woodsmoke | gingerbread bundt cake

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I started this post a few days ago, well before Christmas Eve. In a quiet, dimly lit area of a fairly empty terminal in Amsterdam Airport. Before the boarding crush I could find a seat on tired, cracking vinyl, by the floor to ceiling windows that looked over the runways. The fields and the tarmac were dark, the bodies of planes loomed in gray shadow, brooding and immobile. Like the darkest clouds of a winter sky on the coldest days when rain would fall as snow, casting deep shadows, swallowing the moonlight. 

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I wasn’t at a window seat but when the plane, enlivened in flight, dipped its wing, Amsterdam played out in lights far below us. The warm golds from street lights, the cheery red blinking of cars heading home for the holidays, white glow from illuminated buildings. Like the lights on a Christmas tree, with the colour from strands of tinsel, full of memories, familiar. 
I had a long wait in Abu Dhabi. A wait with a lot of anticipation, eagerly checking my watch, wishing for progress. It reminded me of the night before Christmas when I was very young and impossibly charmed by it all. Finding it so hard to lie in bed and wait for the morning, the expectation so palpable.

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It was early morning when I arrived in Bangalore. Warm, thick tropical darkness, loaded with fumes, throbbing with action, like how the thin winter air clings on to the scent of pine and woodsmoke. Something celebratory in how India does chaos, like everyone is waiting for something to happen. The taxi guys with their windows open played the morning prayers and Bollywood pop, some background similarity to it all, something different woven into each. Telling the same stories to different beats, like Christmas music. Dawn breaks, the red roofs echo the pinky streaks of hot morning sky, doves cry from deep in the clumps of bougainvillea. There’s a whispering breeze through the palms and the clearing night clouds are violet, indigo, pillowy. Someone is cooking in another house, something with spices. Chilli maybe, red and intense; turmeric, powdered gold; ginger, the rounded spice.
There were lights and anticipation; music, people on the move, heady air filled with spices. There was Christmas everywhere, and all the time. 

"and all my soul is scent and melody"  Charles Baudelaire 


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Wow. Christmas Eve already. A little last minute perhaps but if anyone is considering some Christmas baking, this cake is perfect. If you don't have a small bundt pan it will also look cute as a real gingerbread loaf in a regular loaf pan (just keep an eye on the baking time). This cake somehow encapsulates the holidays so I hope you try it.

Merry Christmas to you all. Much love xx

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gingerbread bundt cake

1 3/4c spelt flour 
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg 
Pinch cloves
1 tsp baking soda 
1/2 tsp salt 
1/4c olive oil
1/3c pure maple syrup
1/4c pure cane molasses
1 free range egg
3/4c milk of choice 
2T coconut sugar (or other dark type of sugar)


Preheat the oven to 180 c, 350 f.

In a large bowl combine the flour, baking soda, salt and spices.
In another bowl beat together the egg, oil and maple syrup. Add the sugar, then the milk and molasses. If the molasses isn’t combining well it may help to heat the whole mixture a little.
Pour the wet mix into the dry and stir gently until just combined.
Prepare a 6 cup bundt pan: oil and flour it well so that the cake comes clean out with the beautiful shape. Prepping the pan right before baking means the oil won’t slide down the sides and pool at the bottom which wouldn’t help much for sticking. If using a different kind of pan, you can prepare it how usually works for you.

Bake 40-45 minutes, until the cake looks deep golden brown and a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.
Allow the bundt a little time to cool in the pan, then gently release onto a cooling rack. It will be a little fragile to cut at first so if you can resist the ginger-y smells, it will cut cleaner after it’s cool.
This baby bundt will keep well for a few days in an airtight container and tastes as good (better?) with time. It will also frost and defrost nicely.

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just bones | tahini chocolate chip cookies

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When I was young we had a picture book called Birthday Bear. I don't remember much of the actual story but the family lived on a farm and the book had the most beautiful illustrations - every time fall reaches this nook of Norfolk I think of those pages. The pictures were those quintessential countryside images: rolling fields that stitch together into a valley, patches of green and brown and maybe some gold, a blue gray sky, birds, maybe the skyline punctuated by a distant chapel. There’s a scene just like that one of the places where I walk the dogs - the landscape just flattens out and you can see far away. By fall the tones are more muted, if summer was a yell then by fall you have the whisper. Sage and faded olive from the winter beet crop, squares of field left fallow, plump soil in chestnut, coffee and hazel. A tractor ploughs, red and cheerful, alabaster gulls ride the wake, dipping and diving, bright against a concrete sky. There’s rain in the air, still a drizzle, lacing the wind like a promise.  A skinny stretch of tarmac traces alongside, a seam on the quilt. Pulling it all together.

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There are days when the sky is alive - Norfolk is empty, so there is a lot of sky. Early mornings they’ll be streaky gray and inky blue, scattered with whispy pink and coral. And there’ll be traffic. Swallows swoop and doves dive and the air is just filled with chatting geese. Hundreds and hundreds of geese, in their perfect formations, circling the fields to land or passing through or taking off again, as they have always. Compared to the quiet colours on the trees and on the ground sometimes the sunset seems overly loud - pyrotechnic violet and red, with the orange sun dipping below the tree line. Most of the trees are now just bones and black silhouettes but there are a few trees along the highways that are still fall poster girls - the whole spice cabinet of earth tones. Basil and dusky thyme green, saffron and turmeric, smoky red cayenne and paprika. As much as I love art I was never very good at it, forget being able to draw well. But I’ve always noticed colours and shapes and movement so when I look out at this time every year, I always wish I could draw. There's something about drizzle, moody light, ground frost, that sits well with creativity. It would be nice to draw, to capture the muted and the quiet and the feeling of more to come. 

“He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.” - J.R.R. Tolkien

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In my spare time (there's not much of that, trust me) I study cookie science. Yeah, it’s a thing. Cookies are intricate pieces of chemistry, or so you'll find if you read around. I may only have one real cookie recipe here and they’re honestly not my favourite sweet but I think about cookies a strange amount of time. They’re fascinating. So tahini cookies. You a tahini fan? I love middle eastern flavors - tahini, cardamom, pomegranate, cumin, sumac, things like that. A trick to cookies that spread well is sugar - you need a lot of it, and the bitter edge of tahini takes away from the cookies becoming sugar bombs, while adding some fat which also helps the spread. Hence palm-sized chewy cookies with cute bulldog wrinkles and soft centers aahhh so good. They're sort of nutty and... interesting. Much more three dimensional than your average ccc. Chocolate chip cookie. Anyway things to note: I don't like a chocolate overkill so I go on the lower end of the chocolate spectrum but take your pick - though use a dark (like 70% cacao) bar and not chips because chips are made to be un-melty and therefore un-photogenic. And this is by far my favorite brand of tahini, I order it from the States which may seem strange but it's like 500x better than anything I've found in Europe.

Also, the recipe is somewhat specific with the whole thing of taking the cookies out early, dropping them on the counter to remove air, and leaving them to firm up, but it's necessary for cookies that hold up but are still flat, soft and perfect. These cookies are so good, idk if I can now go back to the regular kind. A bit like once you've listened to the remix of a song and then when you hear the original it just doesn't sound right?
Ok good talk. Love you guys xx

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tahini chocolate chip cookies

makes around 10 biiiig cookies  // dairy free

1 1/4 cups (137g) spelt flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 c (120ml) tahini
1/4c (60ml) coconut oil, soft room temp (solid)
1 free range egg
3/4c (150g) coconut sugar
1/4c (50g) turbinado sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
60g-100g (2oz-3.5oz) dark chocolate, chopped coarsely from a bar (70%-85%)


Preheat the oven to 180'C, 350'F and line two cookie sheets.
In a large bowl, whisk together the first three ingredients.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl (with a hand mixer), combine the tahini, coconut oil, sugars and egg . Mix on low speed until the batter is dark and smooth. Add the vanilla and mix once more.

Add the tahini mix to the dry and using a wooden spoon, combine the two. The dough will be very stiff and will look like it won't turn out because there's too much flour, but keep at it. It will come together. As it does, fold in the chopped chocolate. It's a good arm workout.

Once you have a dough ball, portion it out into large balls of 3 tablespoons or so each (I smoosh two scoops together) and leave a good amount of space in  between because they will spread.

Bake for 14-16 minutes, they will have spread. This is important - they will not be fully set yet, so drop the pan on a hard surface (scare the family dogs) for nice pug-like wrinkles. Allow to cool at least 10 minutes so they are set - otherwise you will have a puddle. Granted, a pretty tasty puddle, but if you want to hold your cookie rather than lick if off a baking sheet, wait a bit.

They taste best right after they're baked (obviously) but they still taste amazing a couple of days later. Try to make them last one afternoon.

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more chocolate

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.

 


similar

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.