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Well, compared to last year’s flurry of preserving, we’re very quiet this year. Our apple trees seem to take one year on, one year off, and this is an off year. My polytunnel was invaded by red spider mite, so I have no tomatoes or courgettes. But through the wonders of Freecycle, I got hold of some damsons. Well, lots of damsons.

I wanted to make some jam. Last time I made damson jam, I believed the recipe when it said blithely that you didn’t need to stone them, just scrape the stones off as it cooked. Well, that might work for a small batch but not for a big one. By the time I got the blinking stones out, the jam had overboiled and set like a rock. So this year, I decided to stone them. I don’t have a cherry stoner. I did have several kilos of plums. Stoning them with a knife was going to take ages and, I realised, waste half the fruit because the stones weren’t coming away cleanly.

So I cheated. Damsons onto baking trays, like this:

and into the oven (at about 150C) for 10 minutes or so, so they look more like this:

This made them much easier to destone. I made the jam, which is stashed away in the larder. It’s not my year for perfect damson jam – the damsons were quite tanniny (they were all windfalls, so they were ripe – maybe it’s the variety?) so the jam is probably one to have with cheese rather than on toast. Still, onwards and upwards!

The good thing about the tannins is that I also made some damson gin. I imagine the tannins will be very effective there. Damson gin is lovely – not as popular as the ubiquitous sloe gin, but I like it just as much. Recipes vary – I use about half the weight of sugar to damsons. My proportions are something like: one pound fruit to half a pound sugar to just over a pint of gin (not very scientific, but that’s what my jars hold). I don’t stone the damsons, just prick them all over and put them in the jars, followed by the sugar, then top up with gin. I give it a good shake, and shake a couple of times a day until all the sugar’s dissolved. It won’t be ready for a good while, but it’s already looking promising:

Yum yum!

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Note that this doesn’t say ‘my favourite cookery books’. This is because several of my favourite cookery books are ones I read rather than cook from. I adore Elizabeth David’s writing, and love the sound of the food she describes. I find that reading her books gives me ideas. But I very rarely follow her recipes (and when I do, they don’t always work – but then I know people who find her recipes very reliable, so who knows…?) So here, in no particular order and with my very subjective comments, are the ten books I actually use in the kitchen, rather than read in bed…

Home Baking by Carole Handslip.

This little book was given to me years ago by my mum’s godmother. I must have been twelve or thirteen. She was all kinds of crazy, by the way, but those are stories for another day… It is resplendent with late 80s-type styling, but it is wonderful. The recipes are lovely, and they all, without exception, work. I can bake something from this book for the first time and know, without a doubt, it will work. This is where ‘my’ apple and cinnamon cake recipe came from. And ‘my’ gingerbread recipe. Also the drum cake I did for the Little Boy’s birthday. Bless Carole. And bless mad Auntie M for giving me this book. It’s out of print but Amazon have copies for a penny plus postage.

The River Cottage Preserves Book
by Pam Corbin

My goodness, this book is wonderful. Jams, jellies and chutneys. Cordials and things made with lots of booze. Fruit ‘leathers’. Compotes. It’s wonderful. The recipes are clear and comprehensive, and for a country dweller, there are plenty of ideas for using things like rosehips, beech leaves and haws. But city dwellers needn’t panic – there’s strawberry jam and apple chutney and things like that. Although I do suspect that calling something ‘Saucy Haw Ketchup’ was an exercise in playing with homophones as a trap for the unwary. It also has a lovely binding and smells like a proper book. These things matter to me.

The New English Kitchen
by Rose Prince
I really like this book. Lots of recipes, but with an emphasis on using good quality produce, seasonal food, sustainable non-intensive meat, making the most of leftovers… it sounds terribly preachy and worthy, but it isn’t. At least, I don’t think so. I think it’s delightful. (Although her recipe for lemon curd is achingly sweet – cut down the sugar by a third…)

Tamarind and Saffron
by Claudia Roden

I love Claudia Roden’s books and have several – and want the rest. But this is my favourite. From the evocative title and the beautiful blue and yellow picture on the cover to the beautiful writing and the droolsome recipes, it’s a gem. Plus, the recipes are delicious. Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food is also wonderful, but as yet is more of a bedroom cookery book than a kitchen one…

Feast
by Nigella Lawson

I have a love/hate thing for Nigella. I love her books and her writing. I cannot bear watching her on TV. The hair flicking and finger sucking and flirty looks at the camera drive me to teeth-grinding lunacy. But her books … well, I have several and was torn as to which to include. ‘How to Eat’ is great – it’s my go-to for the basics and for new ideas with staple ingredients. ‘How to Be A Domestic Goddess’ is a fantastic baking book, and I do like baking. But I chose this in the end. I love the idea of a book centred on seasonal feasts and the ritual of cooking. I love reading about the food of other traditions and seeing what is familiar and what is less so. And I love anyone who can include a recipe for ‘Blood Clots and Pus’. (It’s in the Hallowe’en section and when my children are older I am totally making this…)

I picked one Claudia Roden and one Nigella Lawson, but I couldn’t pick just one Nigel Slater. Nigel Slater is my favourite cookery writer, bar none. I love the way he revels in both the simplest dishes (roast chicken, a baked potato) and the more complex (fish with a beautiful sauce, a home made ice cream). So I have selected two of his books:

Real Food is a kitchen and a bedroom standby. It is a big squeezy warm hug of a book, with chapters devoted to a particular food: bread, potatoes, cheese, chocolate. It is comforting, it is delicious, it is inspiring and happy making. ‘Real food means big-flavoured, unpretentious cooking. Good ingredients made into something worth eating. Just nice, uncomplicated food,’ he says. Who could argue with that? It tends to come out more in the winter months, when my need for comfort food is highest, because nobody does comfort food like Nigel. No, not even you, Nigella.

And we also have Real Fast Food.

I used this lots when I worked in an office and had people home for dinner on weeknights. Proper tasty food, ready in half an hour or less from start to finish. And yummy.

Red Velvet and Chocolate Heartache
by Harry Eastwood

This is a book I picked up on a whim at the library. I liked the name and I liked the cover. But I have a wheat allergy and the recipes are all wheat free, so that was wonderful. They also use vegetables in place of the fat. And they’re delicious. Really. Cake made with swede, courgette or sweet potato is moist and yummy and proper cake-like. Ms Eastwood does come over a bit dippy in places – all the cakes have little potted descriptions of their personalities – but it’s a fabulous book.

I like many of the River Cottage books, but this is the one we use most. The Family Cookbook
is brilliant for child-friendly recipes, and also explains why food does what it does – why we beat eggs and whip cream, why milk turns into butter, why things burn. It’s awesome. Plus, it has a top notch recipe for fudge, and is the place we go when we’ve forgotten how to make pancakes. This is coming into its own now my older child is getting interested in food, and I foresee a food-splattered future for it.

And for the basics, I turn to the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book.
It tells you, plainly and simply, how to cook pretty much anything. It was a present a couple of Christmasses ago and I have used it regularly since.

So, there we are. Here are my favouries. How about yours?

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Well, after a post on wrinkles, what else could I call a post on jam- and chutney-making?

I went and picked apples yesterday. They were looking so lovely, I couldn’t bear to waste them:

So, I turned them into this:

Spiced Apple Chutney

This is the basic recipe I used, which makes a few jars. I had almost exactly 3 kg of apples, so I trebled all the other ingredients, and it turned out fine. I find that if you use all cooking apples, rather than all eaters or a mix, this is quite sharp. I really like a sharp chutney, but if you like something a bit more mild-mannered, replace a cupful of the vinegar with apple juice.

* 225g/8oz onions, chopped
* 900g/2lb apples, cored and chopped
* 110g/4oz sultanas, raisins or chopped dates
* 15g/½oz ground coriander (I used coriander seeds I’d bashed with the pestle and mortar)
* 15g/½oz paprika (I also added some chili flakes that were lurking about)
* 15g/½oz mixed spice
* 15g/½oz salt
* 340g/12oz granulated sugar
* 425ml/¾ pints malt vinegar

1. Put all the ingredients into a preserving pan. Slowly bring to the boil until the sugar has dissolved.
2. Simmer for 1½-2 hours, stirring from time to time to stop the chutney sticking to the pan.
3. When it is very thick and you can draw a wooden spoon across the base of the pan so that it leaves a channel behind it that does not immediately fill with liquid, the chutney is ready.
4. Turn into sterilised jars, seal and cool.
5. Store in a cool, dark cupboard for two to three months before eating.

And then there were the crabapples. I have never cooked with them before, and I’ve never eaten them, either. But they looked so lovely on the tree I felt it would be a sin to let them go to waste.

I knew that people made crabapple jelly, so I did too. I have never made jelly before, so I scavenged some muslin from a neighbour and used a recipe I found on the Waitrose website:

Crabapple Jelly

4 kg crab apples
1 kg caster sugar
1 lemon, juiced

1. Wash the apples, remove the blossom heads and cut out any bruised bits. Put in a saucepan, fill with water to cover the apples and bring to the boil. Simmer for 25 minutes until the fruit is soft. Pour the pulp into a jelly bag or several layers of muslin and let drip overnight into a pan beneath. Don’t squeeze the bag, it will cloud the jelly.
2. The next day, measure the juice, and combine with sugar at the ratio of 10 parts juice to 7 sugar. Add the lemon, then bring to the boil to dissolve the sugar. Keep at a rolling boil for 35–40 minutes, skimming off the froth regularly. To test, chill a dessertspoon in the fridge. When the jelly is set, it will solidify on the back of the spoon. Pour into warm, sterilised preserving jars and tightly seal while still slightly warm. Store in a cool dark place.

The page says that the preparation time is 20 minutes, to which I say, ‘Pah!’ And indeed, ‘Pshaw’. Show me the person who can wash, top and tail 4 kg of crabapples and set up a muslin draining arrangement in 20 minutes. I had 5 kg and it took two of us the length of Kylie’s latest album to get through them. I added a sloosh of last year’s damson gin, and a very old mulled wine spice sachet which I found lurking in the cupboard. (Best before October 2006. Oops.). It worked fabulously, just giving a hint of warm spiciness. It also looks heavenly. Look at it!

I love making preserves – I can’t think of another sort of cooking that makes me feel so accomplished. I also feel thriftily virtuous for using the apples from the garden, and I am now wondering else to make while I have the preserving bug…

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