I've always been a bit of a magpie. When I was quite little I used to hoard sweets. Nothing unusual there, you might think - all children like to have lots of sweets. Except I didn't actually eat said sweets. Instead, I kept them in a special box that was like a mini chest of drawers; each type of sweet had its own drawer (jellies, caramels, hard suckable sweets, soft-centred sweets...) and I would consider it a great personal achievement if I managed to possess multiple colours of the same type of sweet.
I could never understand why my childminder was so unreasonable about letting me to go the corner shop to get sweets, why she usually said no. It is only now that I realise I never actually told her that I didn't want to eat the sweets (I didn't even like them), just to add them to my collection. Not that she'd have believed me anyway, I'm sure, but I remember being struck by the unfairness of it all - where was the harm in going to get more sweets for the sweet box?! I suppose I owe my undecayed teeth and lack of fillings to her strictness, so I guess that's something.
Money was another one. Yes, I know it's not really unusual to hoard money. Generally most people need to do it - it's called "saving". However, as a small child, if I was ever given pocket money or (ah, the good old days) tooth fairy money, and said amount happened to include a particularly shiny coin, I would tape it into a notebook. I remember getting very excited about a positively radiant pound coin that I had acquired at some point. It took pole position in the notebook and I treasured it. Or at least, I did until one day I wanted to buy something. As a small child, a pound is actually quite a lot of money. Out of the notebook it came, though I did leave a note in its place reminding myself to replace it with another shiny specimen if I ever found one.
Ironically, I'm probably less in a position to sellotape unwanted pound coins to notebooks now than I was as a child. Seven year olds don't tend to have £15,000 worth of student debt to their name.
Later in life my magpie-like hoarding stretched to less edible items. Coloured gel pens was a phase early in secondary school; I had whole pencil cases bursting at the seams, struggling to contain these different-coloured pens. Sparkly varieties were a definite bonus. I don't even remember writing with them much; I think I just liked the security of knowing I had a whole collection at my fingertips.
Then came a phase in which I absolutely failed to resist any item of sparkly jewellery. I remember stumbling upon a shop called 'Bijou Brigitte' while on holiday in Spain. Now you can find those shops everywhere on the continent and I think some in the UK, but at the time I was convinced it was a one-of-a-kind find. Not only did it stock the gaudiest, glitteriest, unsubtlest jewellery you've ever seen, it was also incredibly cheap. At the time, 10 euros was the equivalent of about a fiver. Oh, for those halcyon days of cheap European jaunts.
I would go and fill a small basket with glimmering diamanté, giant fake pearls in pastel colours, rings with fake plastic gemstones the size of your big toe, and then proceed to wear most of my purchases at once. Walking through the Spanish sun, I must have looked constantly like I was trying to signal morse code.
I shouldn't have been let loose on the Middle East last summer. I returned carrying approximately two-thirds of Syria in a large bag purchased specially for the purpose of carting my hoard back home. Everywhere I turned were beautiful silks, gorgeous scarves, ornate gold and silver tea sets inlaid with (fake) gemstones, glittering jewellery, intricate wood and mother of pearl boxes, and delicate decorated pottery. Unable to resist, I handed over Syrian pound after Syrian pound, Jordanian dinar after Jordanian dinar, accumulating items to the point where I could probably have turned into a turtle without realising, so large and cumbersome was my rucksack.
It's only natural, then, given my predilection for food, that my magpie-like tendency should extend to all things gastronomic. Certain foodstuffs just captivate me; I have to have them if I spy them on sale. It helps if they're shiny or colourful. Pomegranate seeds. Cherries. Bright pink rhubarb in late winter. Gorgeous green gooseberries. Silver-skinned, glittery-eyed fresh mackerel. Vivid yellow Pakistani mangoes or corn on the cob. Glossy purple aubergines.
I've never really appreciated the beauty of these jewel-like berries before, nor their flavour. I may have put a few in a summer pudding at one point, but it's only this year that I've really begun to experiment with them, especially after I picked some of my own early this summer in Oxford. I just love the refreshing tartness of a red or blackcurrant. Their flavour is complex, beyond that sourness - they have a hint of freshly-mown grass about them, a definite floral fragrance that makes them such a delicious and intriguing addition to desserts and other fruits. What's more, they are absolutely beautiful, particularly if you get a box of ripe, plump ones, translucent like tiny red crystal balls.
This week M&S has been selling such redcurrants, and I have been powerless to resist. I already have four boxes in the freezer, so couldn't really justify freezing any more. Rather, I seized the culinary moment and came up with two delectable dessert recipes incorporating this most beautiful of berries.
One is a simple baked cheesecake that tastes so much more than the sum of its parts. It couldn't really be much simpler to make, but the flavour is incredible. There's a hint of vanilla in the ricotta mixture that contrasts wonderfully with the tartness of the redcurrants, and a thick biscuit base to provide a delicious, buttery contrast. I used ginger nut biscuits for the base instead of digestives, but you couldn't taste the ginger once they were baked, which was probably a good thing as the vanilla and redcurrant combination was just so delicious on its own.
It can be difficult to achieve just the right consistency and texture with a baked cheesecake, but I think this one is spot on. The filling has a hint of crumbliness, but is also smooth and creamy. It still wobbled a little in the middle when I removed it from the oven, which I think is the key to avoiding a dry, powdery cheesecake. It may not be the prettiest thing to look at, but the flavour more than compensates.
The cheesecake reminded me of one I used to love on the menu at Bella Italia, back in the day when I thought Bella Italia was the height of culinary sophistication (probably around the same time that I used to wear all that gaudy jewellery). There's just the right balance between the rich, crumbly filling with its light sweetness, and the depth of flavour from the fruit. I was going to adorn the cheesecake with a peach compote, but it didn't need it. It was perfect.
The other cake is a fairly dense, moist, pudding-cake incorporating the redcurrant's favourite partner, the peach. It's an unusual cake batter that uses Quark (fat-free cream cheese) to give it moisture and substance, meaning the actual cake is very low in fat. Chopped peaches and redcurrants are rippled through the batter and then scattered on top. Again, it perhaps doesn't look like the epitome of culinary aestheticism, but it takes wonderful. Besides, I like my cakes rustic. No stupid macarons or eight-tier buttercream layer cakes here, please.
I used a rather surprising ingredient in this cake. I've recently been sampling a new addition to the Jordans Cereal Country Crisp range - the Honey & Nut variety. It's a mixture of crunchy baked oat clusters blended with honey and mixed with flaked almonds and slices of brazil nut, rather like granola but in small chunks. As a big fan of the Jordans Crunchy Oats range, I was rather delighted by the Honey & Nut cereal. However, I did find it a little too sweet - unlike Jordans muesli, which I eat quite a lot, it does have sugar added to it. Nowhere near as much as all those horrible processed cereals like Frosties, of course, but I think I've just become used to sugar-free cereal. I also eat my cereal dry, without milk, so if you're a milk fan you'll probably find that the milk takes away some of the sugariness. Anyway, the Honey & Nut Country Crisp is definitely worth a try if you're bored of muesli or cornflakes - it really is delicious, and it also makes a great snack.
It occurred to me as I was making this cake that it would be nice to add another texture, something to make it a little bit crunchy. Enter the Honey & Nut Country Crisp. Because the cereal is so crispy already, having been baked, I figured I could add it to the cake batter and it would retain some of its crunch. I also sprinkled a little on top of the cake before baking. The result was delectable, much easier than faffing around making a streusel or crumble topping, and also slightly healthier.
The cake itself is really moist and delicious, studded with juicy chunks of peach and tangy redcurrants. I'm definitely going to use this Quark-based mixture again; it makes a fabulous cake that's ideal served warm as a dessert with some cream or ice cream. It's not particularly light, so if you like your cakes mousse-like, this probably isn't the one for you, but I like my cakes substantial and slightly gooey in the middle, which this certainly is. The addition of the Jordans cereal was a stroke of genius, even if I say so myself - the added honeyed crunch is exactly what the cake needs, contrasting beautifully with the soft fruit. This cake is best eaten straight away, as the cereal tends to go a bit soft after it's been in a tin for too long, but you should have no problem devouring it fresh from the oven. Incidentally, I reckon it would be great served with the Kellys of Cornwall blackcurrant ice cream I mentioned a few posts back.
Do you have a magpie-like tendency to hoard certain foodstuffs or other objects? I'm sure I'm not alone in this.
Peach and redcurrant cake (serves 8):
4 tbsp milk (plus a bit more if needed)
30g melted butter
75g golden caster sugar
250g self-raising flour
Zest of 1 orange
1 tsp vanilla extract
8 tbsp Jordans Country Crisp Honey & Nut, crumbled
3-4 ripe peaches
3 tbsp demerara sugar
Pre-heat the oven to 190C/fan 170C. Grease and line a 20/22cm cake tin with baking parchment.
Beat together the melted butter, quark, eggs, milk, vanilla and sugar until combined. Stir in the orange rind and fold in the flour to make a fairly stiff batter. (You may need to add more milk if it's too stiff, as I did). Roughly chop half the peaches and stir into the batter. Stir in half the redcurrants and half the Jordans cereal.
Pour the mixture into the cake tin. Slice the remaining peaches and arrange over the top of the cake. Scatter over the redcurrants, the rest of the cereal, and the demerara sugar.
Bake for 45 minutes or until the cake is firm and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Allow to cool a little, then serve warm with cream or ice cream.
Redcurrant vanilla cheesecake (serves 6):
12 ginger nut or digestive biscuits
30g melted butter
250g ricotta cheese
150ml half-fat creme fraiche
90g caster sugar
1 tbsp agave nectar or honey
1 tsp vanilla extract
Place the biscuits in a blender and blitz to fine crumbs. Mix with the melted butter and press into the base of the cake tin. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Lower the oven temperature to 170C/160C fan oven.
Mix together the ricotta, creme fraiche, sugar, nectar/honey, eggs and vanilla either in the blender or in a bowl using an electric whisk. The mixture will be quite runny, but don't worry. Gently stir in two-thirds of the redcurrants.
Pour the cheesecake mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 45-55 minutes or until turning golden on top but still a little wobbly in the centre. Leave to cool in the tin before turning out onto a plate and chilling in the fridge for a couple of hours.
To serve, decorate with the remaining redcurrants and dust with icing sugar.