Custard, anyone…?

When I wrote about puddings the other week, I did suggest that custard was quite possibly the best accompaniment and that I would look at it another time… well, that time has come!

As I am sure you know, custard is based on a cooked mixture of milk or cream and egg yolk. Depending on how much egg or thickener is used, custard can vary in consistency from a thin pouring sauce, such as crème anglaise, to a thick pastry cream, or crème pâtissière, beloved of so many of today’s chefs, and used to fill éclairs.

Mixtures of milk and eggs thickened by heat have long been part of European cuisine and can be traced as far back as Ancient Rome – perhaps Caesar was a custard fan!?

Most common custards are used in desserts or as a sauce to accompany a pud and usually include sugar and vanilla. But you can also have a savoury custard which can be used for quiches and other savoury foods.

Custard is usually cooked in a double boiler (bain-marie), or heated gently in a saucepan on a stove, although it can also be steamed, baked in the oven with or without a water bath, or even cooked in a pressure cooker.

As anyone who has seen ‘The Great British Bake Off’ will know, creating a good custard is a delicate operation! A temperature increase of just 3–6°C leads to overcooking and curdling and Paul and Mary roll their eyes. Generally, custard begins setting at 70°C and a fully cooked custard should not exceed 80°C.

I am quite a custard fan, but making it from scratch is time-consuming. Nowadays, you can buy delicious fresh custard in pots in supermarkets in full fat or skinny options depending on your conscience. There is also good old Ambrosia tinned custard, always a handy option to keep in the cupboard for an emergency.

However… you do need the right custard for the job, instant, or otherwise. If you are making a trifle, do not do what I did many years ago and used tinned custard, it needs to be a custard that sets! My beautifully arranged cherries and piped cream all sank into the runny custard beneath and I ended up with a bowl full of mush that looked awful, although it tasted fine!

Bird’s Custard is a great way of making set custard quickly and easily and is just what you need in a trifle. However, it isn’t really a ‘proper’ custard at all… Bird’s Custard is the brand name for a powdered, egg-free imitation custard powder. It is a cornflour-based powder that thickens to form a custard-like sauce when mixed with milk and heated in a pan. Bird’s Custard was first formulated and cooked by Mr Alfred Bird in 1837 at his chemist shop, in Birmingham because his wife was allergic to eggs!

I think custard is a very personal thing. I was very nearly put off it for life at school when we were served a quartet of custards of varying degrees of hideousness at school. In order of awfulness they were:

  • White custard – just about bearable
  • Yellow custard – a bit sickly and often lumpy
  • Brown custard – very unpleasant to look at and having no relationship with chocolate at all
  • Pink custard – utterly, utterly vile and sickly with a peculiar smell and very often with a skin on top!!

But each to their own. Perhaps you prefer cream, or ice cream on your pud or were so traumatised by custard at school that you don’t ever want to see it again… I’d love to hear your thoughts!

7 Comments

There’s nothing like a hottie!!

It must be my age, but I seem to be increasingly aware of the cold. Even though this winter has been mild, a fleece throw or a plump duvet is never a bad thing to have to hand for snuggling purposes.

Before central heating, electric blankets and the duvet (how well I remember my mother buying our first ‘continental quilt’ or duvet which seemed terribly racy at the time!) beds were usually warmed by the good old hot water bottle! Smelling of rubber and occasionally given to springing a leak they were, nonetheless, immensely comforting.
hottiesold

As a child, I remember seeing an old copper warming pan hanging on someone’s wall and asking what it was. Being told it was used to ‘warm the bed’ in olden days, I spent a lot of time puzzling how you managed to not spill the hot water in such a weird, long-handled thing… not realising they used hot coals rather than water!

Warming pans were in use as early as the 16th century when life was an altogether chillier affair and such warmth must have been very welcome. Soon, containers using hot water were introduced, with the advantage that not only could you keep it in the bed with you, you also were also less likely to set fire to your bedding! As the discovery of rubber was still a long way off, these early hot water bottles were made of various materials such as zinc, copper, glass, earthenware or wood. To prevent burning, the metal hot water flasks were wrapped in a soft cloth bag.

‘India rubber’ hot water bottles were in use in Britain as early as 1875. The hot water bottle, as we know it today, was patented in 1903 and is manufactured in natural rubber or PVC. Not surprisingly, by the late 20th century, the use of hot water bottles had declined around most of the world. Not only were homes better heated, but newer items such as electric blankets were competing with hot water bottles as a source of night-time heat. However, there has been a recent surge in popularity in Japan where it is seen as an ecologically friendly and thrifty way to keep warm, and very sensible too!

There are all sorts of bed heaters on the market now and some of them function like the older bottles but use a polymer gel or wax in a heat pad. The pads can be heated in a microwave oven, and they are generally viewed as safer than liquid-filled bottles or electrically-heated devices. Some newer bottles use a silicone-based material instead of rubber, which resists very hot water better, and does not deteriorate as much as rubber.

Today, hot water bottles come in all shapes, sizes and colours and you can get lovely chunky knitted or prettily patterned fleece covers. They are cheap to buy, quick to prepare and easy to use so perhaps, as the Japanese have discovered, it’s time they made a bit of a comeback!

hottiesmodern

 

 

8 Comments

New Year’s resolutions and reflections…

meterry

Ahhh! My partner in crime writing Julia was a big Sir Terry fan and met him a couple of times. She confirms he was a lovely, lovely man.

Well, “Goodbye 2016″! I can’t, in all honesty, say I will miss you one bit – and I am excitedly looking forward to what I hope will be a fabulous 2017 for us all.

There seem to have been so many sad deaths of people that brightened our lives with brilliant entertainment – like Terry Wogan (I love that the BBC have named their building Wogan House). Victoria Wood was another entertainer I loved to bits, great lady. The list is horribly long this year with people such as Alan Rickman, Greg Lake, Prince, Ronnie Corbett, Gene Wilder, Andrew Sachs – oh the list is too long to quote. May they all rest in peace.

We have had dramatic political happenings this year (let’s not dwell on those), war and fighting continue in so many areas of the world I can only pray for more peace next year. In my personal world, which I realise does not impact the main population, I lost both my beloved parents only hours apart at the beginning of the year, and then decided I would pop up again on Create and Craft.

Back on Create & Craft!

Back on Create & Craft!

Life goes on and life is for living and the main wisdom that I have ringing in my ears (thank you, Mother) is the advice to live every day to the maximum. Love those around you and tell them so, help the community around you and be the best person that you can.

That’s as close to New Year resolutions that I am going to get for 2017 … oh ok, that old chestnut, I am going to reach my target weight at Slimming World in 2017, but my guess is it will be nearer the end of the year than the beginning, but I will get there!

I wish you all happiness and health, family and friendship and let’s hope the world decides to take a

turn for the better this year!

7 Comments

Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all!

widecombemare“Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare.
All along, down along, out along lea.
For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all!”

…so goes the well-known Devon folk song about a man called Tom Pearce, whose poor old horse dies after someone borrows it to travel to the fair in Widecombe with his many, many friends. Although not at all funny for the grey mare, it is a humorous song and often performed by rowdy crowds (all NINE verses of it!) that have enjoyed a little too much cider! It’s such a well-known song that the term ‘Uncle Tom Cobley’ has come to be used as a colloquialism meaning “anyone and everyone”.

widecombehistoryPossibly because of the song both Widecombe and its Fair are famous throughout the country. Widecombe-in-the-Moor, to use its full name, is a picturesque village in the middle of Dartmoor, with a magnificent church (the interestingly named Church of Saint Pancras!), visible from all the surrounding hills and tors and known as ‘the cathedral of the moor’.

widecombeproduce

Widecombe Fair takes place annually on the second Tuesday in September, attracting thousands of visitors to the tiny Dartmoor village. It is still a traditional event full of farmers and local craftsmen and as popular with locals as visitors and well worth a visit. My partner in crime writing, Julia, went along this year to take some photos and soak up the rural tranquillity and a way of life that has gone on for centuries in the Dartmoor valleys.

widecombeanimals

There were sheep shearing competitions, cattle, sheep and pony classes, vintage cars and agricultural machinery and some stompingly good live folk music in the beer tent from morning through to midnight! The obligatory produce tent, crammed with huge vegetables, jams and flower arrangements (and you wonder where we get our inspiration for the Swaddlecombe books?!) is always worth a visit. There was also an interesting area dedicated to ‘Living History’, complete with thatchers and other traditional craftsmen demonstrating their skills. Add to this ferret and terrier racing and the intoxicating smell of steam engines and you have the perfect rural day out!

widecombeadam

Left to right: Was the Reverend Ruminant present at the Fair? Certainly looks like his car! Adam Henson and his BBC film crew… and a traditional bit of ferret racing!

Such is Wideombe Fair’s fame, Julia spotted Adam Henson, the farmer presented from BBC1’s ‘Countryfile’ programme, busy filming at the fair… so, if you keep your eyes peeled you might get to see it on TV!

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Thatch – much more than just picturesque

Victoria farm

Victoria Farm

I am fortunate enough to live in an old farmhouse with a thatched roof. Another house in the village here was being re-thatched recently, and it was fascinating watching the thatcher at work whenever we drove past… and it set me thinking about thatch and how, even in 2016, there are still so many thatched roofs around.

When I started investigating, the first thing I discovered is that although thatch is popular in Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark, parts of France and Ireland, there are more thatched roofs in the United Kingdom than in any other European country. On top of that, I found that Devon has more thatched properties than any other English county, so no wonder they seem quite commonplace to my eye!

Thatching materials can include heather, gorse, broom, flax, reed, rye and wheat straw. These light, but incredibly durable, materials were particularly used in areas, such as Devon, where buildings were made of cob or clunch that are less able to carry the weight of stone, tile or slate.

North Bovey

North Bovey on Dartmoor, a pretty thatched village.

The materials used for thatching were local and cheap. As I so often discover in my research, this ancient tradition was also very efficient and, while today we rush around being ‘green’ and insulating everything, thatch was doing a great job and ticking all the ecologically sound boxes from the outset! It is naturally weather-resistant and is also a natural insulator, and air pockets within straw thatch insulate a building in both warm and cold weather, so a thatched roof ensures your house is cool in summer and warm in winter. Thatch also has very good resistance to wind damage, so no flying slates to worry about!

Good quality straw thatch can last for more than 30 years when created by a skilled thatcher. Traditionally, a new layer of straw was applied over the weathered surface, and this ‘spar coating’ tradition has created thatch over 7ft thick on some very old buildings! The straw is bundled into ‘yelms’ before it is taken up to the roof and attached using staples, known as ‘spars’, made from twisted hazel sticks.

Thatching

Thatching, a highly skilled trade.

Technological change in the farming industry had a huge impact on the popularity of thatching. The availability of good quality thatching straw declined in England after the introduction of the combine harvester in the late 1930s and the switch to growing short-stemmed wheat varieties. Increasing use of nitrogen fertiliser in the 1960s–70s also weakened straw and reduced its longevity so thatched roofs became expensive to build. Since the 1980s, however, there has been a big increase in straw quality as specialist growers have returned to growing older, tall-stemmed, ‘heritage’ varieties of wheat… as ever, the original way is so often the best!

Thatchers themselves, highly skilled tradesmen and much in demand, all have individual ‘signatures’ that are often seen in the way they treat dormers, eaves and gables. If you have thatched properties in your area, you might be able to spot these fascinating little details! You will also often see little thatched figures, such as a pheasant, created on the ridge of a new thatch. I think these are charming and really add to the appearance of a property.

ThatchedEco

A modern eco-house… with thatched roof!

Today, with the enthusiasm for energy conservation and minimising one’s carbon footprint, eco houses are being built with thatched roofs and hay bale walls… rather like ‘going organic’ and growing your own veg, nothing is new in this world!

 

5 Comments