the hedgerows are playgrounds | strawberry - rhubarb jam scones

I joked to my sister the other day that I should write a post about where we live, north Norfolk. Its little quirks. Do it, my sister said, people will find it interesting. It'll be funny, she told me, and your writing is usually so serious. So here starts a humorous tale about every day life in a small village with a thatched church and fields all around. The antagonists are the tractors. I'll start my story with an anecdote about how I'm often on the one-lane road, headed to the highway and I'll be doing 20 miles because I'm behind a tractor carrying hay on the trailer. It'll be far beyond legal weight limits but hey, this is Norfolk, anything goes. The car in front of me will be a black Range Rover, with a personalized number plate, something like HA1 D3R, and it will be the newest model. The driver will be a woman who is bleached blonde and will attempt to overtake the tractor around one of the hairpin bends. She'll be lucky because the traffic on the other lane is probably held up by a truck transporting a shiny new yacht to one of the marinas on the Broads; the rivers that crisscross the place.  

I'll also write about how we'll be standing on a grassy verge in the village where we live, the leg of my jeans will be soaked from local drainage issues and pressing it against Prune's wet fur to stop her swerving into the road and into the path of another tractor. The tractor will be new and fancy. Farmers do ok here. The roads are already narrow and cars spill out of driveways to park on either side, it'll start to rain, scattered showers, scattered dog walkers. Our house is flanked by forest on one side and a field on the other, where a family keep two horses. I say a family, because we can't really seem to figure out how they're all related, but in north Norfolk villages seem to be made up of a couple of interconnected families. The son (we think he's the son. He could be the brother?) is the local woodcutter with two labradors a bit like ours, a wood pile to rival that of those in northern Utah, and a unimog. When was the last time you saw one of those? He also seemed to have refurbished a Mercedes SUV that his wife likes to drive, off-road style, through the horse fields next door. Maybe it's a way of keeping their two toddlers entertained.

I'll say that the tractors don't stop, the whole year, and the size of their tyres is no joke. I'll recount the time that we were just walking along a genteel country lane, when a pick-up drove out into the middle of a field. We wondered what the driver, a farmer, was doing. He promptly lowered the window of the car, pulled out a rifle and let off a few shots to scare the crows. My heart didn't stop pumping the rest of the day. The car was not further than 25 meters from the road. I'll write as I did before about how people hang pheasants from their rafters, and rabbits from the mirrors of Land Rover Defenders, and about how one of the activities at the local primary school is plucking a pheasant for pheasant pie. My sister had a shock when she walked in to the school one day and found the pile of dead birds by the door. I'll mention that the next village is the winner of RHS Britain in bloom pretty much every year, and that from February onwards as you drive through there are great groups clad in overalls with shovels, preparing the beds and planting seedlings. That the post office is also in that village, owned by a family that everyone knows; it's a local institution. I was standing in line to mail something one day and there was a woman in front of me, collecting a parcel. She was wearing jeans tighter than mine; ankle cropped, with a frayed hem, and fancy Nike hightops, a flowy white blouse and big sunglasses. She was also twice my age (at least) and hugged the man when he served her, then drove off in a white Audi saloon. I tried very hard not to roll my eyes and for my efforts was bumped out of the queue by a man with a bushel of beets in one hand; wearing muddy boots and a deerstalker cap.

But I'll also write about how the kids from the village primary school literally fall out of cars waving to my sister who works there once a week; and little Archie calls from his bedroom window to say hello. There was the time a neighbor came knocking on our door, saying a rooster was in her garden and she was looking for its owner, fearing it would be eaten by a fox. About the elderly farmer with a Norfolk accent so heavy we wonder if he's speaking English (and we doubt he understands us) who stops us to chat and ask about the dogs, then waves from his ancient tractor.  About the bushes that are so heavy with blackberries come late summer the freezer is full the whole year; and the hedgerows that are playgrounds for robins and sparrows.

That there's an older couple with a gentle black Lab who often ask us how our grandparents are doing; they became friends. That in the fall I make applesauce out of apples from our own trees which in spring explode in color, and the roads turn pink from petals. I'll repeat, again, that winter nights are white, that I've never seen more stars in any of the unknown pieces of the wild where I've found myself. That from my bedroom I hear owls call and from in front of a sink filled with dishes I watch a family of blue jays teach their babies to eat from the birdfeeder. That I've seen young pigeons take flight after falling from their nest in a wild Norfolk storm, that the coast around here is one of the rare places that Arctic Terns nest. That someone aptly named it an area of outstanding natural beauty. The silence, early morning and late evening, is so immense it's haunting. That again I'll be standing trying to shelter my face from a biting wind, keeping a dog from under the tyres of a combine harvester, and watching a deer streak across fallow fields, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.  More than anything, I'll be charmed by the beauty in the chaos and the fine layer of red sand that is forever tacked to the bottom of my jeans. 

"And the peace which I always found in the silence and emptiness of the moors filled me utterly" James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small

Hello there :) Are you seeing an acute case of seasonal fruit fomo in this post? Particularly if I add that I am on an asparagus-for-dinner-bender? It just so happens that I really like strawberries. And rhubarb. And I wait all year for asparagus. Asparagus aside, the former are obviously a classic pairing and since these early season strawberries are not quite the sweetest yet, they work so well in a compote with the sour tang of rhubarb. I call these babies jam scones but they're really just scones with a dollop of compote (which is really easy to make). You can adjust the amount of maple according to the sweetness of your strawbs, using the lesser amount when the berries are really at their sweetest. These scones are not  typical scones - like my other scone recipes, they are more fragile and bread-like than flaky and rich buuuut no need to worry about keeping butter cold or anything like that.  The pastry/scone part is just barely sweet, so feel free to add a fat sprinkle of turbinado before baking and make sure you choose a compote you really like (whether this one or store bought) because that jammy center really sings. The spelt flour makes the pastry mildly nutty, with a little bit of whole-graininess that is so satisfying. They don't really need any shaping or anything, so I hope you try them out this spring :)

Big hugs xx


strawberry - rhubarb jam scones

makes 8 large scones & 2ish cups / 500ml compote

for the strawberry & rhubarb compote (makes one standard mason jar - around 2 cups / 500ml)

450g / 1 pound rhubarb
600g / 1.5 pounds strawberries
1/3 - 1/2 cup (80-120ml) pure maple syrup, depending on preference and your berries
Juice of one large lemon (or around 3 tablespoons natural oj)

for the scones

2 cups (230g) spelt flour, plus a little extra for dusting
1 tablespoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 free range egg
1 tablespoon (20g) honey
2 tablespoons (27g) coconut oil, melted
1/2 cup (120ml) plain yogurt (I used goat yogurt, use what you have)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) strawberry and rhubarb jam, or your favourite natural-style jam


// To make the compote

Start by prepping the fruit. Discard the ends of the rhubarb stalks and cut to 2cm / 3/4 inch chunks. Wash and pat dry. Hull your strawberries, curing larger ones in half and leaving smaller ones whole.

Place a large, heavy based pan over medium heat.  Add to it the citrus juice and the washed + diced fruit. Pour the syrup over and stir together with a wooden spoon.

Let the fruit cook for about 20 - 30 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring often and letting it bubble and reduce. Initially it will look VERY watery because the rhubarb is releasing its moisture. Don't be put off, it will suddenly thicken and you'll see the juices really reduce. The time will depend on the juiciness of your berries but look for when the liquid is mostly gone, the fruit it soft and broken down and that it slops off a spoon rather than drizzles (very technical, as ever).

Immediately remove from the heat and pour into a heat safe container. Allow to cool before closing; it will thicken as it cools. Magic. The compote will keep around a week to 10 days in the fridge in an airtight jar.

// for the scones

Preheat the oven to 180'C, 350'F and like a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder.

In a liquid measuring cup or small bowl, beat together the egg, oil and honey. Whisk in the yogurt and vanilla extract till smooth and pale. 

Draw a little well in your dry ingredients then pour in the wet mix. Stir together gently, but firmly with a wooden spoon. Once the dough becomes to come together (don't overmix), dump it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead to bring it together.

Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces - I used a scale and a bench scraper but you can just eyeball it if you prefer. Shape each piece into a round mound and place evenly spaced on baking sheet.

Dip the back of a  tablespoon measure in flour then press it into the mound of dough to create an indent. Fill the indent with a tablespoon of compote and continue with each scone.

 Bake for 16-19 minutes, till the top of each scone is golden and feels crisp to the touch. Cool on a wire rack, but or enjoy straight from the oven. Cooled and in an airtight container they'll keep well for about 3 days, but will freeze and defrost.

 


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the cold embrace | buckwheat rolls with blackberry, rosemary & apple - honey compote

buckwheat blackberry rosemary rolls 3-1.jpg

Winter has had Norfolk wrapped in its cold embrace this week. The village is quiet. The farmers in their pick ups have pulled wool hats low over their ears, the local tree cutter wears a tattered khaki fleece and the school kids are in their bright blue sweaters, like confetti as they run along the frozen sidewalks. The few dog walkers who are out wear hoods and scarves, any piece of skin exposed bitten by the easterly wind off the sea and echoing through the empty countryside.

It’s the empty fields and the windswept beaches that bring the place to life in the summer. It brings them here – the tourists. In cars packed to the roof with beach chairs and spades, pulling caravans and pitching tents, lighting barbecues and laughing, playing music till late. There’s traffic on every country lane, when we go shopping, we leave the house at 8am and don’t hope to be back before noon. It’s lively. The whole place buzzes with…happy chaos. New dogs to encounter on walks, the locals keep theirs on leads and wearily cross the road. Six months of long days, hope of heatwaves, beach days, the long sunshine hours giving so much. But the nights draw in, and the tourists leave. Maybe that’s why people say that winter is cruel, its grasp seems to take the life out of a place.

The squawking flocks of tourists are slowly replaced by hundreds of migratory birds. You hear the birds before you see them, in a field in the distance, circling like a low hanging dark cloud. Sometimes they fly so low overhead you can hear each wing beat, feel the warmth of their feathery bodies, admire their unity. The dogs too will turn their heads skywards, ears pricked, dew on each shiny nose from the frosty grass. They’ll listen to the other retrievers barking somewhere in the valley, busy on a hunt. The peace will be broken by stereotypically staccato rifle fire, the geese will lift off and fly, pheasants will fall. When we walk through the village, the limp bodies of the birds hang from the beams and rafters of garages and wood sheds, their rich red and green plumes still clinging onto their sheen. Ah, winter. There you go again, robbing life.

We only meet two other walkers. The usual tweed-jacketed and cheerful, Aigle-booted man, his stern wife and his wolfhounds, emerging eerily out of the frozen fog. We wait on the verge for the big, harmless dogs to pass and watch the chubby blackbirds skit about under bare hedgerows, picking at the red holly. Listen to the church bells ringing in the next village, no tractors ploughing the fallow fields, no caravans trundling through, no tourists asking for directions. After the walk and the girls are dry, curled up in two balls, I stand against the radiator and feel the burning heat on my back. Ran my fingers under the tap to get the life back into them. They’re dry and chapped from holding the dogs’ lead in the biting wind, my face is pale, my eyes used to a dim grey light and the sun setting by 4pm.

And still I’m a winter person. That cold embrace. Lots of people love the winter, perhaps up till Christmas. It’s a complicated, delicate personality that runs further than December. Further than pale skin and hunting season. It’s haunting and humbling. There’s quiet reflection. There’s life. The bird feeder on the cherry tree is in constant chaos, the robin and the little yellow birds darting in and out, swallows swooping low as the dogs chase a sheltering pheasant out of sight. The fields are empty enough to watch hares racing and deer jumping, the sky gray enough to match the doves cooing from the roof. It’s cold enough to throw a colourful quilt over my all-white bed, a shock to these weary eyes. The winter skies are clear enough to be lit by a thousand stars, it’s dark long enough to see them. When the dogs have been out first thing in the morning, they bring into the warm house a gust of bitter air, their fur is cold and their eyes smile from running on the frosty ground. You go outside and the cold burns your lungs when you laugh, it singes the wet tears off your cheeks. It reminds you that this is living, that you have lungs to burn and warm cheeks to singe.

The geese take off and fill the empty skies, going further south, perfect unison. From the wooded thicket, rifle shots fill the deafening silence. In the distance, the earliest of the year’s lambs bleats. Winter, hovering somewhere between taking and giving life.

So it’s been super cold here lately, but we don’t really get that much deep freeze in these parts so I don’t really mind. Especially when I have a box of these rolls in the house. They’re surprisingly simple to make, especially considering the compote can be made up to 2 weeks in advance! Because I like whole grains etc I usually go for spelt flour, since for being so grainy it still bakes up quite light, soft and mild, but I wanted something a bit bolder and slightly bitter, so I added a small amount of buckwheat flour. Not overpowering, but the taste is just enough to add another layer of flavour to the heady rosemary, tart fruits and floral honey. And in terms of rolls, don’t fear the yeast, this recipe is pretty much fool proof (no pun intended). In the recipe notes I link to my cardamom wreath recipe which has lots of details on proofing etc. You can of course also replace the home made compote with Store bought but just try to choose one without too many junky ingredients (I used to love Bonne Maman or St. Dalfour), but you might just want to add a little more rosemary and ginger to the dough for the fragrant, complex flavour that they give. As a side note, I have been having trouble with my domain and hosting services for the blog so I’m going to be switching providers and moving away from WordPress. This means the site may be down for a couple of days at the end of this week, but I’ll be back and hopefully things will be running smoother!
Stay warm, bake bread and have a good week xx


BUCKWHEAT SWEET ROLLS W/ BLACKBERRY, ROSEMARY & APPLE – HONEY COMPOTE

These rustic honey sweetened rolls are made with a combination of mild, supple spelt flour and earthy, slightly bitter buckwheat flour. The fragrant and complex flavour of rosemary and blackberries with Apple in the simple, spiced compote are a perfect, jammy filling. Try one straight out of the oven if you can, or heat leftovers and enjoy throughout the week.
 

//makes 9-12 rolls & about 2 1/2 cups (400ml) compote


//For the compote

1 large apple, whatever you can find where you are (about 150g)
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
8 cups (volume-wise, 2L) blackberries, fresh or frozen
2-4 sprigs fresh rosemary, to taste
2/3 cup (200g) honey
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely grated

//for the buckwheat sweet rolls

To proof the yeast

2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon honey
Pinch salt
1/4 cup (60ml) warm* water
2 1/4 cup (260g) spelt flour
3/4 cup (95g) buckwheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, chopped finely
2/3 cup (160ml) lukewarm milk (dairy or almond milk would both be good)
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon (15ml) melted and lukewarm coconut oil (or butter, I should think)

// for the compote

Into a large, heavy bottomed pot, add the lemon juice and zest.

Core the apple and chop finely, leaving the peal which helps with setting. Add the Apple to the pot with the spices and the berries. Mix so the fruit is covered with the lemon and spices, then pour over the honey and stir to coat.

Place the pot on high heat and let the mix boil enthusiastically for about 10 minutes. The fruits should be looking pretty wet and bubbly, especially if you’re using frozen berries. Reduce the heat to a simmer and leave the compote to reduce, stirring occasionally so nothing sticks to the bottom.

There will be a layer of foam as it bubbles quickly, but no need to skim since the dark color it creates works here well.

After about 20 minutes of bubbly simmering, start keeping an eye for consistency. This is less precise than jam so don’t worry about freezing plates or thermometers etc. You want it to be fairly thick and not too liquid – there may be some juicy liquid pooling at the sides, but when you take some of the compote out on a spoon it should largely hold shape. It will also thicken up as it cools and goes into a cool container. Give it 5 minutes more, simmering, if it looks like it needs to be thicker, especially for frozen berries.

As soon as the compote is done, pour it into a heat safe container like a glass measuring jug. Allow to cool, then pour into a clean glass jar and refrigerate; it will set further. The lemon helps preserving so it will keep about 2 weeks in the fridge.  Reserve a bit for the buns.

// for the rolls

Start by proofing the yeast. Take a small bowl and 1/4 cup/ 60ml body warm water- if you have a kitchen thermometer it should register 42-45’C (110-115’F), if you don’t, just add 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon boiling hot water to 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons cold water. Stir in the honey, a pinch of salt and gently stir in the yeast. Set aside for 10-15 minutes, it varies from brand to brand.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the buckwheat and spelt flours with the salt and spices. You can also very gently heat your coconut oil and milk together (too hot or too cold and it’ll

kill the poor yeast) then stir through the honey. Set aside. Grease a large bowl with oil and set aside.

After 10-15 minutes, if the yeast has bloomed and covered the surface of the water, you’re all set (see this page for troubleshooting). Add the yeast mix and the milk mix to the dry ingredients and gently stir together with a wooden spoon to combine. It will take some time but should come together, in a soft but firm dough. If it is too dry, add a tiny teaspoon of lukewarm milk at a time, likewise with the flour if it’s too wet.

Once it’s a handleable but sticky dough, lightly flour your work surface and dump out the bowl. Knead the dough for five minutes, till it’s supple.

Fold the dough into a rough ball and place into the oiled bowl. Cover loosely with a cloth and leave somewhere warm to proof (in an oven on the lowest setting, just outside a warm oven, in a cozy laundry room or something) for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The dough should be double in bulk, the time will vary depending on the temperature of your house so keep an eye on it (see notes here for some help)

While you wait, you can grease a pan for baking – an 8x8inch square or 9×9 inch square will work for 9 larger rolls, a 9×13 inch pan for 12 minis. Your call. Line it with parchment paper for easily removal and find your compote (or make it now!!)

After the first rise, punch down the dough (literally punch it, to knock out the air a bit) and lightly flour a work surface once more. Knead the dough till just flexible, 2 minutes. Roll the dough into an oval/rectangle about 40cm long and 30cm wide. Keep an eye it’s not sticking.

Dollop the compote into the middle of the rectangle and spread evenly towards the corners, leaving about 2cm / short of an inch at the edges. Roll the dough from the long side, so you have a long log.

You can trim the edges of your dough where there isn’t enough jam (discard or

Keep for snacking). Use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut the dough into 9 even pieces (or 12 if using a bigger pan) and place them into prepared pan, with a little gap between. Cover with the towel and leave for a shorter second rise, 30 minutes or so till they’re puffy and likely touching each other.

Bake for about 30-35 minutes. They don’t turn particularly dark or golden so just give them a squeeze; the outside should be crisp but the inside still a bit soft.

They’ll keep for about 3 days in the fridge buuut just eat one or two out of the oven because the jam is warm and the bread is soft and yum. You might like to warm them before eating if you’re keeping them for a bit.

Notes

I made a bit of a hash of the sizes of my rolls, I was planning on doing 9 in an 8×8 square pan but accidently cut 12. My dogs were lying in front of the cupboard with my baking tins so I just did the 9 in the 8 inch pan then baked a couple more in a ramekin, so feel free to do whatever you like. Jumbo rolls maaay need a few minutes more in the oven


more winter recipes

to want and to knead | cardamom-cranberry spelt wreath

nutmeg and pear | healthy spelt bread wreath w/ cardamom & cranberry (naturally sweetened & dairy free)
nutmeg and pear | healthy spelt bread wreath w/ cardamom & cranberry (naturally sweetened & dairy free)

There is a strange familiarity about the whole ritual. It usually involves climbing into some loft or burrowing through the shed to some degree to find the Christmas tree, that we swear to replace every year. The decorations are like meeting characters from an old book you haven't read for a long time - you remember all their quirks, where you were when you first noticed them. Someone plays Christmas music, the dogs sniff in the boxes and bash the shaky tree with their tails.

nutmeg and pear | healthy spelt bread wreath w/ cardamom & cranberry (naturally sweetened & dairy free)

A couple of years ago my dad passed the light-stringing-up altar to me. Nothing official about it, but he was travelling for longer and longer during the holidays and I was, perhaps inappropriately, deemed the most competent in this field. The lights still shine and twinkle in the evening, but I've never managed to curl them evenly round the tree like dad has, the lights themselves are so old that a few have gone out, but no one's really had the heart to buy a new set. We've been using the same decorations for as long as I can remember, the little round baubles and the intricate figurines my dad used as a kid. We are not so much of a family for tradition. We travel too much, the family as a whole is too spread out. And when I asked my parents, when I was young and these things mattered to me, they asked me what Christmas was really about. Did it have to be gifts around a tree, a big dinner, celebrated on the 25th? Or was it about the principle - the gathering with people you love, sharing food that you've made with love, giving, more than just material gifts?

nutmeg and pear | healthy spelt bread wreath w/ cardamom & cranberry (naturally sweetened & dairy free)
nutmeg and pear | healthy spelt bread wreath w/ cardamom & cranberry (naturally sweetened & dairy free)
nutmeg and pear | healthy spelt bread wreath w/ cardamom & cranberry (naturally sweetened & dairy free)
nutmeg and pear | healthy spelt bread wreath w/ cardamom & cranberry (naturally sweetened & dairy free)

It makes me wonder. This season of craziness... the crazy is everywhere. The pressure on mothers to cook a perfect turkey, to choose the best gifts for their children. The pressure on dads to put up the best outdoor lights, to earn the money to finance it all in the first place. Pressure on kids to stay cool throughout the affair, to get the best most expensive presents. Pressure on the dog to not steal the turkey from the table, dammit, and not to bark when an army of strangers rings the doorbell. Pressure on everyone to keep a good face, to laugh with family members you don't really know.

I go back to bread. We have no great expectations of the holiday, nothing to go back on, I doubt I'll make this wreath next year as a Christmas tradition. I started making my own bread some time ago, but that was after a long break from the habit. Somehow my hands remembered it, the smell of the yeast was familiar, my hands could fold and knead the dough without a second thought. It gave me something, some quiet zen, two minutes to think amid my crazy; travel prep and essays. I think about the puppies who'll be abandoned because the kids couldn't handle the well meant gift. About the wives who'll fall out with their mother in law because the turkey didn't work out. About the dads who'll feel like crap because they didn't get that promotion in time to get that shiny new phone.

nutmeg and pear | healthy spelt bread wreath w/ cardamom & cranberry (naturally sweetened & dairy free)

It's not that I don't have warm memories of Christmas, or that I have a problem with traditional holidays, I think it's great to have something to look back on, to warm you somewhere inside. Childhood Christmas for me was lots of light, more laughs, some fun gifts that I'd play with the whole year. This year will be similar. We'll celebrate after the India trip, on January 10th, when the people who've fought with their mother in law and chucked their puppies have moved onto the most depressing month of the year and salad diets. I just spare a thought for those people who believe that they're making it Christmas, and I go back to my bread. My thoughts on the puppies and the grains, on the holiday from which so many of us took the spirit when we first put up the lights.

nutmeg and pear | healthy spelt bread wreath w/ cardamom & cranberry (naturally sweetened & dairy free)

I understand that lots of people are scared of working with yeast but I promise that, like the aforementioned holiday, it's also overcomplicated by most people! Just make sure it's really puffy after proofing time, otherwise the yeast is dead and it will also kill the recipe. Also, the temperature of the water is important - I found a sneaky method to do this, see the recipe notes if that will help you. As for the swirly wreath pattern - I tried to get photos, but they weren't great so I will direct you to this site I trawled the internet for, which quite clearly shows how to get that pretty pattern going.The bread is gently sweet, a nice contrast to the sharp berries and fragrant cardamom - it's more the kind of bread for eating chunks plain, rather than slicing and slathering with jam. The best kind of bread, I'd say. It's kind of cozy but light, which is how Christmas should be. Whether it's the traditional kind on the 25th, or something a bit unconventional like ours, wishing you the brightest, warmest holidays with people + pets you love. xx

nutmeg and pear | healthy spelt bread wreath w/ cardamom & cranberry (naturally sweetened & dairy free)

[kindred-recipe id="1918" title="cardamom-cranberry spelt wreath"]

I am away on holiday (India!!!) right now, so it may be a bit quiet on my end. If you are looking for more baking inspiration, I will direct you to this baked oatmeal to serve holiday guests for breakfast, this granola for edible gifting and these scones because why not. and (coconut oil) gingerbread cookies. And again, I thank you for visiting this little corner of the internet, have a wonderful Christmas. I'll be back with a few photos in a bit.

in the back of my mind | Gingerbread cookies

nutmeg and pear|whole grain coconut oil gingerbread cookies - dairy & refined sugar free
nutmeg and pear|whole grain coconut oil gingerbread cookies - dairy & refined sugar free
nutmeg and pear|whole grain coconut oil gingerbread cookies - dairy & refined sugar free

They asked me to be Mary. I think it came more down to the fact that I was one of the few dark- haired girls, but the others were jealous anyway. All I really had to do was sit on the stage in some kind of a gown, behind the 'manger' and rock the baby every now and then. The village school was a Church of England School (I only recently realized I spent two years of my life saying a prayer every morning, without having any idea of what I was saying. ah the innocence of primary school ) so the annual nativity play was quite a show, even more so when you're five years old.

Most winters in that part of Suffolk weren't too cold. Usually clear, bright winter sunshine, sharp wind off the North Sea, I managed in tights and black suede boots and somehow avoided wearing a winter hat. Still, I was a sickly kid, one of those who was perpetually out with an ear ache, a scary cough, on antibiotics, vaguely asthmatic. The year I was Mary it was a chest infection. I remember the burning pain, like my little ribs were a cage, a cage too small for the bird that was valiantly flapping its wings to escape. I coughed so hard my whole body shook, I couldn't leave my bed, my mum gave up going to work and read books with me, my dad stayed up all night watching The Wombles (does anyone else remember them?). This year it was a gray winter, there was no watery sunshine through milky clouds to dry out my damp lungs, that ever-present wind left people hurrying from house to car with scarves up to their ears, hands shoved deep in pockets.

nutmeg and pear|whole grain coconut oil gingerbread cookies - dairy & refined sugar free
nutmeg and pear|whole grain coconut oil gingerbread cookies - dairy & refined sugar free

Those low hanging gray clouds were like the feathers of the doves that sat on our fence, cooing softly, like snowfall on a slate roof. My dad would look up at the skies and say "snow skies", my chest would burn, I'd hope he was right, I wanted a white Christmas, I spent another December afternoon at the doctor's office and coughing myself to sleep.

The other girls were probably hoping that I'd be too sick to come in and play Mary. It was clear that I wouldn't be in the choir, singing Little Donkey and We Three Kings, but the teachers said I could just come in and sit on stage as planned. My grandparents plied me with marshmallows 'for strength', I wore the gown and sat behind the manger, the others sang about Bethlehem and yonder star. I wondered if it snowed there, if Mary had been able to cough on her donkey ride, whether yonder star was that brightness I saw from my bed when I lay awake at night, the white light that left little pools of silver in the puddles.

nutmeg and pear|whole grain coconut oil gingerbread cookies - dairy & refined sugar free
nutmeg and pear|whole grain coconut oil gingerbread cookies - dairy & refined sugar free

It started to snow. I was back to school by the last week of term. Forced to wear a hat and scarf. I wasn't happy because it's not the kind of thing that princesses wore and jeez mum I am a princess. It was just a light flurry, airy white flakes, like the dusting of flour on country bread. I was sitting by the window, they were playing Christmas songs, I was making an ornament out of dried pasta and silver spray paint, then a chubby fairy. By the time it was break, the snow was gone, but it was like a promise. The skies were still dove gray, small puddles on the ground were freezing, I could feel the burn through my jacket.

nutmeg and pear|whole grain coconut oil gingerbread cookies - dairy & refined sugar free

One morning it started in earnest. I dropped my cheese on toast to climb up onto the couch by my sister, to watch the fat flakes come down hard. It was like those American tv shows we watched, where they could build snowmen and throw snowballs. We went to school feeling light, cheery as the Christmas mantel. The adults murmured on the playground that we'd be home by lunch, the boiler was on its way out. Our dad came to pick us up and we told him our big plans. We needed a snowfort, to make snow angels, teach us how to throw a snowball. My mum provided the warm clothes and wrapped a woolly, musty scarf around my neck, gave dad explicit instructions that I wasn't to get wet.

The doves sat on the roof of the garage and watched us. We built the world's smallest snow fort. My dad taught us tactical snowball warfare, involving sneaking up on the opponent from behind the shed. The snow was too shallow for snow angels, it wasn't cold enough for the snowman to last. But the magic was there. My mum wrapped me in fleeces and flannel, we turned on the little gas fireplace in the living room. I sat in that old blue chair and the Christmas tree's lights flickered, mellow, in the corner. It was simple, I was warm, I was wrapped in the quilt of a quiet and gentle childhood, the doves were my friends, at night I could watch the stars, my sister lay in the bed beside mine, my parents were in the room next door.

nutmeg and pear|whole grain coconut oil gingerbread cookies - dairy & refined sugar free
nutmeg and pear|whole grain coconut oil gingerbread cookies - dairy & refined sugar free
nutmeg and pear|whole grain coconut oil gingerbread cookies - dairy & refined sugar free
nutmeg and pear|whole grain coconut oil gingerbread cookies - dairy & refined sugar free

After we left England Christmas was never really the same. We started to travel, we were out in the bush over Christmas more often that not, the lights and trees and bells loose their sparkle. But sometimes I'm taken back to that living room, the Tweety blanket over my lap, red Ikea couches. Doves on the swing-set in the garden, the smell of ginger and cinnamon from the little Dutch pepernoten cookies, the refrain of Little Donkey forever engrained somewhere in the back of my mind.

Little Donkey, carry Mary, safely on her way, they said.

nutmeg and pear|whole grain coconut oil gingerbread cookies - dairy & refined sugar free

It was those little pepernoten cookies that inspired my gingerbread. I've never made gingerbread cookies before but I was curious to try because of their bold spices; the flavours of whole grain flours and unrefined sugar would only make them better. And molasses, obviously. I specify this directly in the ingredients list but there are a few options for flours. I'd planned on tried & trusted spelt flour but then some einkorn flour I'd ordered arrived and I couldn't resist. Einkorn in also an unrefined whole grain, similar to spelt it is an ancient relative of wheat (apparently the oldest strain of wheat) but is low in gluten, higher in protein than wheat and is a source of iron and vitamin B, which is quite special for a flour that's very easy to use. It's similar also to kamut, which would work here, but I understand that spelt it easier to find (I know this would not be of interest to everyone, but for other whole-grain obsessives out there). Even easier to find is whole wheat flour, which will probably work too - you may just need to add a couple of teaspoons of water to the dough if it's very dry. I just hope this gives you a way to have homemade & whole grain gingerbread this Christmas. And I want you to have the best holiday season ever. Laugh a lot, eat lots of good food and keep fingers crossed for snow. Big hugs xx

nutmeg and pear|whole grain coconut oil gingerbread cookies - dairy & refined sugar free

Gingerbread cookies, with coconut oil & whole grains

makes 30-50 cookies, depending on size of cookie cutters  //  dairy free

2 1/2 cups (290g) einkorn, kamut, spelt (or whole wheat) flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (75g) coconut oil, melted and warm
1/2 cup (120ml) unsulphured molasses*
1/2 cup (85g) coconut sugar/ dark muscavado sugar
1 free range egg

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, spices, baking powder & soda, salt. Set aside.
In a smaller bowl or liquid measuring cup, add the oil and the molasses, whisk till thick and combined. Add the sugar and continue whisking - it should be smooth, if your mix refuses to do this (more likely with coconut sugar) pop it in the microwave for a short burst or over very low heat. Once it's smooth (and cool) whisk in the egg thoroughly.

Pour the wet mix into the dry mix and start to stir. It will be hard work, but resist the temptation to add water! (I did, then it was too wet and I had to mess around with more water, so this is proven). When you're relieved it's finally coming together, ensure it's all combined. Cut two large pieces of plastic wrap and divide the dough between them, shaping into two discs roughly 2 1/2cm (1 inch) thick. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate till firm and cold - at least one hour, or overnight is nice for really complex flavours.

The next day or once fully chilled, remove one piece of dough from the fridge and allow 5 or so minutes to come to room temperature.
Line 2 cookie sheets and preheat the oven to 180'C, 350'C. Adjust two racks to the lower shelves of the oven. 

Lightly flour a flat surface and a rolling pin. Take the dough and gently roll it out, remember that einkorn, spelt etc are much lower in gluten than wheat so the dough will be more fragile. Check that it's not sticking to the surface but don't add too much flour since you don't want to dry out the dough. It should be under a centimetre thick - about 1/4 inch.
If the dough isn't cooperating because it's too stiff and cold, allow it a few minutes to warm up. If it's very sticky, pop it in the fridge for a few minutes.

Once rolled, dip your cookie cutters of choice into some flours and cut away. Place on the baking sheets, they don't spread really, so don't need huge space. 
Re-roll your dough scraps, flour your surface, roll again and repeat with all the dough. You may need to rest the dough in the freezer for a few minutes as you sort the scraps, and you may notice it starts to dry out because of the added flour but it'll go a long way.
Once all the cookies are cut, bake them for 10-12 minutes, till a shade or two darker and firm but not yet crisp, they will crisp as they cool. You may need to do this in batches depending on how many cookies are preparing at a time and how many pans you have.

Allow to cool about 5 minutes on their sheets then transfer to a cooling rack carefully (an offset spatula is useful for this to avoid too many fatal casualties damaging the fragile shapes too badly) 
They'll keep in an airtight container for about 5 days and freeze well.
If you have small kids around (or you're just an icing person) you could make a simple icing/glaze with powdered cane sugar, water and lemon juice and maybe give the caribou some eyes and things.

a few things to note

The number of cookies will depend on the size of your cutters. I used these adorable ones and I had something like 50 cookies, but they're quite small cutters. I'd say around 30 would be expected, it's a big batch but it's the season for sharing (and treats).

I decided to only bake one disc because I knew I'd have a fair few cookies already (25) and fresh gingerbread is kind of unbeatable. If you'd like to do the same, just freeze a tightly wrapped disc and the day before you plan to bake it, allow it to sit in the fridge. Then just continue as normal and you've got fresh gingerbread to order. 

I specify this directly in the ingredients list but there are a few options for flours. I'd planned on tried/ trusted spelt flour but then some einkorn flour I'd ordered arrived and I couldn't resist. Einkorn in also an unrefined whole grain, similar to spelt it is an ancient relative of wheat (apparently the oldest strain of wheat) but is low in gluten, higher in protein than wheat and is a source of iron and vitamin B, which is quite special for a flour that's very easy to use. It's similar also to kamut, which would work here, but I understand that spelt it easier to find (and equally tasty and nutritious) but even easier to find is whole wheat flour, which will probably work too - you may just need to add a couple of teaspoons of water to the dough if it's very dry. I just hope this gives you a way to have homemade & whole grain gingerbread this Christmas. 


PS. I have a really fun mini-post that should come out on Friday. Pup friendly ginger oatmeal cookies, so no family member is left out of the fun this christmas. Keep an eye out for a newsletter! Also I'm leaving for our trip to India tomorrow, so the next post will be scheduled, but I'll be back with something special before Christmas. Gingerbread shall grace the subcontinent and a long haul flight.


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