Rock Cakes

18 May 2015


I ate a rock cake.

And DAMN, I liked it.

It all happened during Listowel Writer’s Week in County Kerry on a particularly blustery week in May 2012. I wasn’t intending on attending the renowned writers’ festival, in fact, I had never heard of such a gathering which is satirical because, 1. I was steadfastly working on creating a career in writing, and 2. it was taking place only 20 minutes from the farm.

No, I was on my way to the cattle mart, and it was literally lashing sheets of rain, sideways drops coming down so hard and fast that I had no option but to pull over in Listowel town. I was sitting idly awaiting a break in the rain, leafing through a beat up issue of Bon Appétit that I had found under my seat when I noticed a charming little café through the passenger window. Since there was no sign of cow evidence on my clothing and my wellies were next to new, I foraged for my brolly in the back and made a run for it.


When I walked through the door, I was struck by the warmth, of not only the bustle of interesting, clever looking patrons, but of the scent of an old wood-burning stove in the corner and steamed up windows with cushioned seats at the front. I glanced at my watch, looked back outside at the heavy rain and decided there would be no harm in staying for a spell. I found a seat at the only available table edged into a corner next to the counter and requested a coffee.

I sat sipping on a scalding hot cappuccino, peeking at literature for the writers’ festival left behind on the table while observing a group of gentlemen in tattered Irish tweed coats in lively conversation with one another in front of me. As they drifted out of the room, I noticed an array of baked goods on top of the beautifully appointed vintage bakery case. A basket of scone-like pastries with a sign identifying them as “Rock Cakes.” stood out to me as peculiar. Curious, I walked over and asked the barista what they were. She dutifully explained that rock cakes were essentially a combination of scone and cake with currants inside. “Would you like to order one?” she gently asked, “Oh, how could I resist?” I cheekily answered. She placed a rock cake on a dainty plate and handed it to me. I sat back down, took a nibble, and was absolutely bowled over by the tenderness and sweet flavour of something called a rock cake.

Before I knew it, I was finger-dabbing rock cake crumbs from the plate as the rain cleared, and it was once again time to carry on with farm business. I grabbed the Writers Week brochures and my umbrella, and bid adieu to the little café on the corner, promising to come again.


Apparently, rock cakes became popular in the UK and Ireland during the Second World War, when eggs and sugar were at a premium. They are called Rock Cakes or Rock Buns not because they are hard, but because the rough tops resemble rocky outcroppings . If made with the best possible ingredients, these cakes can rival both scones and cakes. Substitute chocolate chips for the little ones (or little ones at heart) and they are really quite a treat. Nowadays, like to pack “choccy rock cakes” for a country picnic, but they will always remind me of that rainy Writers’ Week day.

Rock Cakes

Makes 6

1 cup/225g all purpose flour
1/3 cup/75g caster (superfine) sugar, plus extra for sprinkling.
2 tsp baking powder
8.5 tbsp/125g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 egg
About 2 tbsp/30ml milk
A good pinch of salt
Plus, optional, any or all of:
1 ¼ cups chocolate chips, dried currants or sultanas,
1-2 tsp mixed spice or vanilla extract, the finely grated zest of 1 orange or 1 lemon

Line baking trays lined with nonstick paper, and heat the oven to 200C (180C fan-assisted)/400F
Sift the flour, sugar and baking powder into a large mixing bowl, add the cubed butter and rub it through evenly.
Add chocolate chips, dried fruit and/or spices.
Beat the egg with the milk in another bowl, along with any flavourings such as extracts or essences that tickle your fancy.
Pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients and mix to a stiff, but spoonable dough – add a dash more milk, if you think it needs it.
Scoop egg-sized dollops of the dough on to the tray in rows of two, keeping them rough looking.
Sprinkle with sugar.
Bake for 15-20 minutes, until just turning golden-brown.
Cool and serve.
Scullery Notes: If prepared with currants or dried fruit, serve with clotted cream and jam.

You may have noticed that I have added an Upcoming Events page to the blog, some fun stuff on the calendar! I have two tickets to give away to the Irish Country Magazine Reader Evening on May 27th, leave a comment below to be in the draw, it would be great to see you!

Also, I’ve added a little page about The Farm for those interested in how we are set up here.

Slan Abhaile,





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A couple of years ago, I had the fortune of being asked to talk about my greatest taste memories for a food festival in County Kerry. After agreeing to relish this summons of flavour nostalgia, I made a strong cup of tea, grabbed the last queen cake, and sat down to give my task some serious consideration.

In a matter of moments, in true thought-bubble style, ideas started rushing to my head. I quickly scribbled notes, bandying between surprising things like bratwurst and bologna, Boston cream pie and pierogi. Just as I was about to start devising a way to satisfy an acute Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch craving, Geoffrey walked up with a jumbo marshmallow in hand and pleaded with me to allow him to roast it over the flaming turf in our sitting room fireplace.

The kid in me smiled and said, “sure, go right ahead” while the mom in me flashed him my “you better be careful” eyes.

As I glanced over at Geoffrey merrily toasting his marshmallow over the fire, I put my No. 2 pencil behind my ear and just sat and pondered how important food memories are, specifically when you are an expatriate.

I realized that there are things that I eat solely for memory’s sake that I definitely would not consider as special if I were still living the USA. Absolute Americana: Sloppy Joes, S’mores, Angelfood cake (so much better from scratch!), Chicago-style hot dogs, to name a few. I also must confess that I have gone as far as to whip up a bowl of glow-in-dark green “pistachio” Jell-O brand boxed pudding brought back from a Stateside trip years ago.

It sucked.

But, certain food hankerings undeniably hinder homesickness.

Are food recollections and their delicious by-products meant to be crucial remedies for melancholy when adjusting to a new culture? And, if so, are the edible results of these nostalgic cravings really just another form of soul food?

In the U.S. “soul food” tends to be evocative of a certain style of food prepared in the American south. While I don’t disagree with that, I do wonder how to define the soul nourishing foods that I now prepare here on the farm, or the chinked with time classics that I’ve left behind which now provide me with an odd form of heightened, toothsome, soul-affirming pleasure.

Each year that I live in Ireland, I embrace what our farm and the bounty of the land lends to us. For me, I am building new taste memories, and for Geoffrey these ingredients, techniques, and traditional skills will become lodged in the fabric of his food and taste memory bank. They are his soul food.


One of the most extraordinary, yet absolutely unsullied wild Irish ingredients that I have come to love are ramsons, otherwise known as ramps, wild garlic, or spring leek.

We have a wooded area on the edge of the River Shannon where you can see clear across to County Clare, where the honeybee hives live, and where there is a wellspring of wild edibles. Each spring we look forward to our excursion to collect ramsons, sorrel, ground elder, and stream watercress as well as seaweed and dulse on the shoreline.

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Today I built a bridge between wild Irish soul food and an eponymous soul food from the American south.

And, it was SAVAGE.

We collected a modest amount of ramps, cleaned, and simply dipped in a bit of olive oil for the grill, then served them charred and hot on a bed of creamy, cheesy, country grits.

IMG_0202 grits

Comforting doesn’t even touch on the feeling that went with the satisfaction of preparing and sharing this simple yet exceptional dish with our family and friends.

What foods nourish your soul?

Country Grits with Grilled Wild Irish Ramps
Serves 4
1/2 cup/75g of yellow, stone ground grits (can substitute polenta or coarse ground maizemeal if absolutely necessary, or just order grits online at
2 cups/500ml boiling water
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
15-20 freshly cultivated wild ramps (could sub spring onion here if you don’t have access to ramps)
1 tbsp olive oil
Sea salt
Light a charcoal fire in your grill and allow coals to get white hot, or prepare and oil a grill pan. Coat the wild ramps with olive oil. Set aside.

Stir grits into a saucepan of rapidly boiling, salted water. Cook and stir until the boil comes back up then over and continue to cook for 5-6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in cheese, cover, and let sit on stovetop while grilling the ramsons.

Place ramps on your grill and cook until just charred. Remove and set aside.

Spoon creamy grits into individual bowls, top with 4-5 grilled ramps, sprinkle with sea salt and serve.

Scullery Notes: When digging ramps, unless they are scarce in your area, be sure and get the whole root where the most profound flavour is found. The leaves are also great for making pesto, and the bulbs are great pickled and used for dirty martinis! Be mindful of how much you are taking from the land in relation to what is available to you. Never forage on the side of busy roads or where there is a lot of foot traffic which can be contaminating.  

I have some amazing news! Saveur Magazine has named me a finalist in the Writing category of their 2015 Food Blog Awards. I am stunned and so grateful for this honor. Out of 50,000 nominations, they have chosen 6 finalists for 13 categories. I am amongst writers that I totally revere and respect. The voting is open from now until the end of the month, so if you fancy, the link is here. If it wasn’t for you reading this blog, I would not be recognized in this way, so many, many thanks to all!

SAV_15_SBA_Badges_Finalists_writingSlan Abhaile,

Imen x

Photos and styling by Imen & Geoffrey McDonnell 2015



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A Drop of Irish Cream

11 Mar 2015


“Come in, make yourself comfortable in the sitting room.” The blood rushed to my cheeks as I said thank you, and nervously sat down on a beautifully upholstered high-backed armchair facing an identical chair positioned in front of a tiny, ornate fireplace burning with hot coals. “Can I get you a drop of sherry or a drop of Baileys?” I quietly breathed a sigh of relief as I chose the Baileys, a very warm and welcomed icebreaker.

It was my first time at the farm. I’d already had the great privilege of meeting Richard’s mother, father, and briefly, his brother, but it was time to meet the matriarch of the family, Mary McDonnell (may she rest in peace), otherwise simply known as “Grandma.” Grandma lived in the little flat attached to the main farmhouse. But, where she slept was only a matter of semantics, she clearly still ruled the roost at Dunmoylan. And deservedly so, in her day she could milk 20 cows by hand in less than an hour before coming in to cook breakfast for her family of 7. Badass.


After I moved to the farm, my chat sessions with Grandma became more frequent. Over drops of Irish cream served in delicate cordial glasses, we swapped stories with one another; she was kind yet opinionated, and as curiously interested in me as I was in her. At a certain stage, Richard told me, “Well you passed the muster with Grandma,” which was no easy feat apparently. I felt welcomed and proud.

I loved listening to Grandma yarn astonishing tales of banshees, gun hiding and squabbles between political parties, which became very colourful because she cheekily favoured the opposite party of her husband and his family. She, like many Irish of a certain generation, believed in a bit of folklore, and recanted the time she found herself on a magic road in County Louth where her car actually rolled uphill in the Cooley Mountains, an anecdote for which I had no idea how to respond. (But look, Andrew McCarthy proves it’s true!)

Grandma had a certain savoir-faire and impeccable style, and, luckily for me, a generous sense of humour. I recall during one of our chinwags, her telling me about a weekend break she had taken to a beautiful, remote island on a lake in the northwestern part of Ireland. She described how breathtaking it was, and that you had to go barefoot and walk on rocks across the water to the Island and only drink a sort of broth with salt and pepper for three days. When I presumed she’d been to a natural spa retreat for some type of intensive 3-day cleansing detox, she thought I was absolutely mad because it was Lough Derg, a world-reknowned religious pilgrimage in Donegal. Again, something I could not fathom, but also could not help but respect.

With Mother’s Day this weekend here in Ireland, I’d like to propose a toast to ‘drops of Irish cream’ and a good old natter with the special ladies in your life. What are some of your favourite Grandmother memories?

Homemade Irish cream is second to none (sorry Bailey’s!) and super straightforward to make from scratch. Bring this tipple out at the end of a long lingering dinner party as a decadent way to end your feast, and the perfect invitation to share some more stories together….

Irish Cream
Makes 24 ounces
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. instant coffee powder
½ tsp. cocoa powder
¾ cup Irish whiskey
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 (14-oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
Combine 1 tbsp. cream and the coffee and cocoa powders to make a smooth paste. 2. Slowly add remaining cream, whisking until smooth.
Add whiskey, vanilla extract, and sweetened condensed milk; stir to combine.
Pour into a 24-oz. jar and keep refrigerated until ready to serve, up to 2 weeks.
To serve, pour into a tumbler filled with ice.

Slan Abhaile,
Photo by Imen McDonnell 2014


My beloved late mother-in-law, Peggy, and Richard’s grandmother, Mary (RIP)


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INT. Irish country bedroom. SATURDAY morning, before SUNRISE.

“Mom, time to get up! When can we go meet the kids?”

I slowwwwly, squintedly, open one eye, blink twice, then try to focus on the ebullient face of a little farmer who seems far too jovial upon waking for my fragile morning head to manage. (note to self: making homemade mead might not be a good routine to start after all)

The clock reads 6:41am.

Confused, I mumble, “kids? what kids?”

He, in his best clever clogs lilt, points out, “Not kid kids, mother… baby goat kids! Remember?”

I pull the covers over my head.

He pulls them down.

I pull them back up.

I lose.

“Your hair looks really weird mom”

Baby goats are a treat.

We don’t have them on our farm.

We want them here, but we don’t have them here. (YET)

Farm envy. It is possible.

I throw back the duvet and drag myself out of bed. As I draw open the shades I tell myself that I should always be the one who is awake first no matter what day of the week it is. Mother guilt, can’t go without a daily dose, right?

We rustle up some brekky.

And, text our goat mama friend.

FB goat mama friend.


Weed. (highly recommend weeding while waiting, soothes anxiety)


Wonder if..…. “Mom, let’s just turn up at their house.”

Nah, still not quite Irish enough for that yet. Need confirmation for visitations.


Walk to our farm to feed our own babies.

Work out a plan to visit the following day with a bonus: another new kid happened!


INT. Irish country bedroom. SUNDAY morning, before SUNRISE.

“Mom, time to get up! When can we go meet the kids?”

I slowwwwly, squintedly, open one eye, blink twice, then try to focus on the ebullient face of a little farmer who seems far too jovial upon waking for my fragile morning head to manage. (note to self: making homemade mead might not be a good routine to start)

The clock reads 6:41am.

Confused, I mumble, “kids? what kids?”

He, in his best clever clogs lilt, points out, “Not kid kids, mother… baby goat kids! Remember?”

I pull the covers over my head.

He pulls them down.

I pull them back up.

I lose.

“Your hair looks really weird mom”

Baby goats are a treat.

We don’t have them on our farm.

We want them here, but we don’t have them here. (YET)

Farm envy. It is possible.

And, off we went…..

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Afterwards, I couldn’t resist making some fresh cheese. (see my fresh farmer cheese method here, just swap raw goats milk for cow’s milk and use a tbsp of lemon juice instead of vinegar for creamier texture)

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Followed by fresh cheesecake.

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Goats Milk Cheesecake with Woodland Honey
This is a super easy, non fussy fresh cheesecake that is always a hit with family and friends. Prepare in the morning and have it for dessert in the evening. The goats cheese provides a richer, fuller flavour than cow’s milk cream cheese, and making the cheese fresh makes it even more wholesome. The honey gives it a bit of a sweetness boost for the finish. I love my father-in-law’s honey from down in the wood, it’s delicious!
125 grams/ 1 ¼ cup crumbled digestive biscuits or graham crackers (Bourbon
biscuits would be nice too)
75 grams/ 6 tbsps soft butter ends ingredient
300 grams/ 10oz soft goats cheese (homemade or from the market)
60 grams/ ½ cup icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
250 ml/ 1 cup heavy cream
Honey for drizzling
1. Process biscuits in a food processor until they turn to large crumbs, then add the butter and pulse again to make bring the mixture together.
2. Press mixture into a 20cm / 8 inch springform tin; press a little up the sidesto form a ridge.
3. Beat together the goats cheese, icing sugar, vanilla extract in a bowl until smooth
4. Lightly whip the double cream, and then fold it into the cream cheese mixture.
5. Spoon the cheesecake filling on top of the biscuit base and smooth with a spatula.
6. Put it in the fridge for 4 hours or overnight.
7. Drizzle liberally with honey and serve.


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Mince pies. Those lovely little devils. If only they had been called mince pies when I was a child. There seems to be a bit more mystery to a mince pie than a minceMEAT pie. Meat was not something I desired in a pie when I was 10 and sitting at my grandmother’s Thanksgiving Day table waiting patiently for dessert. No matter if such a pie had been lovingly prepared, nestled up in a tea towel, and kept cosy on top of a warm tumble dryer alongside his sweet, fragrant friends, pumpkin and apple.

“No mincemeat pie for me,” I would say year after year, which was always followed by the obligatory “one day you’ll know what you’re missing.” (which, by the by, has now been inducted (inherited?) into my ridiculous lexicon of parental vernacular, alongside “were you born in a barn?” (close!) and “hold your horses!” (goes without saying)

Ironically, and most happily surprising, I really didn’t know what I was missing when I declined Grandma Johnson’s mincemeat pie. Turns out this mincing of meat is really pretty terrific. When it doesn’t have meat in it, that is. (Although, having learned that mincemeat pie actually originated in the Middle East, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a savoury/sweet Ottolenghi-fied twist on the classic…but I digress…)

In my humble mincemeat research, I found a North American filling recipe that was published in 1854 which included chopped neat’s (beef) tongue, beef suet, blood raisins (yikes!), currants, mace, cloves, nutmeg, brown sugar, apples, lemons, brandy and orange peel. It was said that this mincemeat could be preserved for up to ten years. Then, on one special Monday at the turn of the 20th century, meatless mincemeat was introduced and the world was a better place. Now that I have sampled a host of variations, I am proud to point out that I am particularly partial to a cranberry-walnut blended mincemeat filling.


I mention all of this because mince pies are the cornerstone of Irish holiday baking. They are what hot cross buns are to Easter. Quotidian. They are always the first smattering of Christmas spirit to hit the bakeries and markets across this fair country and the last to leave. When you see the mince pies, you know that elaborate Christmas cakes are not far behind. Their debut tips you off to the perfect storm of puddings that lies ahead. From that day forward, you are granted the perfect excuse to whip up a boozy brandy butter, and sip copious amounts of mulled wine with friends and family… or, not with friends and family.

This weekend, we had our 2nd annual DIY holiday wreath-making party. The first thing I did was bake up a batch of Ballymaloe mince pies along with a few fun variations. Afterward, Geoffrey and I headed down to the wood to collect holly and ivy, evergreens and laurel leaves. We snipped branches from the olive tree and rosemary in our garden. Then, we made our traditional rosemary-mint cake, this time with chocolate instead of a snowy white sponge. My sister-in-law and her three children came over on Sunday afternoon and we gathered round the table to craft three wreaths. One for each of our homes, and another to place on Peggy’s grave with a prayer. We sipped mulled wine and nibbled on warm pies slathered up in zesty orange brandy butter and planned the big Christmas Day meal. Then, when everyone went home and Geoffrey was off to the farm to feed the calves, I cleaned up our workstations, sat down, and savoured every last morsel of the lone mince pie left on the platter.

Grandma would be proud.


Miniature Mince Pies

225g (8oz) plain flour
175g (6oz) butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1 dessertspoon icing sugar, sieved
a pinch of salt
a little beaten egg or egg yolk and water to bind
1lb mincemeat (see recipe below)
egg wash
Sieve the flour into a bowl. Toss the butter into the flour and rub it in with your fingertips. Add the icing sugar and a pinch of salt. Mix with a fork as you gradually add in the beaten egg (do this bit by bit because you may not need all of the egg), then use your hand to bring the pastry together into a ball. It should not be wet or sticky. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4
Roll out the pastry until it’s quite thin – about 3mm (1/8 inch) Stamp into rounds 7.5 (3 inch) in diameter and line shallow bun tins with the discs. Put a good teaspoonful of mincemeat into each tin, dampen the edges with water and put another round on top. Brush with egg wash and decorate with pastry leaves or stars.
Bake the pies in the preheated oven for 20 minutes approx. Allow them to cool slightly, then dredge with icing or caster sugar. Serve with Irish whiskey cream (or brandy butter.)

Homemade Mincemeat
Makes 3.2kg (7lb) approx 8-9 pots
2 cooking apples
2 organic lemons
900g (2lbs) Barbados sugar (soft, dark brown sugar)
450g (1lb) beef suet
450 (1lb) sultanas
224 (8oz) currants
110g (4oz) candied citrus peel
70ml (2.5fl oz) Irish whiskey
2 tbsp Seville orange marmalade
pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4
Core and bake whole apples in the preheated oven for 30 minutes approx. Allow to cool. When they are soft, remove the skin and pips and mash the flesh into a pulp.
Grate the rind from the lemons on the finest part of the stainless steel grater, squeeze out the juice and stir into the pulp
Grate the rind from the lemons on the finest part of a stainless steel grater, squeeze out the juice and stir into the pulp. Add the other ingredients one by one, and as they are added, mix everything thoroughly. Put into sterilized jars, cover and leave to mature for two weeks before using. This mincemeat will keep for two to three years in a cool, airy place.

The winner of Rochelle Bilow’s signed book, The Call of the Farm is YVONNE CORNELL. Many, many thanks to everyone for their heartfelt turkey comments, you have helped me in ways you’ll never know!

Slan Abhaile,


Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2014


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I am currently mesmerized by a marvelous new book entitled The Call of the Farm: An Unexpected Year of Getting Dirty, Home Cooking, and Finding Myself, by Rochelle Bilow. Rochelle is a New Yorker who serendipitously fell in love with a farm and a farmer while working on assignment as a fledgling food writer. The book weaves a tale that I know, oh, so well. She feels kindred to me. As I turn the pages, I long to meet, sip coffee, and swap farmer love stories with her. I’m prone to such sappy impulses.

At the end of each chapter there are recipes. Not just any recipes; honest dishes and pies and dinners and lunches and breakfasts that celebrate the bounty and beauty of seasonal, farm-to-table eating. Not only did Rochelle roll up her sleeves and muck out in the farmyard, she harvested many meals in the ‘Stone Hill Farm’ kitchen with each passing week, filled with heart and heartiness alike.


About midway through her book, Rochelle describes the day when chickens are processed for their farm CSA customers. They are referred to as “meat birds” and she admits to having a surprisingly nonchalant attitude toward slaughtering the animals. This completely intrigues me.

As I pour hot water over a tea bag with one hand, with the other I hold Rochelle’s book close to my face, carefully reading and re-reading each chicken paragraph. I walk to my desk, sit down, blow the steam off my teacup and continue to scan for clues that could guide me to that place of tolerance, of accepting the cycle and sacrifice of farm livestock. It doesn’t happen. Rochelle seems to be just as struck by the notion that she didn’t have a strong emotional, visceral reaction to the activities of that day as I am.

Brave. Efficacious. Levelheaded.


The opposite of me, I think to myself.

I can’t stop reading.

It’s worth mentioning that Rochelle’s book came in the post right on the wings of the arrival of our baby turkeys earlier this autumn. In yet another one of my Grow-It-Yerself efforts, I decided to raise a small number of turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas this year. And, while it has been an absolute joy, it is also a massive emotional challenge. Let’s just say, even though I know I am only postponing the inevitable, our 10 turkeys have been given a pardon for Thanksgiving. See below.

Turkey Journal: October 26th, 2014
The turkeys are just about 14 weeks old and I cannot see how I will manage letting them go for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They rely on me to take care of them, and feed them, and provide fresh water for them, and keep them warm and dry and safe. I know that’s all part and parcel, but I swear they have the look of love in their eyes when they see me. Sometimes I peer out the shutters of my kitchen window with a view to Turkey Hollow secretly hoping a turkey will have found a way out. I’m beginning to think this is not for me.


I know, I know, farmers are not in the business of rearing pets. I mean, my husband tends to the poultry raised on the home farm, but those chickens are birds that I’ve never quite connected with; I prefer to spend more time with the dairy cows and calves. Besides, ten turkeys is different than a barn full of broilers, even if they are free-rangers. For the most part, our chickens leave the farm when they are ready to be processed and the next time we see them, they are roasting in the oven.

My turkeys are different. We are intimate. And, I am finding it difficult to cope with the fact that I will personally be escorting them to their private undertaker in just a matter of weeks and walking away with packages of Aga-ready dinners.

On top of all the emotion, I keep having a strong impulse to urge all meat eaters that they should have to raise and butcher an animal at least once in their lifetime. But, then I question myself, why force this issue? Yes, it is true that more people (especially newer generations) should know where their meat comes from and how it is raised. But, not sure having to go through such measures is practical or necessary. Nor, if I am honest, will it help the uneasiness with the personal endeavour that lies ahead of me.

On the other hand, our 8-year old son seems to have no qualms about it. It seems the same goes for all the animals he has met that are being reared for food. He’s very pragmatic about it all, saying “these animals have a purpose and we are giving them a good life while we can.” I’m astonished by his candor, but quickly realize that is the difference between a child raised on a farm, and someone like myself who was a true townie until I met my husband.

I decide to make contact Rochelle herself and plea for advice. She reasons, “it is exactly your respect, regret, and hesitation to harvest them that makes me believe you are worthy to do so.”

All of this makes sense, but still,   ….can someone please pass the tissues?

And, a piece of this pie?!


Rochelle Bilow’s Butternut & Browned Butter Pie

A fantastic idea for Thanksgiving this week. Rochelle says this version is creamier than pumpkin pie, and I’d have to agree. Maple syrup stands in for sugar and the almond extract adds another dimension to the flavour that was very welcomed in our house. Our son, an extreme lover of pumpkin pie, ate three slices on baking day and asked if we could make another for Thanksgiving. My father in law, who is not a fan of pumpkin pie, loved this version. I added rye pastry leaves for an optional festive garnish, the cutters are Williams-Sonoma from a few year’s back.  Try Rochelle’s beautiful butternut & browned butter pie for yourself!

Serves eight to ten

For the filling
3 cups peeled, cubed butternut squash
6 tablespoons (3⁄4 stick) butter, divided
Pinch of salt
1⁄4 cup maple syrup
2 large eggs
3⁄4 cup whole milk
1⁄2 teaspoon almond extract
For the crust
7 tablespoons (3⁄4 stick plus 1 tablespoon) butter, melted
1⁄4 cup maple syrup
11⁄4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
Pinch of salt
1⁄4 teaspoon ground ginger
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Place the squash on a rimmed baking sheet with 2 tablespoons butter, then place in the preheated oven. Once the butter has melted, stir to coat the squash with it and place it back in the oven. Bake 35 to 40 minutes, until the squash is tender.

Meanwhile, begin making the crust: pour the 7 tablespoons of melted butter into a medium mixing bowl. Add 1⁄4 cup maple syrup and whisk to combine. In a large bowl, blend together the pastry flour, salt, and ginger, then use a wooden spoon to stir in the butter and syrup mixture. The dough will be wet and greasy.

Using your fingers, press the dough into a 9-inch glass pie pan so it is uniform thickness and reaches slightly over the edges of the pan. Trim any shaggy edges, then use your thumb and forefinger to crimp the ends. Bake about 18 minutes, until puffed and lightly golden. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. Maintain oven temperature.

Once the squash is cooked, begin to assemble the filling. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the milk solids have begun to brown and smell nutty. Set aside to cool slightly. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the cooked squash, browned butter, 1⁄4 cup maple syrup, eggs, milk, and almond extract. Puree to combine.

Spread the filling into the prepared crust, smoothing the top evenly. Lower the oven temperature to 350°F and bake 25 to 30 minutes, until the filling has just set. If the crust begins to brown too much, cover with aluminum foil. Let cool completely before serving.

I am giving away one signed copy of Rochelle’s incredible book, The Call of the Farm, for Thanksgiving! Leave a comment below & I will announce the lucky winner on my next post.

Slan Abhaile,


Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2014. The gorgeous brown linen napkin in the second photo was a gift from the lovely 31 Chapel Lane, Dublin, I would encourage a visit!


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We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring 

Will be to arrive where we started 

And know the place for the first time.
-T.S. Eliot

Finally. I picked the blackberries. I have no less than ten thorny incisions on my violet-stained fingers to prove it. In Geoffrey’s words, I’ve more than earned a brave brambleberry scout badge.

In a concerted effort to “will” or tame the season….to somehow preserve traditions of y’ore, I patiently lingered until just a day shy of autumn to tackle our humble creepers bursting with ripe fruit.


When the day came, I packed up a punnet of necessary things: a flask of strong coffee, some bits to nibble, a special book, gloves and nippers. I set up a workstation by the old cottage at Ballyhahill, and set out to pluck a bucket of deep purple berries from the wall of prickly vines that surround and protect it.


Despite my efforts to reclaim the bounty of a true fall harvest, to go back to a time when seasons could be held accountable, the swallows have gone and packed up to soar south for their holidays. And, believe it or not, red berries are already beginning to dot our shiny, sharp-leaved holly trees. Hedgerow sloes have been ripe for the picking since mid September…usually not ready until after the first frost. Dare I ask, do these signs point to an early, hard winter? Seasons just seem to come earlier and earlier, but just how far can back can they go….in a nod to a T.S. Eliot poem, could nature somehow arrive back to where it all started?


Ten years ago, I couldn’t have told you the difference between a swallow or sparrow and I certainly never knew that sloes were a fruit that grew on a tree; rather, a putrid syrupy “gin” poured as a cheap fizzy cocktail. I, ashamedly, was not at all concerned about climate change or farming or growing my own food. It was far easier to go through life eyes wide shut, worrying about my next new pair of shoes or how many air miles I was stacking up. I had a career that could cunningly give you a false sense of influence; a feeling that honestly never quite sat right with me, but also a feeling for which now I will embarrassingly admit, sure was easy to get used to…

Today, I am forced to reckon with raw nature, and well, it can be daunting. There is no sense of superiority here that’s for certain. We are ruled by nature. It affects everything we do here on the farm. From rearing animals on grass to growing crops for winter fodder. Sowing and cultivating the kitchen garden, and even allowing our new heritage turkeys to frolic in Turkey Hollow, it’s all down to what Mother Nature decides.


So, I picked the blackberries and left some behind, and I will stubbornly, and perhaps ridiculously, wait every year until it’s truly autumn to take them again.

And now, we feast.



Blackberry & Apple Tart with a Hint of Sweet Geranium

I learned straight away that any and all things Blackberry and Apple reign supreme here in Ireland during the autumn harvest season. It is certain that any manner of tarts, crumbles, cakes and puddings will be found on the dining tables of Irish country houses at this time of year. It is a tradition that was uncommon to me initially, but one that makes perfect sense as the two fruits do truly sing together. I experimented with adding a hint of sweet geranium essence to these individual tarts and we really enjoyed the subtle addition. Sweet geranium is unrelated to the flowering garden geranium and has leaves in a variety of scents from rose to lemon and even a mint-y version. Of course, you can leave out the sweet geranium syrup infusion altogether for a classic fruit tart with full-on jammy blackberry/tart apple flavour.

Makes 3 miniature tarts, or one standard pie.

For the shortcrust pastry
Scant 1.5 cups/113g butter, softened
Scant 1 cup/200g caster sugar
1 small egg
4 drops vanilla extract
2.5 cups/300g standard plain flour (all purpose)
For the filling
5 sweet geranium leaves
200 mls water
150g caster sugar
80 g butter, plus extra for greasing
100 g golden caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
4-5 Bramley apples, cored, peeled and each cut into wedges
200 g blackberries
1 large free-range egg, beaten
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
To make the pastry
1. In a large mixing bowl, lightly beat butter and sugar with a wooden spoon until a light creamy consistency has been achieved.
2. Add egg, vanilla and mix until combined. Add flour and mix to a paste just until pastes comes clean off bowl. (Be careful not to over mix or pastry will become elastic and doughy.)
3. Cover with cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or even better, overnight.
To make the sweet geranium syrup
1. Place 5 sweet geranium leaves in a saucepan with the water and sugar.
2. Heat until sugar is fully dissolved. Take off heat and set aside to cool.
For the filling
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas 4.
2. When syrup has cooled to room temperature, pour over blackberries and steep for at least one hour.
3. Put the butter and sugar into a saucepan and, when the butter has melted, add the apples.
4. Slowly cook for 15 minutes with a lid on, then add the infused blackberries, stir and cook for 5 more minutes with the lid off.
1. Remove your pastry from the fridge.
2. Dust your work surface with flour, cut the pastry in half and, using a floured rolling pin, roll one of the pieces out until it’s just under 1cm thick. (Rolling the dough between two layers of greaseproof paper will also stop it sticking to your rolling pin.)
3. Butter a shallow 26cm pie dish or three mini tart tins and line with the pastry, trimming off any excess round the edges using a sharp knife.
4. Tip the cooled apples and blackberries into a sieve, reserving all the juices, then put the fruit into the lined pie dish so you have a mound in the middle.
5. Dot each mound with a teaspoon of remaining butter
6. Spoon over half the reserved juices. Brush the edge of the pastry with beaten egg. 6. Roll out the second piece of pastry, just as you did the first, and lay it over the top of the pie.
7. Trim the edges as before and crimp them together with your fingers.
8. Brush the top of the pie with the rest of the beaten egg, sprinkle generously with sugar and the cinnamon, and make a couple of slashes in the top of the pastry.
9. Place the pie on a baking tray and then put it directly on the bottom of the preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.
10. To serve, slice the pie into portions and serve with a generous dollop of custard.

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2014. 



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“Hold on, hold on, hold on…let me go and see, I know there is one tree out there with sweet fruit on it.” My father-in-law pulled on his wellies and rushed out the kitchen door to what Geoffrey and I like to privately call the baby orchard.

I had ambled in moments earlier after checking the gooseberries and black currants (sadly, very sparse this year) along with the young apple, pear and plum trees that he and Peggy planted about six years ago only steps from the scullery.

When I explained that I noticed one tree with a gang of green plums and wondered out loud if they were Greengages, Michael scratched his head and told me he couldn’t be sure, “Peggy wrote the names of all those new trees down when we planted them, but I can’t recall where that list might be now.” These are things you don’t think a second about until someone is gone and you can’t ask them anymore.

He just wanted to get to the sweet. Who cared about those sour green plums. We needed to plunge into a sugary candy-like plum, like the ones he and Geoffrey shared the week before. I couldn’t shake the subtle hint of metaphor between sweetness and sorrow.


Michael came back into the kitchen with one piece of deep purple fruit, opened the cupboard and pulled three more from a brown paper bag. We stood in front of the kitchen sink eating those perfect plums. No words, just the sounds of bite-slurping into the fleshy fruits followed by the telltale mmmm’s and ahhh’s of pure taste ambrosia. When we finished our impromtu picnic, I thanked Michael and he suggested that I head out to the back orchard to check on the older fruit trees.



This “old” orchard, which dates back about one hundred years, was heaving with ripe fruit. When I say heaving, this is partially due to the tremendous storm earlier this year that downed several large beech trees and blew over the fruit trees with such a vengeance that they mostly now look more like arched Espaliers than Bramleys; the whole scene suggestive of a fine Dr. Seuss story.

I filled a basket with plums, most of them ripe, and a few with a way to go. And, in the spirit of summer fruits, this sweet surprise was born.


Orchard Plum + Black Currant Madeira Cake with Mascarpone-Cassis Icing

Madeira Cake did not originate in the Madeira Islands, rather from the Portuguese Madeira wine that would have traditionally been served with this tea cake in Ireland and the UK many years ago. This wildly popular (and, once new-to-me), beautifully buttery, dense cake is normally prepared with just a touch of lemon zest, but I’ve pushed the limits and made it rich with summer fruits, balanced with a creamy mascarpone, cassis-spiked icing. I added black currant jam and a touch of smoked sea salt to the frosting, which is lovely, but definitely optional and not necessary if you prefer a less profound flavour profile. The pretty green plums in the photos were not used in the cake mix; sweet, ripe plums are a must for this recipe. You could cut the recipe in half and leave out the layers + icing altogether for a simple summer fruit Madeira. 

350g/12oz butter, at room temperature
350g/12oz caster sugar
6 free-range eggs
500g/18oz self-raising flour
6 tbsp milk
300g/10 oz peeled, pitted, thinly sliced sweet plums
200g black currant conserve
1. Pre-heat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Grease two 18cm/7in round cake tins, line the base with greaseproof paper and grease the paper.
2. Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until pale and fluffy about 5 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating the mixture well between each one and adding a tablespoon of the flour with the last egg to prevent the mixture from curdling.
3. Sift the flour and gently fold in, with enough milk to give a mixture that falls slowly from the spoon. Fold in the sliced plums.
4. Spoon the mixture equally into the prepared tins and lightly level the tops. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 40-50 minutes, or until golden-brown on top and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
5. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, turn it out onto a wire rack and leave to cool completely.
6. Level out each cake layer with a serrated cake knife so that they easily lay flat on top of one another.
7. Spread a thick layer of black currant conserve on top of bottom cake layer.

Cassis-Mascarpone Icing
450g/1lb mascarpone cheese, softened
350g/12oz unsalted butter, softened
450g/1lb confectioners’ sugar, sifted
3/4 tsp. oak-smoked sea salt (optional)
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
3-4 tbsp crème de cassis
1 tbsp black currant conserve (optional)
1.In a large bowl, beat the mascarpone and butter with the mixer on medium speed until very smooth and creamy, about 1 minute.
2. Add the confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, crème de cassis, optional sea salt and black currant conserve and beat on medium high until blended and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
3. Cover the frosting and set aside at room temperature until ready to frost cake.
4. Dab a bit of icing on the cake plate. Carefully set the bottom layer of cake (the piece with black currant conserve spread on top) down on the frosting. Sandwich second layer on top.
5. Using a metal spatula, evenly spread a thin layer (about 1/3 cup) of frosting over the entire cake to seal in any crumbs and fill in any gaps between layers. Refrigerate until the frosting is cold and firm, about 20 minutes. Spread the entire cake with the remaining frosting.
6. Refrigerate the cake for at least 4 hours or up to 2 days. This cake is best served slightly chilled or at room temperature.

Slan Abhaile,


Recipe, Photos and Styling by Imen McDonnell 2014


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20 Jun 2014


Tonight I sit at the table looking at life over the rim of an ingeniously crafted grilled lemon gimlet.* I am pondering this crazy, cathartic journey of love that I signed up for nearly 11 years ago.

Warm fuzzies take up residence on my forearms and I smile.

Still kismet.

As I gallop nearer to the finish of photography for this book, I am filled with emotion and pride. Looking back, I am simply struck by how life can take so many turns and twists in your one go ‘round.

Damn, destiny can be demanding.

I sip down the last gorgeous citrusy drop of my mixed drink and start wiping down the kitchen worktop.

Nine years in Ireland. (Pinch)

Where did that go? (Ssshhhh, don’t ask)

I hazily conclude that if you give life your best shot, demands are met with very handsome rewards.



I’ve been floating around in my apron and wellies for the for the past month prepping, testing, cooking, co-styling and shooting recipes nearly every day, in and around our home, the farmyard, and the many pastures and meadows that cradle and surround us.


Fortunately for me, my fabulous friend and food stylist, Sonia Mulford-Chaverri made it across the Atlantic to be my partner in all of this food fluffing. So far we’ve been having great fun making everything look awfully pretty together.

Of course, everyone in the family has been enlisted as well, including our Airedale Terrier, Teddy, who clearly seems to feel he has some directorial talents. He takes the biscuit.

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Sure, during week 3 the dishwasher died (that one last butter bell?) and our clothes washer waned (too many tea towels?), but thanks to our local dairy co-op, we were back in business in no time. Yes, I stumbled while eagerly trying to hoist a large piece of furniture (a.k.a “prop”) and subsequently spent the day at the hospital waiting for an x-ray (no break, just a bad sprain, but plenty of colorful chinwagging with fellow Irish patients.)

As of today, I am on oven burn #6 and wearing it like a badge of cookbook courage. Also, the donkeys breaking into one of my kitchen garden beds and eating most of my strawberries and newly sprouted Georgia collard greens was admittedly quite heartbreaking.

Ahhhhhh, farm life.


On the other hand, we had a lovely visitor from Tennessee who brought and baked her special family recipe for buttermilk pie (yes, it will be in the book!) and afterward, we made beautiful buttermilk fried chicken with a big mess O’greens, so all was not lost. Thank you Lavonda Shipley.


I must admit, the best bits have been shooting outdoors frolicking in all of the once-foreign-to-me fauna and flora (even if the sweet heifer calves that surround us in the fields are forever trying to guttle up our picnics before we can properly photograph them). Can’t blame em, right?


It is the absolute perfect time of year to capture the breathtaking nature of the Irish countryside at its finest. Things don’t bloom here, they BURST…virtually everything is heaving with flowers and leaves everywhere you turn. Beguiling.


Will leave you with some other bits of bacchanalia….and back soon, promise.

Last month, I was invited to travel to the charming Inishbofin Island off the coast of County Galway to enjoy a lovely dinner and night at the Inishbofin House Hotel. The island, which translates to “The Island of the White Cow” is reachable by ferry from Cleggan and boasts breathtaking beaches and ruins chockablock with history. BBC chef, Ray McCardle, is on board at Inishbofin House consulting on the menu with head chef Taidgh McDonald and their new menu is a treasure to keep an eye on. If you are traveling to Ireland and want to try something different than the Aran Islands, hop over to is truly delightful.

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I will be blabbing about food blogging on a fantastic panel at this year’s Hay Festival in the ancient town of Kells, County Meath on Sunday, July 6th. The Hay Festival is a vibrant mash of literature, world music, politics, comedy and film and is produced every year across Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. My friends at Sheridan’s Cheesemongers asked me to participate this year, and I’m proud as punch to join this renowned gathering. Come along if you’re free! On your way, check out the Hill of Tara and put an intention on the wishing tree.


Shake, shake, shake ♫ ♬…..come and boogie with me while making farmhouse butter at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin on July 26th. More details to come.

Slan Abhaile,


*Sonia’s Grilled Lemon Gimlet recipe: one sliced lemon, sprinkled with sugar and grilled. Fill one small tumbler with ice. Pour in two jiggers dry gin, healthy splash of lemon juice, and top with grilled lemon. Suck and eat lemon slices when you’ve finished your drink. Photo of rag tree by Bruce Friedman. All other photos by Imen McDonnell 2014. 


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Irish Spring

22 Apr 2014


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.


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)


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







Slan Abhaile,


Photos and Styling by Imen McDonnell 2014

No Zwartbles lambs were eaten for this post


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