Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Halloween breakfast - pumpkin muffins

You've got to go to the US for a Halloween breakfast, right?

When I was growing up in England, Halloween was no big deal. We paid lip-service to trick or treating, but it mostly consisted of ringing people's doorbells and running away, because we knew that nobody actually had treats to give us.

We Brits tend to think of Halloween as a US interloper, but here in Scotland it seems always to have been a much bigger deal than in England. Think Macbeth's witches hubbling and bubbling up there in Cawdor. And they've always carved lanterns. Scotland doesn't really have the ideal climate for growing pumpkins, so they used to use turnips (not the little purple and white jobs, but what the English call swedes. The bigger orange-yellow fleshed neeps that are traditionally served with haggis and tatties). Have you ever tried carving a lantern from a rock-hard vegetable? I am frankly surprised that anyone from the pre-pumpkin generation in Scotland has any fingers left with which to carve anything. This is one US import that has most definitely made life easier.

Anyway. What to do with all that pumpkin flesh? Usually, I make soup. A German relative showed me a delicious pumpkin soup recipe that uses a pinch of ground cloves as its secret ingredient. Perfect with some good bread. However, this year, in honour of Breakfast Club, I thought I'd make some pumpkin muffins. Muffins, on this occasion, being the cakey American kind.

I will at this juncture make a confession. The joy of a muffin is that it is the quickest and easiest thing on earth to make. So simple that a toddler could do it. All that is required is a knowledge of the difference between 'wet' and 'dry'. You remember that character Ria from 70s sitcom 'Butterflies', played by Wendy Craig? Even she couldn't get muffins wrong. However, if you first have to carve and cook the pumpkin it sort of loses that 'look what I just flung together' thang. I was prepared to go the extra mile, having failed to locate canned pumpkin in the 5-acre Sainsburys up the road, but when my glance fell upon a jar of organic pumpkin puree in the glorious Whole Foods Market in Giffnock this morning, well. What's a working woman supposed to do?

This recipe is based on one from my go-to muffin book, Muffins Fast and Fantastic by Susan Reimer. I highly recommend it. Makes 10-12 standard muffins.

Pumpkin Muffins

255g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp each ground ginger, nutmeg, cloves
110-170g golden caster sugar
1 egg
120-150ml milk or water
2 tbs honey
200ml tinned/jarred pumpkin
90ml olive oil or 85g melted butter
60-85g chopped walnuts or raisins

Notes: if you can't find tinned/jarred  pumpkin, cut and peel a butternut squash, or use your pumpkin flesh, assuming you have not bought one of those pumpkins rather dubiously called 'carving pumpkins' in the supermarket. I'm guessing they don't taste so good. Remove the stringy pulp and seeds, then cook chunks in simmering water until soft (10-15 mins). Drain and discard the liquid. Puree in a processor. A regular 800g squash will make about 500ml of puree - you can freeze half if you like.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, raisins tend to make the mixture drier, as they absorb liquid, so I tend to use the lower end of the quantity given if using dried fruit, and the higher end for nuts, which are oily and don't absorb liquid in the same way.

You can use granulated sugar instead of caster sugar. I like the caramelly flavour of golden caster sugar in cooking. You can also use vegetable oil instead of olive oil, especially if you prefer a more delicate flavour. Do not, in any case, use a hefty virgin olive oil but one of the lighter (cheaper!) types.

1. Prep your muffin tins (ie put a muffin case in each hole in the tin!). Preheat oven to 190-200C (375-400F, gas 6).

2. In a large bowl, sift together all the dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, bicarb, salt, spices, sugar. Confession #2: when recipes say 'sift together', I generally stick my fingers in my ears and go 'blah blah blah', then just spoon it together and stir it up a bit. I hate washing sieves.

3. In another bowl beat the egg, then add the milk/water, pumpkin and oil/melted butter and stir well.

4. Tip the wet stuff into the dry stuff and mix it together until just combined. Don't overstir - just mix till you have no dry flour visible then stop. Add the nuts or raisins with your last couple of stirs.

5. Spoon into the muffin cases. Bake 15-20mins until tops are springy when you press them gently.

My children will be delighted to be given cake for breakfast, while I will be sending them to school safe in the knowledge that they have in fact had vegetables for breakfast. Isn't that just fiendish? Mwahahhahahahaha!

Come and join the Mumsnet Halloween bloghop!

Monday, 29 October 2012

Reasons to be cheerful, Part 1

Well, welcome to winter everyone. I hate the long nights as much as the next person, but I do kind of like shutting the curtains at 4 o'clock and curling up on the sofa with the boys and a big blanket. There is a great Scottish verb to coorie doun, ('coorie' is pronounced to rhyme with...erm...well, it's a bit like how you'd say 'curry' if you come from Manchester. Sort of). It means to snuggle or nestle, which is just perfect for this time of year. Though to be honest, there's not a great deal of coorieing doun anywhere at the moment, what with birthday parties, Halloween discos, pumpkin carving and (yikes) school Christmas Fair to get ready for. Along with the day job.Mr Breakfast was in charge of the weekly shop this week, which meant that I had to go back to 5-acre Sainsburys to get the pumpkins, Mr B having returned declaring 'they don't sell pumpkins'. In the week before Halloween. Yuh-huh. A severe case of man-looking when you can't locate the world's biggest vegetable sitting in a vast box right by the door. Anyway, we are now ready for pumpkin carving action.

I am very much the optimist, despite living in a city that is located in apparent perma-drizzle. The clock change brings, briefly, lighter mornings again - a last gasp of light before proper winter darkness descends. So this morning we were treated to a fabulous cloud inversion over Glasgow when we opened the curtains. From our window (we live on a hill) we could see all the hills and church steeples and high rises poking out of a blanket of cloud, with a lovely pink and purple sky above. Just beautiful. Sadly, by the time I got outside it had all passed and so no photo opportunity. You'll just have to take my word for it. 

It also took me a good 35 years to realise that in fact in the UK we don't have 6 months of GMT and 6 months of BST. GMT only lasts for 5 months. Who knew? And two of those are February and March, when the longer days suddenly start to unfurl really quickly. It's not nearly as bad as I thought. And once I got a garden and could watch snowdrops pushing up in December and new buds for next year already thinking about their plans on my blackcurrant bush, well, winter didn't seem so bad. 

Though ask me in late January and you may hear a different story.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Breakfast of champions?

Beyond excited. We snaffled us the last four tickets to the opening Saturday of the new Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome which has been built here in Glasgow ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Mr Breakfast is excited at the prospect of seeing live track cycling. The boys are excited because we are excited, and because we made them watch all the cycling in the Olympics whilst whooping loudly as Team GB did the do. I'm excited mostly because the day is going to feature the actual oaken thighs of Sir Chris of Hoy himveryself.

This got me to wondering about sports nutrition and what 'proper' athletes have for their breakfast. Mr Breakfast is a mad keen road cyclist. And when I say 'mad keen', I mean he spends all our disposable income on skin suits, and time trial helmets that make him look like something out of Flash Gordon. We have strange little garments made of black neoprene delivered in plain packages to our house, along with boxes of those little sucky tubes of whatever-it-is that you see them drinking on the Tour de France.

Any ideas? He claims there's nothing kinky about them, but I'm not so sure. They squeak when he puts them on.

Mr Breakfast has also been reading up on sports nutrition. As a result, he ordered himself some steel-cut oats and has been making himself 'proper' porridge before his club runs. I don't know what makes steel-cut oats any better nutritionally than plain old pinhead oatmeal from the supermarket, and he has failed to provide a satisfactory explanation, despite my swinging lightbulb-style interrogations.  I'm not even sure what the difference is between a steel-cut oat and a non-steel cut oat. I presume it means that the former is cut into pieces by, well, steel, but why that should be better for either the oat or you than one that is chopped in any other way remains a mystery. Do please enlighten me if you know.

I am going to make it my mission for this week to find out what Chris Hoy eats for breakfast. If it's not steel-cut oats, I'm going to cancel that internet order.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Breakfast club on breakfast clubs

Right, I'm just adjusting my soap box. I'm afraid it's time for a short rant.

I've spent most of this week this week being cross. I'm cross that the governement are seemingly incapable of thinking thtrough a policy before introducing it, I'm cross that the Scottish Government are allowing Donald Trump to destroy an area of Special Scientific Interest to build a golf course, I'm cross that the BBC and the government are busy wringing their hands about a TV programme about the cancellation of a TV programme rather than actually focussing on the substance of the TV programme itself. But mostly I'm cross about the way this government is picking on the vulnerable in our society. The elderly, the disabled, single parent families, children. Really very cross indeed.

I've been reading this article in The Observer about the importance of school breakfast clubs to children from low income families in the UK.

It's depressing reading isn't it? Goodness, I know that in absolute terms, we as a nation are so much better off than many other places, but this article really makes me angry. This is the 8th biggest economy in the world and we can't send our children to school with a decent meal in their tums. Many of the brilliant breakfast clubs that endeavour to do just that, and by so doing to educate children about what constitutes a healthy breakfast, are being forced to close down because of budget cuts, at the same time as demand for their services is increasing. And yes, I know that we need to pay off the defecit (the mantra has been repeated so many times that it *must* be true, right?), but why does it have to be low income families, and children in particular that are once again bearing the brunt of these cuts? I could cry.

The subject of school lunches has rightly been given prominence in discussions about pupil nutrition. I take my hat off to Jamie Oliver for the work that he's done in this area and have no time whatsoever for the Jamie haters. If it means even one school ups its game then his work's been worthwhile, as far as I'm concerned, especially when I look at our council's school lunch menu, which periodically fills me with despair when I gaze upon it. What insane mind on the council decided that reheated frozen pizza with potato smiles constitutes a 'healthy choice'? But that's a whole other blog.

Meanwhile, relatively little attention has been paid to the importance of breakfast to educational outcomes. It stands to reason that a hungry child is not going to perform as well as a child whose brain and body has been properly nourished before they enter the classroom. But hey, they're not going to vote Tory, and neither are their parents, so to hell with them, eh Mr Gove? Of course, there is also an argument that it is the parent's role to provide a decent breakfast for their child, and to an extent I agree. However, we don't live in an ideal world, and while of course we should be tackling the reasons why children aren't being properly fed at home, whether it be poverty, lack of knowledge about proper nutrition, or neglect, is it fair to penalise these children for the sins or simple misfortunes of their parents in the meantime? I don't think so.

So what can we do? Well, for what it's worth, here are my thoughts.

1. Support charities like Magic Breakfast, who are running breakfast clubs around the country.
2. Write to your MP.
3. Publicise the issue on your blogs and other social media.
4. At the risk of going all Big Society on your ass,  if you have any spare time, volunteer for your local breakfast club (I confess here that I hardly have enough time to get my own children out of the house in time for school, let alone volunteer at a breakfast club)
5. Thank your lucky stars if you're fortunate enough not to need their services.

We send our children to school to equip them for life. The least society can do is equip them to take best advantage of the opportunities education affords them.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Pioneer pancakes #2

So, to the results of the American pancake experiment. Ms Walker gives two variants on pancakes. The first is fairly similar to a standard pancake recipe, so I thought I'd try the second, which is for buckwheat pancakes of the type Almanzo dished up for Pa with ham.

Many years ago, I spent a joyous weekend in Rennes filling my face with those delicious buckwheat crepes that Brittany is famed for, and I'm very partial to a blini, which is probably the closest to this pioneer pancake that I've tasted, as they're also made with a leavening agent and often with buckwheat flour. These rustic American pancakes are closer to their East European cousin the blini than to our regular weekend blueberry pancake. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

So, to start with, we need (apologies for the US/Imperial measurements. I'm going with these, as I have measuring cups, and <whispers> cups are much easier than faffing about with the scales):
2tbs molasses
1oz yeast
2 cups buckwheat flour
1 cup wholewheat flour
½ tsp baking soda (= bicarbonate of soda)
½ tsp salt
1tbs dripping
¼ lb chunk salt pork
½ cup brown sugar

I'm an inveterate fiddler with recipes, so I adapted this slightly. Firstly I used quick yeast; the equivalent charts reckon that 1oz fresh yeast is approx 3.5tsp. I'm not going to start hunting down salt pork - it's only used in the recipe to grease the pan, so I figure I can live without it. I used bacon fat instead, as I fried up some bacon to go with the pancakes.

The recipe starts with an overnight sponge.  So, start by mixing the molasses with ½ cup of lukewarm water and then sprinkling the yeast on top. After leaving that for a few mins, add another 2 cups of water and both flours. Then cover with a cloth/clingfilm and leave overnight.  If you have a particularly warm kitchen (over about 20˚C at night), refrigerate the mixture. This is not a problem I ever have, sad to say. Here's my sponge:

I'm about to create another yeast-based explosion...

I returned an hour later to find it like this:

I was expecting to come into the kitchen the next morning and find it making its way across the kitchen floor. But in fact it had dropped back a bit and was looking lively but a bit more subdued. Thank goodness.

Next day, remove 1 cup of the sponge (you can keep this refrigerated and use as a starter for another batch if you like). Dissolve the bicarb and salt in ½ cup hot water and add the dripping/lard, then beat this into the sponge until well mixed.

Heat your griddle or pan (Ms Walker puts it so nicely: 'until it makes water drops dance') and then grease the pan (with the salt pork if you have tracked this down). Then cook as for a normal pancake. Traditionally, the first pancake is a 'blanket' pancake, that can be used to cover the pile as they are prepared, and is bigger than the rest. As the pancakes are stacked, sprinkle some brown sugar on each. The recipe says that this quantity makes about 24 3-4" wide pancakes. Even at their most ravenous, my family wouldn't eat that many, but I made larger pancakes and found that the quantities weren't outrageous. My mum was here too, but she's not exactly Desperate Dan when it comes to quantities.

The finished pancakes are darker than regular pancakes, and heartier, but got a resounding thumbs-up all round. Smallest Of All even discovered that he loves bacon (especially when it's slathered in maple syrup, I dare say, but anyway, it's some sort of result to get them eating anything new, to be honest). No eggs or milk, so definitely a more rustic kind of affair, but if my poncy lot will eat them with any degree of enthusiasm, then I'm sure they must be quite good.

Just the thing if you're heading out west. Which we were, as it happens, but not quite as far as Dakota. Happy trails!

Next time, Moomin-style pancakes, with pine needle sauce (I jest).

Monday, 22 October 2012

Pioneer pancakes and blackbird pie

Just back from a week of R&R. We were out of phone and internet range (I know - quaint, huh?) and a bit distracted by the views so no blogging for a few days. It was good to walk off a few of the heartier breakfasts:

Now, to pancakes. Once you start with pancakes, it's difficult to know where to stop. I guess because they're so quick and economical to cook, they feature in the cuisine of more or less every country in one form or other.  However, when I think of breakfast pancakes, I think of thick American pancakes, which are a regular weekend breakfast for us. We usually use Nigella's recipe from Domestic Goddess as our default, and plop in a handful of frozen blueberries while the batter is still wet in the pan. Once the pancake is cooked, the blueberries are done. We usually serve with a wee bit of maple syrup and cream. It is the weekend, after all.

We've been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books with the children  recently.  If, like me, you were reared on the slightly saccharine 70s TV version, I encourage you to read the books - their life was a lot more rugged than the TV version. In fact, they're currently stuck in the middle of a particularly hard winter in Dakota territory, where all the food has run out and poor old Ma Ingalls is reduced to hand-grinding wheat to make bread (in a tiny coffee grinder). Wait though. You think that's bad? This is shortly before the bit when Pa's hair gets eaten by mice. While he's still wearing it. Like I said, rugged. It kind of puts Sainsbury's supply issues into perspective. Anyway, I digress. The Ingalls family were keen on pancakes. In the big woods of Wisconsin, the family tap their own maple syrup and eat pancakes with this. Sometimes, Ma makes them into little pancake men. She does it freehand; do not make the mistake, as I did, of trying it with a gingerbread man cutter in the pan. You're liable to end up with a one-armed civil war veteran of a pancake. Later on in Dakota, Laura's future husband, Almanzo Wilder, rustles up a big pile of buckwheat pancakes for Pa Ingalls with molasses and ham from his family's farm. The rest of the town are starving at the time, and I note that Pa doesn't seem to mention to his family when he gets home that he's just had a slap-up feed chez Wilder.

When we started reading the books, we were a bit confused by some of the dishes mentioned, many of which are unfamiliar to my 21st century British ears, so I picked up a copy of Barbara M Walker's Little House Cookbook, which is great fun. It describes all the dishes in detail, and gives recipes for many of them. Including, should you feel the urge, a recipe for blackbird pie. As it's apparently illegal to kill blackbirds in the US, she suggests using starlings, with the rather chilling caveat, 'Starlings cannot be bought; they must be hunted'. The local starlings are safe, since I don't have the wherewithal to go a-huntin', but I thought I'd try and make some proper pioneer-style pancakes. If they're horrid, it'll at least teach my children to appreciate what they have, which Ma Ingalls would consider a fine lesson.

I'll post the results of the pancake extravaganza in a couple of days, once the hard drive with all my photos on it has returned from a wee trip to London...

Friday, 12 October 2012

Fish heads, fish heads, roly-poly fish heads

This has just plopped onto my doormat, and I want to share the frankly terrifying cover with you. It's an old book by F Marian McNeill that I've been wanting to get hold of, as I keep coming across references to it. What is going on with that cover though - she looks like something out of The Duchess of Duke Street. Mob cap? Check. Frilly apron? Check... Ach, that'll do. Never mind the period hairdo or crockery.

By the wonder of Amazon Marketplace it has arrived. Printed in 1975 (originally written, I think, in the 1920s or 30s), its previous owner was Daliburgh library on South Uist, and it appears to have been borrowed a mere four times since they acquired it. But it looks great. If anyone's after a recipe for 'crappit heids' (haddock heads and livers in oatmeal) or pickled tongue, Marian McNeill is your go-to cook. But, head-based food aside, it looks like a fabulous book, and I'm planning to curl up in front of the log burner on our holidays next week for a good read.

Meanwhile I leave you with some post-punk nonsense from my mis-spent youth. Who says the 80s were boring?

Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up, yum!

I recommend forwarding to about 2m 15s. Be advised however, that this will be your earworm for the rest of the day.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The fruit refusenik

My oldest son does not like fruit. This morning I asked him to write me a list of fruit he would willingly eat if I bought it for him. Here is his list:

I let him have tomatoes because technically he's right, and I was quite impressed that he knew this (he's 6). Also, it would be an even more woeful list without tomatoes.

He'll also countenance various other fruits in puddings or smoothies, but he would no sooner pluck an apple from the fruit bowl than saw his own arm off. I know I don't have it nearly as bad as some parents - he would eat spinach pasta until it was coming out of his ears, and he orders fish and chips at school, eats the fish and leaves the chips. But I still mourn the days when he used to eat blueberries as if they were sweeties.

I've found two ways to get round his aversion. The first is to melt a bar of chocolate in the microwave, mix it with a pot of custard, chop up bits of various fruits (bananas and strawberries and  mangoes, obviously, but he might just be persuaded to eat a cherry or a raspberry this way), decant the custard into little ramekins and serve it up as 'chocolate fondue'. I'm not in the habit of serving custard for breakfast though, and I can think of better ways to start my day than peeling mangoes and pineapples.

The second is bircher muesli. Now, my son and heir is mad for porridge, and bircher muesli is not a million miles from porridge I guess, but he absolutely laps this up. There are many ways to skin the bircher cat. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall likes dried apricots on his, and Gordon Ramsay uses milk rather than OJ, and adds toasted walnuts (yum). Here's my son's favourite though:

I usually make up a big jar of muesli base, mostly rolled oats, with seeds added (sunflower/pumpkin is my usual, but you could add sesame or linseeds, or nuts if you prefer), and dried fruit (I use raisins and dates, but again, whatever floats your boat). If you're feeling really lazy, Waitrose do bags of bircher muesli base. It contains dried raspberries, which would be viewed with great suspicion by my son, so I haven't tried it, and it's really no hassle to make up a jar of the base once every few weeks.

He usually takes this to school for his morning snack rather than having it for breakfast, so I decant a snack sized portion of the base into a container, and then grate in an apple, and squeeze an orange into it. Mix it up, dollop of natural yogurt and a squirt of honey and it's good to go. If you want it for breakfast, you can make it up the night before, then just add the yogurt and honey in the morning. In fact, you should make it up the night before, as the juice is supposed to soak into the oats for a while.

I will admit that it probably doesn't look quite as lovely as it might once it's swilled about in his school bag for an hour or so, and he's already told me that his classmates look upon him in horror when he tucks in, so I'm just delighted that he's still willing to take this to school for a snack, and hasn't caved in to cheese-string based peer pressure. I dare say it's only a matter of time.

If you too have a fruit refusenik, give it a go.  Or else tell me what you do to up the vitamin C in your child's diet.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

English muffins #1

The muffin family is a dysfunctional one. We seem to have abandoned 'proper' English muffins in favour of their big, cakey American cousins. It's a great shame. I often buy fruity English muffins at the supermarket - they're great toasted with butter for breakfast. So, I got me to wondering how easy it would be to make a muffin, and last night I rolled up my sleeves for some dough making. For a yeasty thing, they are fairly quick, although 'fairly quick' doesn't mean you should get up on a school morning with a plan to rustle up a batch before you tousle your children's little heads and send them off to school. That way madness lies, or at least a very early start. But a couple of hours will see you right.

I turned, as one does, to Elizabeth David for my basic instructions. Her English Bread and Yeast Cookery is a great starting point for everything from Chelsea buns to soda bread.  I suppose you maybe need to have a certain amount of kitchen confidence to be secure with her style of writing - she's not a Delia who will hold your hand through every step; she's more the lead-you-to-the-edge-of-the-pool-and-shove-you-in type. But I like the way that frees you up to do your own thing with the basics. Jazz baking, if you will. She roots up all sorts of fascinating historical bits and bobs about ingredients and methods, which my inner nerd embraces wholeheartedly. Her discussion of muffins and their cousins the crumpets is exhaustive.

I used her basic recipe, with a few tweaks. Hers are plain muffins, but I wanted something fruited, so I flung in a handful of raisins once the dough was mixed. I also added some cinnamon and mixed spice to the flour. I used quick yeast rather than 'proper' yeast. I also think that most people's tastes have become accustomed to less salt in bread nowadays. She suggests using a tablespoon of salt to 450g of flour. I used almost as much as that, as I hadn't tried the recipe before, but they do seem too salty to me so next time I'd probably stick to about a tsp. Finally, she suggests using rice flour to dust the muffins, but I didn't have any, so I thought polenta might do. It did do, though they were possibly a bit crisper on the outside than they would otherwise have been.

Elizabeth David's quantities:
450g strong white flour
15g yeast (I used one 7g packet of instant yeast - I think perhaps less would have been OK)
1 tbs salt (I'd probably use about a single tsp)
1/2 tsp  sugar
2tbs olive oil/lard/butter (I used olive oil)
'rather under' 450g mixed milk and water (I used half and half)
rice flour for dusting (I used polenta)

See what I mean about the instructions? What does 'rather under' mean, pray? I bet the technical challenge in the GBBO is a bit like this.

The first step is to warm the flour in the oven. I have no idea what this does, if anything, to the flour, but I guess it would give the yeast a head start when it's added. The book insists that it makes all the difference to the finished muffin, and who am I to argue? Then this is mixed to a soft dough with the rest of the ingredients, the water and milk having been warmed with a little olive oil first. Now, when I say soft, this is  really soft.  I could have hung wallpaper with it. I added more flour to make it even a little bit manageable, but it was still pretty wet. Anyway, leave it to prove - covered -  for about 50 minutes and puff! Here it is, before and after the 1st rise. I never fail to be amazed by how that happens.


Then, and here's really the sticky bit, knock it back and form it into 7 or 8 muffins, using the rice flour to prevent it sticking <hollow laugh>, at which point the phone will invariably ring. Ignore it. Once you are unstuck, lay the muffins on a tray dusted with more of the flour, then cover with a cloth and leave for about 35 mins to puff up again.

Poke it and it'll ooze

Then transfer a batch carefully to a warm pan or griddle and cook slowly for about 10 mins on each side. Keep them warm under a cloth or in a low oven while you cook the rest. And presto! Home-made muffins! What do you think (if you can tell from my photos)? They got the thumbs up from my discerning breakfast audience anyway.

Almost as easy as the other, more ubiquitous kind of muffin, which as any fule kno, is the easiest thing to cook in the whole wide world. They also puff up a little in the pan in a rather pleasing way. Big smooth doughy domes.

One great thing about bread cookery is that all the waiting about means you can pootle about doing other things. I found myself leafing through Dan Lepard's Short and Sweet, where I found another recipe for English muffins made with cider vinegar and natural yogurt. They sound very good, and quite different from these ones, so I'll try them next time and let you know the verdict. I really love Dan Lepard's writing, but I haven't as yet made a huge number of things from this book. Interestingly, he says that while we've been busily scoffing supersize double chocolate American muffins, bakers in the US have taken English muffins to their hearts and perfected the art of cooking them. Go figure.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Brambles, blaeberries...and rhubarb

On a brighter note, we went for a lovely woodland stomp in the Trossachs yesterday. I was hoping to get enough blackberries to make some blackberry and apple jelly, but the pickings were slim. I blame Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Those woods had been foraged to within an inch of their lives. So, no jelly, but there were quite a few blaeberries (bilberries) still, and together with the blackberries we did find, and some nice cooking apples (foraged from Sainsburys), there were plenty for a tip-top crumble. And aren't they pretty?

I'm still thinking about the jelly (by which I mean jam with no lumps rather than wibbly jelly). I have loads of rhubarb in the freezer that my neighbour kindly gave me in the summer. I've already made jam with some of it, so I'm thinking perhaps rhubarb and orange jelly. It would probably be prettier with that gorgeous pink new season rhubarb in late winter, but it's maybe worth a try. By the way, if you've never made jam with new season rhubarb, I urge you to have a go. It's the most delicious thing on soft white bread - almost fizzy, and the prettiest jam of all.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Alsatian Bees

No, not some freaky dog-bee, but the poor old bees of Alsace-Lorraine in France. As if varroa mite, colony collapse disorder and a really lousy summer weren't enough, now this. The bees have been chowing down on waste products from a factory making M&Ms in France, and the resulting honey is bright blue and green. And since most people don't fancy bright blue honey on their toast, the beekeepers are suffering too.

I've been fascinated by beekeeping ever since I read Far From The Madding Crowd as an impressionable teenager. That wonderful scene where Bathsheba Everdene is hiving the bees has stayed with me ever since:

'She had dressed the hive with herbs and honey, fetched a ladder, brush and crook, made herself impregnable with armour of leather gloves, straw hat, and large gauze veil - once green but now faded to snuff colour - and ascended a dozen rungs of the ladder. At once she heard, not ten yards off, a voice that was beginning to have a strange power in agitating her.'

My dad was an entomologist, and we used to go and visit one of his colleagues, a man whom my brother and I insisted on calling Mr Baldabins (his actual name was something far less exotic). Mr Baldabins kept several hives in his garden, and I remember feeling thrilled, a little frightened and very intrigued by all the veils and masks and smoke involved in the beekeeper's magic art.

But bees are really suffering now. Apparently the terrible washout of a summer we've had means that the UK's honey supply is going to be very badly affected, particularly Scottish heather honey, which I particularly love. A tragedy not just for my toast, but also of course for the bees, who need the honey to keep going through the winter. But the bigger picture is even more scary. One third of US hives collapsing for no apparent reason, and the devastating varroa mite are much more of a threat than a winter of highly-priced honey. One has to wonder whether our dependence on pesticides and fertilizers is partly responsible for the decline of the honeybee, but whatever the cause, I do hope they can be saved. A world without bees would be a sorry place indeed.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Tapa coffeehouse

I don't know whether it's the large Italian community here, or the fact that Glaswegians love a good blether, but Glasgow has loads of lovely cafes. I hope to introduce you to some of them in the blog if you're unfamiliar with the city.

Today was a beautiful crisp Autumn morning - all blue sky and orange leaves, and I had to take the car to the garage, so no better excuse to abandon work for the day (one of the perks of freelance life) and take a stroll through Queen's Park to one of my favourites, Tapa coffeehouse. They roast their own coffee, and at their other cafe in the East End, they bake their own delicious bread and cakes. They also serve a very fine breakfast. You can have anything from yogurt with fruit compote to the full blow-out (sausage, bacon, tomato, mushrooms, fried egg, beans, homemade potato scone and toast). Burp. This being Glasgow, at weekends 'breakfast' is served until 4pm. How very civilized.

And here's the best thing. They also sell these:

What do you think it is, dear reader?

It's a breakfast in bed kit! Organic eggs, a loaf of Tapa bread (I picked sunflower wholemeal), a bag of freshly roasted coffee beans, a box of tea, a jar of organic jam (this is Damson) and a pack of butter. And you can choose whichever variety of bread/jam/coffee/tea you'd like. It all comes in the big sack. Isn't that a lovely idea for a present for someone you love? The lovely Tapa lady even offered to send round one of the chefs to cook it for me. Alas, I think she was only joking.


I haven't forgotten about the pancakes, but I've been watching this TED talk talk by Barry Schwartz today,  and it reminded me of an article I read many years ago about a Japanese academic who went to work in the US and was utterly baffled by the number of choices he was constantly being asked to make about even the most minor thing. In Japan, he said, if you were a guest in someone's home, they would offer you a drink, you would accept, and they would bring you a drink. In the US,  however, he would go to his host's house where they would ask him if he wanted a drink. If he agreed, they'd ask him if he wanted tea, or coffee, or juice, or maybe something stronger?  Coffee. White, or black? With sugar or without sugar? Is instant OK, or shall I make a pot of real coffee? Would you prefer a cup or a mug? Would you like a cookie with that? Or not? He felt that the Americans (and of course it's not just the Americans - we're exactly the same in this country) wasted huge amounts of time and energy in making and offering these choices. It's a very zen way of looking at things, but I know what he means.

Our local supermarket has recently been extended. And when I say 'extended', it's about 3 or 4 times as big as it was before. The cashier told me that she keeps finding exhausted pensioners at the tills. They've probably been in there for weeks trying to find the teabags. Honestly, you need a good stock of energy bars before you cross the threshold.

So, bigger and better, or too much choice? I thought I'd have a wee shufty at the breakfast cereal aisle,  with Barry Schwartz's words ringing in my ears, and specifically at the muesli  section of the aisle. When I was a nipper, Alpen was a relatively new product on the British market, all 'Swiss' and 'healthy' with its snowy mountain on the brown box. If you wanted muesli, it was pretty much Alpen or hie thee to a health food store and buy what the unreconstructed referred to as 'rabbit food'. Alpen came in brown (which of course we now recognise as 'piled full of sugar and actually not all that healthy after all'). No blue low sugar variants, no granola, no snack-n-go breakfast replacement bars. So what do we have now? 34 different varieties of muesli is what.  And in their online store there are 49 different mueslis. And that's before you even get to the cornflakes or any of the hundreds of other cereals. If you type in 'breakfast cereals' you get a whopping 199 choices.

I'm really not sure how I feel about it all, in terms of quality of life. While it's lovely to be able to try new things and to be able to find alternatives if what you really want isn't available, I often feel paralysed by indecision, and I'm sure the shopping takes twice as long as it needs to. A simpler approach to life is very appealing. Think how much time we would free up if we weren't agonising over which breakfast cereal to choose, which washing powder/liquid/tab to choose, which kind of seeded bread (rich and roasted? Light and nutty?) to choose.

"Through return to simple living comes control of desires. In control of desires, stillness is attained. In stillness the world is restored."
Lao Tzu 

There now, I bet you weren't counting on Chinese philospophy with your breakfast blog.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Dream breakfasts

Nutritionists tell us breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Strangely though, if you want to bake a cake or persuade a small child to eat an aubergine, you're spoilt for choice when it comes to blogs, but if you want to find out about the perfect bacon butty or what a kedgeree is supposed to look like, information is thinner on the ground. That's where I'd like The Breakfast Club to come in. 

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