I may not have finished buying all the Christmas presents but I have made the second batch of Christmas ginger biscuits. The first batch disappeared with mulled wine following the carol service so batch two has been made tonight.
I started making these biscuits, in a variety of festive shapes, to occupy small children (and adults) after lengthy festive meals. I would make batches of the biscuits and serve accompanied by tubes of icing, and glittery bits and so that each person could decorate their chosen shape to their delight. The Christmas cutters have been around a long time too and they include an angel, a snowman, star, Christmas tree and Father Christmas who really looks like a burglar as the top row of the picture proves!
The little children are all pretty big now but I still have to make the biscuits and buy the icing. And despite wanting to concentrate on pretty stars and trees the festive burglar still is in demand.
Setting off in shorts and flip-flops to pick elderflowers seemed like a good idea until I realised that the recent hot weather had taken its toll on the elderflowers and the few remaining flowers were in the shadiest, nettliest places so it was with stung legs that I returned home with the requisite number of flower heads.
No not elderflower cordial or champagne ( I knew I was too late to make either of these) but elderflower and gooseberry jam. The main task of the day was to pick this year’s gooseberries, but I knew in my heart of hearts that there was a big bag of last year’s crop lurking in the freezer which just hadn’t made the preserving pan.
So I set to and weighed the frozen gooseberries (just over 3lb) popped them in the preserving pan with just enough water to cover them and put the elderflowers in a jelly bag (much simpler than cutting squares of muslin and the jelly bag can be washed and reused over and over again). I suspended the jelly bag from the handle of preserving pan so that the flowers were in the water and set the pan over a gentle heat on the stove. My wonderful Mary Ford Jams, Chutneys and Pickles book gives a detailed description involving pieces of wood and hacksaws to mark the starting level of your jam and therefore work out what level the contents should be when it is reduced by a third. Always looking for an easy solution my top tip is to take a wooden spoon and put it handle first into the preserving pan, note the level of the contents and mark with a pencil – you can then use a ruler and pencil to mark it into thirds and you have an instant measure which can be washed off when finished ready for another day!
So with the gooseberries, elderflower and water very gently simmering out I went into the beautiful sunshine to pick the crop from one of our two gooseberry bushes. The poor wee bush its branches were touching the ground with the weight of the fruit so when I had finished it looked quite happy and upright again. But what a crop…
I sat in the sun ‘topping and tailing’ as last year’s fruit cooked. When it had reduced by a third I added the sugar (just over 3lb) and stirred until the sugar had dissolved and Left it to boil. I returned to my topping and tailing! After a lot more topping and tailing I thought it was time to look for recipes that did not involved topping and tailing and was pleased to find a recipe for gooseberry sauce which sounds rather tasty so 2lb of the smaller untopped and tailed gooseberries were washed, bagged and popped in the freezer ready for making into sauce some time in the future.
By this stage the jam had reached setting point and was ready for potting up. Seven jars are standing proudly on the kitchen bench. The scrapings from the preserving pan were served on a scone for our afternoon tea and the verdict was ‘very good’! It has the lovely tang of gooseberries with just a hint of the heady flavour of the elderflower.
And this year’s crop? The final weigh in from the first gooseberry bush is 11lb! Next job is to make a gooseberry cake to take round to a friend’s house this evening and to stew some ready for a gooseberry fool tomorrow. The rest have gone into the freezer BUT will be used before July net year.
The middle Sunday of lent is traditionally known as Mothering Sunday (or the more modern Mother’s Day) the origin of which varies. The religious one is honouring the Mother Church when people travelled to worship at the main church or cathedral. Or it could be that for the first time in six months since the October hiring fair boys and girls in service were allowed to travel home and visit their families. Following this tradition the girls were allowed to make a cake to take with them and the story goes that they made a spiced fruit cake which their mothers often kept until Easter. This explains why there is confusion as to whether a Simnel cake should be baked for Mothering Sunday or for Easter. I think it is a good excuse to bake two.
The richness of the fruit combined with the gooey marzipan cooked in the middle and topping the cake were also probably a boost when people adhered to a strict lenten diet often not eating meat or rich foods during the 40 days leading up to Easter
So why Shrewsbury Simnel Cake? There are different versions: Bury, Devizes and Shrewsbury. The Shrewsbury recipe seems to be the most popular and I must confess when I moved to Shropshire over 20 years ago I became a fan and it has become a bit of a Mothering Sunday and Easter tradition in our house. I also see it as a brilliant use of all the dried fruits that have been lurking in the cupboard since Christmas!
My favourite recipe is from the Good Home Baking by Mary Cadogan which is sadly out of print now. For for the Mothering Sunday version I make deep cuts in the marzipan topping which gives a diamond look and for Easter it gets the added topping of the traditional 11 balls of marzipan which symbolise the 11 apostles minus Judas and sometimes some mini Easter eggs too!.