Tag Archives: kitchen experiments

Restoring a very rusty cast iron skillet using molasses and water

When Karl’s folks were moving house a few years ago, we looked after some of their plants and garden ornaments until they were settled. A few years on and some of the plants and ornaments are still with us, because they don’t have the outside space they used to. Among the pots, I came across an old cast iron skillet which had been part of a collection of other cast iron pieces; it looked quite attractive when combined with colourful planted containers. This skillet had been outside for some years and was now extremely rusty – I brought it indoors with the idea of one day trying to restore it and for a year or more it sat on a shelf in the hallway gathering dust.

1-skillet-before-1This is how the skillet looked before it went into the solution – click for a larger version

One day I came across the suggestion that rusty cast iron can be restored by soaking it in diluted black treacle. ‘What an extraordinary idea’, I thought, and immediately sought to find out more. There is indeed quite a lot of information about restoring rusty iron with black treacle (which from now on I shall call by its American name of ‘molasses’ because it’s faster to type) and the method is popular with those restoring engine parts as the molasses solution can get into all the nooks and crannies.

1-skillet-base-before-1The width across the base is 13.5cm

So, how does it work? I went to an all-girls school that didn’t see the need to teach girls chemistry and anything I do know about chemistry I’ve learned by myself,  so it took a little while to understand, but I did find this straightforward explanation: ‘Molasses contains chelating agents. These are made of molecules that are shaped a bit like the claws of a crab – the word ‘chelating’ comes directly from the Latin word ‘chele’, meaning claw. They can envelop metal atoms on the surface of an object, trapping them and removing them’ (a bit more here). Clear enough.

I don’t really mind that I wasn’t taught chemistry, or physics for that matter, at that school – it means I’ve spent many years playing catch-up, for sure, but it’s also given me a deep sense of awe and a strong desire to find things out and make connections between them. It means I’ve lived my life in a state of almost constant amazement at how the world works and that’s no bad thing.

holcroft-1The name Holcroft is just about readable

Thomas Holcroft & Sons Ltd was a foundry in Ettingshall Road in Wolverhampton which, amongst other things, made cooking ware for Agas. It was active from the 1890s until the business closed in 1969. From the very few pictures I’ve seen, I’m guessing this skillet might date from the 1930s.

I liked the idea of using molasses partly because I was curious, but also because although the method is slow, it’s cheap (£1.15 for 454g), non-toxic and once the solution is finished with it can be tipped onto the compost heap without causing harm. Lye had been suggested, but from all that I’ve read about lye it is very corrosive and has destructive effects on living tissue. There would also be the issue of disposal. I feared it would not combine well with my accident-prone tendencies and decided lye would be better avoided. Anyway, I wanted to see what happened during the chelating process.

molasses-tinI used two tins

The urge to test this molasses/chelating idea for myself was intense so I got some molasses right away, found an old washing up bowl and used the one part molasses to ten parts water solution commonly suggested, mixed it up, put the skillet in and left it to see what happened. Every two to three weeks I’d take it out, rinse it, scrub it vigorously with a wire brush, take photographs and put it back in to soak. Each time it came out of the solution more of the rust had gone and, to my unlearned eye, it was like some strange new magic – a sugary condiment that eats rust. I’d read that the solution would smell dreadful, but was a little disappointed. It certainly smelled odd and not something to keep indoors, but it wasn’t gag-inducing. Maybe it smells different in summer when the temperature is higher.

dilute-molassesThe solution did go quite murky and mould grew on the surface

So, here’s what happens when you soak a rusty skillet in molasses solution.

2-skillet-21-days-1After 21 days

3-skillet-33-daysAfter 33 days

4-skillet-45-daysAfter 45 days

6-skillet-55-daysAfter 55 days

skillet-before-2Inside the skillet before soaking

5-skillet-53-days-edgeThe same area after 55 days

5-skillet-base-afterI didn’t know the name was also on the base until I put the skillet in a hot oven for two hours to clean off the cooked-on crud

holcroft-3The name Holcroft is now much clearer

made-in-england-3The words ‘Made in England’ also appeared and there is a patent number which I think is ‘W6392’ but I can’t be certain as it isn’t very clear

The last process was to season it. I smeared the entire skillet with lard and put it in the oven at 160C for an hour. It was allowed to cool, wiped with a rag and the process repeated twice more until the fat started to bond with the iron and the surface looked less pitted.

 5-skillet-53-days-season-1After seasoning

Having given it some seasoning, I then cooked up a pan of dry-cured, fatty streaky bacon and not one bit of it stuck to the bottom. The bacon was delicious and really crispy.

So, not bad – it went from being extremely rusty to being quite presentable and usable again. Fair enough, it took nearly two months, but time wasn’t the issue. The issue was seeing what happened and the possibility of ending up with a usable cast iron skillet. I now need to find some more rusty cast iron skillets to restore.

Tahini and honey balls

Last Monday morning, I spotted a recipe for a snack reputed to have been eaten for millennia and mentioned in ancient Egyptian texts as well as Homer’s Iliad – tahini and honey balls. It sounded tempting; apparently, once combined, the runniness of both ingredients thickens and becomes like plasticine and you can then scoop teaspoonfuls, form them into balls, roll them in sesame seeds and have an instant honeyed snack with a boost of protein from the tahini.


We don’t have many sweet snacks, but occasionally get the urge for one and generally buy a pastry or some like thing from a supermarket. They’re almost always disappointing – dry, too sweet and lacking in flavour. I don’t really know why we bother, to be honest, so seeing a simple recipe for an instant snack was appealing.


We had tahini, honey and sesame seeds so I could try it right away. The recipe called for equal amounts of tahini and honey to simply be mixed together to form a thick paste – I combined them and stirred vigorously but, whilst it did thicken, it didn’t thicken as much as I thought it would, so I added some dessicated coconut and that helped. Later, I discovered that if you let the mix stand for a few hours it does thicken up quite a bit more but the addition of coconut tastes good and pleasing to chew on. Mixing in sesame seeds is also good and provides further pleasing texture.

Today, on this lazy Sunday, I rolled three small balls for each of us and instead of the usual sesame seeds coating I tried coconut and it worked extremely well. Not better than the sesame seed coating but a nice change. Chopped walnuts are next on the list.


These things really do pack a punch and three can keep your energy up for a morning’s work. In Homer’s Iliad they were called ‘intrion’ and were given to warriors to increase their energy in battle. I have done no work this morning, however, and will not be going into battle, so I’m still buzzing two hours after eating them.

If you can’t beat it, eat it – ground elder risotto


Many wild plants in the UK are edible – before the wide range of cultivated vegetables became available people called them ‘pot herbs’ and ate them for dinner. They were much appreciated ingredients, supplementing vegetables grown in the garden. In modern times, people have become oddly finicking and dainty about what they’ll eat; suggest to someone that they might enjoy sampling a wild plant and you will likely be met with a moue of distaste as if you’d proposed eating raw tree bark. ‘Oh no, I couldn’t possibly’ they’ll say, ‘Why do that when you can just go to the supermarket?’ or ‘What if a dog has peed on it?’

Ask these questions – ‘Do you know where the supermarket food you buy has been, how far it has travelled, how it was grown, what it’s been sprayed with and who (or what) might have handled it before you bought it?’. Unless you visited the field where it was grown, the answer can only be ‘No’ and yet the wild plant is viewed with a suspicion which might well be more deserved of the shop bought plant. To me, it doesn’t seem rational – this food is nutritious and if it has grown in woodland or your garden, then it is likely to be organic. It is local, fresh and, more to the point, it is free. I’m not advocating a move to only eating wild plants, but promoting the idea of trying them before dismissing the idea out of hand.

Which brings me to the wild plant ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria). It is thought to have been introduced by the Romans as a pot herb and was later grown around monasteries and known as gout weed, since it was thought to ease the gout suffered by monks as a result of their rich diets. Today it is found in many gardens, under hedges, alongside walls and in woodland. Spreading by its roots and sending up new shoots, it is a vigorous grower and can form dense patches, invading clump forming plants in a short time. It can be controlled by careful digging, but the smallest fragment of root left behind will easily form a new colony.

groundelder-plant-rootsThe whole plant – the rhizomes spread horizontally through the soil

What to do? One way to control ground elder is to use it as the Romans intended and eat it. I see ground elder often so, as it’s said to be at its best in spring, I collected a carrier bag full and brought it home to try, adding it to a risotto and serving it with trout. I hadn’t actually tried ground elder before eating it, but had crushed a leaf to sniff and it smelled fresh and pleasant. Cooked, it was reminiscent of parsley with a touch of lemon so was a very good partner to the trout. We both liked it very much and will cook it again.

A word of warning – choose the younger ground elder leaves as they will be more tender and avoid picking after the plant has flowered, as it then develops laxative qualities. If a laxative is what you’re after, then go ahead.

groundelder-leafNote the grooved leaf stem and the bright green of the foliage – click to enlarge the picture for a better view

Recognising ground elder is pretty straightforward. The bright green leaves uncurl from the soil in early spring and are thusly described: ‘Aegopodium podagraria is perennial, growing to a height of 100 cms with rhizomes. The stems are erect, hollow and grooved. The upper leaves are ternate, broad and toothed. The flowers are in umbels, terminal with rays 15 – 20, with small white flowers’.

And so to the recipe.

Ground elder risotto

Serves four

A carrier bag of ground elder leaves, washed and with roots removed.
2 onions or large shallots, chopped
Olive oil for frying
200ml white wine
300g risotto rice
Cup of pre-cooked or frozen garden peas (if you feel like it)
1 litre vegetable or chicken stock

In a large frying pan, fry the onions gently until softened and very lightly browned. While they are cooking, lightly steam the ground elder until wilted, cool and roughly chop. Add the rice to the onions, stir in and then add the white wine and some of the stock. Cook over a low heat, stirring regularly and adding more stock as the rice absorbs it. You may find that you need more or less according to how soft or al dente you prefer the rice to be. When the rice is at the texture you prefer, mix in the ground elder leaves and the garden peas if you are using them and heat through again before serving. Season at the table and, if liked, add grated parmesan cheese.

Lavashak – Iranian fruit rolls

Lavashak is similar to apple leather but it’s the Iranian version and uses different fruit – plums, sour cherries, apricots or whatever you have a glut of. Some recipes use only one type of fruit, others use a mix. Take your pick. I used plums because someone I know has a couple of plum trees and they weren’t going to use the fruit.


Continue reading Lavashak – Iranian fruit rolls

Apple leather

I can’t remember now where I came across the idea of fruit leather. It was quite a few years ago for sure and I logged it away for future reference, should I find myself with a large number of apples to deal with. The day came after a customer who is allergic to wasp stings asked for all the apples to removed from her tree and taken away, so we ended up with several compost sacks of them. Some were turned into purée and bottled, I made spicy apple chutney and Karl made some very nice apple wine. All that processing and we still hadn’t used them all, but then I remembered about fruit leather and decided to give it a go.


Looking up what to do, it seemed pretty straight forward so I set to and got peeling. I don’t have pictures of the process, unfortunately, but only of the finished product. Next time I make fruit leather, I’ll take pictures. So, having peeled and cored enough apples to fit into my biggest cooking pot, I cooked them gently until they were puréed as if for apple sauce.

Continue reading Apple leather

Making apple cider vinegar at home

I can’t remember what it was that motivated me to try making vinegar, but there are so many things I’d like to try doing for myself and it was probably just one of those questions that comes to mind from time to time – ‘How do you actually do that?’. Once a question has been asked, it frequently requires an answer, if only to silence it. Anyway, I like knowing how to do things so making my own vinegar would be a worthy project.

vinegar_potThe vinegar pot that Karl gave me

I work for people who have apple trees and they often have more fruit than they can use and don’t want to waste it, so in the autumn I get given a lot of apples. We’ve done various things with them – Karl made some excellent apple wine one year, others were cooked and frozen, some cooked and jarred and one year I made a lot of fruit leather to be snacked on when we remember about it.

Continue reading Making apple cider vinegar at home