Two in the morning is not my favourite time. But we’d just been woken by terrible sounds coming from the hen house and had to investigate.
For many years – almost two decades - we’ve enjoyed the happy pitter-patter of tiny hen feet parading around our house. I’ve always been fond of hens, and always want to add a few more to our fine flock. We only keep the heavy and more old-fashioned breeds such as Rhode Island Reds, Light Sussex, Barred Plymouth Rocks and our current lot were all lovely, with hand-reared, happy hen natures.
But the year got off to a bad start. Our oldest and dearest Rhodi went missing. And then a few weeks afterwards we found our youngest Buff Orpington lying dead in the garden.
Then, just weeks ago, all hell broke loose early in the morning, an intruder was within. Of course, when you need them, you can never find flashlights, so out we went, in jarmies, to investigate. It was a female ferret, with a dead hen at her feet and a live one in her mouth. No details shall be gone into, but suffice to say this is now an ex-ferret, dealt to by the man-in-the-house, on-the-spot.
Two hens huddled in the corner, what was left of our flock. This summer we had meant to get in newly fertilised eggs, but never quite got around to it. These two will have to hold the fort, as it were until we decide to inject new life. In the meantime, we are waging war against sharp-toothed mammals and setting traps and baits.
It’s a bit sad only having two girls, but they are still a delight to have around. And their eggs are the finest around. Sometimes we need to buy a few eggs, and even the so-called free-range ones lack the distinctive colour of true free range.
So now we’re hoping winter hurries by and we can start a new season with young chicks.
In the meantime, I have become a dab hand at pavlovas. Up until this summer, I had never made one. Then our friend (and family doctor) Leo gave me his never failing pav recipe and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve whipped it up.
I don’t eat pavlova, not since I gobbled up an entire one my grandmother gave me to take back to the rest of the family. I was only five years old, far too young to be entrusted with such booty. Even 40 years on, I stay clear of them, but the ferret slayer and the daughter adore them. And it’s a fine thing to do with eggs.
Pavs – and they were first created in New Zealand, not Australia, says a very learned academic down south – are very sensitive to individual variation among ovens, so be prepared to adjust cooking times and temperatures. The following works for me, but keep an eye on it the first time you do it. These mini pavs are a real treat and perfect to take to a shared meal. And of course, this can be turned into one big glorious pav – make one circle using a large sandwich plate (about 19 to 20cm diameter) and place the mixture inside this. After cooking for 10 minutes at 200ºC, cook at 150ºC for 30 minutes. Then reduce, for the final time, to 100ºC for another 30 minutes. Then simply turn the oven off and leave the pav inside until cool.
- 4 egg whites
- 250g caster sugar
- little pinch salt
- little pinch cream of tartar
- 1 tsp vanilla essence
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp water
- 2 heaped tbsp cornflour
Preheat the oven to 200ºC.
Place a sheet of baking paper on a baking tray and trace about 12 circles on it, a coffee cup works well (8cm diameter.) The mixture will go inside these. Space them as wide apart as possible, as the mixture does seem to spread.
Separate the egg whites carefully into a dry bowl. Beat vigorously, on high, until it is fluffy. Add the salt and cream of tartar and beat for about five minutes.
Keep the beater running while you add the remaining ingredients. When the five minutes are up, gradually add the sugar, a tablespoon at a time. Add the vanilla essence and water. Then after two or three minutes add lemon juice. Beat another two minutes.
Finally, add the cornflour. Beat a minute or two. Place mixture inside the circles using a spoon, or pipe it in - I snipped a corner off a plastic bag, which did the job very well. Build up an outside wall, so the cream can fill the hollow space.
Place in oven at 200ºC for 10 minutes, and then reduce heat to 150ºC. Bake for about 20 minutes, but keep an eagle eye on them because they take less time than a conventional pavlova.
Fill with whipped cream. And possibly a slice of kiwifruit.