RichChocolateButtermilkCake2

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, 

so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

-Joseph Campbell

I met this fine-looking farmer when he was visiting the United States one particularly frigid week in February 2004. It was his second visit to the Twin Cities of the American Midwest, where I had been hunkering down in hibernation mode for the winter. He had come to visit a childhood mate who had moved to St. Paul, Minnesota after secondary school. It was only his second time in Minneapolis, the beloved city that I had recently returned to after a production stint an at Emmy award-winning television show in New York City.

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Prior to New York, I had spent a chunk of time living the hazy, surreal, set-life of Los Angeles. I loved the buzz of film sets and sound stages and just being a part of the team behind-the-scenes. I grew up an ambitious girl in small-town Wisco, and was always eager to break away to the bright lights of a big city. In Minneapolis, I had found balance working as a creative producer for an influential, (if somewhat Mad Men-esque) advertising agency, while traveling globally to execute broadcast television campaigns for international beauty and food brands. I lived comfortably in the middle of the picturesque city, and if I was going anywhere else, you could hedge your bets that it would be back to Brooklyn.

On the evening we were introduced, I hadn’t fancied going out, but I was persuaded by a colleague who was desperate for a fun night after a long workweek. I wasn’t feeling terrific that day, so I prettied myself up as best as I could and got on with it, as you do when all you really want to do is lounge around in flannel pajamas and sip chamomile tea all evening. Before I knew it, my taxi arrived, and I mustered the energy to run out the door.

We were having a laugh with friends at a newish downtown lounge when a handsome flaxen-haired fella breezed past our group, turned his head and shot us a smile. As he was waiting for his drink at the bar, my friend starting chatting with him. Or was she chatting him up? Either way, I could see that he was very polite and by the lilt in his voice, I noted that he was clearly not from the United States, though I couldn’t quite place his accent.

After a casual introduction, I learned that this striking man with the unusual accent was named Richard McDonnell. And, judging from his fair-skinned, ginger-topped mates sipping pints of Guinness, I put two and two together and wielding some heavy-handed stereotypes guessed that they were all either from Ireland or perhaps the UK.

The evening was becoming far more interesting than I had anticipated.

Later, as the others trailed off in conversation and dance, Richard and I found ourselves at a table alone and began to get to know one another. He revealed that he lived on a farm in the Irish countryside that had been in his family since the 1800’s and that he had a university degree in philosophy. What a fascinating combination, I thought. Kant, Hobbes, Plato had been impossible for me to get my head around in my university studies, and farming….well, I had never stepped foot on a real working farm in my life.  He also shared that his star sign was Aquarius, as is mine. I warmed to him. Though I occasionally found it hard to understand his thick Irish brogue, he had no shortage of charming and funny quips, which kept me in stitches all evening long.

At the end of the night, Richard said he would only be in town for a few more days and asked if I would join him for dinner the following evening. Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed. Despite enjoying our lively conversation, I was still not sure if I really wanted to see him again. I wasn’t keen on romance at the time. But, he said “think about it and choose your favorite restaurant,” and suddenly I was torn between fun visions of the best melt-in–your-mouth butterknife steak at kitsch and campy Murray’s or the only authentic spaghetti and meatballs in town washed down with goblets of Barolo at the quiet little trattoria in my neighborhood. We exchanged phone numbers and went our separate ways.

Early the next morning, he texted me to say he was looking forward to our dinner. I panicked. Happily busy with a creative career that kept me constantly working and traveling, I had convinced myself that I had no time or energy to put into developing a rewarding relationship, or was I just simply nervous and unsure of myself? If I knew one thing, it was that I had no designs on dating a farmer from Ireland! Still, Richard was awfully attractive, intelligent, and quite charismatic, so despite my hang–ups, I agreed on the stipulation that my bubbly Aussie friend and her lovely husband would join us. After all, a girl can never be too careful, right?

We met at a quaint new eatery that had been getting excellent reviews. Built into a historic neighborhood bakery, the space was intimate and filled to the brim with vintage bistro charm and personality. Looking in from the outside on a brisk winter’s evening you could see tables situated behind spacious steamed-up lead glass windows with enchanted looking people dining together in dim candlelight. The quiet sounds of Chet Baker could be heard under the commotion of lively dinner conversation, the atmosphere was romantic and convivial at once, the best sort of combination.

Richard walked in, all refreshed, pressed and dressed, and I must confess, I felt a twinge of excitement in my tummy when our eyes met. I introduced him to my friends, and the conversation, laughter, and Burgundy flowed all night long.

The food was sensational. We both ordered coq au vin, which was so rich and tender that I may have actually been able to eat it with a dessert spoon. For our final course, an unforgettable chocolate fondant with a lavender-laced molten center that took my breath away. I will never forget the perma-grin I was sporting from ear to ear all evening.

At the end of the meal, Richard excused himself and discreetly paid the entire bill. Clearly chivalry was not dead to him, but I insisted on chipping in as well. Later that evening he told me that it was his birthday. I marveled at his level of modesty, as such information would have certainly been divulged during dinner had it been my birthday.

I wondered, could he be for real?

After we said goodnight, I turned the events of the evening in my head over and over. I came to the conclusion that being selfless and humble is absolutely alluring. Not all, but plenty of men that had previously come into my life were far more preoccupied with their own interests and never seemed to cease speaking in a certain style of egoistic banter; a personality trait that Richard McDonnell did not seem to possess.

Richard was planning to return to Ireland on Valentine’s Day and inquired,

“So, tell me, who will be your Valentine this year?”

…to which I demurely replied,

“why, my father, of course”.

When I arrived at my office on the morning of his departure, I was greeted with an enormous basket of beautiful flowers and a card that read,

“Well, you’re my Valentine”.

I was hooked.

That romantic gesture launched over a year of transatlantic dating romance, the requisite meeting of the families, (my father gave his blessing the minute he realized I couldn’t stop “smiling like a Cheshire Cat” whenever we were together), and hopping around to holiday spots together as I traveled on production business overseas. Soon, we knew that we wanted to spend more time together on a permanent basis, which was a glorious notion, except this meant one of us would have to uproot and relocate.

We were two people who had fallen hopelessly in love who had to make a choice, which wasn’t going to be easy. I knew that Richard wasn’t in a position to “relocate” his family farm, and my work was seemingly more flexible, but I couldn’t be sure.

Finally, I decided brazenness could pay off; I took the risk and leaped!

 

hen

Rich Chocolate Buttermilk Cake
Over the years, I have come to the realisation that a farmer’s affinity for chocolate could quite simply be attributed to energy-craving exhaustion. Nevertheless, it is a family favorite so I decided early on that I would have to perfect a chocolate cake that the whole farm would love. I wanted to create a creamy, mellow, super moist chocolate-y-but-not-overpoweringly-so chocolate layer cake. The test was on. I started with a sour cream chocolate cake, then tried crème fraîche, and even tried cream cheese. While a couple of those tasted very nice, not until I incorporated buttermilk did I discover the ideal formula. This is a rich, dense, somewhat tangy cake with a super-buttery chocolate buttercream icing and creamy deep chocolate ganache. It is well suited for chocolate loving family and friends, yet still a treat for those who claim they aren’t crazy for chocolate. Make this decadent cake for Valentine’s Day, I swear it is totally tastes like love
Makes one 9” layer cake
For the Cake
1¾ cups (218g) all-purpose flour
2 cups (400g) granulated white sugar
¾ cup (90g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1½ tsp baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup (237ml) buttermilk
½ cup (113g) butter, melted
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 cup (237ml) hot coffee (or 2 tsp instant coffee in 1 cup boiling water)
For the chocolate filling:
7 oz (200g) dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa solids or more), chopped
2 sticks + 1 tablespoon (17 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
4 egg yolks
1 1/4 cups (156g) confectioner’s sugar, sifted
For the chocolate ganache:
5 oz (140g) dark chocolate (about 52 percent cocoa solids), chopped
1 1/4 cups (300ml) heavy cream
To decorate:
Chocolate curls
Unsweetened cocoa powder and confectioner’s sugar, to dust.
Bake the cake:
Preheat oven to 350f/175c degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch baking pans and line with parchment paper circles. Set aside.
In the large bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. Add eggs, buttermilk, melted butter and vanilla extract and beat until smooth (about 3 minutes). Remove bowl from mixer and stir in hot coffee. The batter will be runny.
Divide batter evenly between the two pans and bake on middle rack of oven for about 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
Allow to cool 15 minutes in pans, then run a butter knife around the edges of each cake. Pop out and allow to cool on wire cooling rack.
To make the filling:
Melt the chocolate in a bain marie or a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of hot water. Set aside to cool slightly. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter in standing mixer for at least 10 minutes at high speed, until pale and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and confectioner’s sugar and beat vigorously for another 5 minutes. Once the butter mixture is thoroughly mixed, remove 2 tablespoons and stir it into the cooled, melted chocolate. Then slowly pour the melted chocolate down the side of the mixing bowl (to prevent egg mixture from scrambling) into the butter mixture and fold it in quickly and gently until fully combined and smooth.
To make the ganache
Once the cakes are cooled, you can start making the chocolate ganache. Put the chocolate in a large bowl. Heat the cream to boiling point, then pour it over the chocolate, and stir until it melts. Set aside to cool. With a hand mixer, beat the cooled chocolate cream until it barely forms soft peaks, making sure not to overbeat it, or it will become too stiff to spread.
To assemble the cake
Split the cakes in half horizontally with a sharp serrated knife. Spread the chocolate filling onto each layer and sandwich the layers together. Frost the cake with the chocolate ganache and decorate with chocolate curls, if you wish.

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Slan Abhaile & Happy Valentine’s Day!

Imen x

Cake & farm photos by Imen McDonnell, styling by Sonia Mulford-Chaverri. 

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Banoffee Crepe Cake

09 Feb 2016

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I am delighted to announce the five recipients of my upcoming book, The Farmette Cookbook, Recipes and Adventures from My Life on an Irish Farm: Debra Dorn, Jen Kohan, Martha Bernie, Emily Grace & Sally Savage. Thank you all for your lovely comfort food comments, I had so much fun reading them all! I may be doing another giveaway in March, so stay tuned.

I have also updated my events page with some upcoming book & workshop dates, so please do have a look, we hope to see you around. I will be adding Ireland and UK book event dates very soon, promise!

Now, allow me to introduce this decadent Banoffee crepe cake. Absolutely overly indulgent, somewhat time consuming to prepare, and yet, oh SO necessary on Pancake Tuesday, an Irish holiday for which I am eternally grateful. A celebration that never fails to warm my heart and tickle my tastebuds. This recipe makes the perfect pan(cake) to be enjoyed with family and friends gathered around our table. I hope you enjoy it too.

Banoffee Crepe Cake
Serves 10
Makes about 20 crepes (depending on thickness and diameter)
1 cup plain all purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
6 eggs
3/4 litre/21 fl ozs milk
Butter for frying
350ml/12 ozs caramel, toffee, or milk jam
1 tablespoons rum (optional)
300ml/10 fl ozs. heavy dairy cream
½ tsp vanilla extract
3 ripe bananas, sliced into coins
For the crepes:
Combine the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a large bowl with a spout whisk the eggs and milk together until combined. Make a well in the center of the flour and salt mixture and gradually whisk the egg and milk mixture into the flour until thoroughly mixed.
Heat a frying pan on low to medium heat and add a little butter to the pan. Pour a ladle full of batter to cover the bottom of the pan. Don’t get anxious if there are holes or your crepes aren’t perfect-they stack on top of each other. When one crepe side is cooked, gently flip it over. Stack the crepes on top of each other. Cover and cool completely.
Whip the cream and vanilla until stiff peaks form and set aside.
Loosen the caramel with the rum or with a little of the cream if it is too stiff until it is a spreadable consistency.
Assembly:
Spread one crepe with the caramel and then place another on top and place banana slices on top, place another crepe on top and spread that with the whipped cream, and keep alternating until you are on your last crepe.
Scullery notes: you can make the crepes up to two days in advance, or you can buy pre-made crepes if you are short on time.

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Slan Abhaile,
Imen

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2016. 

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milkyricepuds

I know, I know, it’s January and according to every well-meaning food magazine I am supposed to be in full throttle detox-n-dry damnation mode. But, despite my best intentions to become a “new me,” I seem to keep turning up in the kitchen on tippy toes peering into a piping hot oven to supervise blistering dishes of creamy cinnamon and cardamom-scented baked rice pudding. I simply can’t look away from that bubbling picture of gooey goodness; I’m like a school marm with beady eyes on a busy playground, like a magpie on a blackthorn branch ready to swoop down on it’s delicious prey. About every second day, I inevitably find myself hunkered down at my writing desk savouring spoonfuls of irresistibly milky rice pudding by the bellyful.

Someone call Slimming World, I might need an intervention.

In the meantime, I shall choose to view this habit as a sort of restorative treatment, a body wrap of warming and protective wholesome comfort food in preparation for my big year ahead. It’s all about the FOMO on rice pudding. (because you never know when this dairy delight will be extinct) and the YOLO relating to rice pudding (it is actually sort of dangerous.)

The BIG year that I am banging on about would be the year that my first book (aka second baby) is due to hit stores around the world (GULP!) this spring. March 8th to be exact. And, honestly, despite all the minutes, hours, days and years that have gone into bringing this lovechild to life, it still feels like some sort of apparition to me. I suppose until I am actually holding the bouncing hardcover book baby in my hands, I can continue to live my rice pudding dreams. Right?

The Farmette Cookbook, Recipes and Stories from My Life on an Irish Farm is now available for pre-order here, herehere and via all good book outlets. I will be cordially giving away 5 copies upon publication date, so do leave a comment below describing your favourite comfort food (or drink), and your name will be included in the lucky draw.

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Some of my very favourite food heroes got an early sneak peek of the book, and I am gobsmackingly flattered and humbled to share what they had to say (with a heartfelt thanks again to all!)…

“A joyful celebration of life on an Irish farm.  A super, chic book written with the appreciative eye of an outsider who reminds us of the sheer pleasure of living on a dairy farm. Rearing a few table fowl, planting a vegetable garden and an orchard, rediscovering the satisfaction of using home-grown Irish produce to make truly delicious and creative food for family and friends.”—Darina Allen

The Farmette Cookbook is a lovely combination of personal tale and transportive recipe, and it makes me want to come to Ireland tomorrow. In a world full of culinary flimflammery, Imen McDonnell is the real thing: wonderful storyteller and creator of delicious recipes with a traditional edge, all mouthwateringly evocative of this magical place she now calls home.”—Elissa Altman, author of Poor Man’s Feast

“Imen has beautifully captured the rich heritage of Irish farmhouse cooking and cast a 21st century spell on it!”  —Catherine Fulvio, author and award-winning proprietor of Ballyknocken House & Cookery School

“There is magic in Imen McDonnell’s new book, and in her story. Her dedication to uncovering Ireland’s rich food culture and cultivating her own shines through. You’ll want to dive right in, start cooking, and build your own fairy tale.”—Sarah Copeland, author of Feast & Food Director of Real Simple Magazine.

“Imen takes traditional Irish cooking to the next level with her American curiosity and ingenuity. She weaves big city cravings, like potstickers, tacos, banh mi, harissa, pizza, and more, with traditional comfort food made from scratch. Imen’s brave leap of faith and love is a boon for the rest of us: we now have this charming book full of stories and recipes I can’t wait to make.”—Susan Spungen, food stylist, cookbook author & founding food editor of Martha Stewart Living

“It was Imen’s endearing and touching personal writing on all things Irish that first drew me to her beautiful blog.  Her personal journey into the history of traditional Irish recipes is celebrated throughout this carefully considered cookbook.  Filled with stories of old and inspirations from Ireland’s exciting new cooking scene, Imen is putting Irish Farmhouse Cooking firmly back on the map.”—Donal Skehan, Irish food personality and author of Kitchen Hero 

“If you have not yet visited Ireland and tasted its authentic foods, you’ll want to after reading Imen’s new cookbook. Living on an Irish farm has never looked this attractive. What a charming and delicious book!”—Béatrice Peltre, author of La Tartine Gourmande

“A beautiful story of an American city girl falling in love with a dashing Irish farmer and the food that she began to create once settled in rural Ireland. With recipes for everything from Nettle, Sweet Pea and Turf-Smoked Ham Soup to Irish Stout and Treacle Bread, this evocative cookbook will have you wanting to don your wellies and your best apron to grow, cook, and preserve Imen-style.”—Rachel Allen, Irish food personality, bestselling cookbook author, and teacher at the Ballymaloe Cookery School.

Here’s a handful of recipes & images that I love….

Boxty ComfortingFishPie haybale mayeveteacake sweetfarmercheesedanish

Farmhouse Rice Pudding
One of my mother-in-law’s favorite desserts was a simple creamy, dreamy rice pudding with a spoonful of orchard jam. It took me a few tries to create my own working recipe, and eventually I realized that a simple, old-fashioned baked version yields the perfect consistency to please everyone on the farm. Still super creamy, but with a golden, carmelized skin on top that everyone fights over, this recipe is easy to knock up and serve any day of the week.

Serves 6

1 3/4 cups (414 ml) Evaporated Milk
2 cups (475 ml) whole milk (raw, if you can get it)
4 oz (110 g) pudding or aborio rice
1/3 cup (40 g) golden granulated or superfine sugar
1 whole nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cardamom
2 tablespoons (25 g) butter
1 jar of your favorite jam (optional)

Preheat the oven to 300°F (150°C). Lightly butter a 9-inch (23-cm) round or similar sized ovenproof baking dish.
Mix together the evaporated milk and whole milk in a bowl. Stir in the cinnamon and cardamom. Put the rice and sugar in the baking dish, pour in the liquid, and stir well. Grate the whole nutmeg over the surface, then dot the butter on top in little pieces.
Bake on the center shelf of the oven for 30 minutes, then slide the shelf out and stir the mixture well. Bake for another 30 minutes, then stir again. Bake for another hour without stirring.
At the end of the cooking time, the rice grains will be swollen, with pools of creamy liquid all around them, and a carmelized coating on top. Allow to cool slightly then. Slather the top with jam, if you like, and serve.
Scullery Notes: If you cover the pudding completely with a layer of jam, it will be freshest if eaten within two days; otherwise, it will last for week in the fridge.

Which foods bring you comfort?

Slan Abhaile,
Imen

Photos and Styling by Imen McDonnell and Sonia Mulford Chaverri.

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Sunday Bits

22 Nov 2015

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Oh dear.

It’s been far too long since I last put together one of these sassy Sunday Bits. But, between farming, mothering, cooking, writing, homework and every possible other thing I can commit to (mad woman), having a free moment to blog is becoming as scarce as hen’s teeth.

Over the last few weeks….we’ve welcomed at least a dozen new calves, celebrated our son’s first decade, minded our 10.5 year old Airedale Terrier, Ted, while he has been struggling with some health issues, I traveled to Dublin to give an extremely passionate talk on Irish dairy farming for Catherine Cleary’s Appetite Talks, spent an evening at the American Ambassador to Ireland’s residence in Dublin listening to Danny Meyer talk about hospitality as a part of the Creative Minds series, and hung out with many, many fabulous foodcentrics like myself (pictured with me are Domini Kemp, Jo Murphy and Susan Jane White all in our celebratory green), our 3rd Lens & Larder workshop took place at Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara with Susan Spungen and Gentl & Hyers (we are building our L&L website with my designer friends, Hayes Design across the Atlantic on Martha’s Vineyard right now so stay tuned for more images there, but the top image was taken by Gentl & Hyers of our big table feast moment), I harvested potatoes, French blue leeks, parsnips, celery, horseradish, purple kale and loads of lettuces and herbs from our kitchen garden, foraged for sloes, rosehips, bramble and elderberries, harvested honey with my father in law, went to an incredible ladies sidesaddle meet at the local Franciscan Friary, attended a thought-provoking “SpeakEATsy” dinner at Cloughjordan Community Farm and Eco-Village, and spent the night at the remarkable Cloughjordan House, where we will hopefully be producing a Lens & Larder retreat next year, and, of course, there has been plenty of baking to go around….including gypsy pie!

…….And, in other dalliances,

I am going to be co-teaching a workshop in Australia next April!!! Yes, still pinching myself and relishing in this news. I feel so honored to be partnering with the super lovely fellow farmer, Sophie Hanson of Local Lovely, and the incredibly talented photographer, Luisa Brimble to present a workshop of food, photography, and traditional Irish farmhouse kitchen skills with a few recipes from my book at the gorgeous Kimbri Farm in the Rydal Blue Mountains, about 2 hours from Sydney. For more details and registration, visit Local-Lovely.

I was recently introduced to The Irish Taste Club, magnificent gift boxes filled with very special Irish artisan food products such as Ed Hick’s fabulous bacon jam, Dunany Flours, Wild Irish Sea Vegetables Kombu, and many more exclusively Irish products that can be delivered to the USA and abroad each month. Leave a comment below to be in the draw for your own free gift box, and spread the word! The owners of this company are just darling, and these gift boxes make for the perfect holiday pressie for homesick Irish abroad!

I have begun collaborating with Aran Sweaters, writing recipes and taking photos for their beautiful blog…have a peek!

The beautiful Swedish watch company, Daniel Wellington, asked us to photograph one of their timepieces, so I let Richard do the modelling, as seen in the image below….click here for 15% off using the code MODERNFARMETTE.

I filed my first online food/drink column for Town & Country (UK) this week, will share the link when the first piece is published on Tuesday. Very excited about this new work!

Ballymaloe Litfest has announced their line-up for their sensational spring event. Again, holiday pressies people!!

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Okay, I think that it is for now…….over and out, shall be sharing a lovely new winter recipe soon. Don’t forget to leave a comment to be in the draw for an Irish Taste Club gift box!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

 

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Sister Mary Custard

09 Sep 2015

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I can recall my first glorious taste of custard on this side of the pond. I was in the maternity hospital the day after Geoffrey was born and a nurse delivered a dainty bowl of stewed apple (i.e. applesauce) topped with warm custard after lunch. This was the nurse that insisted on calling me “princess,” and not the nurse who told me they don’t call it labor for nothing! as I tossed and turned, moaning in excruciating pain on my wrought iron hospital bed the night before.

I didn’t know what to expect when I was admitted to the hospital nearly 8 weeks prior to my due date with Geoffrey. I think I was in such a state of shock that my entire being just switched over to autopilot after my water broke (note: broke is by far an understatement, gushing would be more accurate) that fateful morning. You could say, I just went with the flow, and before I knew it we had a bouncing baby boy weighing in at just over 2kg, a wee bit larger than one of our free-range chickens. Thankfully, despite being such a little mite, he was hale and hearty and after 10 days in neonatal we got to take him home.

hen In Ireland, there are specific hospitals for pregnant women and their gynecological concerns. This is reassuring in a way; it’s nice to know you are in a place that has a focus and expertise on your specific lady bits. But, many are still ruled by Catholic nuns, so if the idea of having a nurse named Sister Mary looking after you is a bit intimidating, you may want to book your delivery into one of those 5-star American spa-style birthing suites complete with a private chef and a manicure before induction.

The offering of that much welcomed postpartum dessert made me feel comforted and cared for in my fragile state that afternoon. And, ever since, I have had an affinity for all things custard and the warmth and nurturing it always seems to bring to our table.

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Sister Mary Custard
Custard is a bit of a national treasure in Ireland. It is served as a comforting dessert throughout the year and is easy to prepare. Of course, we use dairy from the farm so it’s super wholesome, but any good quality milk and cream will create the same cosy, creamy topping. Perfect for autumn orchard crumbles, tarts or just plain stewed or roasted fruits.

Serves 6

570ml/1 pint milk
55ml/2fl oz heavy cream
1 vanilla pod or 1⁄2 tsp vanilla extract
4 eggs, yolks only
30g/1oz caster sugar
2 level tsp cornflour (cornstarch)

1. Bring the milk, cream and vanilla pod to simmering point slowly over a low heat.
2. Remove from heat and let cool slightly
3. Remove the vanilla pod (wash the vanilla pod, dry and store in jar with caster sugar to make vanilla sugar).
4. Whisk the yolks, sugar and cornflour together in a bowl until well blended.
5. Pour the milk and cream on to the eggs and sugar, whisking all the time with a balloon whisk.
6. Return to the pan,(add vanilla extract if using) and over a low heat gently stir with a wooden spatula until thickened.
7. Pour the custard into a jug and serve at once.
Scullery Notes: To keep hot, stand the jug in a pan of hot water and cover the top with cling film to prevent skin from forming.

Orchard Apple Crumble (with optional Fine Fettle Farmette version)
Every autumn we have buckets of apples, pears, and plums from the orchard. I usually core, peel and slice many of the baking apples and freeze so that we have plenty for apple tarts and crumbles throughout the year. This is one of my favorite recipes, the filling is sweetened with our honey and I use a fair bit of vanilla and spice to take down the tartness of the Bramley apples. 

Serves 6

150g/ 1 ¼ cup almond flour (ground almonds)
150g/ 1 ¼ cup organic oat flakes (oatmeal)
175g/ scant 1 cup light brown sugar
200g/ 1 ¾ cup cold butter, cut into pieces
For the filling:
600g/ 4 ½ cups apple, cored and cut into chunks
60g/ scant 3 tbsp honey
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp cinnamon
Seeds from ½ vanilla bean pod

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F)
2. Place the flour, oat flakes, brown sugar and butter in a large bowl.
3. Using your fingertips, rub all the ingredients together until it resembles chunky breadcrumbs.
4. In a large baking tin, toss the apples with the honey, lemon juice and spices until combined.
5. Add the crumble mix on top of the filling and spread over the top until everything is evenly covered.
6. Bake in the oven for 35–40 minutes or until the crumble topping is golden brown and the fruit is soft and bubbling beneath.
7. Serve in generous portions with heaps of Sister Mary Custard.
Scullery Notes: For a fine fettle farmette version, you can adapt this recipe to be gluten and dairy-free. Just make sure to use gluten-free oatmeal and substitute coconut butter for dairy butter.

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2105.

The winners of the Cheerz polaroids are: Heather McGlaughlin and Natalie from An American in Rome! Check you email for your Cheerz freebie code! 

Slan Abhaile,

Imen x

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Sunday Bits

05 Jul 2015

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Aren’t Sundays sensational?

It’s just that Sunday is the one day of the week where we can all take a bit of time off (in between milking, of course) and simply exhale. After our commitments in the morning, I love to read the newspaper (online + paper versions), a few pages of any new magazines or books that have been stacking up on my nightstand (currently Porter, White Goats & Black Bees, Garden & Gun, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying…ahhh, too many to list!) or catch up on emails, blogs, Pinterest, make some Skype calls to the USA. As a family, we’ll do some weeding (i.e. meditation), play some American football catch (yes, me too), watch a hurling match, and I usually prepare a proper Sunday lunch for anyone who wants to drop by. From morning to evening, Sunday is my absolute favorite day of the week.

So, in the spirit of Sunday and all the bacchanalia that it brings to my attention, and in keeping with various requests to post a wee bit more, I am happy to share some people/places/things that have inspired me this week. I will make this a regular blog feature and look forward to it, the best thing in this whole business is sharing ideas and forging friendships along the way….I love this kind of thing so I hope you do too.

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I realllly want to visit Sophie at Mandagery Farm and attend one of her beautiful Farm Kitchen Lunches…

My Lens & Larder partner, Cliodhna Pendergast’s incredible children’s cooking films, Breaking Eggs are currently being featured in the Irish Times online, so much fun!

Pure Green Juice delivered a 3 day detox/cleanse to me today, I will report back on the results, but how wonderful to have a new Irish raw juice company available!

Ice cream! The first photo above is my little experiment with poppyseed vanilla bean ice cream made with farm fresh cream, mooooo!….the recipe is here if you fancy trying it

The most beautiful Irish crafted cutting boards, Two Wooden Horses, have opened their online shop

The Gathered Table is a fantastic concept with loads of weekly meal inspo

We’ve been listening to the Chopped podcast lately (when I say we, I mean anyone who is trapped in the jeep or tractor with me for any extended amount of time), it’s very conversational, and also really touches on some interesting food blogging tips like how to use Snapchat as a food blogger, how to improve your SEO, creative ways to grow your audience, tips on food photography and more….including interviews with professionals like Matt Armendiaz and many top US food bloggers.

Recently I was fortunate to have dinner at Skye Gyngell’s dreamy Spring restaurant in London, which was a positively heavenly experience with regard to both food and ambience. Of course, the company wasn’t bad, Claire and Cliodhna, but the food was so remarkably fresh it felt like it was literally coming from my own kitchen garden (something about food feeling like it came from steps from your own garden is magnificent and divulging in a feast like this in such a beautifully appointed, clean, dare I say, regal dining room was really a special treat for me!) everything was absolutely in step with the season. Do nip in for lunch or dinner if you are near Somerset House. Unforgettable.

According to Andrea Gentl’s insta-feed, the great Julia Turshen has a new book coming out soon, and I for one, cannot wait!

We hosted a small dinner party here a couple of weekends ago and for pre-dinner cocktail, I prepared Susan Spungen’s Pink Sangria from her Strawberries Short Stack Edition book. It went over a storm and is one of those recipes that will be made again and again. Try it!

I’m loving 31 Chapel Lane in London, lovely purveyors of Irish linens for the home and kitchen with roots to an Irish farm.

Did you know that Ashley of Not Without Salt’s amazing salted choccy chip cookie mix is available at Sur La Table? Well, they are! I wish they shipped to Ireland! Will get some when we travel to America again later this summer.

Ooooh this is really fun, do I have to stop? I didn’t think so.

Have you ever really wanted to “unplug” and can’t resist spending time on the internet? MacFreedom will free you! Amazing for productivity; even on the farm we find it easy to get sucked into too much social media time, but it’s hard to resist when you only have a herd of cows as your supervisors. Check it out. 

In keeping with the above, we’ve recently also discovered Headspace, an amazing meditation app. Ommmm. (although weeding works remarkably well too)

My hedgerow martini photo inspired by my friends at Ballyvolane House was featured by the amazing Susan Zelouf in this week’s The Gloss. Also, that leather apron!!!!

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And, last but not least, our cows with hearts on their heads make our hearts swell, and a few other snaps from the holiday weekend. 2. Geoffrey “building a lake” at Ballyheigue Beach. 3. Our annual seafood boil at the farm….featuring Kerry crabs and Cork sausages with a side of crisp Orpen cider!

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I hope you enjoy, more soon!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen xx

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hi.

It’s been awhile.

Lately I feel like my blog is taking a backseat to the easiness of Instagram where I have been documenting much of where our crazy country life circuitously takes us. (For those that aren’t on Instagram, I apologise, but do have a look and not just at my profile, it’s a proverbial rabbit hole of lifestyle and food inspo)

But, as I sit here looking out onto our front garden of verdant green, bearing no sounds other than the call of the wind rustling through the trees, and the singing of cows snacking in our pasture to the right, it sure feels good to be writing.

Something.

Anything.

I have to be honest, writing isn’t coming as easy these days as it used to….perhaps it’s that life has been, well, brimming with life and business, or perhaps that I’ve spent so much time writing my book over the last year and a half, that sometimes the words are just literally not there…they seem to have been used up, putting on a disappearing act, playing a cruel joke on me…..or maybe (gasp) my writing brain is not the lavish bouquet I thought it was? Let’s hope my words have just been on a bit of a hiatus. Taking a beach break in Ibiza. Going on safari. Crossing the Great Wall of China. Going on a long, long Forest Gump-style run?

Gulp.

I know, it’ll be grand*. Before you know it, I’ll be back on a blogging binge. But, I might take the time to ask, what would you prefer? I often feel that subscribing to blogposts + recipes that arrive in my inbox every day or even every week is overload with so much other information that we are taking in….what are your thoughts? How often should a blogger post? Or more specifically, how often do you think I should post?

It’s been a lively few weeks here: we are making some exciting positive changes on the farm which I will share with you soon, our vegetable beds are growing in full force (weeds included, I might add!), I traveled to my old stomping ground of Brooklyn, NY last month for the Saveur Blog Awards as a finalist in the Best Writing Category (irony?). I didn’t win, Molly Wizenberg rightfully took the honour, but I got to meet some of my most favourite + inspiring food bloggers/journalists/photographers who were happily just as amazing in person as they are online: Nik Sharma, Molly Yeh, Phyllis Grant, Marian Bull, Kenzi Wilbur, Yossi Arefi, Linda Xiao, Ted Lee and more. The following day, I hopped around to some of my favourite spots in Manhattan, and then the last night was spent visiting friends Susan Spungen and Steve Kasher over a long, lingering meal at their beautiful Amagansett home.

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New York was utterly brilliant, but I was admittedly quite delighted to be back to the bastian of bucolic society. To a greater extent, I am more and more comfortable on this side of reality. The energy of the city seems to suit better me in teaspoons rather than the heaping cups that used to serve its purpose.

When I returned to the farm, it was straight to work. My first task was to help bring cows to some grazing land a few kilometers away from the main farm. This group of 25 cows will stay on these particular pastures until next December. It will be my job to make sure they have enough grass and water, count them each day, and move them to the next paddock of grass when needed (about every 3 days.)

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My next assignment was a wee bit more enchanting, although I still got to wear my wellies. I was contacted by Nathalie Marquez-Courtney, the young, intrepid editor from Image Interiors and Living, who rang up to see if I would be interesting in working on an Irish artisan picnic piece for the magazine. After quietly letting out a little happy squeal, followed by some soothing pranamaya breathing, I eagerly agreed as this is just the most exquisite Irish magazine, I never miss an issue.

My job was to create a menu, prepare, style, shoot, and write up an editorial for their summer issue (on newstands now, grab a copy for some fun picnic recipes!) From the minute she said picnic, I immediately knew that I wanted to photograph it in the wood down by the river where we have our honeybees and where I do a lot of foraging for wild foods. I pictured a woodland picnic with plenty of ivy and moss featuring some of my favourite small Irish food producers along with a charming High Nelly bicycle for good measure.

Here are a few outtakes from the shoot and a recipe for one of my favourite summer strawberry pies, I hope you enjoy.

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Will be back soon with more words, a recap of the Kinfolk Gathering that I recently worked on with Cliodhna and Joi, and an exciting announcement for our next Lens & Larder retreat happening in November.

Strawberry-Rhubarb-Wild Irish Rose Glazed Tart

Each summer, I bake up a gaggle of strawberry-rhubarb tarts. I can’t resist because Irish strawberries are so ridiculously sweet and juicy, and you can’t beat the yields of homegrown rhubarb we have here in the garden. Inspired by Galway’s wild elixir guru, Claire Davey, I made my own wild rose water and wild rose simple syrup which I used to the glaze this pie. The flavour combination is really divine, this wild Irish rose, or rosa rugosa (bottom photo above) is not perfumey, it has a rather delicate and sweet taste and fragrance which, to me, is a perfect pairing with the vibrant strawberry and tart rhubarb, of course all encased in a flaky shortcust pastry.

400g/ 14 oz strawberries, stemmed and sliced
600g/ 20 oz rhubarb stalks cut into 1/2 inch pieces (Trim away and discard the leaves which are toxic; trim ends.)
125g/ 4 oz caster sugar
1/8 teaspoon of salt
2 teaspoons of orange zest

For the glaze
100g/ 3.5 oz caster sugar
2 tbsp cornflour
180ml/ 6 oz rosewater or homemade Wild Irish or conventional rosewater (see recipe below)

23cm/ 9 inch double crust pie pastry

Preheat oven to 200°C/ 400°F. In a large bowl, gently combine the rhubarb and the strawberries with the sugar, salt, and orange zest. Let sit for 10 minutes.

Make the glaze by combining rose water, sugar and cornflour in a saucepan, stirring over low heat just until sugar is completely melted. Remove from heat and set aside.

Roll out your pastry dough and line the bottom of a pie dish with it. Trim to 2.5cm/1/2 inch from the edge. Pour the filling into the pastry lined pie dish. Evenly tip the rosewater glaze over the filling. Roll out the second pastry dough, punch venting holes all over the top and then place pastry over the pie.

Trim the edges to 2.5cm/ 1/2 inch from the edge of the pie dish. Tuck the top crust edges over the bottom crust edges and use your fingers or a fork to crimp the top and bottom edges together. (If you want, for a nice golden crust, use a pastry brush to brush a thin layer of egg white or cream over the top of the pie.)

Place pie on the middle rack of the oven, with a baking sheet on a lower rack to catch any juices that might spill over. Bake for 20 minutes at 200°C/400°F, then reduce heat to 176°C/350°F, and bake an additional 40-50 minutes longer. The pie is done when the crust is nicely browned and the filling (that you can see through the venting holes) thick and bubbly.

Remove from oven and let cool on a rack.

Serve warm or cold. If you do cool to room temperature, the juices will have more time to thicken.

To Make Wild Irish Rosewater

The Wild Irish Rose (Rosa Rugosa) can be found in hedgerows throughout the Irish countryside. To make your own rosewater, find a bush that is not located on a busy road or could be contaminated by pollution. Pick the petals two to three hours after sunrise when the morning dew has evaporated. To make the your rosewater, use only petals, not the stem and leaves.

150g/roughly 6 cups fresh rose petals
1.5 litres/50 oz spring or distilled water
Wash petals thoroughly to remove bugs and dirt particles.
Place the rose petals into large saucepan.
Add just enough spring or distilled water to cover the petals. (Too much water will give you very diluted rose water.)
Cover the pot with a lid and simmer on a low heat. The water should be steaming hot not boiling hot.
Allow the water to steam until the petals have lost their colour and the water has taken on the colour of the rose petals. You will see the rose oil floating on the surface.
Strain the water and collect in a container. Store it in a refrigerator. It will last for 6 months.

*It’ll be grand is Irish for It’ll be okay. And, I probably use this phrase 100 times a week!

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2015 with some props borrowed from Diva Boutique Bakery in West Cork. 

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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.

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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.

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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 Amazon.co.uk)
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

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“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.

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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,
Imen
Photo by Imen McDonnell 2014

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

INGREDIENTS
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
METHOD
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.
Assembly
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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