Jubilee Macarons

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I went to Paris last weekend for 48 hours of jazz manouche, macarons, wine and patisserie. It was a wonderful whirlwind, and in amongst morning trips down the nearby Rue Montorgueil for cheese, tarts and pastries and evening trips to brasseries, book shops and jazz bars I managed to dart up the Champs-Élysées and visit the famous Ladurée for some of their divine macarons. I spent more money than I should, and I ate them straight out of the bag on the pavement outside but it was all worth it. Violet and blackcurrant, pistachio, orange blossom… mmm!

Today, in honour of my little cross-channel adventure and in preparation for the next three days of Jubilee fun in which I will be vigorously flag waving and picnic-eating, I made some lavender macarons, using my home made lavender sugar, and filled them with walnut cream made from homegrown walnuts. A deliciously French tribute to the flavours of my English country garden…

Enjoy your weekend wherever you may be, and I hope you manage to get your fill of Pimms, cucumber sandwiches and strawberries!

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lavender shortbread2 (property of A L Scrafield)

Lovely Lavender Shortbread

So this summer, I’m going to Provence for three weeks of cycling, delicious local food, French wine, skinny-dipping aaand LAVENDER…!  I know, it does sound rather as though I’m rubbing it in doesn’t it? But there is a reason behind revealing my enviable summer activities – the lavender part. I love the stuff, it’s so pretty, it smells gorgeous and it makes such a lovely present.

Recently I’ve even been making lots of hand embroidered bags as gifts and to sell -

If you love lavender as much as I do and if you saved some of your lavender last year like I did then you should have some fragrant almost spiced smelling sugar. I keep looking at mine sitting there in its jar and promising myself that I’ll make some lavender shortbread soon. And then I wander off and read, or bake something to post off to friends, or write a letter or turn my hand to something more seasonal in the cooking department and leave it for another day.

But at last, as you may well have suspected by this point, I got round to making some lavender shortbread the other day. I needed the  push  of outside influence to get myself moving, in this case I needed to take some promotional photos (not going to say too much here, but the words National Trust come up…) and I wanted some delicious shortbread in the photo so it seemed like the perfect moment.

I normally go for fairly healthy food, mostly because it’s tastier, but with shortbread you either commit yourself to the fact that its 50% fat and sugar, or you don’t bother because half-hearted shortbread is just a waste of time – my motto is generally that if you’re going to get fat, you may as well enjoy it!

The recipe below is for normal shortbread, but instead of using plain caster sugar use your lavender sugar, including the flowers. You can also use vanilla sugar for this which you make by storing a vanilla pod in with your sugar for a while.

So to make this indulgent Provence-tasting delight you will need -

150g/6 oz plain flour

100g/4 oz slightly salted butter (leave it out at of the fridge so it’s room temperature and soft, and then cut into pieces)

50g/2 oz Lavender sugar (plus extra for sprinkling)

Preheat your oven to 150C/Gas Mark 2/Fan 130C and get out a baking sheet, prefereably one without a raised outer edge so that you can slide your dough onto it easily.

In a mixing bowl place your flour and butter and then using your fingertips rub the two together gently. Don’t use the palms of your hands as they’re far hotter than your fingers and you’ll run the risk of making your mixture gooey by melting the butter. Just gently rub the butter and flour across your fingertips from little to index using your thumb and slowly you will be left with a mixture that looks similar to breadcrumbs.

Now you can stir in your lavender sugar, and then using your hand gently work the mixture together so that it forms a ball. Once you have a loose ball you can turn it out onto your work surface and gently using the heel of your hand knead and turn the dough until it’s smooth. Don’t overwork it as it will become claggy, gooey and tough.

Using a floured rolling pin (or if you’ve not got one, a wine bottle) roll out the dough to form a 7inch (18cm) circle. Smooth it out with your hands and tidy up the edges with your fingertips and then slide your round onto your ungreased baking sheet. Use your thumb and two fingers to form the fluted edges, and then use a knife to mark out the shortbread into eighths. Don’t cut through the dough, just score it. Then use a fork to prick the dough all over. This allows air to escape as the dough cooks so that it remains flat as it bakes.

Bake for around half an hour, although mine took closer to 45 minutes so timing depends on your oven. Take it out of the oven and whilst it’s still warm cut along the score marks you made and sprinkle with your gorgeous lavender sugar.

If you need it to firm up a little still, cut up the shortbread as above and place it onto a cooling rack and then with the oven off, return it to the oven with the door ajar so that the heat will dry the shortbread but not cook it. Don’t forget it’s in there though!

As exciting as your lovely shortbread looks, wait ’til it’s cool to eat it as it needs to be nice and crispy.

mint in pot (property of A L Scrafield)

Organic Gardening: Mint Care

Your mint should be growing well at this time of year, but if it looks a bit tired it’s time to rejuvenate it. I picked some sprigs of mint from the roadside whilst on holiday in Scotland last year and rooted it in a glass of water. As you can see, it’s now looking rather vigorous and it’s in need of some more leg-room. This particular mint is really pretty with its pinky-green colouring and it has an almost peppermint flavour.

To start your repotting, dig up your mint, or slide it out of its pot, and select several strong looking lengths of root to replant in fresh soil.

I grow mine in containers to keep it under control (when you see the root system you’ll understand why!) and I repot it each year in a mixture of soil and garden compost – peat-free potting compost will do.

Fill your container to within a couple of inches (5cm) of the top, lay your lengths of root across the surface of the compost (yes, horizontally) and cover with an inch (2.5cm) of compost/soil.

Water well and place in a sunny place near your kitchen door.

If you have no mint at all, beg a piece from a friend or buy a pot from a supermarket and then plant out (without disturbing the roots) in a larger container.

Once you’ve planted out your mint, place your leftover bits of root in a black plastic bag to make sure that they die and then once they’ve superated you can pop them on the compost heap – otherwise you’ll end up with a lot more mint than you wanted. Before you dispose of it though, why not snip off the leafy bits and make yourself some minty pea soup, or perhaps make yourself some mint tea – wash your mint and then place some sprigs in a teapot or in the bottom of your cup and pour boiling water over them. If you like it more Moroccan add lots of white sugar and use a teapot – its delicious, easy and refreshing!

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Posted by Rachel

Minty Pea Soup

I was mulling over this post on the bus this morning, trapped on the aisle seat next to someone who didn’t feel inclined to give the window a quick sleeve-wipe and so I gazed around at the other passengers and indulged in some people-watching and let my mind wander. Anyway, I’m deviating from the point here which is that I decided there and then, on my steamed-up bus journey that not only was I not going to mention the rainy weather, I was going to avoid equating my choice of cooking to the damp outdoors, and I especially wasn’t going to say that its a jolly, green cheery looking soup thats all very spring like and will fill your life with verdant joy on a grey April day  because it struck me that A) I made and photographed this soup on a sunny day and have only just got round to posting it, so I’d be living a lie and B) I actually love rain. It smells nice, its refreshing, if you’re outside doing some running or cycling or walking its invigorating and it’s just all round exhilarating. What could be nicer than getting truly soaked, and then coming inside cheeks glowing and hair all damp?Anyway, that’s the rather extensive and perambulative thought process that I went through to come to the conclusion that today’s recipe is simply “Minty Pea Soup”, which, rather than cheer you up in rainy weather simply adds another dimension of joy to the fun you’ve already been having splashing in puddles.

But before I get carried away, let’s look at the soup -

Feel inspired? Excellent. I’m not a user of frozen foods, I have a freezer full of food but it’s all things that I have cooked and then frozen portions of, or gluts of things like plums that have been stewed down and frozen. However when I was a student and had what one might term a “cash flow crisis” I only had £2 to last me a week and a big bag of frozen peas seemed like a good investment as I had no food in the house and I invisaged them going with a multitude of different things that I hoped I might be able to beg, borrow or bin-raid in the following days. They were just wonderful  and I must admit to being a convert, to the extent that I started to go a little pea-crazy and began throwing them indiscriminately into my cooking. However in amongst all the mad concoctions that I gleefully threw together this soup was a minty-fresh delight.

Sooo… Inspired by my minimal ingredients, gather together -

a bag of frozen peas

Some garlic

An onion (or half an onion)

A handful of fresh mint

Natural Yoghurt if you have some (to serve)

Vegetable stock, or just plain water.

Salt/Black pepper.

Take your onion and cut it up quite small, don’t be too obsessive about it, but we don’t want chunky onion rings. Chuck them into a saucepan with a little olive oil and put them on a low heat. Give them a little stir with a wooden spoon to get them all oily and then let them just soften and start to smell a little oniony – we don’t want them to be browned. Once they’ve gone nice and soft, and a little transluscent chuck in a few cloves of garlic. Cut off the top and bottom and then placing the flat of your knife on it, bash the clove with the heel of your hand. This crushes the garlic to intensify the flavour and also loosens the papery skin so that it shoul djust slip right off. Chuck the bashed and skinned garlic in with your onion and allow it to soften too, then throw in your frozen peas. The amount you use really does depend upon how hungry you are but to serve two, I’d use 250g. Now pour in either stock or boiling water. You want enough to just more that cover the peas. You can always add more, but it’s quite hard to remove it!

You will also want a handful of fresh mint. Using a pair of scissors cut half your mint into your soup, and then with a stick blender or liquidiser zzschooosh up the soup, and bring to a gentle simmer. Often I’m so hungry that I eat the soup almost immediately as the fresh flavour of the mint peas and garlic works well without having a long simmer, but if you’d like the onion and stock flavours to really ripen a little then you’re welcome to simmer it a little. Towards the end of cooking, chop in the remainder of the mint and add a spirnkle of salt and black pepper. Serve with a dollop of natural yoghurt and some crusty bread, or if you’re poverty stricken have an extra large bowlful without all the extras – either way its still fresh and delicious!

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Over the next few days, look out for an update on how to repot your mint and other garden-y things from the resident Organic Master Gardener. Mint is starting to pop up again in the garden and it may need a helping hand…!

Bread and Butter

I know that the title doesn’t necessarily inspire but stick with me and all will become clear, honest!

I’ve been away this weekend enjoying my Easter bank holiday and whilst I was away Norfolk suddenly flickered into life and on my return the beautiful blackthorn blossom had been joined by elegant fluttering petals on the plum trees and the lovely soft young leaves on the hawthorn which had all unfurled. When the leaves are this young they have almost a glow to them, their green is so vivid and they look good enough to eat… and of course why would I be writing about them if they weren’t edible?

Hawthorn leaves are known rurally as “bread and butter” and you can pick them from the tree and eat them fresh as they are. If you don’t fancy being quite so rustic you can pick them and throw them straight into a lovely spring salad. Other leaves are coming ready now as well. Although I’m not usually one to recommend the supermarket to you, of late they have started selling “living salads” or as I prefer to term them “cut and come again” salads because you can cut some off, and they will grow back again – hurrah!

Another fabulous leaf that you can rely on now is chives which are currently poking their way out through the cracks in my terrace. I put them in a lot of things, their delicate onion-y flavour is so addictive and I eat little handfuls of them on my way past. I’ve started to sprinkle them into my tabbouleh too, which I enjoyed tonight with some home made pitta breads.

Other greenery that will be poking its nose out soon is Jack-by-the-Hedge which is really lovely with a soft garlic-y taste and utterly divine in sandwiches. You can also keep your eyes open for Sheep’s Sorrel which when it arrives is lovely and zesty and has a delicious springtime flavour that refreshes your palate after a wintertime of heavy root veg.

Over the next few weeks I want to start putting some more bread tutorials on here as I know its an area that people are frightened to try, so to whet your appetite here is so easy peasy focaccia, or as I prefer to call it “flat bread”. Because it’s bread, it’s flat, and I’m not at all Italian!

And whilst I’m typing up recipes, what do you need to look for next? St George’s day mushrooms of course!

Organic Gardening

I know that normally this blog, although personal as regards anecdotes, isn’t personal as regards who I am and what-not. However I am pleased to announce that there will be a slight change in that department,  I readily admit that I owe all of my green fingered-ness and dough-y fingered-ness to my Mother and I am now welcoming her to this blog to add the organic gardening edge.

Over the past 18 months or so I’ve foraged and baked, scavenged and sauteed with you all but only once begged you to get a bit more self-sufficient and green fingered. This blog will still remain predominantly a foody foragy haven but I think that you can never go wrong with a good bit of self-sufficiency and so for anyone who has a windowsill, terrace, roof garden, or 5 acre plot Velvet Alphabet is now also your portal into all things growing.  I am also proud to announce that my lovely Mother has become a Master Gardener with Garden Organic, or as many of us know them the Henry Doubleday Research Association. Now she has the t-shirt and a badge to prove what we’ve known all along I thought the very least I could do would be to spread some of her expertise around a little and entice her into some guest posts on Velvet Alphabet. I suspect I may be doing a lot of the typing but I can assure you that this woman knows her green stuff. If you have questions, ask away. If you’re in Norfolk and are desperate to garden organically but don’t know how to set up, or you already do garden organically but need a bit  of a helping hand she’s here to give you the guidance that you need either online, on the phone or in person.

Mother and me re-potting Mint and going through the soil removing nasty vine-weevil larvae.

Carrot Special – featuring Carrot Cake, Carrot Slaw and other Carrot-y ideas

Today has been such a gorgeous day I dashed out on the bike before lunch and did a quick 25 mile circuit to enjoy the warm air swirling round my legs, the lovely skylarks singing their hearts out and beautiful shy hares snuffing the air. I live in a rural area which is made up of heath, forest and fields which tend to be either arable, pigs or sheep and so when I go cycling I can often pick up bits and pieces that have tumbled off the top of a heavily laden lorry carrying produce from the fields. The most frequent finds are carrots and parsnips although recently I’ve been nabbing the occasional onion. As long as you use the veg fairly quickly, bearing in mind that it’s taken quite a tumble to end up in the road verge, there’s nothing wrong with this veg and although it doesn’t go entirely to waste as local wildlife is generally happy to help tidy up – it’s always nice to get a few free carrots! The carrots I’ve used today are actually from another budget source – stock feed. If you’re prepared to buy your carrots in bulk you can buy stock-feed carrots which are, unsurprisingly, intended for feeding animals for various absurd cosmetic reasons – animals aren’t fussy if their carrots are different sizes and shapes, or have a few splits in them. Luckily, I’m not fussy either so I buy a sack of carrots for a few quid, and feed myself and my rabbits on them through the winter. I don’t think I need to really sell the joys of carrots to you, but on the off-chance that you’re not sold on them can I suggest that you make some lentil soup with them, put them into your cauliflower cheese (really!), grate them up and eat them with some shredded red cabbage as a basic salad to go with some houmus, pitta and falafel or you could make some carrot cake, the most decadent of all carrot-y cookery.

I have a multitude of carrot cake recipes ranging from simple through to the recipe as used at the Dorchester which is suitably elaborate, decadent and all-round divinely refined. The recipe I used today was a very simple chuck-it-all-in kind of recipe, which on a Sunday afternoon, when the sun is out suits me just fine! It’s just as nice as the fancy-pants Dorchester recipe but in a way far better suited to lunch boxes and picnic baskets which to be frank is more in line with the way I tend to eat anyway. Carrot’s natural partner in crime is orange which as I mentioned in my recipe for Rhubarb and Orange cake (another great recipe to try this time of year!) is also MY partner in crime when cooking and I tend to wield the zester with intent when at all possible. Both the recipes in this post contain orange for which I would apologise except that I just love love it so much that I can’t bring myself to.

Anyway, lets start with a easy little recipe for a carrot-slaw which you can adapt as and where you like. Grate up however many carrots you’re interested in slaw-ing, chuck them in a bowl and add to them some orange zest. The quantity is obviously dependent on carrot quantity but I used around 3 carrots, and about half a teaspoon of zest, it does go quite a long way but if you like things more orange-y, you know what to do! Then add a handful of raisins and dressing made of equal parts olive oil to cider vinegar. The slaw is now ready to go however I’m currently really excited about Coriander Seeds which have a delicious orange flavour and so I threw some seeds into a dry frying pan on a low heat to gently toast them and intensify the flavour and then ground them in my pestle and mortar and sprinkled them onto my carrot-y concoction. It’s certainly worth the little extra effort if you have some Coriander seeds. And below, a lovely photo of how mine looked before I took it to work with me.

If you prefer a “normal” slaw you can shred in some cabbage – spring greens are now ready and lovely and sweet and flavoursome – and some onion, maybe even some spring onions, and then toss it all in some mayonnaise with a little salt and black pepper.

And now to the main event, once you’ve earned valuable health-points eating raw carrot slaw, you’re sufficiently wholesome to enjoy a square of carrot cake. I’ve topped this one with a basic orange juice/icing sugar icing as it was intended as a “cheer everyone up” cake for my Mother’s staffroom during their recent OFSTED inspection so I wanted the cake to be easy to grab and eat on the go without getting stick fingers. However you can make a more traditional, and extravagent, frosting with a tub of cream cheese, some orange zest and some icing sugar – beat it all up, spread it on…. done!

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself first you’ll need a cake so without further ado aray on your worktop the following items -

175g/6oz dark muscovado sugar/dark soft brown sugar

175ml/6fl oz sunflower oil

3 large eggs, beaten

140g/5oz grated carrot (around 3 carrots)

100g/4oz raisins (optional, I don’t always fancy having them in)

grated zeste of 1 orange (scrub the orange first to get off the nasty waxy stuff they put on them)

175g/6oz Self-raising flour. (if you don’t have any, use plain white flour and add to it a teaspoon of baking powder)

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Preheat your oven to 180 C/Gas 4/fan oven 160 C and find yourself a 18cm/7inch square tin, line it with baking parchment.

I used one that was a bit larger than this and ended up with a rectangular cake that was shallower and took less time to cook, so don’t worry if you don’t have the exact right size pan, just take it into consideration when you set your oven timer.

So, first mix your sugar, oil and beaten eggs together and then add the carrots, raisins if you’re using them and orange zest.

Next add your dry ingredients – flour, bicarb., spices and gently stir them in.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in your preheated oven for 40(ish) minutes. Keep an eye, and a nose, on proceedings and if it looks right, feels firm in the centre and smells great before your time is up it’s probably done, so take it out!

If you want to ice with drizzled zig-zags like I did, get 113 g/4oz of icing sugar, sift it into a bowl and then add orange juice a table spoon at a time, stirring it and checking the consistency. You want it a bit runny but not liquid, then use a fork to dribble the icing across the top of the cake. If you want cream cheese frosting use the suggestions above.

I love this recipe because it really is as easy as… cake…!

Carrot cake recipe adapted from Good Food Mag. 101 Cakes and Bakes