I've always admired peonies from afar and told myself they were too hard to grow - for a complete black thumb like myself at least. So last week was just a bit excited to learn that all this time, there’s been a peony farm practically under my nose. Sort of. Sarah and Brendan Childs established Summer Hill Peonies, about 20 years ago on their historic property just off the Great Western Highway, between Hartley and Lithgow. The farm itself was the first 80-acre land grant west of the Blue Mountains (that 80 acres remains intact today!) and since the early 1800's, the property has served as an inn, post office, orchard and now sewing school, peony farm and family home.
I’m going to share some more words and photos about the farm itself in a separate post. Because for now, I can’t really get past the peonies. There really is something quite special about them isn't there! In fact, their genus name Paeonia comes from Paion, which has roots in Greek mythology and implies something of exceptional quality (cheers Wikipedia).
It turns out that no, they're not, “you just have to perservere,” Sarah says. Stick with it, she urges me, just learn the ground-rules (pardon the pun) and give them some love; “some peonies flower quite quickly while others take years to bloom.” As for the what-not-to-do-with peonies, Sarah's list is fairly short, “don't plant them too deeply. Don't move them around and don't split them up. They hate wet feet and don’t let couch grass anywhere near them.”
All of this aside, peonies, as it turns out, are fairly forgiving plants; they don’t get diseases, you don’t have to spray them at all, they don’t need much watering (once established), they love frosts and can survive wind and snow. Sarah assures me, “really, peonies are pretty bomb proof!” Hmmm...not so sure that would be the case in my garden.
She does feed them fairly often, mostly with cow manure, blood and bone or lime - nothing processed. And just for all of our reference; if considering planting peonies, Sarah's favourite varieties are "Sarah Bernhardt, so generous and easy to grow. They are a classic peony. I also love Mons Jules Elie, such a great showy pink".
Summer Hill Peonies have just finished the main flowering season, so floral fans will have to wait for almost a year to come back for one of Sarah’s popular open gardens. That said, she is happy for people to call and drop in for a few of the last blooms if they are in the area (details here).
For now though, as my vase of pale pink blooms gently droops towards the table, lets turn to the kitchen.
Last week, after my visit with Sarah, I came home inspired to make some pretty things inspired by the beauty of these flowers. And as I was installed in the kitchen at Rydal, cooking for Mum’s art class, it was the perfect opportunity to get baking. So, among other things, for morning tea and dessert during the week we had raspberry and chocolate eclairs, lemon and vanilla drizzle cake and raspberry scones with lemon curd. All pretty. All pretty delicious.
Lemon vanilla drizzle cakeThis cake is always a winner and the best thing, it's pretty much bomb-proof. The cake recipe itself is just my basic butter cake recipe with loads and loads of lemon zest and extra vanilla. Then it's iced with a thick lemony icing. Of course, using a bundt mould makes even the most pedestrian of cakes look fancy* but you can make this in any cake tin you have handy.
250g butter, softened
3/4 cup (180g) caster sugar
Zest of four lemons
1 tsp vanilla paste
4 eggs at room temperature
2 cups (300g) plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup buttermilk
For the icing
1 1/2 cups (230g) icing sugar
Juice of the four lemons we zested earlier
1 tsp vanilla paste
1 tbsp salted butter
Preheat oven to 180C and grease a bundt cake mould or grease and line a 24cm springform cake tin. Cream the butter, sugar, zest and vanilla together in an electric mixer until pale and fluffy (this should take about 5 minutes). Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. Sift the flour and baking powder together then fold this through the butter mixture and spoon into prepared cake tin, smoothing the top. Bake for 35 minutes or until the sides of the cake are just pulling away from the tin and a skewer comes out clean. Let cool in the tin for five minutes then turn out to cool completely on a wire rack.
For the icing, combine the sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Add the melted butter, salt and vanilla and stir to combine. You want the consistency to be pretty thick, so add a little more icing sugar if necessary. Place a sheet of baking paper under the cake on its rack and drizzle the icing over your cake so it drips down nice and thickly.
* I use a big silicone bundt mould that was 'borrowed' from Mum's baking draw some time ago. It's excellent for cakes, jellies and baked custard-y puddings and I'm really hoping she doesn't ask for it back.
Raspberry and chocolate eclairsChoux pastry has eluded me for many years. I’ve made more collapsed eclairs in my time than consumed properly made ones. So this week, with a little time in the kitchen and a selection of You tube videos to refer to (this one was the most help), I finally cracked this technique. And do you know what? It’s actually pretty easy. And better yet - homemade eclairs are honestly one of the yummiest crowd pleasers I know. Kind of like baking your own bread - super impressive.
This recipe is an amalgamation of about four I have tried in the past little while. I’ve taken techniques from one, quantities from another and piping cues from yet another, combining all of these into a recipe that worked the best for me. Like all cooking I suppose, this technique is definitely a case of practice makes perfect but if you follow the instructions below, I hope you’ll have a successful batch on the first go. Makes about 8 eclairs.
For the choux pastry
2/3 cup (100g) plain flour Pinch of salt
For the filling
300mls pouring cream
1 tsp vanilla paste
4 tbsp icing sugar
1 cup raspberries (or any other berry)
For the chocolate topping
250g dark chocolate
For the choux;
Preheat the oven to 220C and line a baking tray with paper. Sift the flour and salt together and have ready before you start. Combine the butter and 200mls water in a heavy-based saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the flour mixture and stir, briskly, with a wooden spoon for three minutes. The mixture should come together into a smooth yellow paste. Basically here you want it to ‘dry up’ nicely, so cook over a medium-high heat, stirring all the time until it forms a ball and comes cleanly away from the sides of the bowl.
Transfer this mixture into the bowl of your electric mixer (with a paddle attachment if possible). Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. You’ll want it to finish up as a glossy, golden and fairly sticky mixture. Spoon this into a piping bag (use a 1cm nozzle) or plastic snap-lock bag with the end snipped off.
Pipe one line, about 8cm long, then another right next to it (touching with no gaps at all between each line) and another line on top, straddling both lines (I just do a down, up and over thing with my piping bag - all in one motion). Repeat, leaving about 4cm between each eclair (they’ll puff up quite a lot) and put the tray in the oven as soon as possible. Now at this point - please don’t open the oven at least for the first 10 minutes of cooking as they’ll sag down. After 15 minutes in the hot oven, open the door and wedge a wooden spoon into the opening and cook for a further 10 minutes. This will help let out steam inside the pastries. Once they are really nice and brown (if you pull them out too soon they will deflate), remove from oven and set aside to cool.
For the filling; whisk the cream with the icing sugar and vanilla until soft peaks. Fold in the raspberries so they break up a little and colour the cream pale pink. Then melt the chocolate in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water until completely smooth.
Cut the cool eclairs carefully in half lengthways. Spoon the melted chocolate over the eclair tops and fill the hollow bottoms with a few spoonfulls of cream. Sandwich together and serve.
Notes and variations
- Don’t be disheartened if the first batch doesn’t puff up as you’d hope. Maybe the oven wasn’t hot enough or they came out too soon? As Sarah says with her peonies, perserverance is the key here! The base ingredients are pretty cheap, so if you have the time and inclination, try try again!
- You can also make this mixture into sweet little cream puffs (profiteroles) by spooning tablespoons of the mixture onto a baking tray (spaced apart) and baking as above. You can then either pipe in a thick custard, chocolate mousse or sweet cream as above. Or for an easier option, cut in half and fill the bottoms with cream, custard or mousse and then close with their ‘lids’. You can then gild the lily by drizzling over some caramel, chocolate or icing.
- A few thinly sliced strawberries on top of the cream in the middle is also a nice touch!
- You can experiment with all kinds of fillings here - I’m pretty keen to try a lemon curd filling and passionfruit icing next. Yummo.
Raspberry and lemonade scones
These scones are the sweetest of treats. The base recipe is borrowed from baking queen Belinda Jeffrey's one for Lemonade Scones, published in Mix and Bake (such a great book). Leave out the raspberries or fold through strawberry quarters, blueberries or even red currants if you like things a bit tart!
3 1/2 cups (525g) self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/3 cup (75g) caster sugar
Pinch of salt
1 cup raspberries
1 cup (250mls) cream
1 cup (250mls) lemonade
Preheat oven to 200C and line a couple of baking trays with paper. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl. Add the raspberries, cream and lemonade and gently bring together with a wooden spoon.
Turn mixture out onto a lightly floured bench and then, ever-so-lightly, bring together into a rectangle of sorts, about 4cm high. Mix and press down as little as possible (over working scone dough can make them tough and flat little rocks). Then dip a water glass in flour and press down into the scone to cut out about a dozen nice thick scones. Place these on the baking tray and pop the lot into your hot oven for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown on top.
We served these with extra raspberry cream (see eclair recipe) and some lemon curd. But they'd be just as nice with butter and a little jam. Or just on their own.