Columns Food Lifestyle

The Country Kitchen: Picnics, Pies and Goodbyes

There are endings and there are beginnings. There are also endings of beginnings and beginnings of endings. At the moment, I believe we are living through the latter category.

The approach of June, and the arrival of Summer that accompanies it, are in many ways signalling the end of the most recent, slightly bizarre, period of my life. May is ending, and with the close of my favourite month comes the end of my teenage years, as my 20th birthday is tomorrow. Plus, with the announcements of the opening of shops and group meetings, the beginning of the end of lockdown is imminent and, sadly, this column will be going with it. 

Do not despair, as all good things (and all not-good things too, depending which category you place this column) must end. If only the producers of Killing Eve and the organisers of the annual Dalston Show Scarecrow Competition would learn from this. I’d much rather be a Fleabag than a Suits.

To celebrate these endings, (and, obviously, more importantly, my birthday), I’m sharing some ideas for getting together while staying apart. Come Monday, five of my friends will be sitting in the garden,  on meticulously placed camping chairs, enjoying some good food and the unfamiliar experience of seeing a familiar face. I wouldn’t be surprised if my Dad, an admirable stickler for the rules, whips his tape measure out. It will be the first time I have seen some of them since Boxing Day, and with the family tea-time chatter getting drier and drier, a bit of good banter could well be the best present I receive.  

These picnic pastries are perfect for your social distancing parties. The self-contained savouries and sweets can be placed on a paper plate by each chair before the guests arrive. The protocol for as safe a picnic as possible brings to mind all of the aseptic technique procedures used throughout my virtual lab this week. I’m glad it was useful for something.

Mini Quiches

One sheet of pre-rolled shortcrust pastry will allow you to make 24 quiches. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have 24 friends, and even if I was Miss Popular I wouldn’t be able to see them all at once. Four mini quiches each sounds like more than enough.

Start by thinning out the pastry slightly from its the pre-rolled state before cutting out circles around 6cm in diameter. Pinch these out between your thumb and forefinger like making pizza dough to make them slightly larger and then press them into a cupcake tin. Beat four eggs and enough milk to take the volume up to 500ml or so in a jug. Season.

This egg mix is your basic filling mixture to which you add whatever you want. Always one for not being vanilla, I made four variants: Cheese and Tomato, Cheese and Spring Onion, Cheese and Ham, and Goat’s Cheese and Caramelised Red Onion. All of these were made by pouring a drop of egg mix into the pastry case, layering in filling, topping with more egg mix to ½ a cm or so from the top, and sprinkling over some extra filling on the surface. If you do choose to caramelise onions, simply dice a red onion into fine pieces and fry with a couple of teaspoons of brown sugar and a small slice of butter until soft and sweet. Once filled, your little pastry cases can be placed into an oven at 170oC and baked for 15-20 minutes until the filling is set and the pastry is starting to colour.

Sausage Rolls

My brother has been working at the village butchers throughout lockdown. Not only does this provide easy access to quality, fresh meat (he’ll be happy I said that), but also to the ins and outs of the village. It turns out Mr. Pigg, notorious for his sausage-making skills, does not like pork. I would like to think that these sausage rolls could potentially sway him.

All picnics call for some form of sausage roll, but some are more equal than others. This week, I ventured down to the river, six sausage rolls in hand, eager to share with my best friend of eighteen years. When we arrived, I gave her her share (in a socially distanced manner, don’t worry), only to be told she had been veggie since New Year. I never said I was a good friend. Creating a veggie option is a task for another day.

Squeeze the sausage meat out of the skins of six sausages. Use your hands to knead this together into two long sausage shapes with 30g of grated parmesan, salt, pepper and a teaspoon of fennel seeds.

As life is too short to make your own puff pastry, especially when Jus-Roll seems to have mastered the skill more than I could ever hope to, take half a block of chilled puff pastry and roll it out to a couple of mm thick into an oblong about the size of a large cutting board. Slice the pastry in half lengthways to get two long strips. Paint the strip of pastry with a beaten egg and place one rolled sausage in the middle. Fold one side of the pastry over the other and pinch along the joins with a fork to make crimped seals. You can then cut each long sausage parcel into nine mini sausage rolls, glaze the top with egg and bake in the oven at 180oC for around 20 minutes until puffed up, golden and crisp on the bottom.

You can play around with the flavours of the sausage meat; apple would be a nice addition or you could put a layer of chutney on the pastry before putting the sausage on. I made nine of the flavour above and nine with an Asian-inspired twist, painting the pastry with dark soy sauce before placing the sausage meat on top. I also sprinkled some sesame seeds on top of the rolls before baking.

Grown-Up Jam Tarts

Homemade picnic food tastes staggeringly different from that you pick up from the shelves. So do jam tarts. These are not so much the perfectly-presented, jelly jam tarts you got in packets of six in tin foil wrappers when you were seven, but as I’m (reluctantly) entering my third decade, these childish treats are being replaced with all the more sophisticated, fruit filled jam tarts, even if I did still cut shapes out and stick them on the top.

You can use shop-bought sweet shortcrust pastry or make your own. We actually had some frozen German pastry leftoverleft over from making mince pies over Christmas. Every year there is an unspoken competition between my mum, Grandma and auntie to see how many mince pies they can get from a single batch of pastry. Clearly, after suffering the blow of managing a feeble 24 in comparison to my auntie’s 72, Mum was covering her back this year by making an excess. Anyway, roll out your pastry until about 2mm thin. Cut out discs (roughly 6cm in diameter depending on your cupcake tin) and flatten these out slightly between your palms before press into the tin.

To add a bit of excitement to these tarts, there is a hidden layer of real fruit. Start by mixing a third of a jar of strawberry jam with a tablespoon of lemon juice to thin it out slightly. Place half a teaspoon of this jam into the bottom of the pastry case and layer a slice of strawberry on top. Cover this with another teaspoon of jam, taking care not to get too excited to overfill them, and bake at 150oC for 20 minutes, or at a slightly higher temperature for shorter. If you have any pastry left you can make little lids or decorative tops for your tarts.

This recipe showed how a packet of shortcrust pastry, a third of a jar of jam and four large strawberries can give you twelve little delightful treats that don’t take longer than ten minutes to make. While this example used strawberries and strawberry jam, you could do the same with raspberries, other jam flavours and even lemon curd.

And Finally…

I began my very first article with a quote from the Sound of Music and so I find it only fitting to close with a similar goodbye. It was that or Gerard Manley Hopkins, equal in message but perhaps slightly different in tone.

‘Regretfully they tell us,

But firmly they compel us

to say good bye

To you’

The Sound of Music, 1965

PS: My mum told me this quote made it sound like I’ve been sacked. I’ve not. Adieu.

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