Irish Spring

22 Apr 2014

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If the title of this post conjures up visions

of whittling bars of green and white stripy soap,

cast those clean as a whistle notions aside…

spring in the Irish countryside is

beautiful, raw, and green

filled with birdsong and new life…

but frankly, it mostly smells like manure;

also known as “that sweet country smell”

milking spodgesI am loving this fun sketch of me milking “Sally”

by Ailbhe Phelan, a fabulous Irish illustrator living in London.

What do you think?

The lucky recipient of Ashley English’s Handmade Gatherings is Lori Matthews.

Congratulations!

I will be back with more recipes and stories very soon.

 Life is aflurry with trying my very best to complete a

truly special manuscript & fine-tuning recipes

for my upcoming book…

while feeding calves & milking cows

and simply…

being a mother and wife (the easy part)

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In the meantime,

head over to Spenser Magazine

for a beautiful Irish spring lamb story…

read all about my bucolic Zwartbles adventure

nestled alongside some outstanding food stories

on ancient grains in Arizona, Blue Heron Goat Farm

and some amazing salt-roasted spot prawns.

I will leave you to linger with a few more outtakes from the shoot

PicMonkey Collage

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knitting

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Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos and Styling by Imen McDonnell 2014

No Zwartbles lambs were eaten for this post

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Handmade Gatherings

08 Apr 2014

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Rhubarb. Buttermilk. Bread. Pity it’s already gone. Gone in 60 seconds style. I blame the PMS hungry farmers. But, no worries, this loaf of rhubarb-buttermilk amazingness can be yours too. The recipe is in a most divine new book by cookery and craft writer, Ashley English.

Handmade Gatherings is filled with gorgeous recipes made from honest ingredients, but the best bit is that Ashley encourages everyone to bring something special to the inspirational celebrations she shares with us. Potluck, for me, is just a golden nugget of Americana childhood memories, and a girl who writes a book all about seasonal potluck gatherings is undoubtedly after my own heart.

Ashley says, “Anyone can put a call out that a party is happening. What makes a gathering truly memorable though, is the amount of thought put into its planning.” This is why all the parties in her book were conceived as communal affairs…meaning you share a great deal of the work with you guests. Conviviality in its best light.

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I never stopped smiling as I sipped tea from a flask and flipped through four fabulous chapters which chronicle parties for each season, all of which are beautifully photographed by the fiercely talented Jen Altman. I opened the book to the chapter on Ashley’s “Spring to Life” gathering, complete with a Maypole dance and setting seeds together. On the menu: pistachio crusted asparagus with feta vinaigrette, fried chicken, spring onion tart, buttermilk rhubarb bread and many more ambrosial goodies to delight in.

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Ashley is signed to the same publishing house as I, the very special ROOST (sidebar: keep your eyes peeled for some great new titles coming out this spring if you are into farming, crafting, nature and DIY) so we are automatically kindred, but as irony would have it, we transatlantically connected when both of our films were screened at the Chicago Food Film Festival last autumn.

My sassy friend and design director for Small Green Fields, Cassie Scroggins, met Ashley at the event and they had a right old natter that evening. Cassie emailed me the very next day to tell me “You should meet Ashley English, I’m pretty sure you would like her.”  I clicked on the link to the film vignette and instantly fell in love with her laid-back, homegrown style.

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Now, 8 months later, I am here to happily share Ashley’s new book with you, and compliments of ROOST, I even have one lucky copy to share.

Just leave a comment below sharing your favorite way to throw a party, and I’ll put your name in the draw to be announced on my next post.

But first, make Ashley’s bread…it tastes just like spring!

Rhubarb Buttermilk Bread
Ingredients
For the Topping
¼ all-purpose flour
2 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed
¼ cup chopped hazelnuts
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
For the Batter
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 ½ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp baking soda
½ tsp sea salt
2 large eggs
½ cup buttermilk
6 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
Zest of one lemon
Seeds from 1 vanilla bean
¾ cup chopped rhubarb
Method
Preheat oven to 350f.
Generously butter 9×5 inch loaf pan and set aside.
Prepare the topping:
Place all ingredients in a medium bowl. Using clean hands, mix everything together until the ingredients are fully combined and the butter is in pea sized clumps. Set aside while you prepare the bread batter.
Prepare the batter:
Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl, using either a whisk or a fork. Add the eggs, buttermilk, melted butter, lemon zest, and vanilla bean seeds. Whisk together until the ingredients are fully combined.
With a mixing spoon, stir in the chopped rhubarb until it is well blended into the batter.
Assemble the bread:
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Use a spatula to evenly distribute the batter across the surface of the pan. Sprinkle the topping evenly across the batter.
Place the pan in the over. Bake for one hour, or until the top is golden and a knife inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool on wire rack for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Blogpost food + styling by Imen McDonnell. Handmade Gatherings photography by Jen Altman. Handmade Gatherings is available here, here and here and essentially anywhere great books are sold.  

 

 

 

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At precisely this time each year, I become consumed with any and all things garden. It starts with the pull of Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols from the bookshelf and onto my nightstand. For the past few spring seasons, I have read this book in its entirety in bits and pieces before bed in the evenings. And each year, the words seem to re-introduce themselves to me as if we’d never met and everything is new again. (Surely those are the best books?) Mostly pertaining to floral and formal planting, there are chapters detailing the flamboyant author’s very colourful conundrums with both his kitchen garden and orchards as well.

Down the Garden Path is wildly entertaining, but mostly it gets me thinking about what I intend to plant in our very own vegetable and flower beds for the year. It also creates a bit of an obsession in planning for time when I can get out and make a clean sweep to prepare for new growth. (By obsession, I mean waking up in the middle of the night worrying about how far the horseradish root has invaded into artichoke territory over the winter months, and how very sad, but very likely it is, that one of the Wisteria isn’t going to make it this year.)

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So it begins. With a pencil behind my ear, I peruse seed catalogues, gardening books, GIY Ireland meeting times and fancy landscape magazines. I chat with friends and neighbours, and begin scribbling and planning.

Essentially I decide that I am just looking for a few new offerings in the veg and fruit department, and perhaps a new tree or two. Luckily, I was gifted a peony plant from my generous neighbour, and I can see new growth already so blossoms will be something to really look forward to in July

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Right now there is an abundance of rhubarb and rosemary with pretty lavender flowers around the farm. I’ll make some rhubarb jam and slather it on a duck egg sponge, but first l shall dig into unknown territory with a syllabub featuring two ingredients that I can’t help but imagine will love each others company.

Syllabub is a classic dessert on this side of the Atlantic where people have been enjoying it centuries. It is essentially a dish made of milk or cream with the addition of wine, cider, or other spirit, and often enhanced with a natural flavor. In this case, I have decided to cut the cream with Poitín (formerly known as Irish moonshine) and sweeten it with a simple syrup made from rhubarb and rosemary.

For me, syllabub  simply spells spring garden party in BIG BLAZING LETTERS. And, while we’re not quite there yet, I am already dreaming of such a sunny afternoon dalliance. Admittedly, this is especially easy to visualize while spooning sweet, boozy, creamy bites of said fluffy syllabub into my eager mouth.

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Geoffrey already has his pumpkin and Purple of Sicily cauliflower seedlings started; his bumblebee garden packet at the ready for sprinkling. He gets a bed or two to himself; last year he grew upwards of 30 Romanesco courgettes, the long stripey ones. He was quite proud of himself, but he missed the pumpkins that he had planted the year before with great success so we are back onto those again.

I have seed envelopes from Ireland: Brown Envelope seeds from Madeline McKeever in West Cork, and from America: Baker Seed Company, an organic and mostly heirloom seed company out of Missouri.

I begin the whole seedy selection process. Colorado Red Quinoa and Collard Greens from Georgia go in the “TBP” (to be planted) pile while White Scallop Squash in  “NY” (next year). As usual, the amount of seeds I’ve ordered is dizzying and I make a note to cut back in future.

I look at the time a few hours later and then glance around the table. The syllabub is whipped, biscuits are dipped, tea is sipped, and the seeds are finally picked.

It’s spring, after all.

Rhubarb & Rosemary Spring Syllabub with Poitín
Ingredients
300g whipping cream
50g rhubarb & rosemary simple syrup
25ml Irish Poitín (or white wine, hard cider, champagne, sherry)
A stack of Ginger Nut biscuits, to serve
Rosemary stems to garnish
Method
For the simple syrup
1. Cut one large stalk of rhubarb into small pieces
2. Place in saucepan with two stems of fresh rosemary and 80g caster sugar.
3. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and let simmer until all sugar is dissolved.
4. Take off heat and let cool at room temperature. Strain into container and refrigerate.
For the Syllabub
1. Whip the cream and syrup together until soft peaks form. Stir in the Poitín.
2. Spoon into glasses or bowls, garnish with rosemary.
3. Serve with Ginger Nut biscuits or rhubarb compote.
 

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2014.  

 

 

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I woke up bright and early on the first morning of midterm break to a heartfelt request from an energetic little farmer, “Mom, can we pleeeease watch Attack of the Crab Monsters together this morning?”

I rubbed my eyes and blinked twice before yawn-smiling and stretching my arms out wide, “Morning sunshine, of course we can sweetie, now come here and give mommy a hug.”

But he was long gone on an intrepid search for a 1957 Roger Corman B-movie viewing device.

Lately there is far too much testosterone in this house.

I peel myself out of bed and totter on a trail of upsided darts Lego pieces that lead to the bathroom. The same Lego Ninjago trail that gets picked up and magically set down like clockwork every day.

After washing my face, pulling my hair back into something resembling a bobtail, and covering myself with the first three things I see in the closet, I go to my next order of early morning business: loading up the washer with slurry soaked dungarees and jumpers. Two pods/scorching hot/pre-wash/intensive/ medical rinse. Repeat.

Lately there is far too much testosterone in this house.

I go downstairs and make coffee. Standing at the kitchen counter I quietly slurp coffee and look out the window at the my garden beds which are weeping and weathered, but still alive with bits of chard and kale and new globe artichoke foliage peeking up. I smile. I turn to the living room and see Teddy’s dog grit smeared all the way across the top edge of our stone-tinted sofa (I know, you told me so). I drop my coffee cup and, well…..cry. No tears, but still.

Just then, Geoffrey skids into the room with an open iBook shouting in a burly voice with a timbre as towering as an NFL announcer, “YES! We can watch the Killer Crab Monsters now!”

I fall to the ground.

Lately there is far too much testosterone in this house.

Valentines came and went. We suffered a devastating gale the night before so Geoffrey challenged me to a fierce game of Settlers of Catan by candlelight while Richard was away with a group of men on farm business in England.

Lately there is far too much testosterone in and out of this house.

On a side note, we are surrounded by estrogen-charged maiden heifers ready to give birth any day.

Somehow there is still far too much testosterone here.

I patiently watch Attack of the Crab Monsters with my son. It is actually quite good.

I then try to convince him to take a shower. A task he once enjoyed.  We have to bargain about it.

Lately there is far too much testosterone in this house.

After watching one too many American sitcoms, my husband now has a man cave for when he’s home from the farm cave. There is a desk, a chair worthy of Larry Flynt, farm paperwork, whiskey books, a writing diary, a clunky old weight machine. Oh, and a weird wood carved wall hanging of Road Runner and the Tazmanian Devil.

I’m putting on my prettiest pinny and making sticky toffee pudding.

With whiskey.

And yeah, those are fighting words.

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Sticky Whiskey Toffee Pudding

Ingredients

85g softened unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing

225g soft Medjool dates, pitted and coarsely chopped

100ml Irish (preferably peated) Whiskey (optional)

175g flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

150g dark brown sugar

2 large eggs

For the sauce

300ml heavy cream

200g dark brown sugar

60g unsalted butter

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan160°C/gas 4. Butter 6 x 200ml individual pudding moulds.

2. Put the dates, whiskey and 100ml boiling water (or omit whiskey and add 200ml water) into a small pan and bring to the boil over a medium heat, then simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the dates are very soft. Set aside to cool.

3. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and a pinch of salt into a bowl and mix together well. In another bowl, cream the softened butter and sugar together with an electric hand whisk for 2-3 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, mixing well after each addition.

4. Alternate adding in the flour mixture and dates, a little at a time, mixing in each addition well before adding the next. Spoon evenly between the moulds, smoothing the tops. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre of each pudding comes out clean. Cool for 5 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.

5. Meanwhile, make the toffee sauce. Put the cream, sugar and butter into a pan and bring to the boil. Cook for 3 minutes, until the sauce is smooth and thickened. Pour the sauce over the warm puddings and serve immediately with or without ice cream.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

PS. My blog is listed on The Kitchn’s Homies Awards…so far it has 22 nominations for best blog from abroad, but it sure would be lovely to get more as today is the last day for voting! Have a look if you like. Thank you ♥

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Images and styling by Imen McDonnell 2013. The plate was handcrafted by the very talented Trish Riley  for Sweetgum Co

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Milk & Citrus Cake

06 Feb 2014

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Just dropping in with a few bits of bacchanalia, some snaps of life over the past few weeks, and a farm fresh/super simple/crazy good cake recipe. I have been mad busy writing stories and testing recipes for my book, so much that I am actually beginning to feel like a real writer. Hopefully my editor is in agreement there! Speaking of editors, I am really excited to be on a panel at this year’s Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine in May. Myself, Donal Skehan, Lily Higgins, Caroline Hennessy, Nessa Robins, Tom Doorley, and Tom Parker Bowles will be discussing “Blogging: No Publisher, No Editor, Is It Good Enough?” (what do you think?) The event will be chaired by celebrated food writer David Prior (who has an amazing feature on Sydney food in this month’s Bon Appetit, check it out!) The festival, hosted by Darina Allen, Rachel Allen, and Rory O’Connell is going to be a smash with Yotam Ottolenghi and Rene Redzepi coming along, as well as Minneapolis filmmakers Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine of The Perennial Plate and many, many more outstanding personalities in food, wine, craft beer and whiskey from around the world.

In addition to writing for the weekly Irish Farmers Journal/Country Living, I have also committed to a brand new column in Irish Country Magazine which is a real honor as I love the new glossy and all the inspiring ladies at the helm. In this month’s issue, I talk about the nitty gritty of romancing the countryside…is that even possible?

In March, I will be heading to an extraordinary sheep farm in the West of Ireland to shoot a small feature for Spenser Magazine, all going well, there will be recipes for a spectacular Spring lamb feast in the upcoming issue.

We are moving ahead again (finally) with the thatched farm restoration. I have applied for a heritage grant and fingers crossed we will get funded this time and really dig in. The Irish name of the farm is Graigoor, which translates to The Hamlet, such a fitting name for this little hideaway where I hope to one day host workshops and cook with friends.

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In July, I will be making beautiful butter for an episode of Breaking Eggs, a cooking series for children near and dear to my heart and produced/directed by the ever-inspiring Cliodhna Prendergast.

I ordered a dynamite plate from Beth Kirby‘s new Sweet Gum Company shop and she sent me a gorgeous bottle of sorghum syrup which I doused on griddle scones for two days in a row last week. She also included a copy of Home and Hill magazine, what a beauty!

Ever wanted to stay in a treehouse? Okay, maybe not during the winter time, but when the time is right….this is one dream house in a tree.

At the end of January, I travelled to Florence for a girls weekend filled with food adventures. As recommended by Clodagh McKenna, we spent a fair amount of time in the Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo and had the most amazing Panino Con Bollito (boiled beef sandwich) at the Slow Food endorsed Nerbone (see photo of beef on cutting board).  There was offal of every form and variety, wild boar legs hanging from rafters, pasta made right before your eyes, charcuterie for days..just an absolute feast for the senses. My friend, Carlotta, is a Florentine and she made sure we had Bistecca (massive steak for 4) and had a proper aperitif each evening before dinner. I even snuck into the only Eataly in Italy which was a real treat (I know, shame on me).

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Here at the farm, Geoffrey is keeping Grandad busy with hurling and nature hikes. He is learning to identify “bazillions of birds” and how the hares, foxes, and pheasants all get on together in the countryside. The donks are growing like gangbusters. Calving season has begun so stayed tuned for some cuddly calf captures. Richard has been researching another top secret farm project that could prove to be quite exciting for us all.

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More soon, but first, let’s have cake.

Milk & Honey Citrus Cake

Makes 2 6 inch round cakes or 1 8×8 inch square tin

Ingredients

335g all-purpose flour

1 tbsp baking powder

185g unsalted butter, softened

1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract

100g chopped citrus (blood orange, oranges, grapefruit sections)

220 caster sugar

3 eggs

185ml milk

Honey for pouring over (or icing sugar)

Method

Preheat oven to 180c/350f. Grease and line cake tin.

1. Sift flour and baking powder into large bowl (or stand mixer). Add butter, vanilla, sugar, eggs, citrus and milk. Beat for 3-4 minutes until smooth.

2. Pour mixture into the tins and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until golden brown and a skewer poked into the center comes out clean. Leave in tin for 5 minutes, then turn out and let cool.

3. Poke top of cake with toothpick, then drizzle over honey to your hearts delight (or sift icing sugar on top to sweeten)

4. Save one and serve the other.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2014. 

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Fine Fettle Flapjacks

12 Jan 2014

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Fact: Flapjacks put you in fine fettle.

I can explain. During the time that we were building our own little nest on the farm, we took up residence in the nearby village of Adare, County Limerick. Adare, which in Irish is: Áth Dara, meaning “ford of [the] oak” is a precious little town with a population of about twenty four hundred and is regarded as one of Ireland’s prettiest villages. At the time, it had championed the “Tidy Town” award for five years running and it was easy to see why. To me, Adare village looked and felt like a scene out of medieval times; which, from my urban American point-of-view, proved to be a simultaneously charming and somewhat tricky territory to settle into at that moment in time.

If you strolled the village from top-to-tail in 2006, you would find two spectacular stone cloistered churches built in the 13th century, one petite corner grocery store whose clerk was the face of my stern second-grade teacher, a fish-n-chipper called the Pink Potato, a string of pubs seemingly all owned by one (Collins) family, two quiet fine dining restaurants, a Chinese takeaway that once charged me 5 euro for a side of soy sauce, a filling station with an unusually popular deli counter, a perfect little café. Turf smoke hung in the air over riverbank castle ruins, an itty-bitty post office that closed for two hours every afternoon, a friendly pharmacy with a glowing green cross on its facade, a row of thatched-roof cottages, a small library, the bank, a handful of B&B’s and two estate hotels once inhabited by Lords and Ladies.

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By now you are wondering what this post has to do with a stack of flapjacks. I mentioned a perfect little café. About two blocks from our little bolthole was Lloyd’s. Like most businesses in Adare, Lloyd’s Café was a family-run venture. Small, quaint; a tiny dining room with 4-5 small wooden tables inside and 2 tables outside for when the weather was cooperating.  The simple menu was chalked onto a board daily and consisted of just breakfast and lunch.  A hearty full Irish, buttery scrambled eggs with a pinch of curry powder (the BEST), velvety soups, stews, sandwiches, salads, cakes, scones, and, most importantly, the only good coffee in town. It was one of those buzzy little places filled with excellent food and chatty locals, and if you stayed long enough you could file the village’s full gossip report upon your departure.

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One day after ducking in for a quick lunch, I made my way up to the cash register to pay the bill.

“Would you like anything else?”

I pointed to the large glass cookie jar next to the till, “Em, sure, may I have two of these gorgeous looking granola bars please?”

“Two Flapjacks for takeaway?”

Puzzled, “Oh, no, no, the granola bars in the cookie jar.”

“Those yokes? They are flapjacks”

“Wait, what? Flapjacks are pancakes in America.”

With that lilting Irish irony, “Well, Flapjacks are Flapjacks in Ireland.”

“Really?”

She grinned, “Really. And sure, they’ll put you in fine fettle.

Eventually I figured out that flapjacks are not flapjacks, but yet they are flapjacks, and they are considered a healthy treat in this neck of the woods. I learned that “fine fettle” means to be in good health or good humor, and ended up taking home three flapjacks (combination embarrassment + pregnancy clause.) They were devoured before the end of the day.

I had eaten my weight in them before I figured out that they were basically bars of butter, golden syrup (like corn syrup), and rolled oats. Not exactly a recipe for health. So, now that we live on the farm and have our own honey, I DIY swapping out the golden syrup for honey and adding nuts, seeds, fruits, and various healthy grains to the mix. They are a versatile snack to nibble with tea, after feeding calves or a run, and super fantastic for the lunchbox. We are butter lovers, but you can swap coconut oil, sunflower oil or nut butter for the butter for a dairy-free version.

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However you proceed, I can promise that they sure will put you in fine fettle. Here is my favorite recipe which is packed with healthy grains and boasts the perfect balance of chew + crunch. Delicious!

Oat-Millet-Chia-Banana Flapjacks

Ingredients:

6 tbsp / 1/3 cup raw honey

200g / 3/4 cup unsalted butter

1 medium ripe/soft banana, mashed

1 tsp cinnamon

Pinch of sea salt

330g / 2 cups organic porridge oats

115g/1 cup organic millet flakes

55g/1/2 cup chia seeds

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C/Gas 4

2. Butter a 23cm x 33cm / 9″x 13″ Swiss roll tin and line the base with baking parchment.

3. Place the honey, butter, banana mash and cinnamon into a large saucepan and heat gently, stirring well until the butter has melted completely.

4. Put the oats, millet, chia seeds into a large mixing bowl, add a pinch of salt then pour over the butter and honey mixture and stir to coat the oats mixture.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and spread evenly to fill the tin making sure the surface is even. Sprinkle a small handful of millet flakes over the top.

6. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oven while the flapjack is still slightly soft, they will harden once cool.

7. Place the tin on a wire cooling rack, cut the flapjack into squares and leave in the tin until completely cool.

8. Try not to eat them all in one day!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2014

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Last week, I hosted our first freshly-foraged DIY wreath workshop at the farm.  I served up winter salads with freshly baked soda bread, spiced mulled wine, and my best snowy white cake all covered in rosemary-mint icing, garnished with herb sprigs from the forest of rosemary growing in front of our house.

….Merry memories were made.

The evening before the gathering, I wandered down to the wood to collect branches of laurel, holly, pine & cedar for the occasion….

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 ….and,  set up a wabi-sabi DIY Wreath Bar in my wee little workshop space

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The girls arrived, and we played for hours….

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One friend decided to make holiday dinner name cards which nestle right into little pine cones…so sweet.

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It was a wonderful afternoon which will hopefully be the first of many freshly-foraged workshops on the farm. I was also able to experiment with some of Sony’s new portable lenses for smartphones on the day. The image of the wreath bar was shot using the amazing Sony QX-10 lens which easily attaches to your iPhone or Android and takes endlessly lush images that rival those shot on my big girl camera. In the spirit of gifting, Sony sent me an extra Sony QX-10 lens to give away as a holiday present to a reader of this blog. Simply leave a comment below to be in the draw. I will announce the winner on Christmas Day.  THE WINNER OF THE SONY QX-10 LENS IS CLAIRE KENNEDY, Congratulations! I will email you for your shipping details. 

Snowy White Cake with Rosemary-Peppermint Icing

Ingredients
2 1/4 cups/280g cake or cream flour
1 cup/250ml milk
6 large egg whites
2 tsp almond extract
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups/350g granulated sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp table salt
1 1/2 sticks/170g unsalted butter, softened but still cool

Method
1. Heat oven to 350f/176c. Prepare two 8-inch cake pans.
2. Pour milk , egg whites, and extracts into medium bowl and mix with fork until
3. Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl of electric mixer at slow speed.
4. Add butter (cut into cubes) and continue beating on low for about 1-2 minutes.
5. Add milk mixture to flour mixture and beat at medium speed for 1 1/2 minutes.
6. Pour batter evenly between two prepared cake pans.
7. Bake until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 27 to 30 minutes.
8. Allow cake to cool to room temperature, and then ice with rosemary-peppermint icing.

Rosemary-Peppermint Icing

Ingredients
1 cup/227g unsalted butter room temperature
3-4 cups/375-500g confectioners (powdered) sugar, SIFTED
¼ teaspoon table salt
1/2 tablespoon peppermint extract
¼ tbsp vanilla extract
2 Tbsp rosemary simple syrup
2 Tbsp milk or heavy cream

Method
1. Beat butter for a few minutes with a mixer with the paddle attachment on medium speed.
2. Add 3 cups of powdered sugar and turn your mixer on the lowest speed until the sugar has been incorporated
with the butter.
3. Increase mixer speed to medium and add peppermint and vanilla extract, rosemary simple syrup, salt, and 2
tablespoons of milk/cream and beat for 3 minutes. You can add more milk or cream as needed.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos by Imen McDonnell 2013. 

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orange polenta cake

Gah! Isn’t that photo GORGEOUS? Don’t you just want to DIVE INTO that cake? Damn. Donal Skehan, your cake + photography looks SO good on this blog. Also, those beautiful orange twists? I’m desper for a zester (did I really just say that? Apologies)

With all the baking vested in me, I declare this cake a masterpiece to be-hold and be-eaten.

Right. Let me shed some light on what’s happening here. I’m still the full shilling, promise.

My dear friend, Donal Skehan, has just released his 4rd cookery book, Homecooked. And, to be prudent, I must add that not only has he put a book out this year, but he’s filmed two separate television food series, worked with Jamie Oliver on Food Tube, created and published a stunning new dinner journal/magazine that is Ireland’s answer to Kinfolk, went on a national “blog tour” where he brought his satire + cooking to the theatrical stage (absolute brilliant fun), and has also launched a new line of spectacular savoury pies with his family. I am sure I am missing more bits, but my point is that this man has the energy of a 26 year old.

Oh yeah, he is 26.

Sigh.

Home Cooked

Now his book itself is going on a (blog) tour too. Not kidding. Yesterday, it launched with Waterstones and Emily Holmes. Today it’s me. Tomorrow it will be Lily. When Donal’s publisher asked us to be roadies, we  jumped right into that virtual RV.

There isn’t ONE recipe in any of Donal’s books that I wouldn’t make, but my favourite recipe (so far) from Homecooked is this Orange Polenta Cake with Honey and Rosewater Syrup. It was hard to choose because one (little) farmer is partial to the Mikado Coconut Cream Cake (tied with the Waitress Mermaid Pie), and another (big) farmer is crazy about Buttermilk Fried Chicken. Plus, there’s the fact that there is a shot of me in my mother-in-law’s pinny holding the most amazing Crazy Monkey Brownie Baked Alaska on page 169. But, I digress.

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I love this sweet, dense cake because it is especially good prepared with our woodland honey, but would taste incredible with any honey that is accessible. What is fantastic about Donal’s cookbooks is that they have been tested til the cows com home, and anyone can make his recipes, including his biggest fan, our 8 year old son, Geoffrey. Okay, Geoffrey needs a leeeettle help, but you get the gist of it. Delicious. Easy. Accessible. Comforting recipes to cook at home.

This fragrant and moist cake is not only visually beautiful, it also has the most delicious spiced sweet orange and honey flavour. The cake can be made gluten-free as long as you use a gluten-free baking powder.

ORANGE POLENTA CAKE WITH HONEY & ROSEWATER SYRUP

SERVES 6-8 (V)

Butter, for greasing

8 green cardamom pods

225g ground almonds

100g polenta

1 heaped tsp baking powder

225g caster sugar

225g butter, softened

3 large eggs

Grated zest of 3 large oranges

1 tsp vanilla extract

50g pistachio nuts, roughly chopped

Creme fraiche, to serve

FOR  THE  SYRUP

Juice of 2 large oranges

3 tbsp honey

2 tsp rosewater

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F), Gas Mark 4 and grease a 20cm diameter springform tin, then line the base with baking parchment.

2. Bash the cardamom pods in a pestle and mortar and extract the seeds. Then bash the seeds to a fine powder and add to a bowl together with the ground almonds, polenta and baking powder.

3. Beat the sugar and butter in a bowl until the mixture is light and pale. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Tip the bowl of dry ingredients into this mixture and fold with a spatula until just combined. Add two-thirds of the orange zest together with the vanilla extract, and just fold through.

4. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and place it on the middle shelf of the oven to bake for about 40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and the tin and allow to cool on a wire rack.

5. Prepare the syrup by placing all the ingredients in a small saucepan over a medium heat and bringing to a steady simmer.

6. Pierce holes all over the cake with a wooden skewer while it is cooling and pour over half the syrup, a little at a time, until the cake has soaked it up. Sprinkle with the pistachio nuts, drizzle with the remaining syrup and sprinkle with remaining orange zest to decorate.

7. Serve in slices with a little creme fraiche.

I hope you enjoy Homecooked by Donal Skehan as much as we do.

Back in few days with new farm adventure + recipe, promise!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Cake photo by Donal Skehan 2013. Book cover supplied by Harper-Collins. 

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It’s been awhile since I’ve posted a curatorial here, but good things come to those who wait, right? As a fledgling food stylist embarking on my first cookery book, I am absolutely engrossed in the work of real professionals like Susan Spungen. At a time where it seems like virtually (literally) everyone seems to be an online stylist of some sort, I am even more reminded that it is important to revere the great + founding professionals working in the business of beautiful food.

Ironically, in my former life I had the experience of working with iconic food brands while producing ads for television. I won’t mention names, but on more than one occasion I could be found in a commercial NYC kitchen studio watching a camera rig cruise at 500 frames per second attempting to film mass amounts of pepperoni slices flying in the air. The result? Slow-motion pepperoni. The reality?  A food styling crew who had to work ultra fast and furious, making sure each and every slice of pepperoni was shiny and mouth-watering, and the process had to be repeated for essentially a full day for each flying ingredient. This crack team of stylists would cook and treat the ingredients as well as produce a VIP end product an ooey-gooey pizza that would rival the Mona Lisa. They were very serious. And, extremely gifted. I often thought that despite the fact that I had hired a director whose daily production rate cost more than a year of my university education, the stylists were the real directors on those shoots.

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I guess what I am trying to say is that creating something beautiful in the space of your own studio, on your own timeline, in your pajamas and pigtails (yes, by “you” I mean “me”) is far different than working on the set of a professional print or film shoot with a client who is someone other than yourself. Therein lies the profession.

Susan Spungen has inspired me ever since I took my wonderful mother-in-law to see the delicious film, Julie and Julia in 2009. I waited for the credits to roll up so I could see who had styled such a beautiful food-oriented masterpiece. Of course, Susan’s calling began long before that assignment. She has had an illustrious career in styling and cooking, beginning with her work with Martha Stewart in print editorial and television. She has styled the feature films Julie and Julia, Eat, Love, Pray, It’s Complicated, and most recently, the new Jason Reitman picture, Labor Day, in which  Time magazine reported that the lead character “cooks with sexual authority.” Imagine that creative brief! Susan is a constant contributor to cookbooks and magazines, see the latest Thanksgiving cover + editorial from Food and Wine below. Susan also styled the cover of this month’s Bon Appetit, which featured holiday cookies that appear as artfully drawn as they look chompworthy. She has written two books of her own, RECIPES: A Collection for the Modern Cook and her fabulous latest release, What’s a Hostess To Do?

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Let’s face it, I am smitten with all things styled by Susan Spungen.

When I approached Susan to be interviewed for my blog, she warmly accepted. Not only is her food inviting and beautiful, but she clearly has impeccable table manners too. {smile}

Here’s what she had to say…

Hi Susan, thank you so much for having a chat here. Tell us about your formative years…where are you from…where did you grow up?

I grew up outside of Philadelphia- but I left town at 20, never to return! My mom had a variety of careers, and was a bit of a trailblazer for women executives in the 70′s when she worked for Western Union, selling Mailgram- which was at the time revolutionary! She also owned a health food store that I kind of grew up in. My father was always in the paper business.

What was your first job as a food stylist?

I guess you could say that my very first experience was doing some shots for a caterer that I worked for at the time- it was an unknown world for me, but I knew I liked it, because it was bringing together my artistic side with my love of cooking. After that, my first real professional experience was my first day on the job for Martha Stewart Living, when I was hired as Food Editor. I worked with Maria Robledo as photographer, and was styling side by side with Martha.

Where do you live now? Are some places better than others to live in order to work as a stylist?

I live in NYC, which is probably one of the best places to work as a stylist since almost every major magazine is based here and does most of their shooting here. Major ad campaigns are shot here too. Other cities have slightly different markets, but still a lot of work. A lot of packaging gets shot in Chicago, and in LA and SF, TV commercials and cookbooks dominate.

You worked with Martha Stewart for many years. What did you take away from that experience? Has she influenced how you work or vice versa?

This is hard to answer briefly, but it was the seminal experience of my life. I learned so much while working there- about food, about people, about business. working there when I did, and with the people that I did, it gave me a lot of confidence in myself, and the courage to do things differently, even if they haven’t been done that way before.

You have styled the films Julie and Julia, It’s Complicated and Eat, Pray, Love.  How does styling for films differ from magazine shoots?

It couldn’t be more different! There are practical differences and artistic differences. Artistically, film food has to have real presence, just like actors do. It has to act, so to speak. To see what I mean, check out the peach pie in Labor Day, Jason Reitman’s latest film, out Christmas day. Logistically, it is way more difficult- my motto on film shoots is “Expect the unexpected”. You have to be prepared for anything, including prepping all day for a shot, only to have it not happen and be rescheduled for another day. This can happen repeatedly!

Did you ever work in commercial advertising production for tv or print? Is that role more restricting creatively?

Advertising is always less creative, whether it’s print or TV, because you have a very specific story to tell, and the agency and client are looking to achieve a very specific vision, so it is my job to deliver that, in the best way possible. There is some creativity in that, but not in the same way that there can be on an editorial shoot, where you really have to bring it, to elevate the food to a whole other level.

Which is your favourite medium to work in, and why?

I prefer a good meaty, editorial assignment with major payoff. Dec Bon App cover, case in point!

Take us through your process upon being awarded a new assignment.

I gather all of the information, which is usually recipes, test kitchen photos, reference photos, shot lists. Then I start breaking it down into a to-do list. My assistant usually makes the shopping list, which I then refine. If there are specific hard-to-get ingredients, I immediately start to source them, like say summer tomatoes in February or March (this happens every year) or pumpkins in July. (also an annual event)

Do you cook everything yourself? Or how does that generally work on a shoot? Are you both a food and prop stylist?

Yes. my assistant and I cook everything. That is the biggest part of the job- though shopping is the single most important part. Many people don’t realize that a food stylist cooks the food for a shoot. There’s a misconception that someone else cooks and then we come in with tweezers and brushes to “style” it.  Generally, I don’t do props, but I have on occasion. In NY, the jobs are separated.

Do you consider yourself a creative?

Absolutely!

How did you get your start in food, training etc?

Another long story- I was a student of fine arts, but always did restaurant work on the side, eventually, cooking took over as my career, but I tired of the food business, and longed to make more use of my creative, artistic impulses. This led me to connect with Martha Stewart when she was just starting the magazine. Ironically, I ended up being an executive and a department head, but it was still incredibly creative, because I had to impart the idea of how to be creative to my whole team, even when I wasn’t doing it myself. Problem-solving is creative in its own way, too.

When you prepare a meal at home with friends, family, even alone, is presentation important to you?

It is, but it comes naturally. I just try to make my food look pleasing and appetizing, even if it’s just for me. People often remark at my plate when I am going through a buffet line at a party “Why does yours look so good?” is something I hear a lot!

What do you love to eat?

What don’t I love? I love anything that’s good! I especially like Italian food- well made pasta is one of life’s great pleasures. Ice cream is another. Excellent French fries are up there- I guess I sound like a kid who loves comfort food! I love haute cuisine too, but only very rarely these days.

What advice would you give to people interested in a food styling career? Does it take a certain personality?

It is definitely more the just the talent. You have to be able to work well as part of a team, and learn to communicate really well, with the photo editor, the editor, the photographer, the prop stylist, your assistant, and on advertising jobs the agency people and clients. You might be doing a cookbook, where often the author is at the shoot, so you also have to be diplomatic at times, and be mindful that it is their baby you are working on. The best advice is always to seek out someone whose work you admire and try to assist them. Offer to work for free.

Is there any other career would you like to attempt? (forgive the James Lipton-ese)

Believe it or not, I sometimes have thought about acting! Also, maybe being a shrink!

Tell us the most surprising bit about food styling?

That it is often more about solving problems than being creative

What is the most important tool in your styling kit?

I guess I’d have to say my favorite tweezers and my Joyce Chen scissors (which everyone should have whether they are a stylist or not)

I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I have!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photo of Susan Spungen by Jake Chessum. Pumpkin bars + Roast Turkey photos courtesy of Food and Wine Magazine photographed by Con Poulos + Bon Appetit cover shot by Michael Graydon + Nikole Herriot.

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Farmhouse Films

29 Nov 2013

smallgreenfieldposter

Looking back, around the time that I first landed in Ireland, I remember being absolutely fascinated by how many potatoes were eaten in this country.  Of course, my perspective was somewhat obscured having been on a self-inflicted-American-fad-diet-potato-strike for so many years. Here, spuds were revered and described at the dinner table with such compassion and gusto, it was both astonishing and honorable…and, for a starch-starved food lover, even a wee bit romantic. I recall boldly declaring that one day “I will make an extraordinary film about the potatoes of Ireland!” I even proudly gave it the title of “Práta!” That’s Irish for potato, you see.

Alas, nobody was very excited about my idea, so I shelved it in the hope that one day it would sprout to life.

Well, “Práta!” didn’t happen, but Small Green Fields did. Along with Farmhouse Films, our latest farm endeavour.

So, without further ado, (best viewed in hi-res by clicking on Vimeo link on bottom right hand corner)

Small Green Fields from Imen McDonnell on Vimeo.

I would like to thank everyone who worked on this special little film, both behind and in front the camera, who came together to create this evocative picture of Ireland’s food and farming landscape to share with the world. Last weekend, we were lucky enough to be chosen to screen at the 2013 Chicago Food Film Festival, where I am proud to say the film was very well received, and that we were able to arrange for guests to sample gorgeous Goatsbridge Trout Caviar and Sheridan’s Brown Bread Crackers on the evening.

My hope is that this short piece is just the beginning of more Farmhouse Films projects focusing on Ireland’s incredible food and farming culture. Many thanks to Hayes Design for our lovely Farmhouse Films logo and website.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Small Green Fields is dedicated to the memory of David Tiernan of Glebe Brethan Cheese & Mary Davis of Ballymore Farm

 

 

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