A picnic was promised. I’ve been booking weekly slots to go to Kew Gardens since it reopened. I do miss just being able to go there spontaneously on a nice day since the gardens are local to me, just a couple of miles away, but I’m grateful they’re open again and I can once more enjoy the splendour of these world famous botanical gardens.
The problem with booking slots a week or so ahead of time is you can’t be sure of the weather and weather forecasts these days seem to change by the hour. However, as Monday is a good day for me I’ve taken to booking a morning slot then and add an extra ‘guest’ as my membership allows me to take someone else in. Last week it was friend Louise (which was particularly exciting as I hadn’t actually met up a friend by plan since Lockdown); two more friends are booked in over coming weeks. But this week I asked my son if I could take grandson Freddie. Freddie (5½) is back at school two days a week. He loves Kew Gardens; like most kids he loves big open spaces! He’s been going to Kew since he was a babe in arms and regularly since. I took him to the Chihuly exhibition there a year ago and he was so excited by it he was looking for the glass sculptures as we went in yesterday and I had to remind him they weren’t there any longer.
With an entry time of 11.00-11.45 we were going to be there at lunchtime so I promised a picnic. And a picnic has to have cake. Well doesn’t it? It does is you’re a 5 year old! I’m not a great baker, as in I don’t bake cakes often and only from a small repertoire. Even then it mainly consists of banana muffins, using up that suddenly ripened bunch that were not fit eating yesterday and won’t be fit for eating tomorrow. I love bananas but the ripening process brings its challenges. The ones sitting in my bowl from the Waitrose delivery at the weekend were still so green they weren’t fit for anything at all. So an alternative was needed. When I was a child my mother regularly baked rock cakes on Sundays. We all loved her rock cakes. So I dug out an old rock cake recipe. But as some of the family don’t eat raisins or candied peel (and I’m talking the grown-ups here, not the kids), I’ve taken to substituting any dried fruit with blueberries. So a blueberry version of rock cakes was born.
I also wanted to try out some new flour I’d ordered from Shipton Mill. I hadn’t been able to resist one of their speciality flours – Organic Fig, Spelt and Pumpkin Seed Flour. I’d had bread in mind but I’m not sure when that’s going to happen so I decided to use some in the ‘rock cakes’ as the fruity seed aspect seemed great for cakes. I thought 100% might be too much so mixed half quantity with Shipton Mill’s Heritage Blend organic white flour. If you don’t have the special flour, use all white or a mix of white and wholewheat.
I used the rock cake recipe as a guide to quantities as rock cakes (as their name suggests) are quite solid little cakes, which makes them perfect for picnics and small hands. Usually one puts the stiff dough in clumps on a baking tray but I decided to use muffin cases, again for picnic ease. I started with my 40-year-old recipe but took things as I fancied along the way. Most baking requires strict attention to the rules (maybe that’s why baking doesn’t really appeal to me!) but rock cakes are friendly little cakes that don’t take life too seriously and humoured me with their flexibility.
Because I used an old recipe the measurements are in old Imperial. I’ve put metric guide in brackets but use one or the other rather than mix.
Little Blueberry Cakes for a Picnic – Makes 12
- 6oz (175g) Fig, Spelt & Pumpkin flour (or wholewheat)
- 6oz (175g) organic white flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 6 oz (175g) soft butter
- 6oz (175g) soft brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla paste or essence
- 1 egg
- 1-2 tablespoons milk
- 4 oz (110g) blueberries
Preheat oven to 190C/Fan 170/Gas 5
Measure the flours into a bowl and add the baking powder. Put the butter and sugar into another bowl. Rock cakes are usually made with the butter rubbed into the flour, like making pastry, but I wanted a more cake effect for the cakes I was making and so mixed the butter and sugar well together first.
Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and egg. Beat again.
Tip in the flours and beat until it just comes together. Add a little milk if too stiff, though it is supposed to be a stiff dough. Then stir in the blueberries carefully.
You can see below how stiff it is.
Transfer to 12 muffin cases in a muffin tin.
Put into the preheated oven for about 20 minutes, taking them out when nicely golden. Transfer to a rack to cool.
They didn’t look ‘beautiful’ but they smelled very enticing! And I could see the little specks of dried fig and pumpkin seeds that would add flavour and texture.
It was a pretty windy and chilly day given the heatwave of only a few days’ ago. But there’s no telling a 5 year old that it’s too cold for a walk! I gave Freddie the option of choosing which way we walked. We went to the Palm House first to look at the geese and ducks on the pond in front of it. At which point Nonna had to confess that she’d forgotten to bring the Quack Snacks to feed them, but Freddie turned out to be most excited by the huge fish he could see swimming around and coming to the surface – about ½ metre or more long. Then I suggested we made our way to the larger lake where we’d find lots more ducks, geese and even swans. Freddie remembered the bridge (Sackler Crossing) and said he wanted to go across it.
There were people around and I reminded him of social distancing and we mustn’t go too close to others walking, but he’s a sensible little chap who now has a good understanding of these things so Nonna didn’t have to keep reminding him or stress about upsetting anyone. As we moved further away from the entrance it was quieter anyway; only a few people around, so Freddie was able to run around and have great fun.
We spent a long time at the lake. A lone teenage duckling was amongst a group of geese who were hassling it. Freddie wanted the little duck to find its family. Then the duck flew off, which was a cause of wonder and excitement. It didn’t go far and we slowly followed it. Freddie crouched down – so it wouldn’t be frightened, he told me – and got really close and we were befriended. It took some persuasion to eventually move on as Freddie would have stayed there all day!
Freddie was charged with finding a bench to eat our picnic. I suggested not too close to the geese! He spied one up a little hill amongst trees near the lake and we settled down to eat. It was a simple picnic (we weren’t in Wimbledon or Glyndebourne mode) – just some sandwiches, a tub of cucumber and carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, olives (because all my grandsons love olives) … and cakes!!
They may not have looked pretty but wow … they tasted brilliant! The special flour had brought a gorgeous extra taste to them and I love the way the blueberries burst just a little into the dough. The picnic was a success. But then even the 5 year old was feeling the wind and cold were getting a bit much and asked if we could go back to Nonna’s house now. But we’d been there for almost a couple of hours and, according to my phone, walked a couple of miles … so home it was.