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The Country Kitchen: Early One May Morning

At six o’clock (AM) this time last year I was sleeping, snugly wrapped up in my bed in LMH. Whatever excuse for not wandering down to Magdalen Bridge I was using at the time now feels staggeringly incompetent, and before you say it, it was not the distance of the trek; LMH is not that far out.

May is my favourite month; the flowering of spring blossoms, bluebells, birdsong and, more narcissistically, my birthday, are gift wrapped into 31 gloriously mild days. The arrival of Spring has been welcomed in the annual May Morning celebrations in Oxford for over 500 years and I can’t imagine any other city in England (except The Other Place) where one of the pinnacles of the social calendar is young lads singing Latin from the top of a tower. My absence last year meant I was all the more excited to attend this time around and had been using the excuse of ‘May Day training’ to explain my frequent Fever trips during previous terms. Now, I cannot help but be bitter at naïve fresher Anna, whose innocent ears had never heard of Coronavirus and believed she knew best by not going out. Silly girl.  

Yet all hope is not lost. As with everything else, the May Morning celebrations have temporarily teleported online. Yes, I will still be waking up at a ridiculous hour, but I can watch the tradition from the comfort of my pyjamas and have the option to go back to sleep straight afterwards. If you think not being in Oxford will prevent me from celebrating May Day, you’re about to have a lesson in willpower.

Morning Toastie Melt

At ten to six in the morning I’m in no fit state to make breakfast. Luckily, this is prepared the night before and baked in the morning when you wake. It’s sort of a cross between a toastie and eggy bread and can be filled with whatever you want. I’ve opted for a croque-monsieur style flavour.

Make a standard ham and cheese sandwich, remembering to butter the bread on the outside, and lie it in an ovenproof dish. I also added wholegrain mustard to the filling, but I know this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Whisk up an egg with 25ml or so of milk, salt and pepper and pour this over the sandwich to seep through. Leave the dish in the fridge overnight, but if you are after a more immediate breakfast 30 minutes will do. This way, the following morning you can groggily turn the oven on and throw this in at 180⁰C for around 25 minutes until cooked through and crisp on top, smug in the knowledge you don’t have to do anything else. This year I’ll be using these minutes to watch the Magdalen Choir sing.

You could sweeten this recipe by using fruit-based fillings and adding a touch of sugar to the egg or it can easily be scaled up to provide an entire family with brunch.

May Day Mayhem and Lemon, Thyme and Tequila Sorbet

In my world, May Day cannot be celebrated properly without a little bit of booze. Here, I’ve included it in the more traditional liquid form, a spring like cocktail, and a refreshing sorbet where the tequila is more of an afterthought. Both make use of our herb garden currently recovering from its winter neglect.

The May Day Mayhem cocktail, an ode to what could have been, uses gin as its base. I believe gin to be the new salted caramel. Over the last few years, the explosion of flavoured gins, and the improved accessibility thanks to Gordon’s pink concoction, have caused a craze wherein people who previously turned their nose up at the traditional juniper berry flavour, now cannot live without a cheeky G&T. While I’m not writing an essay on ‘The Recent Revitalisation of Gin and the Extent to which Marketing was Responsible’, I do have a point. That being, a) you are likely to have a bottle and b) could potentially have some weird and wonderful flavour combination that improves this recipe further.

To make the cocktail, mix 50ml of gin (after all my ramblings I confess to have used Gordon’s but if I had it, I would have used a botanical one such as Hendrick’s) with 25ml of Triple Sec, 25ml of elderflower cordial and a couple of teaspoons each of lime juice and grenadine. Whether this was solely for the pink aesthetics or not I refuse to comment. Crush ten or so mint leaves into the alcohol before shaking this in a cocktail mixer with ice if you have one. Strain into a glass and top with about 25ml of cloudy lemonade (for the unsophisticate like myself), tonic or soda.

The perfect companion to this cocktail on a sunny day is a lemon and thyme sorbet. The flavour of this improves with the freshness of the ingredients so try and use fresh thyme and lemon juice if you can. Mix 75g of sugar and 125ml of water with the zest and skin of two lemons. Heat this and stir until all the sugar is dissolved before adding a couple of handfuls of fresh thyme. Once completely cool, add the juice of two lemons (approximately 125ml) and 25ml of tequila, voddy or limoncello. Pour into a plastic container and leave for a couple of hours in the freezer until set, but not a unscoopable block of ice.

Flourless Raspberry Roulade

To conclude my overcompensating May Day celebrations I wanted a showstopper of a cake, something light for Spring and with fresh fruit. I decided to make a roulade. Yet, it appears I am not the only one turning to baking as a coping mechanism during these times. Flour, of all varieties, has become the new loo roll and lands at the top of the country’s Most Wanted list. The day we managed to source two bags in Morrisons felt like Christmas had come early. Instead of including a cake recipe that depends on you being as fortunate as I was on that divine day, I decided to use a flourless recipe instead. Omitting flour and replacing it with ground almonds provides a lighter, fluffier sponge that uses the air whisked into your egg whites as the raising agent instead.

In my boredom, I decided it was high time I learnt the difference between a swiss-roll and roulade, and am now about to bestow this wisdom unto you. According to Google, the swiss roll is a spiral sponge cake that can be filled with jam, cream or icing while a roulade is an all-encompassing term meaning any dish, sweet or savoury, that is rolled. The more you know. A quick scroll through the BBC Good Food roulade page returned a spinach and vegetable variant. While this would be more forgiving on my mid-quarantine waistline, it was not handsome enough to tempt me.

To make the sponge, whisk four egg yolks with 125g of sugar until light in colour and mousse-like in texture. Fold 100g of ground almonds into the mix with a tablespoon of milk. In a separate bowl, whisk up the whites until stiff peaks form and fold into the mousse-like mix. The batter is transferred to a large swiss-roll tin, lined with greaseproof paper, and baked for about 20 minutes until lightly golden and spongy.

This week, I learned something new- and it wasn’t even protein related (or was it?). Using a clean, slightly damp tea towel covered with sugar is the easiest way to roll the sponge. Rolling while the sponge is still hot and leaving it to cool completely in this tea-towel shroud prevents cracking and leaves a sugary exterior. It probably is something to do with protein structure after all.

To make the raspberry filling, put half a tub of raspberries into a pan with a tablespoon each of sugar and lime juice. Warm through gently, crushing the raspberries with the back of a wooden spoon, until the sugar dissolves and the juices thicken slightly. Leave this to cool before spreading on your sponge. While you could just top with whipped cream before rolling back up, I had some leftover mascarpone which had been mixed with lime juice, zest and icing sugar (as you do). I incorporated this into half a carton of whipped cream and spread this, rather too liberally, on top of the jam. Once you’ve rolled up your roulade, trim the ends off to reveal a pretty spiral.

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