Community Gardeners

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I once infiltrated a posh Herb Workshop on a massive Gloucestshire estate, hoping to pick up cooking tips using herbs.  Bad bad idea.  The situation turned prickly after the lemon balm tea and lavender-bud shortbread, when we had to explain why we were there. All had gardens. All could actually make things grow.  All, of course, except me. When I said that I didn’t like gardening there were murmured cries of “shame shame” from the two women who were already comparing this vast estate with “Prince Charles’ and Camilla’s garden.”

The event was probably the beginning of my total inadequacy at growing anything and squashed any confidence around Latin speaking gardeners. It was with relieved pleasure therefore when I was introduced to community gardening in Dunton, a nearby village, and watched its development nourish the souls of a people whose amenities were quickly waning.  I was so enlivened that I felt just fine when I met the Peralta community gardeners in Berkeley California.


Why?  Because they seemed human.  Because they’re using a neglected piece of railroad land and making it beautiful.  Because they insist that they grow organic.  Because each plot has flowers to attract insects.  And, above all, they are drawing together a community with a common interest. Here again is a chance for people to make friends and to encourage each other as they work together to make a garden fit for themselves and the visiting public. Their garden is decorated with lovely member-made ceramic tiles.

Their plots (being Californian) grow fruits, flowers and vegetables all year long. Their tiled ring bench is ideal just for sitting, thinking, writing or painting .  One man plays midwife to the monarch butterfly by stringing up chrysalises on the tree.






Community gardens in Berkeley exist because of one man, Karl Linn, who campaigned to reclaim the commons from privitisation of public lands. He believed strongly that guidelines to secure public land for community gardens should be incorporated in the cities’ general plans.  He was convinced that through the creation and use of accessible community garden commons, neighbourhoods could become arenas for extended family living.  In my short stay in Berkeley I saw quite a few community gardens.  All of them have huge WELCOME signs to the public.


And the campaign continues. Have a look at the YoutubeTED talk given by gangster guerilla gardener Ron Finley, who got sick of watching an increase in Dialysis centres, motorised wheel chairs, and having to drive 45 minutes for an organic apple, just because South Los Angeles was a Food Desert (his words) and residents were dying from curable diseases.  The 4 minute talk is inspirational.  I won’t give it away, but you’ll have to be prepared for colourful language.

In the UK the allotment system is much older. Its roots go back to the nineteenth century, but parcelled land could go back as far as to Anglo Saxon times. Champions of the allotment plan insisted that the government give land to the poor, due to the rapid industrialisation of the country.  Today there are about 330 000 allotment plots in the UK.  Wandering through an allotment, it’s interesting to see how they’re used.  Fresh flowers AND vegetables are growing happily.  A friend I know uses hers to grow unusual plants – like candy striped beetroot and blue potatoes.

Even from a non-gardener’s perspective it is a joy to see the pleasure and pride that people take in their gardens, marvelling at the miracle of growth, the delight in nurturing and cherishing the plants into maturity. Long may they continue to flourish, long may cities and towns protect them for the fruit and friendship that grows in them.  If you can, do everything in your community to keep such a garden going.  Who knows, you may even be offered a blue potato in gratitude.

Baghali Pollo

Broad (Fava) Bean Rice Dish

Elizabeth, one of the Peralta gardeners offered us some broad beans (fava beans) which she grows to re-nourish the soil. To make this Persian recipe, get yourself a good DVD, something to watch as you shell the beans, and later take off their individual skins once they’re cooked.

Amounts vary according to the horde you are feeding:

Broad beans shelled, cooked gently, then pop the skins off them.

Rice cooked to al dente.

Fresh dill as much as you can get. I used 2 supermarket boxes for 3 people, but Persians use much more, about 5 cups.  Strip the dill off its stems and chop it.  Fling the stems into a bag in the freezer and save for the next time you make stock.

Yogurt about half a cup.

Saffron ground and soaked in 2 tablespoons hot water.

Butter or oil.

 In a heavy bottomed pan place half a cup of yogurt, the saffron water, ½ cup water and 4 tablespoons oil.



Add a quarter of the cooked rice.  Layer on chopped dill and beans, repeat, ending with rice.  Plop teaspoons of butter on top, and run some down the edges of the pan, or use oil.  Cover with a clean cloth, then the pan’s lid.  Over very low heat, cook until hot and steaming about 20 – 30 minutes.  If you wait even longer you will get a crispy bottom.  When done, put the bottom of the pan in cold water to push off the crispy rice on the bottom.  Invert onto a plate.  You may even get a whole “cake” of rice.  Even if you don’t, it’s yummy eating.


This will be a vegan dish by omitting yogurt and butter. Just add the saffron water to the oil in the bottom.  It’s vegetarian with butter and yogurt.  But it’s also very good with smoked fish.

[By the way, do you have a garden glut of lettuce? Let me know.  I have a lettuce pancake recipe.]







































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A Community of Listeners

I came across something startling today. I was so surprised I did a double take.  A father didn’t have a phone in his hand as he took his two children  to school.  Had to check again: no, he really really didn’t.

I myself was doing my usual morning walk. Yes. Doing.  Not necessarily seeing or enjoying or appreciating, just doing.  Gotta get those steps recorded on the pedometer, don’t I?  I had just arrived at the place where great majestic chestnut trees line an ancient carriage path to a stately home (now a health farm), when the grey fugg of doing exploded into colourful reality.  Not only was the phoneless Dad a shock, but both children were aware – and talking about – their surroundings.  Dad entered in.  There were no condescending grunts, but real comments, substantiating or explaining the children’s observations.

the epic tree

“Oh Dad! Isn’t that tree epic!  Wouldn’t it make a great tree house!”

“Hmm. Perhaps.  But look at the branches.  They may not be the right shape. And would you like a tree house so high up?”

They carried on, the children skipping and jumping enthusiastically beside Dad’s long strides, their torso-sized school bags bouncing on their backs. Their delight and excitement burst into bloom by their own imaginings, with Dad taking part enthusiastically.


They say that everyone is a philosopher and a poet, if you only listen. Perhaps that Dad knew his children better than most.

But as for me, I woke up to my surroundings. Golly – a tree house in those amazing chestnuts:  why hadn’t I thought of that?  It would be epic!


To uncover the poets and philosophers of any chronological age, walking is the best medium. Walking and listening.  But if you have to be in a kitchen, here’s a recipe that others can “help” you with.  Prepare the dough,  then invite them to take part in rolling into flatbread shape, while you bake them in a dry frying pan (all the while listening, of course.)

Naturally, the lovingly misshapen flatbreads will probably taste better.

Onion Flatbreads from Uzbekistan.

taken from The Russian Cookbook by Barbara Norman, 1970 

[Good heavens my book is almost 50 years old!!!]

Fry two minced onions (I used one red, one white) slowly in 1 tablespoon butter until onion is transparent.  Dissolve 1 tsp salt in 6 ozs (3/4 cup) warm water.  Melt 5 tablespoons butter and stir into the water with the fried onions.  Cool to room temperature.  Stir enough plain flour into the water (up to 3 cupfuls) by sprinkling over the liquid and gradually incorporating it until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl.  Form into a ball and let it rest, covered, for half an hour.

Roll two-inch balls of the dough and with a rolling pin, roll out to the size of your frying pan (about a hand span in diameter). Brown each flatbread on both sides in the ungreased frying pan.  (Mine took about a minute on each side).  Cool on a rack.  I like them soft and bendable, but apparently the Uzbekis like them crisp, in which case stand them on end in the slats of your cookie rack.

Use them as you would tortillas or other flatbreads. The onions make them especially good with cheese.  Let us all know how yours came out.  What you heard from your philosophers and poets, of course, is confidential to the kitchen’s walls.

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Pantomime Time — oh yes it is!

When husband John first mentioned the word “pantomime” to me his American bride, I was quite sure that I knew what he was talking about: actors in make-up who could silently and dramatically describe a wall, running, going upstairs, and much more, just with their bodies and no props.

“Oh no,” he laughed. “This kind of pantomime has wildly raucous music, a song competition that no one wins, a story that is the same no matter what the title, a ghost, a Bad Guy we can boo and hiss, an animal that usually comes in two parts, the principle woman is a man dressed up as a woman, and the principle boy is a girl with good legs.” I looked at him steadily to see if he was joking.  He was not.  With this kind of a model, I wondered how the Brits had ever learned to procreate, but I said nothing.



Over the years I have learned to love village pantomimes – they are  real community building events. I have even had the privilege of taking part in a few.  The actors are all ages and come from all backgrounds and would probably have never known each other were it not for working so hard on the production.  And making volunteer thespians out of those who come forward is not easy, believe me. There are wranglings, and ironings-out, and vowing never-never-ever to do this again and learning lines either well or disastrously, and people who get sick at the last minute and others have to fill in, and then, and THEN, the curtain goes up and the whooping, laughing delighted audience who has come to see its own people on stage, to giggle, to shout and boo and cheer and abuse, become so exuberant and hysterical that they lose all decorum.  It’s truly a wonderful evening.

Then suddenly it’s all over. The future is gaping and empty.  So what shall we do for next year?With the stress and time pressures on everyone these days, the number of local village pantos is withering quickly. If you still have one in your area, do your best to support it – it builds the cross-ties of the community better than any other event.  Or, why not join in and become part of it? Even if you volunteer as Curtain Puller Extraordinaire, you’ll be in on the act.

Food before a panto must be easily prepared ahead of time, simple and not too rich. After all, you do have a night of haranguing and abusing ahead of you.  Here’s an easy casserole as a suggestion:

Chicken or Tuna Noodle Casserole 

Boil until tender noodles for the number of people you are serving. Generally, a single serving of dry pasta is 75 grams  (2 ½ ozs). Put in a buttered casserole dish.   Either make a white sauce of 3 tablespoons butter, 3 tablespoons flour, and stir in enough milk to the consistency of thick cream, or use two tins (cans) of condensed mushroom soup. In either case add ½ teaspoon curry powder and/or ground coriander.     Add 2 tins (cans) solid packed tuna (drained) or two cups cooked chicken chunks. Add the sauce to the casserole dish and incorporate the noodles so that all are resplendently coated in the sauce.

Now that you’ve got the basics, it’s time to get creative. Add any or all of the following and mix well:

  • 1 cup or more strong cheddar  or blue cheese, grated.
  • frozen corn or peas, 2 handfuls
  • mushrooms and sliced spring onion sauteed in butter
  • cashew nuts
  • left-over cooked vegetables
  • sliced green olives
  • chopped hard boiled eggs
  • finely chopped red bell pepper
  • a pinch of dried chilli flakes

(note: some people also add crisply fried bacon bits, too.)

  Spread in the buttered casserole dish.  Sprinkle the top with the contents of a small packet of crushed plain potato crisps (chips), minus the one or two you sampled for quality control.  Bake in a moderate oven until bubbly.  Serve with sliced fresh tomatoes, and warmed good quality bread.


What do YOU put in your noodle casserole?


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January 24th is Peanut Butter Day

Living in a cramped maroon room with an exquisite view of the brickwork on the neighbouring building outside my window taught me much about life during my graduate days in Ithaca, New York. My octogenarian landlady downstairs, gave  the same piano piece to all her students, and ate fried potatoes for supper everyday.

Occasionally I’d join her in her dim Victorian living room. She told me a story I haven’t forgotten:  “One day, when I was in primary school, we were all called into the lunch hall and told to sit down.  It wasn’t meal time, but there we sat, the whole school in silence.  Then we were each given our first-ever taste of peanut butter on bread. I loved it immediately.  I found out later that the Government, apparently, wanted to know if children liked the taste, as peanuts were going to be another source of nutrition during the War”.

Peanuts date back to the Aztecs. But in the United States, they were made famous by George Washington Carver, a botanist who went from slavery to university professor for his studies preventing soil depletion.  Peanuts were one of the crops he introduced.

My own memories start in China days. As an eight year old I can recall sitting on a high stool in the kitchen, in the silent hot afternoons. No sound but the hum of the fridge, an alarming new addition to a missionary’s home (imagine having electricity all the time so that you could run a fridge!) and Ah Yang, our Cantonese cook, bending over a meat grinder clamped firmly to the edge of the table, grinding roasted peanuts over and over again until they were smooth enough to spread.  I can still see her long black braid falling over her shoulder as she stooped to operate the crank.  If I waited long enough, I got to lick the meat grinder, still warm from all her effort.

The weather today is nothing like those sultry afternoons in Canton. I’m writing to you on a Sunday.  That’s a misnomer.  There’s no sun at all.  Instead, we are treated to an ominous murky greyness that illuminates the mud and sleety rain that drizzles miserably into the collar of any soul who ventures outside.  Better to stay indoors, light a fire, put feet in slippers and make

Peanut Butter Cookies

Mix together ½ cup (4 ozs, 110 gms) white sugar, ½ cup (4 ozs 110 gms) brown sugar, and ½ cup (4 ½ ozs 130 gms) peanut butter *.  Add 1 ¼ cups (5 ozs, 155 gms) plain flour, ½ teaspoon baking powder, ¾ teaspoon soda bicarbonate (baking soda), and ¼ teaspoon salt.  When thoroughly combined, roll into small balls and place 3 inches apart on a baking sheet.

Press criss-crosses into the tops of the cookies with a fork dipped in flour.    Bake in a moderate oven 8 to 10 minutes or until lightly browned.  Yield: about 36 cookies.

*If you want to replicate the peanut butter that Ah Yang made, choose one without sugar or palm oil.

AZ Autos of Hitchin sampling the cookies


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Twelfth Night Party


I am delighted to live in a country where it’s possible to celebrate twelve days of Christmas. Thank you, Great Britain, for inventing it!  No need to get cards and letters to people by the 25th of December.  Let them arrive after the first day of Christmas, when people have more time to read them.  Decorations can stay up until Epiphany.  And friends are much more amenable to parties if they aren’t squeezed into the tight time before December 25th.  It’s good to keep Christmas Cheer throughout the festival of the twelve days.  It offers a chance for those celebrators who are weary from cramming in shopping, cooking, wrapping, and writing during the time when it is NOT Christmas, (when it’s really Advent – another season entirely) to let their hair down when the work is all done and they can relax.


12th night e

no foreign bodies in our fruitcake, just solid fruit.

Last night we had a Twelfth Night Party for our street. Long ago ancient Britons used this time to play pranks on their friends, baking cakes with foreign objects in them to surprise or choke an unwary consumer. But our party was just food, drink and chat.   Visiting relatives and friends were also welcomed to pop in anytime during the evening.  The floor was joyously strewn with toy cars and lego and the edges of the rooms buzzed with enthusiastic talking, laughing and sharing.  It was wonderful, and my heart rose a couple of altitudes.


Food – two chillis and rice plus finger food — were easily available, and because everyone knew everyone, there was no formality in helping themselves and each other. You really get to know your neighbours well, don’t you, when they’ve seen you emptying the dustbin in your dressing gown [bathrobe].


Snack foods that accompany drinks: now there’s something I’m not good at. I can’t pretend that hovering over a cherry tomato trying to stuff it with miniscule amounts of cream cheese is a joy and delight.  Mass produced finger foods come easily, and disappear easily as well.  Here’s one of my favourites:


Toasted Onion Canapes

12th night c
canapés before being toasted.

This is easy because it’s three parts finely chopped onion with 2 parts mayonnaise, and one part grated parmesan cheese. If you mix ¾ cup of minced onions (therefore ½ cup of mayo and ¼ cup cheese) together, that will comfortably spread 20 slices of half-toasted French bread.  Then grill about 2 inches from the flame for a couple of minutes or so.  Watch like a hawk as it soon scorches.  Also, don’t eat immediately as it will blister the roof of your mouth.


1. Stir in a little dried tarragon to the mixture before spreading. Sprinkle in some paprika and mix well.

  1. 3. Top the grilled canapes with a cooked prawn, or some smoked salmon before serving.
  2. 4.  Use any other cheese  for a different taste sensation.

That’s it, dear friends. Happy Eating.

note: unfortunately we cannot provide a photo of the finished product because the subject was consumed too rapidly. Here’s a very fuzzy photo of Bernie (right), eating the last one.

Bernie is on the right.


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The Launderette (Laundromat) Community.

Something was definitely wrong.   Okay I know that my American accent causes English people to be on their guard, and why not?  Here comes a mouth wider and louder than theirs, regaling them with boring stories of their town “back home”.  But I was already on my best subdued behaviour when the launderette manager, (whose bosom announced her name as “Julie”)  edged towards me warily.  I did NOT say some Americanly invasive comment like: “Hi! Where are you from?  Your tabard is so CUUUTE!”.  Instead I followed her in gormless (stupid) fashion to a waiting machine.


No, the unease had nothing to do with my being a foreign immigrant. This was different, and I was uncomfortable.  I inserted an eye-watering number of pound coins into a ravenous metallic slit.  My clothes merrily circumnavigated the drum — something my machine at home was NOT doing, hence the visit here.  I was now imprisoned for the duration.  Would I last, with this strange foreboding lurking beneath my subconscious?

I looked around. “Julie” had done her best to make this a friendly place.  Signs on the cheer-up walls said “WELCOME” and “LAUNDRY 15 CENTS” (yes really), “TIME IS PRECIOUS.  WASTE IT WISELEY”.  “PLEASE NOTE. WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO DISPOSE OF UNCOLLECTED ITEMS THAT HAVE BEEN LEFT HERE FOR THREE MONTHS”.  (Wow. That’s patience.  Holding onto wet clothes for 90 days.)  And certainly the place was clean and neat.  No tuft balls of lint rolling around, no forlorn child’s sock kicked grey into the corner.  “Julie” had done her job well.

So why this unease? I looked at the other inmates.  At one end of the room, slumped in the only chair, sat a joyless grey haired grey skinned grey coated woman whose elbow rested on the arm, and whose surprisingly delicate fingers massaged her temple.   Her daughter, a pert trim no-nonsense slip of a thing commandeered three driers and scrutinised them as fiercely as customs personnel on a baggage scanning device.   A mother mesmerised by her phone ignored her green-hooded son who flapped the empty machine doors open and closed, open and closed.  Strange.  His mother brought entertainment for herself, but nothing for the son.

There was no conversation, no banter, no nothing. Mind you, I wasn’t expecting lucid discussion on the amazing twist of a Dostoyevsky novel, or Wittgenstein’s theory of mental properties, but really, a soothing word of encouragement now and then wouldn’t have been that painful, would it?

Then it clicked. We. Were. In.  A. Launderette.  A stainless steel, life-leeching mind-numbing behemoth which has powers to reduce even the most loquacious among us to glazed, gaping zombies. No one was talking to anyone.  The life force was being sucked from us all.  The  hypnotic hum of the gargantuan drums, the soporific scent of drier sheets in an airlessly warm room, the other-worldliness of unreal neon lights were taking their de-humanising toll.  Whew!  Anyone who survives launderettes as a regular event must be a person of steel stamina.  Or a zombie.

Near the end of the eternity, when the life force had all but ebbed away, “Julie” attempted conversation. She yanked wet clothes from a giant machine and sighed.  “It’s all go, innit?” (She’d served 3 customers that hour.)

“Is it always this busy?”

“Always”  “I bet you’ve seen some real characters in here,”


Then again, I thought, perhaps not.  They say that Phyllis Diller, a well-known American comedienne, started a successful career by trying out her material at a laundromat. Now there’s a challenge.

Mindless Salmon Bake

If your mind has been drained empty and you’re working on automatic pilot here’s a simple recipe for you. I’ve tried it twice, once on either side of the Atlantic.  The first attempt was baked successfully in a tagine, and produced lovely sauce to adorn the fish and potatoes.  The second was in my daughter Lizzie’s California home using her ever-to-be-coveted cast iron casserole pan.  The salmon steaks were thick as Rib Eyes.  We used low fat coconut milk instead of cream and all liquid was absorbed to make plump succulent fish and crispy-bottomed potatoes.  We ate it with freshly delivered broccoli and cherry tomatoes from her still-fruiting allotment.


Butter a casserole dish with a lid (if possible). Layer the bottom with slices of new potatoes.  Brush with melted butter.  Sprinkle a pinch of fennel seeds over the potatoes. 

Add salmon steaks to cover the potato layer..  More fennel seeds, and some black pepper.

Smother the fish in a thick layer of sliced new potatoes.  Brush again with melted butter. Fennel seeds again.

In a measuring jug pour in equal parts white wine and cream (or coconut milk). 5 ozs of each works well.  Pour the liquid over the fish and potatoes.  Cover tightly, either with the lid, or with foil.  Bake about an hour in a moderate oven, or until a forked potato slice is tender.

Golly! That took longer to write than it took to prepare!

a fuzzy pic but see how thick the salmon is


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The Steinbeck House

How many of you retired folk wake up one morning  and say, “I think I’ll buy me an old house, turn it into a restaurant, and get it registered as literary landmark”? Not your ordinary retirement activity, is it? Not quite sitting and staring at the middle distance waiting for a daughter to ring, or wandering down to the Old Folks’ luncheon club, or waiting for someone else to organise a daytime coach trip to the seaside, is it?

But that’s what eight civic minded, local-food passionates did. At breath taking speed they started the [Salinas California] Valley Guild in 1971, raised $80 000 in 49 days, bought the old Victorian Steinbeck house in 1973, had it re-modelled with fully equipped kitchen, and designed the rest of the house to give a flavour of what it must have been like when Steinbeck was born, lived as a boy, and wrote two of his novels.  Only a year later (1974, keep up with me) it opened as a lunch-only restaurant on Steinbeck’s birthday. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.  You can be led on a tour of the house: in order to get to the toilet you go through the room where the famous man was actually born.  But don’t worry if you didn’t take the tour, for the cellar gift shop has a huge doll house in perfect detail, where you can play to heart’s content.

The number of volunteers stands at 81 these days. Many are octogenarians, which seems to make no difference to their energy levels, their friendliness, their delight in good food, and their detailed knowledge of John Steinbeck’s early childhood. All (except the chef) are volunteers. Extra funds go to local charities.


The turn-of-the-century house looks palatial, surrounded as it is by spacious well-kept lawns and gardens, but it’s really no bigger than my Aunt Harriet’s house was back in New York State, about the same vintage. As soon as we entered the Steinbeck parlour, the atmosphere, the scent, and all the furniture reminded me of her house, and I felt loved and at home.  We were greeted by a bank of silver-haired women in white lacy blouses, long dark skirts, full aprons, and sports shoes.  They sat us down to an elegantly laid table (lacy floor length tablecloths, flowers, glistening cutlery) and sumptuous food.

“Remarkable” is mild for such powerfully effective women.

Have a look at their website: .

Apricot Chiffon Pie

Their cookbook is full of recipes from bygone days when it wasn’t a sin to love cream and butter. It’s reminiscent of my Grandmother’s precious cooking notebook and my Aunt Harriet’s dinners.  This recipe is a great company-coming pie because you make it the day before and let it set in the fridge.   I made it for an evening supper meeting.  Further tasters gave this an anxiety-relieving thumbs up.



Pulverise (with rolling pin or liquidiser) 140grams (5 ozs) of ginger nuts (snaps) into a powder – about 14 of them make 1 ¼ cups.  Add  4 tablespoons (4 ozs) melted butter and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Stir.  Press the mixture onto the bottom and sides of a 9 inch pie pan. Bake for 12 minutes (no more!) in a moderately slow oven.  Cool completely.



Soak 1 pkt gelatine in 2 tablespoons water, and set aside. Cook 1 cup dried apricots (160gms chopped) with a bit of water into mushy submission, leaving a few apricot chunks. Cool.  Combine in a saucepan ½ cup sugar (115 gms  4 ozs) ½ cup apricot juice (nectar 4 ozs)  ½ teaspoon salt, and 3 egg yolks.  Cook over low heat until thickened, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat, add soaked gelatine, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and cooled apricot mash.  Cool until mixture begins to set.

Meanwhile, beat 1 cup whipping cream (8 ozs) until thick.  In another bowl beat 3 egg whites until stiff with 2 tablespoons sugar. Fold the cream, then the egg whites into the apricot mixture.  Pile gently into the cooled crust, and chill overnight.  If you remove the pie from the fridge about half an hour before you serve it, the pie crust will attach to the filling, so that you don’t see it leering tauntingly at you, still in the pie dish after you’ve served yourself.

My comments:  Cut down the sugar in the egg whites to 1 tablespoon.  Unsulphured apricots may give a stronger flavour.   Or try it with intensely dried mango and thick mango drink, adding lime juice instead of the lemon…might be nice!




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