Biscuits for Bartok 4 – Aniseed and lemon spelt biscuits

At last, we are back on Uist.  After almost a month away, I am pleased.  Sunny as it is, like the rest of the UK at the moment (but minus the snow) it is bitter with a brisk 35 mph easterly cutting across the islands today.  Not much has changed since we left, particularly given the prolonged cold snap – all the plants in the garden have pretty much stayed static due to the nippy weather.

It was an incredibly busy month for us and in between travels from here to London, up to Angus, Glasgow, Manchester, Cardiff and back home, we covered thousands of miles.  It was great to be able to catch up with more friends than usual, some which we hadn’t seen for a while, but encounters felt all too brief as we tried to cram everything we planned in.

I have opted to break myself in to cooking from scratch gently, trying a new biscuit for the musicians, by virtue of a miracle, produced in time for their arrival this week.  Skip to the aniseed and lemon spelt biscuit recipe at the bottom of this post if the minutiae of island life is not your thing.

Autogeddon Blues

‘My car is a polluter and it’s messing up my future…there ain’t no gettin’ round gettin’ round.’

Julian Cope, Autogeddon: ‘There ain’t no gettin’ round gettin’ round’

We also had to find time to change our car while we were away.  We have decided after much procrastination to get rid of our gas guzzling 4×4 and get a newer, greener and more economical car.  It was a tough call as we have always used the 4×4 capacity as a crutch to do as we please without much limitation: off-road, towing, driving in bad weather, however, we are not that interested in cars beyond functionality and reliability.

The reality is we don’t treat cars well: two big dogs and a lot of mud = mess, our car was an ill-treated workhorse. The salt spray and damp here is very damaging and corrosive and in light of that and from the point of view of common sense, we could not justify a price tag of £25,000 for a new 4×4 (real ones cost this much).

There is also the issue of running costs.  Fuel prices here are alarming, diesel being around £1.55 per litre, tax for a big 4×4 about £300 p.a., so it seems like a no brainer, despite our initial delusion that we needed and must have another 4×4. So, we will experiment for the next couple of years with our greener non 4×4 machine, and will be very glad to save £280 on tax p.a. and +35% on fuel per month as a result. Given it is shiny and new, we might even clean it now and then!

Muirburn mishap

Having said nothing much had changed, while we were away, we learned that an out of control moorland fire had damaged a significant part of the area where we take our daily dog walk.  We were pretty dismayed to hear this and a bit apprehensive about what we might find on our return.

The area in question is less than a mile from our house and forms part of the common grazings.  In 2000, a deer fence was erected around 100s of hectares on the grazing to exclude stock and deer and a tree planting project took place, forming part of a network planted on the year of the millennium in celebration of the occasion.  This so-called Millennium Forest has been struggling to cope with the Uist weather for the last 12 years.  Pockets of trees, particularly on the lee side of hills out of the prevailing wind have triumphed against adversity, some of them reaching small thickets of 2m, no mean feat in these conditions.

Moor 1

The thicket of alder above is exceptionally sheltered, the dogs often flush woodcock from the area in winter and an otter regularly spraints along the heather-covered narrow rivulet that runs between the two lochs (in the centre of the picture).  I’m relieved this part wasn’t damaged.

Some of the plantings across the moorland failed spectacularly, mostly due to the topography and severe exposure of the site.  Native species planted include birch, hazel, alder, willow, rowan and Scots pine. Alder seems to have been particularly successful, especially on slopes and in small valleys, coping well with the water-logging typical of this blanket bog habitat.

Hectro and Darwin confused by the moonscape - Where have all the grouse gone?

Hector and Darwin confused by the moonscape – Where have all the grouse gone?

moor 3Muirburning  is supposed to be controlled burning for land improvement, as opposed to the picture of devastation we found at the ‘forest’.  Of course, it doesn’t take long for the rumour mill on a small island to start about who may have been responsible and how and why this mess occurred.  As have said before, it is a small community and I prefer to avoid controversy in this blog.  It would be easy to be judgemental and lay blame, however, I don’t know the facts and it may be that this was an unfortunate accident in a well-managed muirburn episode.

That said, by all accounts it was very windy on the day of the fire hence in these circumstances, burning was possibly not carried out in line with the good practice guidance within the Muirburn Code. The fire brigade and beaters were out all night bringing it under control as it got uncomfortably close to the houses in the township.

In these circumstances, several offences may have been committed.  This is not least because the burning destroyed the woodland, it also extended across areas of golden eagle, hen harrier and short-eared owl territory and habitat and I fear for the nest of the local golden eagles, one of which I photographed in a previous post.

The edge of the burnt moorland, showing the contrast before and after

The edge of the burnt moorland, showing the contrast before and after

A significant amount of deep heather habitat has been lost from an area where I have known hen harriers to nest for the last few years and I will miss the delight of seeing them fledge chicks as I have done for the last 3 years from this one particular area.  Fortunately there is enough suitable habitat nearby for them to relocate.

I took a few photographs as a record and will continue to do so as the heather regenerates.  Most of the trees across the burned areas are too badly damaged to regrow, or entirely annihilated. The acrid smell of burning vegetation still hangs heavy in the air.

An old deer track revealed by the burning

An old deer track revealed by the burning

Perhaps one of the most striking reveals is the scarring left by the mechanical tree planting carried out back in 2000.   I didn’t live here at the time, but by all descriptions, a vehicle removed uniform chunks of peat at intervals across the bog and turned them over on top of the surface to provide a soil mound for trees to be planted on.  I knew the impacts were there as it is almost impossible to walk across the ground due to the gouged out mounds. The scarring is quite horrendous and the damage will remain for many decades, long after the effects of the muirburn incident have disappeared as the heather regrows.

Mechanical planting holes created for tree planting

Mechanical planting holes created for tree planting

The 1000 mile challenge

Being away means I have been completely out of my running routine.  Both of us also managed to catch a pretty horrendous cold, quickly followed by conjunctivitis, upon getting back to Scotland from London – a new and unsavoury experience for us both! Needless to say, it has taken some time to recover (and see properly again!), so I have only just felt up to running again for the first time in 3 weeks, and managed a 4 mile run today. 

That said, in my wisdom, I decided to join one of my Facebook friends who has organised a group to chart progress over the year for a 1000 mile challenge – hence I have committed to running 1000 miles this year.  This would be fine had I not had a 3 week lag in March.  I better order a new pair of running shoes – I’m going to need them, sitting around 170 miles for year to date. 

Aniseed and lemon spelt biscuits

Week 4 of my biscuit-making explorations and I have decided to ditch recipes and freestyle from now on.  This biscuit is based on the flavours of pastis with a twist of lemon.  Don’t be deceived by the bland image of the biscuit – it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and packs a vibrant flavour punch.  However, the punch is an aniseed one, so if this flavour is not your bag, try more subtle caraway, fennel for similar notes, or reduce the volume of seeds added. 

The biscuits are not that sweet and are very crunchy.  Good dunked in coffee, apparently, so I’m told, I’m not a dunker. Makes about 18 biscuits.

Pre-heat the oven to 180C (fan)

Ingredients

60g unsalted butter

40g caster sugar

40g soft brown sugar

1/2 tsp vanilla essence

80g plain flour

60g spelt flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp aniseed seeds

grated zest of one lemon

Method

  • Cream the butter and sugars together in a stand mixer.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients and combine to form a soft dough.
  • Allow to rest in the fridge, wrapped in clingfilm for at least a couple of hours.
  • Roll the balls of dough to the size of a cherry and place on a greased baking sheet, press the balls down gently to flatten, spacing them a few cm apart.
  • Bake for 15 minutes, check at 10, they may be ready depending on your oven – they should be pale golden around the outside.
  • Place on a wire rack to cool.  Get the coffee machine on.

aniseed biscuits

Biscuits with Bartok 3 – Spiced orange blossom and chocolate cookies

I’ve had a pretty hectic week, not least because I was away for work for half of it.  As a result, my indulgence in the blogosphere has been restricted to access on my phone on the go – and my backlog of draft posts is growing.  The opportunity to write posts relevant to Shrove Tuesday and Valentine’s Day passed me by.  We enjoyed a couple of very nice venison-based meals that I did not photograph so I let them slip by for our own personal indulgence only. I will make these again, so there will be other opportunities to write a post for these recipes in the future.

We also have the good fortune to be benefiting from the adaptive management programme initiated to reduce greylag goose numbers and limit the significant damage they are currently doing to crops here.  Geese are being shot under licence and we are very grateful to receive another 6 wild geese, all in excellent condition, to keep our freezer stocked. Of course, this means considerable time preparing the goose, so we also had to get this done on my return.

I arrived home on a morning flight a couple of hours before the musicians were due to play, so I didn’t have time to make my 3rd biscuit of the series for them.  I decided to go ahead anyway as I wanted to try a biscuit flavoured with orange blossom water, an itch I just had to scratch.

Signs of spring

Despite the inconvenience of the snow on the mainland, here spring is showing signs of progression.  On my return, I heard the first song thrush singing from the corner of our garden.  A chipping snipe in the marshy grassland around the house means I will most likely enjoy the sound of the first drumming snipe imminently. If I stood outside for long enough at dusk, I would probably hear one – usually around Valentine’s Day each year we hear the first.  I can see the lapwings beginning to assemble again on the croftland in pre-breeding readiness.

The lighter nights mean I have no excuse to get out for a run after work, or start getting more serious about the garden other than whimsically reviewing my seed collection and plans for 2013.

My last long run (12km) had the usual smattering of Uist-based incidents.  I spent about 2 miles running behind a sheep flock being herded by a land rover and a collie from fields and along the roads to a fank.  Nice waft of urine all the way along the road, followed by copious amount of fresh sheep droppings in my trainer treads.  I opted to turn back when I caught the sheep up at the fank as I didn’t want to scatter them and the scene looked chaotic enough with one sheepdog doing his best to filter a large, tired flock into the fank.

On the way back, I passed a croft and a collie ran out to greet me. Sometimes they nip your heels as if you are a sheep but this one was friendly, too friendly, in fact.  She followed me all the way back to my car, about 5 km.  She had no road sense and although not much traffic passed us on the single track road, I had to keep stopping and grabbing her and had to wait on the verge until cars passed.  They probably either thought I was an idiot for taking a dog with no traffic-sense out on the road for a run, or were possibly laughing, having recognised the dog as local and saw it had tagged along with me.  I had to put her in the car and drive back to the croft.  I did this just as the crofter was getting in his tractor to look for her.  Not the first time apparently.

Where Eagles Dare

I was glad to get back and into my usual routine of dog walking over the moor near our house. Friday was a beautiful clear day and there was some bird activity up there too.  The dogs flushed a couple of snipe and a woodcock and a pair of ravens passed noisily overhead.  As we were coming over a rise, I could see another bird in the distance.  The profile initially looked like a raven, but then it became apparent it was very much bigger and was in fact a golden eagle.

It is not uncommon for us to see golden eagles, or sea eagles around this area.  It is part of a local golden eagle territory and there is a regularly used nest not too far away.  The first job I had when I moved to Uist was a role for a certain well known NGO that involved checking golden and sea eagle nests.  Golden eagles are much shyer than sea eagles and tend to keep their distance.  I know this pair have a regular plucking spot overlooking a loch on the walk and I often see the silhouette of an eagle there.  The pair regularly fly together over the hills surrounding the loch prior to settling down to breed.

The eagle was unusually inquisitive and passed directly overhead before turning and circling.  Since it was directly above me and at a height of about 15 metres and began circling, I decided it would be pertinent to keep the dogs close.  Though there was only an outside chance that an eagle would come down so close to a person and attempt to take a dog, it’s not unheard of.  I had known of a falconer’s dog to be killed by a golden eagle they were working. The eagle stayed with us, circling close overhead continuously for about 3-4 minutes before heading back over its territory to the hill near the nest.  Certainly a new experience for me. I managed to capture a few shots on my iPhone as it circled.  It was certainly an unusually close and spectacular view of this beautiful raptor.

eagle 2eagle 1Spiced orange blossom biscuits with chocolate

I wanted to incorporate orange blossom water into a biscuit, as I plan to with other aromatic flavourings such as lavender and rose and I thought orange blossom was probably a safe place to start experimenting.  I had some ingredients I wanted to incorporate including some lovely spiced orange slices given to me as a gift, golden sultanas and I also wanted to add a decadent garnish of candied orange. I had just made some to incorporate into Turron ice cream, the recipe courtesy of David Leibovitz. Cointreau was added for additional oranginess and decadence.

I added chocolate because there’s no denying that the marriage of chocolate and orange is tried and tested.  I don’t often use milk chocolate, hence the inclusion.  The Co-op’s Fairtrade milk chocolate is reasonably good, with 30% cocoa solids. I based the quantities of the basics of the dry ingredients on Ottolenghi’s spiced cookies from ‘Jerusalem’, but there is significant variation from that recipe.  The biscuit-making stabilisers aren’t quite off, so wanted to use the basis of the recipe to ensure success.

Ingredients

125g golden sultanas

2 tbsp cointreau

240g plain flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/4 tsp salt

75g golden caster sugar

75g light muscovado sugar

125g unsalted butter

1/2 tsp vanilla essence

1 tsp orange blossom water

zest of 1/2 lemon

zest of 1/2 orange

1/2 a medium egg

1/2 tsp each of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice

100g milk chocolate

3 slices of preserved spiced oranges (optional)

Method

  • Soak the sultanas in the cointreau for 10 minutes.
  • Mix the flour, baking powder, bicarb, spices and salt together in a bowl.
  • Put butter, sugar, vanilla and zests in a food mixer and beat for 1 minute.
  • Add the egg, slowly while the machine is running and mix for another minute.
  • Add the dry ingredients, then the soaked raisins.
  • Divide the dough into roughly 50g balls and place a couple of cm apart on a lined baking sheet.
  • Rest in the fridge for about an hour.
  • Preheat the oven to 190C and bake for 15-20 minutes.  Allow to cool for 5 minutes before moving to a wire rack to cool completely.
  • Melt the chocolate in a bain marie and drizzle over the cookies. Top with candied orange just before serving.

spiced biscuit 1

Candied orange

Making this is vaguely reminiscent to marmalade-making and the resulting candied orange will keep for a couple of months in the fridge and can be added to cakes, biscuits and ice cream.

Ingredients

Zest of 4 large oranges

500ml water

200g sugar

1 tbsp glucose syrup

Pinch of salt

Method

  • Using a veg. peeler, remove 3 cm strips of peel (no pith) from the oranges.
  • Slice length-ways into very fine strips, no wider than a toothpick.
  • Place the strips in a pan, cover with a few cm of water, bring to the boil, then reduce to a gentle boil for 15 minutes.
  • Combine the water, sugar, glucose and salt in a pan. Bring to the boil, add the peel and cook at a low boil for 25 minutes. Add a sugar thermometer and when the mix is at 110C, take off the heat.  Store the peel in the syrup in the fridge.

spice biscuit 2

Chocolate, whisky and bramble tart with bramble ripple ice cream

As a dessert for Burns Night, I wanted to avoid the obvious traditional options. Much as I love cranachan made with raspberries, it is out of season. I enjoyed the local favourite of caragheen pudding at last year’s Burns supper but this year I was looking for something, well, a bit more luxurious.

I opted for a chocolate tart, incorporating the darkest of dark chocolate (81%), a dram and to my mind that definitively Scottish wild fruit that I have adored for all of my life – brambles. Some of my freezer stock of precious brambles from last autumn’s harvest was included in the tart and was also made into a coulis, swirled through vanilla ice cream to form a bramble ripple.

Brambles ready for collecting last autumn

Brambles ready for collecting last autumn

Although I nod to the traditional by including whisky in the tart, I must admit I am not a whisky lover. Even the finest malts, notably those from the islands (Islay in particular) have the whiff of TCP about them.  I am told if I persevere, I too will enjoy them one day.  Olives are often cited as an example.  During my PhD, my whisky connoisseur supervisor would arrive from Oxford and together with my other Edinburgh Uni supervisor,  we would head out with our research group of an evening to their favourite hostelry, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society members only premises in Queen Street, Edinburgh. There was much discussion about peatiness, tobacco, petrol and however else one choses to describe drinking TCP.  I was the Philistine at the bar requesting a gin and tonic.

Feeling the burn, post Burns

Yes, the duo of dyspepsia did as predicted and in truth, we could not face our lovely dessert after the haggis on Burns night – it containing yet more pastry (bit of an oversight there).

I was in danger of lethargy after haggis-eating and knowing I had proposed a 10km run, and despite the deteriorating weather, I decided to bite the bullet and get out there.  I had just walked the dogs and considered although there was a bit of a breeze, the weather window was good enough.  I elected to run around the picturesque island of Grimsay, a few miles south. The west end of the island acts as a stepping stone for the causeways that link North Uist and Benbecula. Circumnavigation of the island is a convenient 10 km.

View of Eaval from grimsay on a nice day

View of Eaval from Grimsay on a nice day

It was raining by the time I got out of the car and I could see, as is typical of these islands, that within a few minutes the situation would deteriorate quickly. Weather fronts were building to the south and banks of cloud were rolling towards me.  Nonetheless, I opted to run round the island south to north to take the worst of the weather along the exposed southern single track road first.  There were two observations that suddenly struck me about Grimsay.  I have driven but not ran around it before and it is a bit hillier than I recall.  Secondly, the south road is indeed very exposed to the elements.  I spent the next 6 km running into a pretty gusty headwind and needle-like rain with the occasional side gust that knocked me into the verge.

Once I got just over the half way mark, I got a tremendous tail wind as I turned north and the rain battered off my back, no longer in my face. Occasional gusts almost knocked me off my feet, but after feeling the burn initially, things got easier and I made it back to the car not too much over my predicted time.

Round the whole route, I only saw 2 people, both dressed in waterproofs, rushing out and hurriedly taking in washing, cowering in the squawl.  I was only passed by 5 or 6 cars, none which I recognised.  However, no doubt they had a good look and identified me as ‘That woman who is married to (we are not married) the violin-maker’ (as I have been referred to since my other half’s vocation is much more interesting than my own somewhat cryptic occupation) and questioned ‘What on earth is she doing running round here in this weather?’ Good to give people something to talk about other than the weather, at least!

Having recovered back at home, I could say that I unequivocally deserved a slice of chocolate tart with ice cream – and to watch a fun film – ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists’, another gem from Aardman Animation. It is a silly sea-faring yarn, of not too competent pirates featuring a parrot that is in fact a dodo and a rather scheming Charles Darwin.  Plenty of pithy one-liners but it is easy to miss a lot of content first time round. I won’t need any encouragement to watch it again, very good fun and a change from our usual film choices.

Chocolate, whisky and bramble tart

A nod to the traditional, containing a dram, with added richness and silkiness. The ganache for this tart is sublimely super-smooth and rich.  Thank you to Michel Roux for the basis of this recipe. It is based on his chocolate and raspberry tart.

Pastry is pate sucree as used for passionfruit and orange tart.  I also elected to coat the base in melted chocolate again.  The brambles were moist from being soaked in whisky and also having been frozen, so I wanted to safeguard the pastry from sogginess.

The ice cream was vanilla, the same recipe used to accompany said passionfruit and orange tart, except this time, I made bramble coulis to swirl through it.

Chocolate tart with brambles

Ingredients

200g brambles

50 ml whisky of your choice

For the ganache:

200ml whipping cream

200g dark chocolate, at least 70% cocoa solids

25g liquid glucose

50g butter, cubed into small pieces

Method

  • Soak the brambles in the whisky for a couple of hours.
  • Make pate sucree as per outlined in my previous post, coating the pastry case with melted chocolate to seal it.
  • Strain the brambles from the whisky and arrange on the tart base.
  • Prepare the ganache: bring the cream to the boil, take it off the heat, stir in the chocolate until smooth using a balloon whisk, add the liquid glucose, then the butter, a few cubes at a time.  The glucose adds to the smoothness, as does the butter and which also gives the tart sheen.
  • Pour the ganache into the tart case and over the fruit and allow to cool for a couple of hours.
  • Put in the fridge and take out half hour or so before serving.
  • Cut the pieces with a warmed knife to get a nice clean cut through the silky-smooth ganache.  Serve with the ice cream.

Chocolate tartChocolate tart whole

Bramble ripple ice cream

Using the previous recipe for vanilla ice cream, make a bramble coulis and swirl this through the ice cream once it is churned by your ice cream maker.  Fold it in at the end of churning if you are making the ice cream by hand.

Bramble coulis

  • Make a stock syrup by boiling 150g caster sugar and 120 ml water together for 3 minutes.
  • Take 50 ml of the stock syrup and blitz it in a food processor together with 150g of brambles.  Add any leftover whisky-flavoured juice from the brambles added to the coulis.
  • Sieve and stir through the ice cream.

Bramble ripple ice cream

And let again the final word go to Burns:

Let other poets raise a fracas
“Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drucken Bacchus,
An’ crabbit names an’stories wrack us,
An’ grate our lug:
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us,
In glass or jug.

O thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro’ wimplin worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp an’ wink,
To sing thy name!

Robert Burns – Scotch Drink, 1785

Chocolate tart and ice cream