Handmade Gatherings

08 Apr 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s spring, after all.

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

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2014.  

 

 

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Finding a white egg in Ireland can be a bit of an adventure. If you live here, this is common knowledge. If you don’t, it could come as a {happy} surprise. Brown eggs are part and parcel to Irish life (and, to most other European countries as well). If you really must have white eggs, your best bet is to look for duck eggs at a farmer’s market, gourmet food grocer, or perhaps visit a local farm.

While we prefer brown hen eggs with their vivid yolks, each spring I go round-robin and gather a couple dozen white duck eggs so that we can carry on the American tradition of dyeing hard-boiled eggs for Easter. I also like to use a few of these ivory beauties to bake up a bevy of special sponge sandwich cakes layered with fresh cream and jam to share with family and friends.

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Irish duck eggs are extra large with yolks that are deeper in colour and richer in flavour than hen eggs. But more importantly, they make for an extremely thick and scrumptious Victoria sandwich; a sponge cake originally dreamed up for the queen’s tea in the UK and later became a baker’s staple in Ireland as well.

Discovering the Victoria sponge is easily one of my favourite food encounters since moving to Ireland. Yes, quick and easy to make, but the best bit? You are meant to eat it with your fingers!

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I’ll never forget meeting with Irish Country Living editor, Mairead Lavery, for the first time. She had invited me to her home for a chat. It was a sunny spring day.  I sat in her kitchen with a cup of tea watching in awe as she talked about farming and food and family while effortlessly whipping up a sponge. She baked it, jammed it, sliced, and then finally served each of us a generous warm wedge waxing on nostalgically about a dinner party she had recently hosted. When I looked for a fork, she informed me in her lovely Irish lilt “not all all, you pick it up with your hands and eat it like a sandwich” From that day forward, I have had a love affair with the Victoria sandwich.

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This year, I scored some beautiful rhubarb at the market, {thankfully, as I cannot seem to grow more than a stem or two in our own garden!} and somewhat outrageously decided to make up a batch of gorgeous velvety rhubarb-vanilla jam specifically for slathering in between spongey sandwich cake layers. What can I say? With the unrelenting cool weather, I was craving a ‘consummate spring cake’. And, If it wasn’t for me, everyone at the farm would not have been spoiled silly with messy thick duck egg sponge sandwich slices slathered in fluffy fresh cream and rhubarb jam for days….{right?}

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You may have noticed a few small adjustments here on the blog. Keeping in the spirit of spring, I’ve incorporated a new header and layout, along with a few new buttons, bells and whistles. All designed by the marvelous Graham Thew who mostly works on much more important jobs, such as designing an arsenal of cookbooks for Gill and MacMillan. I am thrilled to bits with the new look, it just feels fresh and ready for fun. Let me know what you think!

Duck Egg Sponge with Fresh Cream and Rhubarb-Vanilla Jam

6oz/170g caster (superfine) sugar
6oz/170g soft butter
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 large duck eggs at room temperature
6oz/170g self-raising flour
1-2 tbsp of milk
5-6 tbsp rhubarb-vanilla jam (see below)
¼ pint/140ml double cream, lightly whipped
caster (superfine) sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/gas4
Grease and line two 8in/20cm sandwich (or springform cake) tins
Beat the sugar, butter and vanilla essence until very pale, light and fluffy, then beat in the eggs one at a time.
Very gently fold in the flour by hand. Add enough milk to make a dropping consistency.
Divide between the prepared tins, spreading out the mix gently.
Bake for about 25 minutes until well-risen and golden brown.
Cool in the tin for 10 minutes before turning out on to a rack to cool.
Spread the underside of one cake generously with jam and top with whipped cream. Lay the second sponge on top, topside up. Dust with sugar, slice into wedges or fingers and serve.

Rhubarb-Vanilla Jam
Makes 2 x 340g jars

500g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 2.5cm chunks
300g jam sugar (sugar with pectin)
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways

Warm the rhubarb, jam sugar and vanilla pod over a medium-low heat and cook, stirring gently and being careful not to break up the rhubarb, until all of the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat and cook at a rolling boil for five to 8-10 minutes, until the setting point is reached.
Remove from the heat, use a fork to fish out the vanilla pod (you can snip this into four pieces and put one in each jar if you like), and leave to stand for five minutes before potting up in warm, sterilised jars and sealing. The jam will keep in a cool, dark place for up to a year.

Slan Abhaile,
Imen

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2013

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