I love hens, we’ve had hens as long as I can remember. In fact one of my very earliest memories was of going to feed the hens at the end of the paddock behind our house, clutching Betty’s hand tightly. She’d carry a big bucket of scraps and I’d have some little bread crusts and vegetable peelings in my little sand bucket to scatter out to them. When the hens eagerly ran towards us I was filled with a mixture of terror and delight. At that stage I wasn’t much taller than a hen!
Here at the Cookery School we have a wonderful flock of Speckledys and Hebden Blacks, happy, lazy, hens that feed on scraps, vegetable peelings and organic feed. They roam over the grass, scratch to their hearts’ content and have dust baths in the sun. They reward us with the most beautiful free range eggs. The students love them – one American chap in particular Doug, loved to feed the hens. He just loved the way they all ran towards him eagerly. ‘They’re the only appreciative females I’ve ever met in my entire life.’, he explained in his inimitable wry way. ! He prophesied to younger chaps on the course they would never again meet such devotion!
Apart from the Speckledy and Hebden Blacks, we’ve got quite a collection of rare breeds which I’d love to add to even further – we have Silkies, Cochins, Buff Orpingtons, Marans, Pekin, Hamburgs, Anconas, Campinos, Welshrunner…. Some lay brown speckledy eggs, others like the anconas almost blue, so beautiful. In fact if I had to choose my last meal it would be a delicious boiled free-range egg with little soldiers of Timmy’s soda bread – a forgotten flavour for most people nowadays.
I was convinced that absolutely everyone knew about boiled eggs – to our astonishment this week, we met not one but two people who had never eaten a boiled egg before, so we delighted in introducing them to the most fundamental gourmet experience by collecting a few eggs from the nest underneath the rosemary bush outside my kitchen door. In many countries there is a tradition of dyeing and painting eggs to be given as presents, this is a tradition that we very much foster in our family and in fact our clever hens actually lay coloured eggs with childrens’ names on them on Easter Sunday!
The Easter bunny also makes nests all round the garden in clumps of daffodils and shrubs and lays chocolate eggs and baby chocolate bunnies. So after the children have eaten their very own boiled eggs for breakfast the doors burst open and they career in wild excitement around the garden searching for the Easter bunny’s hiding places – the result – deliriously happy children covered from head to toe in chocolate and a trampled garden!
Boiled Eggs and Dippies
Mothers all over the country cut up fingers of toast for children to dip into soft-boiled eggs. In my husband Tim’s family they were called soldiers, but we called them dippies.
2 fresh free range eggs
salt and freshly ground pepper
a few pats of butter
1 slice of fresh white pan loaf
Bring a small saucepan of water to the boil, gently slide in the eggs, bring the water back to the boil and simmer gently for 4-6 minutes, according to your taste. A four minute egg will be still quite soft, five minutes will almost set the white while the yolk will still be runny, 6 minutes will produce a boiled egg with a soft yolk and solid white. Meanwhile toast the bread, cut off the crusts and spread with butter. Cut in fingers. Immediately the eggs are cooked, pop them into egg cups, put the dippies on the side and serve with a pepper mill, sea salt and a few pats of butter.
Chocolate Mousse Cake
How about a really luscious chocolate gateau for Easter.
If you use a really powerful mixer to beat the genoise, the mixture need not be whisked over hot water, this step cannot be eliminated however when using a small or hand-held mixer. Overall I find I get the best and most stable result when whisked over hot water.
31/2 ozs (100g/ two-third cup) flour
1 oz (30g/1/4 cup) cocoa powder (Dutch process)
1/2 level teasp. baking powder
2 ozs (55g/1/2 stick) butter (if you are using unsalted butter, use a pinch of salt also)
4 free-range eggs
5 ozs (140g/two-third cup) castor sugar
10 ozs (285g) best quality dark chocolate, chopped
6 free-range eggs, separated
6 ozs (170g/11/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon pure Vanilla Essence or 1 tablespoon (1 American tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) Grand Marnier liqueur
6 ozs (170g) best quality dark chocolate
8 ozs (225g) best quality dark chocolate
1 pint (570ml/21/2 cups) whipped cream
2 tablespoons (2 American tablespoons + 2 teaspoons) icing sugar
1 teaspoon pure Vanilla Essence
Speckled mini Chocolate eggs and yellow chicks to decorate
9 inch (23cm) diameter genoise tin or a round cake tin with 21/2 inch (6.5cm) sides
3 inch (7.5cm) diameter plain round cutter,
Pastry bag and medium star tube
Brush the inside of the cake tin with melted butter. As an extra precaution, line the base with a circle of greaseproof paper that exactly fits, and butter it also. Leave it for a few minutes and then sprinkle the tin with flour, discarding the excess. Sieve the flour with the cocoa, baking powder and salt. Clarify the butter by melting gently, allow to sit for a few minutes and then skim off the crusty top layer, the clarified butter is the clear butter. Discard the milky residue at the base also.
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/regulo 4. Put the eggs in a large pyrex bowl, gradually whisk in the castor sugar. Set the bowl in a saucepan over barely simmering water. Whisk until the mixture is light and thick enough to make a distinct figure of 8 when the whisk is lifted – about 8-10 minutes. Take the bowl from the heat, add the vanilla essence and continue beating until cooled. Sieve one third of the flour and cocoa over the mixture, folding in as lightly as possible with a wooden spatula or metal spoon, fold in another third in the same careful way and finally the remainder. Just after the last batch, pour the cool butter around the sides of the bowl and fold in gently and quickly because the whisked mixture quickly loses volume after the butter is added. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes approx. or until the cake shrinks slightly from the sides of the tin and the top springs back when lightly pressed in the centre with a finger. Allow to sit in the tin for a minute or two, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool. When the cake is completely cold it may be stored in an airtight cake tin for a few days or it may be frozen.
For the Chocolate Mousse
Melt the chocolate in a pyrex bowl over hot water or in a very cool oven, stir until smooth. Whisk the egg yolks one by one into the hot mixture so it thickens slightly. Whisk in the butter and vanilla essence or liqueur. Allow to cool slightly. Whip the egg whites until stiff, add the tepid chocolate mixture to them and fold the two together as lightly as possible, the warm mixture will lightly cook and stiffen the whites. Leave to cool at room temperature, not in the fridge, otherwise the mousse will harden and become difficult to spread.
Next make the chocolate discs. Melt 6 ozs (170g) of the chocolate in a pyrex bowl over hot water, stir until smooth. The base of the bowl should not touch the water. Pour the chocolate onto a piece of greaseproof paper, spread into a thin even layer with a spatula, allow to cool until set. Use the 3 inch (7.5cm) cutter to make rounds of chocolate, then cut 3 almond shapes from each round – you will need about 30.
Melt the chocolate and spread it thinly with a palette knife onto a marble slab. Allow it to set almost completely and then with a sharp knife or a paint scraper, shave off long, thin scrolls. Use a slightly sawing movement and keep your hand upright. This is fun to do but there’s quite a lot of skill involved – you’ll get good at it with practice and you can always eat the rejects!
Add the icing sugar and vanilla essence to the chilled whipped cream, stir gently, cover and chill until needed
To Assemble the Cake. With a very sharp long bladed knife, split the genoise carefully in 3 layers. Spread a generous layer of chocolate mousse on the bottom layer. Place the second layer of genoise on top and spread it with half of the Chantilly cream, reserving the remaining cream for decoration. Top with the third layer and spread the remaining mousse on the top and sides of the cake.
Arrange the chocolate shapes around the edge, placing them at an angle. Pipe vertical ruffs of Chantilly cream between them. Scatter the long curls of chocolate caraque over the top and arrange them in a nest. Dust first with cocoa and then with icing sugar. Fill the nest with speckled mini chocolate eggs and put a few yellow chicks hatching on top. Serve on a glass cake stand if available.