We Made a Wedding Cake

We made a wedding cake! I feel like you need a moment (or two or three), for this to sink in. (I still can’t really believe it.) We actually made a three-tiered, rather lovely (if I do say so myself) full-on wedding cake. That the bride loved. And people ate. Win!

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In my head I had several rather fantastic posts planned about the process of making a wedding cake. You know, all about baking the cakes, using a foreign kitchen, icing and then setting it up. Etcetera etcetera etcetera.

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But it turns out that actually making a wedding cake and then photographing the process are not really things that can honestly be done in tandem. Particularly when you’re working after-hours in a tiny kitchen with no windows. And drinking wine. There is no way you can legitimately blog about that process as it happens. Perhaps if you are organised and make the cakes in advance you could, but we made the cakes on Thursday night and Friday afternoon, filled and crumb-coat iced them on Friday night and then final iced and assembled on Saturday morning… There was little time to mess about with cameras and styling. We shot all the evidence with our phones.

Here is the story of the cake.

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This cake was a collaborative effort. Raphaella, who went to the same chef school as me and works as a food journalist, and myself tag-teamed the making of this cake. (The bride went to school with us, in case you were wondering how this collaboration came to pass.) Most of the consultation process took place via email with the bride – neither of us live in Johannesburg, where the bride lives and the wedding occurred. Raph suggested various flavour combinations and eventually we settled on chocolate for the bottom tier and lemon for the next two tiers. Obviously this did not mean just chocolate and lemon. The chocolate tier was chocolate sponge, coffee buttercream and walnut praline whilst the lemon layers were lemon and white chocolate sponge, lemon curd and raspberries. The whole cake was covered in a silky smooth vanilla buttercream.

Because neither of us live in Joburg, we had to make use of other people’s generosity (and kitchens). We baked in Raph’s work test kitchen and iced at Raph’s mom’s house – taking over her kitchen in rather spectacular fashion late on Friday evening. We worked out we needed a 30cm tier, a 23cm tier and a 16cm one. Baking began after work on Thursday, with Raph making the chocolate sponge. Then I made the 23cm lemon sponge cakes. The kitchen we worked in didn’t have a standing mixer or a hand-held electric beater so we whisked and beat everything by hand. There was a lot of swearing. And a fair amount of wine. I left Raph to look after the baking of the cakes as I was meeting friends for dinner. The next afternoon I baked off the smallest sponge layers, whilst Raph was in a meeting. Then we decided we’d had enough of the kitchen-with-no-windows, and couldn’t face making buttercream by hand so we decamped to Sue’s house. (To our credit, we did try the buttercream with a hand-held mixer but even with three of us sharing the beating process (thanks for getting roped in Sarah!), there was simply too much mixture to get the consistency right.)

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We loaded the cakes into their boxes and then put them, all the ingredients (and part of our sanity) into a shopping trolley to take downstairs. The security guards thought we were hilarious.

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Once we’d made it into the new kitchen, we celebrated at the presence of a standing mixer, and got down to the business of buttercream.

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Raph had already made the walnut praline and lemon curd and so, with the buttercream all soft and silky, the incredibly scary process of layering could commence.

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There is a reason, of course, why people freeze large layers of wedding cake – it makes it significantly easier to assemble. Whilst the 16cm and 23cm layers were reasonably easy to put together, the 30cm ones stretched our stress levels to snapping point. The middle layer of the 30cm tier was the worst, collapsing slightly as we put it a-top the first layer. After much cursing we finally got it neatly positioned. We then re-thought the entire assembly process for the final layer. Everything was crumb-coated and refrigerated overnight. Large whisky cocktails were consumed.

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The next morning we were up and at it again, making another batch of buttercream and giving the layers their final coat of icing. Then came possibly the most stressful part of the whole debacle: transportation. The reception was at Wits Club, on the Wits University campus – a mere 10 minute drive away. But the cakes had to be boxed and placed carefully in the car (and held by Raphaella and Ernst, her husband and corrupted helper) whilst I drove. I have never realised how uneven Joburg roads are but that day I think I hit every bump, surface change, and pothole available. It was ridiculous. And then there were the impressive speed humps just before the venue. There were a lot of deep breaths and curses on that short drive. But we made it to the venue!

When we arrived we realised that the venue is, in fact, a working restaurant and unlike the quiet, calm atmosphere we had both envisioned would be available to us whilst setting up the cake, the restaurant was busy, loud and full of customers having breakfast. We would have to assemble the layers with an audience! Shaking like leaves in a very violent winter storm, we slowly put one layer on top of the next. We patched any smudges and fixed any imperfections. Various people came up to talk to us whilst we were doing this (including one woman who wanted to know how much we would charge) and we tried to be as pleasant as possible, all the while silently cursing their questions.

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But slowly, slowly, we got it done. Flowers were artfully arranged – for which Raphaella must have full credit. I ran around looting flowers from additional arrangements that were going spare. And then we took a million photographs – you know, just in case something awful happened between our leaving the cake alone and the bride arriving to see it… Which it didn’t.

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When we arrived back in the evening, we snapped more photographs (and, as you can see above, had a celebratory photograph with our cake) and drank a lot of champagne. And later still, the cake actually got eaten!

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So that is the story of the wedding cake. Yes, I would do it again. But only if I could bake and ice from my own kitchen. With a standing mixer.

Chocolate Fudge Biscuits

The last of my grandmothers passed away this last weekend. She had been unwell and very frail for a while, but there is somehow still a void now that she is actually gone. I haven’t lived in the same city as her for some years now, and have visited only intermittently. We communicated via postcards I sent and phone calls she made. We grew apart as I grew up – she belonging to an old world of rules that I could never quite understand, a prim-and-properness that I fought against. The year I spent at chef school is probably the most I saw her in my adult life. We talked a lot about food that year – a common ground we both understood and liked.

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I went to visit her a few weeks ago. She was mostly bed-ridden and moved in and out of consciousness so that conversation was difficult. In that time my aunt realised that my grandmother never wrote down any of her recipes. She was looking for this recipe for chocolate fudge biscuits as she didn’t have it and it is a family staple. My grandmother would remember parts of it but then drift off somewhere else. My aunt eventually got the recipe almost right. In our foraging attempts to find a copy we found a hand-written recipe journal that belonged to my great-grandmother (and namesake) but very little of my grandmother’s actual recipes – things written from Jamie or Nigella which are perfectly accessible anyway.

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I always remember those years, as a child, when we spent Christmas in Cape Town. Her tiny kitchen was always filled to the brim with polystyrene trays filled with pink and white coconut ice, golden crunchies, and these dark chocolate fudge biscuits. She gave them away to people and there was always a large supply for the family. She must’ve been obsessed with coconut because all three recipes are heavy with the stuff. Now, we all know that coconut is one of my least favourite flavours but this week, I found myself craving the taste of one of her chocolate fudge biscuits. And whilst she did not write anything down (she made everything from memory it seems), my mother has the recipe amongst her collection. (Apparently she asked my grandmother for it when we were small children.) For me, these biscuits are a reminder of Christmas in Cape Town. And of a specific (and yet I cannot remember the details) road trip my father and I took one year, where we drove from Cape Town (I assume to Johannesburg) with a white ice-cream tub full of these biscuits that she had made for him.

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Chocolate Fudge Biscuits

For the biscuits:
2 cups plain flour
pinch of salt
2 tsp baking powder
4 tbsp caster sugar
6 tbsp desiccated coconut
2 tbsp cocoa
250g unsalted butter

For the icing:
1 heaped tbsp cocoa
hot water
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp butter
125g icing sugar

Grease and line a 33cm x 25cm x 2cm rectangular tin. Preheat the oven to 180C.
Place all the ingredients for the biscuits except the butter in a bowl.

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Melt the butter. Pour the melted butter into the dry ingredients and stir until all combined.

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Press the mixture into the baking tin, making sure it is evenly spread.

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Bake for 20 minutes – the biscuits should be firm but soft.

Whilst the biscuits are baking, make the icing.

Put the cocoa powder in a small bowl. Add in a teaspoon of hot water at a time, until you have a fairly thick paste. Let this cool slightly. Add in the butter and vanilla, followed by the icing sugar. (Sift this in to prevent lumps.) Stir until smooth.

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Once the biscuits are out, allow them to cool for 5 minutes. Then ice whilst they are still warm. Slice them into squares and leave them to cool completely.

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Raspberry Preserve

I wrote this post ages and ages ago, whilst I was still at cookNscribble, but never published it for a variety of reasons. My life is currently in suspension (or so it seems) and I am living on a friend’s couch before going back to South Africa for nearly a month (having just been there to see my grandmother who is very frail) so everything is in storage and on hold slightly. This is to tide you over until I’m able to blog properly again…

When I was about 16, my family started to grow berries for export. We had always been mielies, potatoes, cabbages and wheat folk, but one summer we were suddenly also berry growers. Now, after spending several summers in England, watching people’s delight as raspberry and strawberry season unfolds, followed by blackberry season in the early autumn, I sort of understand what all the fuss is about. I love a wander and a forage as much as the next person. And I can even get into growing my own raspberries. But this is a good 15 years on from the “summer of the berries” (as it is collectively known by the cousins). That summer has taken on myth and legend in my family as a result. One just has to mention “the summer of the berries” to elicit a collective groan and much laughter. (Or as Tim so eloquently put on the Whatsapp conversation I started to jog their memories of that summer, “shit, do we really need to go there?”)

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That summer, there was an abundance of blackberries and raspberries on the farm. Berries that didn’t make the export standard had to be used up – by us. So ensued: berry jam, berry pavlovas, berry trifle, berry alcohol, berry salads. Anything that could use a berry was made. And eaten. No one survived the summer untraumatised. None of us could stand to look at a berry by the end, let alone eat any. My cousin Jess still will not eat raspberries. I’ve spent years avoiding blackberries – it’s only recently that I have started to eat them again, and then only if I’m taking them off the plant myself and only a few at a time.

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But raspberries I’ve sort of come around too. Not in vast quantities. I will never be the girl who eats a punnet surreptitiously in the kitchen when no one is watching. But the odd one or two, a smear of jam on toast, an Eton mess, I can get in to. I’ve started to, dare I confess it?, even like raspberries, particularly sun-drenched ones, still warm, eaten straight from the cane. So when the opportunity came up to go raspberry picking as part of my experience at cookNscribble, how could I say no? Perhaps I might finally be cured of that fateful summer of berries.

Raspberry Cane Punnet in the field Raspberries in hand View of raspberries

So it was that one day this summer we journeyed to the valley of Schoharie, where Molly’s friend Alexandra has a farm with about 20 rows of raspberries which she grows predominantly for preserves. That week, the canes were suddenly all loaded with ripe fruit. We spent a hot hour on a Tuesday afternoon picking gloriously red, pink, magenta raspberries. Then on the Wednesday morning, Ali and I spent another hour (the breeze making things ever so slightly cooler) picking several more baskets. By the end, we’d picked our way up a row, but we were dripping sweat, our hands stained with berry juice. Alexandra, who is French, floated through the rows beneath a sun hat, her glamour in the face of berry picking putting the two of us to shame. But, despite our inelegance, she agreed to show me how she makes her preserves. So it was that a few hours later I found myself in her sunlight kitchen (with the help of her two cats), learning the art of, what Alexandra says, is originally Russian preserve making.

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The process had actually begun several hours earlier, when Alexandra macerated 4 quarts of raspberries with 1kg of sugar. She told me that she dislikes very sweet preserves and so, even though traditionally jams and preserves use equal quantities of sugar and fruit, she uses half the amount of sugar to fruit. So we used 2kg of sugar in total. The macerated raspberries take between 4 and 6 hours to seep enough juice to begin the preserve making. The time is dependent on the age of the raspberries – fresh-off-the-cane ones take much longer – and the temperature (if it’s hotter the process happens faster).

There was just enough juice to begin the process and so Alexandra strained the berries through a colander, collecting their juice in a large copper pot. To this she added the other kilogram of sugar, stirring to prevent the mixture from burning over the heat. Once all the sugar is melted and a cloudy syrup has formed, the heat is turned up.

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sugar and raspberry juice

The syrup was then brought to a boil, and cooked until it reached soft-ball stage. (This is the stage at which you can create a soft ball of sugar in some water.)

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Alexandra advised that the syrup should cool somewhat, before the berries are added back in. I think this is to prevent the destruction of the fruit – Alexandra likes the fruit hardly cooked at all to retain their taste.

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The berries, in the syrup, are brought back to a rapid boil before the heat is reduced once more and the mixture simmered for between five and ten minutes.

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detail of preserve

Off the heat the preserves are ladled into hot, sterilised jars immediately. Alexandra put the lids on the jars and allowed them to seal, keeping them in a cool dark room until they set. She told me that this preserve is best eaten sooner, rather than later… On toast. On yoghurt. On ice-cream. Or sandwiched between a sponge cake.

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And who knows, perhaps the cousins will be persuaded to try berries again once more…

Sour Cherry Loaf Cake

I am back at work today, for the first time in six weeks. It’s a slight shock to the system, obviously, and my looming three-year deadline is not helping. I’ve already read some Foucault. You know, just to ease into things again. Now I need to read my thesis draft so I can remember what exactly I have written. I need to edit it, improve the writing, engage with the theory and generally make it better (better? presentable? an-organised-argument-rather-than-a-random-jumble-of-words? Oh the things still to do!). On top of that I am ever-so-slightly jet lagged (I keep thinking I’m fine and then am awake until 2am. Dammit!) and I am house-hunting. To counterbalance all this, I thought I would share this cake with you. Plus, it’s Monday. Who doesn’t need cake on Monday?

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This cake was still cooling on the counter when it was attacked by frenzied hoards of, apparently ravenous, people. (Evidence in the above picture of the cake falling apart as it was cut – precisely what happens when you try to cut hot cake.) I’ve never had that happen before. It obviously speaks volumes about the cake. And the sour cherries within. I made it (well, three of them actually) at cookNscribble a few weeks back to help use up all those sour cherries we had in the freezer. It’s not quite a pound cake, (traditional pound cakes have equal quantities flour/butter/sugar), but it is fairly similar. I found the recipe on NPR (via a Google search for sour cherry cake). The original uses mascarpone but I only had souring heavy cream so I used that. I also reduced the quantity of sugar by a half cup. I don’t think it needs the extra half but feel free to add it back in if you like things slightly sweeter. It’s a straight-forward creaming method cake, no frills, and bakes easily in loaf tins. I suspect it would make a good bundt cake too.

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Happy Monday!

Sour Cherry Loaf Cake
Adapted from NPR

2 cups sour cherries (if using frozen, defrost in the fridge overnight)
1/2 cup caster sugar
3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups butter (3/4lb*)
2 1/2 cups caster sugar
6 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup sour heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 180C. Butter and line two loaf tins with parchment.
Place the cherries (and any juice) in a bowl and cover with the 1/2 cup of sugar. Set aside.
Mix the flour and salt in a bowl and set aside.

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Cream the butter with the other 2 and a half cups of sugar until bright white and fluffy.
Add in the eggs, one at a time, followed by the vanilla. If the mixture splits (this is almost inevitable), add in a few tablespoons of the flour/salt mixture.

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Add in half the flour mixture, followed by half the sour cream. Beat until smooth, then add in the rest of the flour followed by the cream.

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Drain the excess juice of the cherries into a pot.

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Gently fold the cherries into the cake mixture.

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Divide this between the two loaf tins.

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Bake for approximately one hour, depending on your oven. The cakes are cooked when risen, golden and a skewer inserted comes out clean.

Whilst the cakes are baking, reduce the cherry juice over a medium heat until it starts to thicken. This takes only about five minutes. When the cakes are still warm, paint the juice over the cakes. Allow to cool completely before eating. (If you can keep the masses at bay that long.)

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This cake freezes super well for up to three months. Allow to defrost at room temperature overnight before serving.

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*This is approximately 340g. But I was measuring in American, so I haven’t used the gram measurement yet.

Blueberry Pie

One of the great things about my internship at cookNscribble was meeting all sorts of interesting and fascinating people. People who want to talk about food. About growing food. Raising animals. Cooking food. And mostly, people who want to talk about the cool things that they do. To make blueberry pie, I got to work with two such people: Tim Lippert and Molly O’Neill.

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The reason I got to meet Tim, who is a free-range hog and cattle farmer, was because we were after blueberries. He has several rows of young blueberry bushes on part of his farm. Like the raspberries (and cherries – this has been a fruit picking summer), we were allowed to pick our own.

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The blueberries were turning all shades of blue and purple on the bushes and so, one afternoon, we went over to talk to Tim and forage amongst the blueberry bushes for ripe fruit. Not all the berries were ripe, some bushes were a few days behind the others, but we picked enough for a few pies and snacks.

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The main function of Crosby Farm is actually raising pigs and so, after we were done blueberry picking, I got to meet some of them. We passed a shed full of piglets and a boar-in-training before we reached the main group. Tim rears them in the woodland, where it is cool and shaded and the pigs happily make loads of mud.

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Then, because I’d been saying how my mom has just bought a smallholding and wants to raise some Dexters, I got to meet Tim’s herd of Dexter cattle. Dexters are dwarf cattle, good for smaller spaces and quite friendly. Who knew a blueberry picking adventure could turn into a full farm sight-seeing tour?

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Once we were back in the kitchen, Molly O’Neill shared her secrets of pie-making. For those of you who don’t know, Molly is a doyenne of American food writing. She used to write for the New York Times and has written several books. Now she also teaches food writing, including running the scholars programme I was partly involved in, and organises the LongHouse Food Revival. (You should go if you’re in the area.) Molly has a wealth of food knowledge, just some of which I got to tap into during my internship. One of the things she taught me was about making good pie.

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This particular blueberry pie has an almond crumble top and no recipe. But I will tell you what Molly told me verbally. (This presupposes you already have some pie dough in the fridge. If you don’t, follow the instructions for the cherry pie recipe.)

Preheat the oven to 180C. Sort out the blueberries first. Put them in a bowl (several cups for a deep-dish pie, around 6) with a cup of sugar, a teaspoon of cinnamon and a cup and a half of flour. Toss everything together with your hands so that you don’t damage the berries too much. Add in a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Let this sit whilst you make the crumble topping.

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To make the crumble, combine some flaked almonds, marzipan and butter together in a bowl. Work the butter and marzipan into the almonds, like you would rub butter into flour. The mixture will get quite sticky but then you can start to add in plain flour and sugar (which you would have organisedly tossed together already). Lastly, add in some slivered almonds. The mixture should be crumbly (who’d have thought?) and fairly sweet.

Line a pie dish with pie crust, carefully overhanging the edges by 1cm. Fold these up to create a wave pattern along the edge.

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Place the blueberries into the pie dish.

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Scatter the crumble topping generously on top. Don’t be afraid to use a lot. It tastes amazing.

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Bake the pie in the oven for around an hour. It needs to be golden brown and bubbling before you even think of removing it. Eat warm. (And then whatever is leftover makes an excellent breakfast.)

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Sour Cherry Pie

Did you know about sour cherries? I didn’t before this trip. My experience of cherries growing up was of maraschino’s from a jar, which I hated. Since living in England I have become addicted to sweet cherries, dark purple bursts in the high summer. But it turns out people are OBSESSED with sour cherries. So obsessed that they get up at ridiculous-o-clock to pick them off the trees themselves. The things you learn whilst interning with food people.

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So it happens that one morning (very very early), a few weeks ago, I joined the tribe of people who get up at ridiculous-o-clock to travel to a cherry orchard just outside of Hudson so I could participate in this whole sour cherry picking debacle.

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It was still cool (and all of half 7) when we arrived at the orchard. We had brought a box for filling with cherries and were told unceremoniously by the assistant that if we filled the box we would not be able to lift it. We had no plans to do such a thing but she marked out what she thought was 20 pounds in case we got carried away (we did), gave us a cart to set the box on, and buckets to wrap around our waists. We looked super stylish.

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We wandered down to the far end of the orchard, selected a tree and started picking. It’s surprisingly therapeutic, picking cherries. There was just the sounds of birds, some cars whizzing by on the road, and the occasional bee. Eventually the orchard filled with other voices.

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We were all done in a half hour. Three people can pick a lot of cherries in that time. We ended up with 34 pounds altogether and a box that was almost to heavy to lift.

Of course, if you pick 34 pounds of sour cherries, you have to do something with them. A neighbouring picker gave us a verbal recipe for a cherry liqueur – you fill a large jar with cherries and sugar, stacked in several layers, and then add in a grain alcohol. You leave it in a dark place for several months and then drink it neat in the dark days of December. Sadly I leave in six days so such a recipe will have to be stored for future use. Instead we made pie. Sour cherry pie.

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This recipe is a combination of two separate recipes. The pie crust is adapted from a recipe given to me by Kate Lebo, a pie-maker I met briefly – you can find the original in her book. She uses a lard and butter combination for the crust but I prefer all-butter crusts so I have changed it slightly. The filling comes from Molly O’Neill’s book, One Big Table. The truth is, pie filling is fairly interpretive. You need to taste and season it according to what you want. So I didn’t use nutmeg or kirsch and probably used less sugar as I like things fairly tart. I also used loads of lemon and, for once, almond extract. (It turns out it does have a place in the kitchen after all…)

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We made three of these to feed thirty people at one of the Food Media Bootcamp dinners a few weeks ago. The chef of the night, Ian Knauer, suggested serving the pie with salted heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks. It turns out he is on to something and I am now totally stealing that for fruit desserts forever and ever. (Thanks Ian!)

Sour Cherry Pie
Adapted from A Commonplace Book of Pie and One Big Table

For the double crust:
2 1/2 cups plain flour
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp salt
16 tbsp butter, cold, cubed (240g)
ice water

For the filling:
5 cups pitted sour cherries
5 tbsp plain flour
2 tbsp lemon juice
zest of half a lemon
1 tsp almond extract
3/4 cup caster sugar (you can add up to 1 cup)
1 tsp Kirsch (optional)
1 1/2 tsp butter

Egg wash:
1 egg
2 tbsp water

To make the crust, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the ice water slowly, mixing with your hands until the dough comes together. (You only need as much water as the dough will accept.)

On a lightly floured surface, turn out the dough and knead until smooth. It is very buttery so this will not take long (and be careful not to over-knead!)

Divide the dough in half and flatten into discs and refrigerate for at least an hour. If you’ve got time, make the dough the night before.

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Remove one disc from the fridge and roll the dough into a circle. (You want the crust reasonably thin so it does not get soggy in the oven but not so thin that it breaks on you.) Line a pie dish, making sure there is about 1cm overhanging the edge.

Whisk the egg and water together. Turn the overhanging dough up onto the edge of the pie dish and crimp it using your thumb on one hand and thumb and forefinger on the other.

Comine all filling ingredients, except the butter, in a large bowl. Taste! (Change the seasoning as you see fit, adding in extra sugar or some more lemon juice.)

Place the filling into the pie dish and dot with the butter.

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Roll the second disk into a circle. Cut strips, about 1cm thick.

Lattice the top of the pie crust, hooking the top of the strip into the inside of the pie, and weaving the strips like a basket. Egg wash the lattice.

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Bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until golden and bubbling.

Hudson, New York

Sometimes you need a break from work. An afternoon exploring a tiny hipsterville town on the edge of a river. Sometimes you need a bookshop with a bar. And really good coffee. And possibly a wine store. And antique stores with ballet skirts and rad 70’s furniture. And a sustainable diner. On such afternoons, when you’re staying in what sometimes feels like the town at the end of the world, Hudson is only a 45 minute drive away. And who doesn’t love a place that has a bookshop with a bar?!

hudson streets a secret garden hudson streets 2 food trucks

ballet skirts

1970s vibe

bookshop bar

beer in a bookshop a random parade cool signs sustainable diners

bacon cheeseburger

shop fronts

sunset