Cardamom Pods

When I was a child, we didn’t refer to cupcakes as cupcakes. What we had were buns – slightly smaller than the standard American cupcake and with much less icing. They are occasionally called fairy cakes and often are turned into butterfly buns (slice off the dome of the bun, cut it in two and stick the two halves back on the bun with buttercream to make it look like a butterfly). As children, we often made glacé icing – a very simple icing made with icing sugar and a spoonful or two of water, mixed together to form a slightly runny paste. I remember using this to ice rich tea biscuits, as a means of keeping small children entertained when there’s no time to do any actual baking.

My favourite icing is a sour cream chocolate one from Nigella Lawson’s Feast. This is partly because it’s chocolate (obviously) but also partly because the tang of the sour cream provides a great contrast to the sugar. It is of course still sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. When I was hunting for cardamom recipes, I came across one for a sour cream cardamom cake in Rachel’s Favourite Food at Home (Rachel Allen) and thought I would give it a try, but instead attempting the variation she suggests of cardamom buns. The recipe attracted me for several reasons:

  • The use of cardamom in a cake. I know this is fairly traditional in parts of Scandinavia, but I’ve only ever used cardamom in savoury dishes such as chilli, and wanted to see how it would function in a cake.
  • There’s no butter in the cake, making it very quick to mix up. There’s no creaming of butter and sugar, always a challenge in a Scottish tenement which rarely gets warm enough for butter to be easily cream-able at room temperature.
  • The icing was a simple glace icing, a rarity in recipes these days, but made with sour cream rather than water.

It was a success. The flavour of cardamom is a bit of an acquired taste, but really grew on me. It’s sort of like nutmeg in the sense that it’s quite a strong flavour, and I suspect children would find it too much, but we really liked it. Given that I’ve not used cardamom much, it was also great to taste it in a recipe in which the cardamom really comes to the fore, which will help for using it in the future. Also, grinding seeds from cardamom pods in a pestle and mortar is a great way of getting out any frustrations that built up during the day. The icing was also a real treat. The sour cream lends a slight tang, but still remains sweet. I also tend to prefer a thin layer of icing on a cake like this, rather than a thick mound of it, as it means that you can still clearly taste the cake below. These ended up being quite grown-up treats, but highly reminiscent of the buns from my childhood, leaving me sticky-fingered after eating one.

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Summer Reading

Sometime in July, the newspapers publish lists of books to read over the summer, generally recommended either by their own reviewers or by prominent figures in the world of publishing. For obvious reasons, these tend to focus on newly published books, although this year I spotted an article which also listed older works alongside the new stuff. I very rarely read newly published fiction, partly for reasons of budget, but also because there are so many other works to explore. As I was travelling so much this summer, I was away from my bookshelves and therefore managed to read a wonderful variety of books lent to me by others. A brief summary:

The Night Watch, Sergei Lukyanenko

Not to be confused with Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, this is a Russian fantasy novel, the first of a series. I really enjoyed it – it’s dark and gritty in places, violent on occasion, but a very different kind of fantasy to those I usually read. I read it on holiday on Islay, but I think it would be much more suited to the dark nights of autumn or winter, rather than during the long, light evenings of a Scottish summer.

The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey wrote murder mysteries in a similar vein to Dorothy L. Sayers or Ngaio Marsh. This is a very gentle book and a very different kind of mystery and I absolutely loved it. Inspector Alan Grant, protagonist of some of Tey’s other work, is bedridden with a broken leg and becomes fascinated with the character of Richard III. Tey has some interesting things to say about academic study as an investigation and the parallels with that and police investigation, presenting academic study as an exciting pursuit of the truth, as well as reflecting on our perception of history and its accuracy.

Deep Secret, Diana Wynne Jones

Despite being a fan of fantasy literature from a young age, I didn’t come across Diana Wynne Jones until a friend introduced me to her work a few years ago. Deep Secret features relatable characters, and is wonderfully quirky and inventive.

Power of Three, Diana Wynne Jones

There was a little surprise in this novel which I enjoyed a great deal. To say too much more would be to spoil it. A great adventure story.

The Book of Three, Lloyd Alexander

This is the first in the Chronicles of Prydain series and was silly in the best way. Any book that has an oracular pig has got to be worth a look.

The Spellcoats, Diana Wynne Jones

Interweaving themes of belonging, growing up and storytelling, this was a really thought-provoking book, in which stories are woven rather than written.

Sorcery and Cecelia: Or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot, Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

This was absolutely delightful and perfect for holiday reading. This is Georgette Heyer meets fantasy literature and is reminiscent of some of Susanna Clarke’s work, although more light-hearted. I enjoyed the depiction of the friendship between the two protagonists, as well as the narration of their growing romances. It also made me crave hot chocolate.

Sylvester, Georgette Heyer

This was fairly standard Georgette Heyer – a regency romance with a highly individual heroine and some misunderstandings along the way. Perfect bedtime story.

Travel: Yorkshire

Just a few highlights from a recent trip to visit family:

Saltaire

I never really know whether people outside Yorkshire will have heard of Saltaire or not. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in 1851 by Sir Titus Salt to provide decent housing and other facilities (a church, a park, a school) to the workers in his mill – revolutionary at the time, given the conditions suffered by most people working in Bradford’s mills. Bradford was built on the wool trade and therefore Saltaire is a crucial part of the area’s history. Salt’s Mill is no longer a working mill, instead housing a variety of businesses, some of which are aimed at tourists. The David Hockney gallery, for example, is on one floor of the mill. The best bit for me, though, is the bookshop. It’s one of the best bookshops I know, always stocking an eclectic and inspiring range of books. The cookbook selection is excellent, as are the children’s books, general fiction and poetry. I always find exciting books there that I’ve never heard of. Right next to the bookshop is an excellent café that sells perfect chocolate milkshakes.

Nunnington Hall, North Yorkshire

This is a National Trust property that, strictly speaking, is nowhere near Bradford, but is about 2 hours away by car. It’s worth it though. It’s a really interesting manor house, but for me, a trip to Nunnington Hall is a treat for three reasons 1) the Carlisle Collection – an exhibition of antique miniature rooms, like beautiful dolls’ houses for grown ups 2) the walled gardens, complete with an ideal bridge for Pooh sticks and a couple of resident peacocks 3) the tearoom, which makes fantastic scones.

Harlow Carr, Harrogate

These gardens are owned by the Royal Horitcultural Society and remind me of a smaller version of Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens. A good spot for a wander, we particularly liked the fairy circle, no doubt intended for small children. There’s a Betty’s kiosk in the middle of the gardens, which supplied us with tea in paper cups and a few Fat Rascals.

Malham Cove

This is one of the most spectacular sites of the Yorkshire Dales. Malham Cove is a limestone cliff with a naturally formed pavement at the top and it makes for a really lovely walk. Despite the fact that on this trip I trod in a cowpat, was stung by a nettle and scraped my knee, it was a really good day out. The walk from Malham itself to Malham Cove is fairly gentle and well-paved, but becomes more strenuous when you walk up to the top of the cliff. From there, we joined the Pennine Way and walked to Malham Tarn, which involved enjoyable scrambling over some rocks. We then made our way back to Malham Cove and returned to Malham via Janet’s Foss. I love Janet’s Foss – it’s a short woodland walk with an impressive waterfall and along the path you’re surrounded by the scent of wild garlic.

Skipton Castle

I’ve been to Skipton Castle several times, but none since I was a child. I’ve visited many castles since then and I think it’s only on returning to Skipton that I realised how impressive it is and how well kept. As a child, I remember being scared by the dungeon, fascinated by the ‘toilet’ (hole in the wall with a steep drop into the stream running below) and overawed by the age of the yew tree in the courtyard (planted in 1659).