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And to start it off on a high note, part 1 of 2 posts on my recent backgarden kitchen-building adventure:  Making an Earth Pizza Oven.


MY APOLOGIES, but the photos for this post died with Lycos. There is a photo backup somewhere, but currently I’m not planning on resuscitating it.”

Build an oven in your backyard, with clay and sand from your own garden…. Sounds complicated, and in rainy old England not a really good proposition, right?

But no! It’s amazingly straightforward and workable, and a fortnight ago I took a weekend break in Norfolk to learn just how to do this.

My teacher in all things clay, sand & straw was Kate Edwards, of Edwards Eco Building. She teachs people how to make pizza & bread ovens from cob in their own backyards, and happily for me, the day of my course was clear, hot and gorgeous.

Beautiful Norfolk countryside

I arrived a little early, and took a leisurely stroll up the track road to the course site, before being given a lift halfway by Nena, one of the other participants. All up, there were nine of us on the workshop – myself, Ben, Bren, Derek, Joel, Lil, Nena, Rowan and Rozzie (sorry if I’ve spelt any of your names wrong), and once we’d all arrived and had a cup of tea in hand, Kate gave us a quick but fascinating introduction to the world of mud building, both ovens and domiciles.

Cobb oven: What we were going to make…

Cob is basically a mix of clay, sand, water, earth and straw; known as adobe or unbaked earth in other parts of the world and lived in by half the world’s population. Our first practical lesson was to learn how to recognise the type of sand and clay that makes the best cob. This involved us (OK, a couple of the guys and Kate) digging out the freely-available material from a hole in her garden:
Rowan in a Hole, digging out the sharp sand, watched by Kate, Joel and Bren
After being taught the right consistency for sand and how to identify clay (an easy, but very necessary lesson!) we then dumped a sand and clay blend onto a tarpaulin and set about mixing the two together – by trampling on them:

Rozzie and Rowan doing the Mud Jig trampling the cobb

A little bit of water was added to bind the cob together better and the mixture adjusted so it was the correct sand/clay percentage combination. The mixture got trampled and turned, using the tarpaulin like a bedsheet foldover.
Joel and Kate flipping the tarpaulin. L-R: Joel, Rozzie (hidden), Rowan, Bren, Nena, Kate, Ben & Lil.

When it was the right consistency it formed a giant sausage when turned:

Kate showing us the right consistency of mixed sand and clay

 When it was mixed thoroughly, we added a handful of straw into half the batches, and then trampled and turned it again. This would be the outer, insulation layer for the oven:

Nena, Kate and Rozzie working on trampling the insulation layer of straw into the cobb

Soon enough, we had enough cob to build our oven. It was rather like an energetic aerobics workout and quite easy and fun. It didn’t take anywhere near as long as I expected, though definitely something you want to drag your friends and family along to help with! At this time we broke for lunch. Kate had fired up her own garden cob oven just before we arrived, and it had been burning away merrily as we worked. When the wood had burnt down to coals they were pushed to the sides of the oven, the floor was swept of any coal dust (never a good meal additive!) and the mouth stoppered up with a thick slab of beech for five minutes. Then the door was opened and individual pizzas were slid onto the oven floor, the door shut again for three minutes, reopened and the divine smell of fresh pizza hit our noses:

Wood burning in Kate’s own home cob oven – love the shape!

The oven stoppered up with a beech door

Sliding lunch onto the fire bricks

Delicious Pizza Lunch!

The pizza was fantastic. Fresh, tasty, piping hot and just all-round good. Totally worth the effort spent to build the oven.

The cob oven goes through a range of temperatures as it cools down, so you can cook more than one dish on the same day, e.g. bread, scones, stews, roast veggies, etc. After lunch, Kate popped in these large potatoes so she could have baked potato for dinner. They also came out smelling great:

Kate’s dinner: Baked Potatoes

Next part: Building the Oven

Bullfrog inspiration aside, a great deal of the fun of Christmas cakes is icing it yourself. It isn’t actually all that hard and there are some good tutorials on the internet (or just ask your mum or gran).

Christmas cake with the top sliced off and levelled, ready to be slathered with Ouse Valley‘s delicious Gooseberry & Elderflower Jam

I heartily recommend Cook UK‘s photo tutorial on how to ice a Christmas cake. It’s in two steps, firstly:

How to marzipan the cake
How to ice the cake with rolled icing

They also show you how to do it ‘the traditional way’, i.e. with an icing sugar/water combo, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen a Christmas cake done using that type of icing myself.

Measuring the cake for the two side pieces

I used about 3 Tb of jam, one packet of marzipan (225gm) and one packet of ready roll Royal Icing (450gm) on the cake. The above tutorial uses about twice that amount and you can go thicker, but huge fan of marzipan though I am, I find any thicker to be too sweet for me. With those amounts you get a layer of marzipan aprox 2mm thick and a layer of icing about 2-3mm thick.

A layer of 4-5mm of pure sugar is enough for anyone I think!

The marzipan layer covering the cake

With memories of last time’s wobbly wording, I bought an icing stencil to make the letters this year. I think they turned out pretty well, though I must admit it took me as long to cut the words out and place them as it did to actually ice the cake! About an hour and a quarter I guess.

Getting the letters so they were firm and crisp took a little trial and error. It turned out the best way to do so was roll to the icing out thinly (about 1.5 – 2mm), let it stand for a little while so the ‘dough’ had started to harden a little, and then cut the letters out of it.

The only other decoration (I like my cakes simple) consisted of a plastic sprig of holly. I also bought some rather gorgeous white pearlescent powder and covered the white of the cake with it.
Unfortunately it photographed horribly and came out looking grey, so the last photo shows the cake before being powdered. You just have to imagine it with a beautiful irridescent sheen to it. And yes, it tasted as good as it looked!

Christmas Cake 2008

MY APOLOGIES, but most photos for this post died with Lycos. There is a photo backup somewhere, but currently I’m not planning on resuscitating it.”

One of the things which make Christmas Christmas for me is cake. Fruit cake, to be exact. When I was a child, every year Christmas dinner was finished off with a piece of heavy, decadently-rich and treacley fruit cake, the top guarded by a diabetes-inducing layer of jam, marzipan and a quarter inch of stiff white icing. The vast majority of fruit cakes you buy in the shops are either suety bricks of stodge, or dry bland offerings filled with tasteless fruit. I am firmly convinced the only fruit cake that truly deserves the appellation ‘Christmas Cake’ is one made at home with fresh ingredients, care and love.

The recipe my mother has used for years is one she says is originally from Good Housekeeping (my mother’s cooking bible). It’s served our family on special occasions for over 40 years – as Christmas cake, Wedding cake, Christening cake and Birthday cake. This is only the second time I’ve made it myself, and although one ‘corner’ crumbled a bit on me it has the right consistency, weight and divine fruity scent of my childhood, so I shall declare myself satisfied and look forward to consuming it at Christmas with my friends.

By rights this should be made early November (as mine was) so it can ‘ripen’ and you can add a thimbleful of brandy to it every couple of weeks. It’s such a rich cake however, you can make it the week before and it still tastes wonderful.


Creamed butter and sugar

Nevin Family Christmas/Wedding/Birthday Cake

1lb 14oz (850gm) mix of Sultanas, Raisins & Currants (omit the currants for a lighter tasting cake)
5oz (140gm) Glacé Cherries (red and/or green)
3oz (85gm) Mixed Peel
3oz (85gm) sliced or chipped Almonds
12oz (340gm) Plain Flour
½ tsp Mixed Spice
½ tsp ground Cinnamon
A pinch of Salt
10oz (285gm) Butter
10oz (285gm) Sugar
Grated rind of ½ Lemon
5 large Eggs
3 Tablespoons Brandy (optional)

7″ square or 8″ round Cake Tin/Silicon Bakeware
Baking Paper

Preparing the bakeware

If you are using a tin:

Cut 2 sheets of greaseproof paper to cover the base with a small turnup. Cut a length of doubled-over greaseproof paper long enough to line the inside wall of the tin with a small overlap and secure with a small pin. Brush all with oil or melted butter.
At the same time prepare a length of doubled-over (or 2 sheets) brown paper to wrap around the outside and extend approximately 3 inches above the sides of the tin. Prepare a piece of brown paper to cover the top of the cake.
Another double sheet of brown paper or newspaper should be placed underneath the tin when it is put on the shelf in the oven. This will prevent burning the fruit.

If you are using silicon bakeware:

Prepare a length of doubled-over (or 2 sheets) brown paper to wrap around the outside and extend approximately 3 inches above the sides of the tin. Prepare a piece of brown paper to cover the top of the cake.
Another double sheet of brown paper or newspaper should be placed underneath the tin when it is put on the shelf in the oven. This will prevent burning the fruit.

Making the cake

  1. Make sure the fruit is clean and then mix (excluding lemon rind) into the flour, salt and spices.


  2. Cream the butter and sugar and lemon rind until pale and fluffy.


  3. Add the eggs, a little at a time, and beat well after each addition.
  4. Fold in ½ the flour and fruit to the creamed mixture with a tablespoon. Mix well. Fold in remaining flour and fruit and if you use brandy add it at this stage. Mix well.
  5. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin pushing it into any corners and making sure there are no air pockets. Working from the centre raise the level of the cake’s surface so that the sides are higher than the centre.


  6. Bake at 150*C, 300*F or Mark 2(gas). Place on a shelf in the lower part of the oven to allow the air to pass freely over it. Put the sheet of brown paper over it for the first 2 hours and then remove to allow browning.
  7. It should take 2 ½ to 3 hours but this can vary depending on your oven. It is cooked when the sides of the cake are starting to come away from the paper and a skewer or knitting needle poked through to the bottom of the cake comes back with only the moistness of the fruit on it.
  8. Remove from the oven and stand until cool.


  9. Turn out onto a cake rack. Peel the greaseproof paper off carefully.


  10. To store the cake wrap it in clear plastic film. If a richer taste is desired holes may be made in the top of the cake with a skewer or thin knitting needle and 1-2 sherry glasses of brandy poured into the cake. 2-3 months storage improves the taste.




Scottish Morning Rolls

As requested, here is the recipe for the really good breakfast rolls:



Scottish Morning Rolls

450gm/1lb/4 cups unbleached plain white flour; plus extra for dusting
10ml/2tsp salt
20gm/¾ oz fresh yeast (or dry yeast equivalent)
150ml/¼ pint/ 2∕3 cup lukewarm milk
150ml/¼ pint/ 2∕3 cup lukewarm water
30ml/2Tb milk, for glazing
Oil/Butter for greasing

2 Baking Sheets
Cling Film

To Make 10 Rolls:

  1. Grease 2 baking sheets.
  2. Sift the flour and salt together into a large bowl and make a well in the centre.
  3. Mix the yeast in with the lukewarm milk, then mix in the lukewarm water.
  4. Add to the centre of the flour and mix together to form a soft dough.
  5. Knead the dough lightly in the bowl, then cover with lightly oiled clear film.
  6. Leave to rise in a warm place for 1 hour or until doubled in bulk.
  7. Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured surface and knock back.
  8. Divide the dough into 10 equal pieces.
  9. Knead lightly and, using a rolling pin, shape each piece into a flat oval 10 x 7.5cm/4 x 3″, or a flat round 9cm/3½”.
  10. Transfer to the prepared baking sheets, spaced well apart, and cover with oiled cling/clear film.
  11. Leave to rise in a warm place, for about 30 minutes.
  12. Preheat the oven on to 200°C/400°F/GM6.
  13. Press each roll in the centre with three fingers to equalise the air bubbles and prevent blistering.
  14. Brush with milk and dust with flour.
  15. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes or until lightly browned.
  16. Dust with more flour and cool slightly on a wire rack.
  17. Serve warm.


Shellfish & Seaviews

I am sitting on the train, watching overcast English skies drizzling rain down – a somewhat depressing view – so I am attempting to cheer myself up with the thought the clouds bring to mind these Greenport oysters I ate during mine and Jenny’s birthday celebrations.

Although not the largest or plumpest oysters I’ve ever eaten, nor be singled out as having a particularly unique taste, nonetheless they were rich and some of the freshest I’ve ever had – a real gulp of the ocean. Clams, I hadn’t eaten in years although they rate quite highly in my List of Preferred Seafoods, and these were particularly tasty little morsels. Accompanying these were various sauces, including a delightful shallot & vinegar Mignonette (see here for similar recipe).


Finally this weekend I received a spot of summer! In what has otherwise been the most dismal English summer I can remember – though I must point out I’m currently in another country. A wonderful day spent in Greenport, Long Island, NY with my twin and brother-in-law; blazing sun, lovely blue sky, warm ocean breeze, and seats at Claudio‘s seafood restaurant on the dock, right beside the water. Lunch consisted of a starter of delicious raw oysters, a dozen split between the three of us. Fresh and tasty, they slipped down easily in no time.
For my main I ordered a side salad – which had a very tasty house dressing and the interesting (and successful) addition of julienned daikon/mooli – to go with an appetizer of crab cakes. These were solid little patties of fantastically fresh and scrumptious crab pieces – just the thing you want to be eating when you’re sitting on the dock of the bay! I also ate several of Jenny’s spiced, chilled and still-shelled shrimp; delicious, though a little more labour intensive.
After lunch we wandered into the outdoors bar – the one with the sign reading “Stray kids will be fed to the sharks” (I’m sure they’re talking about goats) – and listened to an excellent covers band doing CCR, The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Chris Isaak, U2, Peter Gabriel and others for an hour or so before heading out to Bedell Cellars to try their latest (and extremely nice) wines. Why can’t all summer Sundays be like this?