Somerset Apples

I’ve been spending far too much time thinking about how to winter-proof my life.  I’m cycling the 12 miles into work three times a week, which has meant investing in all manner of hivis, lycra and thermals.  The list of kit requirements grows every time the mercury drops by a degree and I still haven’t found a hat that I’m willing to leave the house in.  My only choice seems to be a toss up between looking liken an elf or a toddler. 

So it’s a good thing I’ve got this distracting, sunny post to remind me of cotton, linen and short sleeves.  These photos are from a long weekend jaunt down to Somerset, just before everything started heading towards Autumn.  We were visiting Toby’s brother, sister in law and little nephew and spent a glorious afternoon with them walking up and down the Mendips before catching the last of the afternoon sun in their garden.

This is cider country, where even the tiniest hamlet has at least one, if not several, pubs and it seemed each one we went into was even friendlier than the last.  Driving through the Mendip’s valleys is a stunning experience, with clusters of thatched cottages lurking behind each bend, not to mention gorges and wild goats!   A particular treat, a belated birthday present, was a trip to The Ethicurean.  It’s been on my wish list ever since it was voted Best Ethical Eat in the Observer Food Monthly Awards in 2011, who also gave a nod to its head bartender this year.

No surprises there, their chipotle infused take on an Old Fashioned was the nicest, strongest and most unusual cocktail I’ve had in a long time.  A drink to be sipped, steadily and contemplatively well into the first course.  Toby’s cucumber beer from the Wild Beer Co. also went down a treat.  We were lucky to arrive while it was still light, so could enjoy a stroll around the gardens and the views of the surrounding hills.  The restaurant is set in a walled garden and built into a series of conservatories.  The whole thing would risk being overly twee if it wasn’t for the fact that the food and drink is so damn good, you’ve got to take it seriously.   Everything is, naturally, sourced or grown locally, which means the menu is incredibly innovative as these constraints demand a fair degree of resourcefulness. The staff were also fantastically knowledgeable and we left promising to go back.  Hopefully soon. 

We stayed at the gorgeous Longbridge House in Shepton Mallet.  This B&B only has one gorgeous room at the moment, which overlooks a quiet courtyard.  It was a lovely place to stay and not without some historical cudos- the Duke of Monmouth stayed at the house before the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685.  We were given a warm greeting by Tanya, the proprietress along with tea and homemade cake in our room, which won me over straight away and that was before I saw the enormous tub. Breakfast was cooked to order and included eggs from Tanya’s own hens.  I went for a little stroll and visited their coop at the top of the house’s tiered garden and took some snaps before we drove back to London.

We’ve both been working pretty much flat out since then and I have to admit I wish we’d had a bit longer in Somerset to rest up before the whirlwind of my new job, Toby’s recording schedule and the usual run around in the build up towards Christmas.  However, I’ve been able to produce a few recipes inspired by our few days there, all with that most autumnal and most Somersetian of fruit- the apple! 



Hearty Chicken Stew with Apple Dumplings
You will need:
For the stew:
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large chicken, jointed or 8 free-range chicken thighs, bone in
2 large onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves
2 parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
1 turnip, roughly chopped
3 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
500ml chicken stock
750ml good-quality medium English cider
2 bay leaves
1 sprig rosemary
Large handful parsley

For the dumplings:
120g self-raising flour
100g fresh white breadcrumbs
120g suet
1 large cooking apple, or two smaller ones, finely diced
2 tbsp rosemary , chopped
1 small bunch parsley, chopped
2 eggs, beaten

1. Heat the oil in a large pan, season the chicken and brown in batches, until lightly golden all over.  Set to one side and drain off all but 2 tbsp of the fat in the pan.  Add the onions and fry over a medium heat until softened.  Add the cider and allow to bubble down until syrupy, about 5 min, scraping any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.   

2. Tie the bay leaves, rosemary and about half of the parsley together with some string.  Add this, along with the garlic and the remaining vegetables to the pan.  Finally, return the chicken to the pan and pour in enough stock to just cover.  Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for about 1 hour, until the chicken is cooked,  the meat is starting to come off the bone and the sauce has reduced and thickened.   

3. While the stew is cooking, make the dumplings.  Mix together the flour, breadcrumbs and suet.  Add the herbs and seasoning and then slowly beat in the egg to form a wet mixture.  Stir through the diced apples and then divide into roughly 12 even sized balls.  Add these to the stew about 20 minutes before the end of the cooking time so that they just sit on top of the chicken.  Cover and allow to steam until soft and cooked through.  Divide into large bowls and scatter with the remaining parsley. 

Somerset Jam
(From Diana Henry’s ‘Salt, Sugar, Smoke’)
You will need:
1kg cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks
600g blackberries
400ml cider
800g granulated sugar
50ml Apple brandy (Somerset, preferably of course, but I only had French), plus a little extra
1.  Put the apples and blackberries into a large pan or a preserving pan with the cider and slowly bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and allow to simmer until the fruit is completely soft and mushy, adding a little water if it is looking too dry. 
2.  Add the sugar and continue to cook on a low heat, stirring to help dissolve the sugar.  Then, turn the heat up to and cook until the jam reaches setting point.  You can test for this by placing a saucer or small plate in the fridge, then putting a tsp of jam on it.  Allow to cool before ‘pushing’ the jam across the plate with your finger.  If it wrinkles up, the jam has set. 
3.  Finally, stir in the brandy and pour into warm, dry sterilised jars.  Leave to sit for about 7 minutes, then pour in a another slug of brandy into each jar.  Cover, seal and leave to cool before storing.  Keeps for a year, refrigerate once opened. 

Apple and Blackberry Loaf Cake with Almond Crumb Topping
You will need:

150g butter, softened
250g self-raising flour
1 apple, like Bramley or similar cooking apple, cubed
2 plums, cubed as best you can
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp cinnamon
100g caster sugar
75g raisins
3 eggs, beaten
75ml milk

For the topping:
2 tbsp flour
2 tbsp sugar
25g butter
Handful flaked almonds


1. Preheat your oven to 180C.  Butter and line a 2L loaf tin with some parchment.  Place the flour, sugar and spices in a large bowl and stir in the butter.  Stir the eggs and milk together and gradually mix into the the dry ingredients.  Finally, stir through the chopped fruit and raisins until evenly distributed. Pour into the prepared loaf tin.

2. Rub the butter sugar and flour for the topping together in a small bowl.  Add the flaked almonds and mix together with your hands, breaking the almonds up a little bit.  Sprinkle over the loaf and bake for about 40-45 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean.   Cool before tucking in while still slightly warm.

Pips and Pies

Apples | 26/10/2012 | By

We have more apples than we know what to do with.  First, there was my over enthusiastic purchase of a dozen or so beauties from the local deli- a variety I had never heard of from some far flung orchard in Dorset.  Then there was the wonderful tree that just kept giving in Toby’s family’s garden in Wimbledon.  We were initially given some when Toby’s parents ventured to the East End for dinner, before  picking as many as we could carry back on the tube on a recent visit ‘down south’ (we jokingly refer to these stays as our country retreat).  

The question then, of course, becomes what to do with such a glut.  I made a pot roast with chicken, cider, cream, chives and parsley (would have used tarragon but didn’t have any to hand, anyway, I like the way the chives cut through the sweetness of the apples).   Then, of course, I had to make a pie especially after scoring some ready-rolled shortcrust pastry from a recent shoot I worked on.  I’ve never done lattice and thought I should give it a go.  Before constructing the pie, I sliced the apples as thinly as I could bear, mixed with plenty of sugar, nutmeg and fresh rosemary.  The herb was actually very subtle but made for something a little bit different.  I recommend it served with the obligatory scoop of vanilla ice cream.  

You may also notice some new props in my photos.  These come from an early-morning car boot sale adventure with some friends where, magpie-like, I amassed a whole new repertoire of loot.  Behold below.  I’m rather pleased with myself.

Apples and Juniper Berries

This soup is a proper throwback to my Scandinavian roots.  I believe apple soup is particularly big in Norway, but the combo with juniper is very Swedish too.  Scandi cuisine often plays on sweet, sour and salty flavours and this soup does just that, with an emphasis on the sweet and sour.  The trick is to be a bit picky about the apples you decide to use.  Choose ones with a bit of teeth-sucking-oomph to them, or the soup will be too sickly sweet.

If apple soup sounds a bit strange, rest assured, the taste is not strong and apple works very well with the parsnip.  It is quite filling though,  so all you really need is a chunk of bread (preferably rye, of course) to go with it and you’ve got a complete lunch.  You could make it lighter by omitting the cream and just adding a couple of tablespoons of half fat creme fraiche instead.  This would also take it from a more autumnal soup into something a bit more summery, particularly if you replace the parsley with dill at the end (for an even more Scandi twist!). 

Apple, Parsnip and Juniper Soup

You will need:
3 quite tart apples, peeled, cored and chopped
2 large parsnips, peeled and chopped into chunks
2 celery sticks, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
1 thumb of fresh ginger, crushed
1 L chicken stock
250ml cider
250 ml single cream
1 tbsp juniper berries
4 whole cardamon pods
1 small cinnamon stick
bunch of fresh parsley or dill
olive oil
salt, pepper


1.  Ideally, you would have a scrap of muslin to hand which you could use to make a little bag for the spices for seeping in the soup.  However, if you don’t, a tea strainer works rather well I find.  Put the juniper berries, cardamon pods and cinnamon stick into the strainer.  I used a nice blue plastic one I got from my aunt for Christmas.   

2.  Heat the olive oil in a large pan and then add the chopped apple, celery, shallots and ginger.  Leave this to fry for a minute or two while you season with salt and pepper and lower the heat. 

3.  Get a sheet of baking parchment, large enough to cover the pan, and run it under the tap for a few seconds.  Squeeze out any excess water and place snugly over the ingredients in the pan (see photo above).  This will allow the fruit and veg to steam.  Cook this way for about 10 minutes.

4.  Remove the paper and add the stock, cider, spices (in the muslin or tea strainer).  Bring to a simmer and leave for about half an hour.

5.  Remove the spices and puree the soup until smooth with a stick blender or in a food processor.

6.  Bring to a simmer again and stir in the cream, if using.  Taste to season and add the chopped fresh herbs.  

Ladies who brunch

Lazy Saturday brunch with friends.  Papers, coffee, juice, cereals and ricotta and spelt pancakes with blackberry and apple compote.  Pretty good.

Lemon and Ricotta Spelt Pancakes with Apple and Blackberry Compote. 
You will Need

    225g Ricotta

      125ml Semi-skimmed milk

         2 Large eggs, separated

          80g Spelt flour

            1 tsp Baking powder

             2 tsp Lemon zest, finely grated

              1 tbsp syrup, golden will do, but maple is best

                2 tsp Sunflower oil

                  Blackberries, 1 small punnet

                    3 Apples, sliced

                      200g sugar

                        100g butter


                             1. For the compote,  ‘fry’ the sugar in the butter over a high heat, until it begins to caramelise.  Then add the fruits and leave to bubble away until soft and caramelised, stirring occasionally. 

                            2. In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, milk and egg yolks. Stir in the flour and baking powder and keep stirring until you have a batter
                            3.  In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until foamy and stiff and fold them into the first bowl. Add the lemon zest and agave or maple syrup and stir gently.  

                              4. In a large frying pan, heat the oil, and drop in small dollops of batter, about the size of a large chocolate coin. Cook the pancakes for about 1–2 minutes on each side; you want them to be a honeyed brown.  Keep them warm in a low temperature oven till ready to serve.  

                                Pickles, Pumpkins and Pigs.

                                Despite summer’s confused arrival at the start of October, the evenings are really drawing in now, the clocks have gone back and I could have sworn I saw a frost on the grass this morning.   I’ve got my massive box of woolly things out of our storage room/cupboard (which Toby’s mum calls the ‘glory hole.’  Someone pointed out that the term is actually quite rude, but it’s too late now.  Glory hole it is.)  My wardrobe is ready for colder climes but my pantry (ie a shelf in the kitchen cupboard) is not.  So I spent a weekend pickling, preserving and jamming some of the autumn harvest, with pretty decent results. The post on that is on its way. 

                                I also bought a pumpkin, in the spirit of all things autumnal.   Having gone to an American primary school when I was little, I have a real soft spot for Halloween.  It reminds me of being a kid, clutching a lunchbox and crayons ready for the new(ish) term, dressed in my AMAZING superwoman costume.
                                Originally I thought I could carve it for Halloween, using the shell for decoration and the fleshy pulp for soup.  However, the thing about pumpkins is this- they don’t actually taste of much.  A pumpkin is no butternut squash which is full of sweet and nutty flavour.  You really need to do more with a pumpkin, give it a bit more love and thought, simply blitzing the flesh into a soup won’t really do. But if you spend a bit of energy on it,  you will be rewarded.  I used my medium sized £1.50 pumpkin from Tesco for three different recipes, each of which fed the two of us with plenty of leftovers.  How’s that for a credit cruncher? 
                                First up, I made a pumpkin, chicken and peanut soup.  I was up in the Lake District recently, visiting a friend who doing a rep season at the Theatre by the Lake is Keswick.  It’s absolutely stunning there and despite the rain, we managed a 5 am walk to see the sun come up over a stone circle.  Ok, so there wasn’t any sun, but we watched it get lighter, which still felt like an achievement.  I also found some real treasures in the Oxfam in Keswick, which was full of charity shop gold.  A gorgeous dress with a suitably autumnal print (just needs a little taking in at the shoulders and a bit of a play with the hem) and a book on soups by Hannah Wright.  
                                This recipe is from that book:
                                Chicken, Pumpkin and Peanutbutter Soup
                                You will need:
                                2 medium onions
                                2 small sticks of celery
                                12oz (350g) sliced pumpkin
                                1-2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed with salt
                                8 allspice berries or 1/4 teaspoon each of cinnamon, clove and ginger
                                freshly milled pepper
                                1 1/2 pints (900ml) good chicken stock
                                1 heaped tbsp peanutbutter
                                meat from half a breast of half a leg of chicken or a few thighs, cooked. 
                                1. Roughly chop the onion, celery and pumpkin flesh and put in a heavy pan.
                                2. Add chili, garlic, spices salt and pepper and the chicken stock.  Bring to boil and simmer for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.
                                3. Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little before stirring in the peanutbutter.  Blend with a stick blender or in food processor.
                                4. When you want to serve it, dice the chicken into neat cubes and add to the soup.  Gently reheat and taste to season when hot.  Do not let boil.
                                You can add a garnish of sliced onions, pepper and parsley if you would like. 

                                Then I roasted pumpkin with sausages (the pig in the title of this post.  Sorry, I was a bit stuck for inspiration), sage and red onion, a bit of olive oil and balsamic.  This has become a bit of a favourite with butternut squash.  We normally eat this with some rice, but you could add it to pasta as well.   Also works with the addition of fennel and chili, if you prefer a spicier version. 
                                This was then followed a few nights later by a  sausage (pig again!) and pumpkin cassoulet, which really did feel like the perfect antidote to the autumnal winds and drizzle.   
                                Pumpkin Cassoulet
                                You will need:
                                A knob of butter
                                A pack of sausages, chopped into chunky bits
                                2 red onions
                                2 garlic cloves
                                pumpkin (about a quarter to half of a medium one, depending on how much you would like to use), chopped into chunks
                                1 tbsp white wine vinegar
                                1 tin chopped tomatoes
                                1 tin cannelloni or berterolli beans
                                500ml chicken stock
                                salt and pepper
                                parsley to serve (optional)
                                1. Preheat the oven to 180C (350F or Gas mark 4)
                                2. Heat about half the butter in a large casserole dish and fry the sausage pieces until brown and caramelised
                                3. Add the rest of the butter and the chopped onions.  Fry until softened before adding the minced garlic and chopped sage.
                                4. Add the pumpkin and stir well until combined.  Increase the heat and add the vinegar, let it bubble and evaporate.
                                5. Add the tomatoes, beans and stock before seasoning.
                                6. Bring this to the boil and then transfer to the oven for up to one hour, until the sausages are cooked through and the pumpkin is tender.
                                7. Serve in hearty bowls, scatter with parsley.  Enjoy next to a roaring fire.
                                Finally, roasted pumpkin, chorizo and quinoa salad, which is a real winner.   I basically just used what I had in the fridge, roasted the remaining pumpkin and fried up slices of chorizo.  I added this to some quinoa, chopped tomatoes, avocado and basil.  I made a zingy lemon-based dressing to accompany this one.  Simple and incredibly moreish.   
                                Another brilliant autumnal ingredient is, of course, the humble apple.  I really enjoy apples in savory dishes- depending on the kind of apple it can add a sweetness or tangyness, crunchy texture or a soft one.  Here are two of my favourite seasonal apple dishes:  
                                Normandy pot roast chicken with apples
                                You will need:
                                Olive oil
                                1 onion, sliced
                                2 sticks of celery
                                1 pack of lardons
                                6-8 pieces of leg and thigh (depending on the size of the pieces)
                                300 ml (1/2 pint) dry cider
                                300mol (1/2 pint) chicken stock
                                3 apples of your choosing, Braeburn works nicely
                                4 tbsp crème fraiche (I always use half fat)
                                handful of chopped sage
                                1. Preheat the oven to gas mark 4/180C.  Heat the oil in a large pan, add the onion and celery and cook until softened.  Remove from the pan and put in a large casserole dish or large pot.  Add the lardoons to the pan and cook until golden.  Add to the pot. 
                                2. Add a little extra oil (or butter if you prefer), to the pan and brown the chicken pieces all over, seasoning as you go. 
                                3. Remove the chicken from the pan and pour in the cider, scraping any crispy bits that have stuck to the pan.  
                                4. Arrange the chicken pieces in the pot, so they sit on top of the onions, celery and lardoons.  Add the cider juices and the chicken stock and sprinkle with half the chopped sage. Cover with a lid and bake for 50 minutes.
                                5. Add the apple slices, rest of the sage and stir in the crème fraiche.  Cook uncovered for another 20 or so minutes, until the juices of the chicken run clear. 
                                6. To serve, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with rice or mash and a simple green salad or perhaps some tenderstem broccoli. 
                                And here’s one for those with a sweet tooth, although this honestly doesn’t feel too naughty as it is jam-packed with the fruit.  Sort of.  
                                Apple streusel cake or Apple crumb cake
                                Taken from the newest Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, p. 42.
                                You will need:
                                120g butter, unsalted (40g cold and diced, 80 g softened)
                                250 g plain flour
                                100g caster sugar
                                70 g soft light brown sugar
                                1 large egg
                                1/2 tsp vanilla essence
                                1 tsp ground cinnamon
                                1 tsp baking powder
                                1/8 tsp salt
                                80ml whole milk
                                3 large, crunchy apples, peeled, cored, quartered and sliced. 
                                1. Preheat your oven to 170C or 325F, Gas mark3.  Then grease a 20cm (8in) spring-form cake tin (or the closest thing you have) with about 20 g of the softened butter.  Also add a dusting of flour (40g)
                                2. First off, make your crumble topping.  Sift 70g of the flour with the cinnamon before adding 40g of the cold, diced butter.  Use your fingertips to rub the ingredients together until you’ve got a breadcrumb-like mixture.  Stir in the light brown sugar and then set to one side.
                                3. Use an electric whisk to cream the remaining 60g of softened butter and the caster sugar until light and fluffy.  Add the egg and vanilla, mixing thoroughly.
                                4. Sift together140g of flour,  baking powder and salt in a separate bowl.  Add about half of this mixture to the creamed butter and sugar, followed by half the milk.  Mix well with your electric whisk, then repeat with the remaining flour mixture and milk. 
                                5. Pour the batter into the prepared tin.  Arrange the apple slices in concentric circles ontop of the batter, then sprinkle with the crumb topping to form an even layer. 
                                6. Place in the oven and bake for 35-45 min, until it is golden brown on top and a skewer or knife inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. 

                                Set aside to cool before removing from the tin.  Can be enjoyed warm or cold, with crème fraiche, whipped cream, ice cream or custard.  Or all of the above.