Sourdough Breadmaking Part 1 – The Starter

There are many good reasons to bake your own bread, if not only for the wonderful aroma that fills your kitchen when you do! I am also finding more and more that wheat based bread is very hard to digest and sits heavily on my stomach causing uncomfortable bloating, so I have decided to have a good at baking some of my own sourdough bread. In my next series of blog posts I will share with you how I get on at each stage, starting with Part 1 – The Starter.

Sourdough bread is made with wild yeast, or a starter and this is where the process begins. Before you do anything you need to get this going as it will take about a week to become active enough to bake with. After it is ready you will need to keep feeding and looking after it, almost like a pet (I will name mine Charlie!). The process sounds long winded but it is worth it, even just for the satisfaction that you have taken one more step towards your self sufficiency goals – one being never having to buy bread from the supermarket again!

How to make a sourdough starter

  1. Find a large earthenware or plastic container with a lid, large enough to allow for frothing and building up the volume of your starter.
  2. Mix equal parts of flour (wholemeal, rye or spelt) with water to make a paste/thick batter (see Fig 1). Whisk well to help incorporate lots of air and leave in the container for 24 hours.
  3. After this time the yeast spores in the air should have reacted with your starter and it will begin to ferment – you will see bubbles on the surface (see Fig 2). This could happen sooner or later depending on the flour used, how well you whisked it etc.
  4. When the bubbles appear you will need to give you starter it’s first feeding. This is done by whisking in another 150 g of flour and 250 ml warm water.
  5. After another 24 hours your starter will start to smell more ‘yeasty’, this is good! It will need another feed, this time by emptying half of the starter into a plastic bag and discarding. Then whisking in another 150 g of flour and 250 ml cold water this time.
  6. Continue in this way for about a week, emptying half every 24 hours and replacing and then your starter should be ready to bake with!

In part 2, I will detail the next steps required to make sourdough bread – the sponge.

Sourdough Starter first stage

Fig 1 - Sourdough Starter first stage

Sourdough starter fermenting

Fig 2 - Sourdough starter fermenting

Spicy Pumpkin Soup

Pumpkin Soup

Pumpkin Soup

Here is my recipe for lovely Pumpkin Soup. Perfect for Samhain/Halloween celebrations and the spices liven it up a bit to make it extra warming in front of a fire. If you have a few pumpkins from your vegetable patch, why not make a few batches and freeze to enjoy at Christmas too?!

Spicy Pumpkin Soup

Serves 4

1 cooking pumpkin (can also use butternut squash)
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp chilli powder or dried chilli flakes
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 litre of vegetable stock or boullion

Chop the onions and garlic and sauté them in a large saucepan until beginning to turn clear. In the meantime peel and chop the pumpkin into 2 cm pieces. Add to the pan with the spices, mix with the onion and garlic flavours and soften for about 3-4 minutes. Add the vegetable stock and bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 minutes until the pumpkin is soft.

Allow to cool, then blend until smooth. Pour into bowls, serving with crispy bacon or toasted pumpkin seeds, and swirled in cream.


Green Tomato Chutney

Did you have to get your tomatoes in this year before the frosts hit? Some were still green? Well here is an idea of what to make them into, delicious spicy Green Tomato Chutney. This is the first year we’ve made this at Herne Cottage and should be just perfect in time for Christmas!

Recipe adapted from ‘The WI Book of Jams and Other Preserves’

Green Tomato Chutney

Makes about 3 kg (7 lb)

2kg (4lb) green tomatoes
500g (1 lb) apples
250g (8 oz) raisins
625g (1 1/4 lb) shallots
15g (1/2 oz) root ginger
8 green chillies
2 tsp salt
500g (1 lb) brown sugar
600 ml (1 pint) malt vinegar

Chop the tomatoes, peel and chop the apples and shallots and put into a large preserving pan. Chop or bruise the ginger and put in a muslin bag with the chillies (whole). Add all of the rest of the ingredients to the pan and bring to the boil, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. Then simmer for about 3-4 hours until desired consistency is reached (about the same as a curry or stew). Remove the muslin bag and pour into warmed, sterilised jars. Cover and label.

Green Tomato Chutney

Green Tomatoes in Pan ready for Chutney!

Summery Moroccan Chicken with Harissa Vegetables

This dish is a perfect lighter roast for summery Sundays, preferably when it’s a good enough day to eat al fresco. You can get most of the ingredients in a good supermarket such as Waitrose or specialist markets and even health food stores. Maroque is also a very good website for Moroccan ingredients and kitchenware. Sumac is an unusual spice made from red berries often used in Middle Eastern cuisine. I will be posting a recipe later too for how to make your own preserved lemons so watch this space!!

Serves 4

1 medium – large whole chicken
1 preserved lemon, quartered
1 tsp Sumac
Generous pinch of Saffron
2 tbsp good Olive oil
1 tsp coarse Sea Salt
2 tbsp Harissa Paste
French green beans (as many as you like!)
Handful of cherry tomatoes
1 sliced courgette

Preheat oven to 190 degrees. Prepare the bird by rubbing the skin with Sumac, Saffron and sea salt. Into the cavity of the chicken add the preserved lemon quarters. Put the bird into a large roasting dish and drizzle with the olive oil (rubbing into the skin again if you wish).

Roast in the oven for 1 1/2 – 2 hours until no pink meat left and the juices run clear. Take out of the oven and keep warm until ready to serve by wrapping in foil and placing a clean tea towel over the top. Carve when ready.

In the meantime prepare the vegetables. Blanch the green beans in boiling water for a few minutes, then take out and drain. Heat some olive oil in a large griddle pan and when hot add the the courgettes and cook for a few minutes. Then add the drained green beans, tomatoes and Harissa paste and stir to cover the veg with the paste and olive oil. Cook until courgette and green beans are browned and the tomatoes are just beginning to release their juices.

Serve with roasted or sautéed potatoes and a good chilled Rosé wine. Enjoy!


Strawberry & Gooseberry Jam

Here is a recipe for a lovely seasonal recipe of Strawberry & Gooseberry Jam. Perfect for using up a glut of home grown fruit, or from your local PYO farm (we are very lucky to have Grove Farm near us in Ivinghoe), or even from the supermarket. It doesn’t matter where you get the ingredients from really, as long as they are seasonal and fresh. The addition of gooseberries to this jam make for a slightly less sweet flavour and help the set as they have more pectin in them than strawberries alone. I have used and adapted an old WI recipe, and you can too depending on what you have available. Just remember equal amounts of sugar to fruit. Have fun!

Strawberry & Gooseberry Jam

Makes about 2.5 kg (5 lb)

750 g (1.5 lb) gooseberries
150 ml (1/4  pint water)
750 g (1.5 lb) strawberries (hulled)
1.5 kg (3 lb) sugar

Place the gooseberries and hulled strawberries in a perserving pan with water and cook gently until the fruit is soft and mushy. Remove from the heat.

Add the sugar and stir well until all dissolved (if not all dissolved the jam will crystalise in the jar later). Return to the heat, bring to the boil and boil rapidly for about 15 mins until setting point is reached*. Pour into warmed, sterilised jam jars, cover and label.

*To test for setting point I use the saucer method – just put some saucers into the fridge when you start cooking the jam, then when ready to test take the jam off the heat and spoon a teaspoon of jam onto the cold saucer. Put it back in the fridge for 60 seconds, take out and if the jam wrinkles when pushed with your finger, the setting point has been reached.

Strawberries and Gooseberries in the Preserving Pan

Strawberries and Gooseberries in the Preserving Pan

Strawberries and Gooseberries softening in the preserving pan

The fruit softening in the pan

Putting the strawberry and gooseberry jam into warmed jars

Putting the jam into warmed jars

The finished article - Yummy!

The finished article - Yummy!



Elderflowers from our garden

We’re pleased to finally see the Elder tree in blossom at the end of May/early June. That means Elderflowers, and all the yummy things you can make with them! We’re having a Midsummer party for some friends in a few weeks, so the first thing to make was some elderflower ‘champagne’ for our guests to enjoy. We found an old recipe in one of our books, and is detailed below:

Elderflower Champagne

12 elderflower heads
juice and zest of an unwaxed organic lemon
1.5 lbs of sugar
2 tblsp white wine vinegar
4 litres/1 gallon cold water.

Put the washed elderflower heads in a bowl/bucket with the lemon, sugar, vinegar and water and leave for 24 hours. Then strain through muslin and pour the liquid into sterilsed screw top bottles. Leave them for about 10-14 days, then drink it, preferably before the end of the third week. The champagne is naturally effervescent so pressure will build up in the bottles. For this reason, we’ve left them in a room where we don’t mind if the tops blow off, and put the liquid into plastic bottles!

We’re not sure how it will turn out without some sort of yeast to make it alcoholic, but is definitely bubbling away in the bottles as we speak, and will let you know how we get on!

Also, not wanting to miss the best of the season, we thought we would try another traditional recipe for elderflowers, and that is elderflower fritters. As ever inspired by the excellent book by Richard Mabey, ‘Food for Free’, we had a go at his recipe this lunchtime, and very nice it was too!

Elderflower Fritters

4 tablespoons flour
1 egg
1 1/2 cupfuls water
elderflower heads (as many as you want fritters for!)
oil for frying (we used rapeseed from our local farm shop)
fresh mint
sugar for dusting

Make up the batter with the flour, egg and water. Then hold the flowerhead by the stalk and dip into the batter. Shake off any excess batter and then plunge into hot oil and deep-fry until golden brown. Trim off the excess salt and serve with some sugar, the mint and some lemon.

Our attempt below with some lovely salad from our garden. We omitted the sugar as this was a savoury dish, but the mint complemented it perfectly!

Elderflower Fritters

Elderflower Fritters

Nettle Soup

Lovely nutritious nettles

Lovely nettles

Have enjoyed one of the first batches of nettle soup from our garden for my lunch today, so am now inspired to share the recipe with you. This is a great way to get plenty of vitamins and iron in you at a time of year when the pickings from your veggie garden may be slim. It is also brilliant for making something useful out of plants (or weeds if you like) that you would otherwise be tempted to clear from your garden at this time of year and consign to the compost heap – please don’t! As these plants thrive on any type of soil and are prolific growers, they are packed full of nutrients and you can even use them to make an excellent fertiliser for your garden too. Just fill a carrier bag full of nettles and add them to a large bin filled with water, and let steep until it absolutely stinks, then you know it will be great for your garden! Use neat, or add to your watering can :-)

So, onto the soup recipe, it really is very simple. Please also do not be put off the fact that these plants have a sting, it will disappear when they are cooked and wont hurt your mouth, I promise! Do wear gloves to pick them though! Please note also that nettles are only good for cooking from about March – June when they are young, any time after that they will taste stringy and bitter. With young plants you can take the first 10 cms or so, but towards the end of the season take only the top 4 leaves to avoid bitter tasting soup too. You can forage from the wild if you dont have any in your garden.

Nettle Soup

Nettle Soup

Nettle Soup

Serves 4

1 carrier bag full of young nettles or nettle tops
about 1 tbsp good olive or rapeseed oil, or 25g butter
1 onion chopped
1 large potato (floury potatoes such as King Edwards give a richer texture)
1 litre of good chicken stock (or vegetable, or from cubes if that’s all you have)
pinch of ground nutmeg
Optional – double cream or milk to serve

1. Wearing gloves, wash the nettles well in a colinder and remove any large stalks – set aside to drain
2. In a pan, melt the fat until sizzling and add the chopped onion to saute over a medium heat until clear
3. Peel and chop the potato into chunks of about 2-3 cm square and add to the pan with the onions. Turn to coat in the oil.
4. Add the nettles and let them wilt in the pan, then add the stock
5. Season well, add the ground nutmeg and bring back to the boil.
6. Turn down the heat and let the soup simmer for about 20 minutes until the potato is soft and squidgy.
7. Let the soup cool a little and blend until smooth, adding a swish of cream or milk if you like before serving.

Enjoy and let me know what you think! You could substitute the nettles for spinach if you like, or add some wild spring leaves like sorrel or chickweed, all adding to that earthy spring flavour.

Seville Orange Marmalade

During a cold January, there is nothing better than driving past our local farm shop and seeing the roadside notice “Seville Oranges Now In”. This means the very short season for these wonderful fruits has begun, and then begins the race to get our share, before they go away again in a  few weeks time. These fruits are very bitter and are best used for cooking, so it makes them especially great for making a batch of marmalade. This year I’ve bought enough to make two batches (2kg), and have put one kilogram in the freezer, whole fruits, so I can make the most of the season and still make lovely marmalade in July! The other kilogram has been put to use straight away in order to fill our storecupboard with some lovely amber coloured jars - nice and cheery after the end of Christmas, and until the Spring comes along again. The house has been filled with their lovely citrus aroma all weekend, and brightened us up no end.

So, here is a little diary of how I got on…

I found a recipe that looked like it would fit the way I like marmalade, which is very thin shred and lightly coloured. It is from the River Cottage Preserves book but I did adapt it slightly.

There are only three ingredients and these are:

1kg Seville Oranges
2kg Sugar (the book says demerera sugar but I used normal granulated – gives a ligher colour)
75 ml lemon juice

I started by squeezing all the juice out of the oranges into a large bowl. Then the saved peel and pith was all chopped into fine shreds (you can make thicker if that is your preference), and added to the juice. Make sure no pips remain! Then 2.5 litres of water was poured on top and left to stand for 24 hours to help soften the fruit peel.

The fruit soaking

The fruit soaking

The next morning the fruit and liquid was poured into my preserving pan and brought to the boil. Then it was covered with foil and slowly simmered for about 2 hours to soften the fruit peel further.

Once this was complete, the lemon juice and sugar was added to the mixture. It was stirred slowly to dissolve the sugar and then brought to the boil again. This time it was left to boil rapidly for about 35 mins until setting point was reached (to test for setting point take the pan off the heat, spoon a teaspoonful onto a cold plate, put in the fridge for one minute and if it crinkles when pushed with your finger, the setting point has been reached. If not return to the boil for another couple of minutes and test again). The book suggested boiling for 20-25 mins but I found I needed longer.

The mixture was then left to cool for about 8-10 mins and poured into warm, sterilised jam jars (see my previous blog post for how to sterilise jars) and sealed immediately. The end result? Lovely amber nectar to put in the cupboard (and one or two jars saved for our Mums :-) .

Pouring the cooled marmalade into jars

Pouring the cooled marmalade into jars

Marmalade jars

The finished product - 6 jars of lovely amber nectar!

Damson Gin Recipe

Use wild damsons or sloes to make tasty gin

Use wild damsons or sloes to make tasty gin

A great way to make use of wild damsons, or sloes. We have ample of both here in Pitstone, near Tring, Herts. In fact the area is famous for them! The Aylesbury prune I think it is called.

To make about 1 litre:

450g damsons or sloes, pricked
225g sugar (or 450g for sloe gin)
600ml gin

Wash the fruit and prick if not picked after the first frosts (a frost softens the fruit and gives a kick start to releasing the juices). Put the damsons or sloes into a large bottle and tip over the sugar. Pour in the gin and then shake well to mix the fruit in with it.

You will then need to shake daily for about a week to prevent the sugar settling in the bottom. Then shake regularly and taste if you like for the next 6-8 weeks. Once you have a good flavour and all the fruit juices have instilled, strain the mixture through a fine sieve and pour the liquor into bottles.

Try and leave the gin for 12-18 months before drinking, so it won’t be ready this Christmas, but maybe next year. So always have a batch in hand!

Courgette Chutney


Lovely Fresh Courgettes

Courgette Chutney

A great way to use up a glut of courgettes, making a lovely rich but mild tasting chutney.


2.5 kg courgettes
1 kg fresh or tinned tomatoes
6-8 cloves garlic
450g onions
1.5 kg pale brown sugar
175g sultanas
4 tbsp salt
1 tablespoon each spices of your choice, such as peppercorns, ground ginger, allspice
1 litre malt or white vinegar

Slice the courgettes and cut up into cubes of about 2 cm square and 1 cm thick (dont leave the chunks too thick as they won’t soften when cooking). If using fresh tomatoes, roughly chop, along with the garlic and onions. Put these, along with the rest of the ingredients into a large pan and bring slowly to the boil, and stir well to dissolve the sugar. Then turn down the heat and simmer slowly for the next few hours, until the mixture is thick and syrupy, but not disintegrated. Ideally, this should be like the consistency of jam but not too dry (depending on your type of pan and cooker, this may take a while!). Once ready, ladle into sterilised pots, cover and store.