying dry, and I scrabbled around amongst the fallen leaves gathering as many nuts as my pockets would hold. Despite visiting the park on an almost daily basis, and photographing many of the trees throughout the seasons, I’d barely ever noticed this one – It’s on my radar now though, along with the plum trees at Narrow Ways.


Although I find their bitterness slightly off-putting, I love cooking with walnuts and often use them in cakes, biscuits and sometimes as part of a crumble topping. Although the idea of coffee and walnut cake is uppermost in my mind at the moment, I am feeling quite tempted by the idea of a date and walnut loaf as well. Perhaps some biscuits too. An early morning visit to the walnut tree is on tomorrow’s To Do list.

We returned home soaked. I don’t know who looked more bedraggled, me or the dog. Sybil won the prize for being smelliest though. She needs a bath.

N.B. The plate in the top three photographs is one of my favourites. It was made many years ago by my mother. The little scratches in the cream glaze seem to echo the colour of the walnuts and the grooves on their shells. I’ll use the plate again when I make the cake. But right now I’m off to bake a different cake – Bea is ten tomorrow, so only one cake will do, Nigella’s buttermilk birthday cake.

cake two

Yesterday was Matilda’s last pre-teen birthday party, which is quite a strange thought.

It was lovely to meet some of her new school friends, and a huge relief not to have to deal with party bags or party games – just a trip to the cinema and supper back here. But although most aspects of the celebration have changed, the cake remains the same -

Nigella’s Buttermilk birthday cake from How to Be a Domestic Goddess. It’s very versatile and I used it for last week’s cream and raspberry cake as well. 

Over the years I have adapted my own butter icing, which I judge by eye and taste, simply slinging the stuff in the mixer and adding a few drops of milk if it gets too thick; Nigella’s icing recipe contains so much sugar I find it completely inedible. I usually only make one cake which I slice in half and spread with Nutella mixed with extra thick double cream, again a something I’ve adapted over many years – it’s very simple and extremely moreish. Just splodge about three heaped tablespoons of Nutella in a small bowl and then add thick cream, stirring vigorously between each spoonful – it will seem to split and go very sticky at first, but as you add more cream it will gradually emulsify, becoming smooth and glossy, but with a mousse-like texture. For a more sophisticated, grown-up version, you can melt some good quality dark chocolate and add that to the mix.

martha’s day

Today is Martha’s birthday, and because a full-on witchy cake is required for her party, I decided to take the easy route with today’s cake: lots of pink icing, studded with silver balls and little sugar flowers. I made the filling by melting half a bar of good dark chocolate and mixing in a little cream and a couple of tablespoons of Nutella – just looking at it makes my teeth ache.

birthdays

As you can see, this is a well-used cookery book. Although there are several recipes that simply don’t work (I don’t know anyone who has made Nigella’s Brownies successfully with only 25mins in the oven), it is the source of many of our favourite cakes – the dense chocolate loaf, the delicious gingerbread with lemon icing are two that I make again and again, both as tea time treats and also as puddings (the chocolate loaf is wonderful with raspberries and the gingerbread, without the icing, very good with homemade custard).

But the cake I make most frequently is the buttermilk birthday cake: a delicious vanilla sponge that can be tarted up in any number of ways. Matilda’s birthday is in June, so for her I usually pile it high with strawberries. Bea’s birthday is in September, and over the years she’s had several themed parties and the cake has been adapted to look like a snake, a dust and cobweb-covered witches’ cake and a castle. And Martha is seven this Sunday which is why the recipe is out once more.

I have been rather lax in my maternal duties, and completely failed to arrange a party, so I’m wondering what I might do to the cake to make up for this sorry state of affairs. Though I must explain, it is not as awful as it seems. When I realised that various other immovable events had conspired against us, I offered her a choice: we could do something very small this Sunday, or she could wait and I’d arrange a proper party during the Easter holidays. She plumped for the proper party of course. Although I love arranging parties for the girls (I even wrote a book about it), for a reason I cannot fathom, I always leave everything to the last minute. The knowledge that Martha’s party still needs to be sorted out has induced an odd sort of paralysis. I think this must relate in some way to my career in journalism – no matter how long the lead time on a feature, no matter how much research, I could never write anything very much until the deadline was nearly upon me.

And all this talk of birthdays brings me neatly to another birthday: Charlotte’s plot is a year old today (I marked the day with some banana bread, but not a Nigella recipe). And it feels like quite a milestone. I remember being concerned that I didn’t have a particular skill or any specialist knowledge to share, unlike many of the blogs I read regularly, but I had just finished a creative writing course, and I hoped that by writing on a regular basis, daily if possible, I’d keep on track with the novel I was trying to write. Well, that novel is still a random bunch on files on my computer, several notepads of illegible scrawl and no nearer completion.

Life got in the way. At the end of last April Matilda was terribly ill with a weird condition called Henoch-Schoenlein’s Purpura (HSP), and was twice admitted to the children’s hospital; building work started on our basement; the garden was off limits for weeks; and the summer was a crazy round of friends and family coming to stay. Then suddenly it was September, and everyone was back at school, including me, because in the midst of all the chaos I decided I wanted to do RHS level 2 in Horticulture. Fool!

But I’m glad I started this blog. During a lot of that time the parallel universe of the blogosphere (hate that term!) provided a wonderful escape from the drama and drudge of everyday life, just as it still does. That’s not to say that my blog is not a true reflection of my life, but more that it reflects the parts I feel like sharing. Frankly who needs to see the horror of my kitchen table at breakfast time? I notice that I didn’t write a single post about Matilda’s illness and yet it dominated our lives for over nine weeks. Instead I used the blog, and the self-imposed deadlines, to record my increasing fascination with with plants, photography and graffiti. With a little cake, knitting and other stuff thrown in for good measure.

This year of blogging has also enabled me to ‘meet’ so many really lovely people, and I’ve enjoyed reading all the responses to my posts. I’ve tried to reply to everyone, though I am a little haphazard about these things, so I am sorry if I’ve missed anyone out. I will do better this year!

PS If anyone reading this has a child with HSP and wants to know how we dealt with it, do please get in touch. Bristol Children’s Hospital was brilliant, and knew exactly how to deal with the various complications Matilda faced.