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The Country Kitchen: Daffodils

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

William Wordsworth, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’

Spring has finally sprung in Cumbria, and just in time for Easter too. The last stanza of Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ particularly resonates with me in these times where I find myself pensively lying on the coach more than usual. His description of daffodils was thought to have been inspired by a walk along the shore of Ullswater, a twenty-minute drive away from me. During my daily, state-mandated exercise, usually accompanied by my fluffy dog, I see an abundance of daffodils stretching way beyond my garden gate and that lambs have arrived to enliven the hills. Even the sun has made a cameo on a couple of occasions.

While it may not feel like it, time is progressing and things are still changing- the seasons stop for no-one, or no-virus. While we may find ourselves feeling trapped, we have to appreciate how lucky we are. I have a garden, space to exercise and a bucolic view from my kitchen table where I am privileged enough to have books and a well-stocked baking cupboard to keep me entertained.

In the last few years, it’s become a bit of a tradition to have my Grandma to stay over the Easter holidays. For obvious reasons, she will not be making the trip up north this year which, while sad, means I get a break from having to endure her simnel cake (every cloud…). This week I’ll be sharing a couple of my, blissfully marzipan-free, Easter baking recipes using ingredients you’re likely to have at home, plus a heart-warming carrot soup to lift your mood and vitamin A intake.

Easter Biscuit Garland 

There is something about getting started in a project that means, once engrossed, you don’t notice time passing. This was me last Sunday when I spent an entire day making, decorating and assembling a garland of Easter-themed biscuits. Not only are they something tasty to eat, painting faces onto little edible bunnies was enjoyable and can be done with the family- it doesn’t matter if they’re physically flawed, it adds character as I am often told.

To make the garland you need to start off with a trust-worthy biscuit dough. This could be shortbread, gingerbread or a standard biscuit recipe such as  this one recipe I found in an old children’s baking book. I will link some recipes here. If using a plain biscuit or shortbread, feel free to add any flavours you fancy. I added the zest of a lemon and some poppy seeds to half of my dough and orange zest and earl grey tea leaves to the other half.

You don’t need any cookie cutters- simply draw or print out some shapes on paper, cut them out and use them as a template to carve around once the dough is rolled out. The trick to making the biscuits suitable for a garland is to use a straw to punch two holes at the top of the biscuit where you will feed the ribbon through. I stupidly only put one in and made my life much more difficult for myself- two ensures they hang nicely and face forward-without the need for an extra tie. I also recommend chilling the cut-outs before baking so that they are less likely to lose their shape.  

Once you have your biscuits baked and cooled the real fun can begin! The best, and easiest, way to ice biscuits is to have two different consistencies of icing. Start off by making a thick icing by adding water to sieved icing sugar bit by bit (a little goes a long way) until you have a paste-like icing which holds its shape when stirred. This is used to pipe a border around your biscuits, essentially acting as a flood defence (hopefully more effective than Carlisle’s) for the runnier icing that will come later. After you have outlined your biscuits, dilute whatever icing is left with more water until it drips off the spoon. Use this to fill in the biscuits up to the borders, letting gravity do most of the work as you tilt them. A cocktail stick and a ramekin of water are your best friends for this task- the skewer can be used to spread the icing evenly and repair and shape any details. The biscuits will need to be left to dry for a few hours before any further details are added using the thicker icing.

Go wild with different food colourings, decorations and sprinkles and if you don’t have a piping bag you can just snip a tiny hole at the end of a freezer bag. You could also swap out water in the icing for lemon or orange juice as I did to match the flavour of my biscuits. 

Quick & Easy Chocolate Nests

Thinking back to childhood Easters, it is impossible not to think of chocolate nests. They require no introduction and, while I had always thought that they were a bit overrated, I have to say there is something about this recipe that just works. 

You can have them made in about 15 minutes and so long as you have syrup, chocolate and cereal in your cupboard you are good to go. For many of us, they will have been one of the first things we learned to make. As we revisit many old hobbies and past pleasures as a way of filling the time, why not return to your youth and have some fun making these.

To make around 15 nests, melt butter (I think I used around 50g), two blocks of chocolate (this should be 200g ish) and two (generous, obviously) tablespoons of golden syrup in a heatproof bowl sat above a pan of simmering water. The butter and syrup help the chocolate mixture become really smooth and glossy. Pour this into another bowl containing your choice of cereal and mix until it is all coated. Spoon into cupcake cases and put a dip in the middle to nest some Mini Eggs, if you can get hold of them.

I have two main tips for this: One is that at least half of the chocolate should be dark. This isn’t simply a personal preference -although dark chocolate is, in my opinion, far superior. Having a mix of dark and milk helps offset some of the sweetness that may become all a bit much if only milk chocolate is used. My other tip is not to cool them in the fridge. They will set just fine left out at room temperature and this stops the chocolate going dull or sweating when taken out.

French-Style Carrot Soup

Soup is one of our classic springtime lunches; it’s warm and comforting when the weather isn’t and is super easy to make. Two soups never taste quite the same either. They are always a cacophony of whatever scraps of veg you have withering at the bottom of the fridge and yet, with a little bit of attention, transform into a rich and flavourful dish.

I’ve described this carrot soup as ‘French-style’ simply because of the amount of garlic I put in. I was always of the belief that there’s no such thing as too much garlic until I had cheesy chips saturated in Hussain’s garlic mayo. Despite this assault of the senses, I still rate garlic very highly, but to avoid a similar catastrophe, in this recipe I will only be using three cloves. These are crushed and added to a pan with 50g of butter and two onions, diced. Cook them off until they become soft but not coloured then add around three chopped carrots, one sweet and one regular potato and let sweat for another five minutes or so. As before, when it comes to soup anything goes. So, if you have a rogue stick of celery or leftover root veg from a roast stick it in. My mum’s tip is that if you don’t have enough veg add around 75g of red-split lentils to bulk it out. Then add a pint of stock to cover the veg, season, cover, and allow to simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. To season, I added plenty of salt and pepper, a few chilli flakes and mustard seeds for a kick, and a bay leaf. When you’re ready for lunch blend it all together (or mash if you don’t have a stick blender) and serve with a swirl of cream if you’re feeling fancy.

Anna McDonald is a second-year Biochemist at Lady Margaret Hall