They are based on a Danish sweet treat, havregrynskugler, which essentially means ‘oat balls’. I first tried these at one of my favourite hyggelig cafes in Aarhus, a delightful little place attached to a deli and farm shop. For that reason, I assumed the oaty things they had out on the counter would be some kind of worthy, uber-healthy raw cake or similar, and finding myself in need of a snack with my cup of tea one day, I decided to try one. I was surprised by how utterly delicious it was, with the nutty, slightly sweet taste of oats that took me straight back to making flapjacks and oat biscuits as a child. I remember once trying to eat raw oats out of the jar, assuming that they were what made the flapjacks taste so good, so by that logic they should be delicious on their own. I was wrong. I am not a horse. My oats need to be doused in butter and sugar.Read More
Walking into a Japanese bakery, you might be forgiven for thinking you are somewhere in the heart of Paris. Pastries, loaves and rolls are piled high and plentiful, and you are cosseted by the sumptuous aromas of warm dough and hot sugar. But look a little more closely, and you may start to reconsider. The cheese has a slightly odd, plasticky sheen. What you thought were chocolate chips appear, upon closer inspection, to be red beans, the kind you might normally expect to find in your chilli con carne. And, of course, much of the bread is green.Read More
This post combines two things I don’t normally care about: tailoring blog recipes to specific seasonal food-related occasions, and Valentine’s Day. You won’t find me whipping up treats for National Tempura Day, National Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day or World Tripe Day (if you needed proof that these ‘food days’ are just the farcical inventions of bored and desperate PR companies and marketing boards, there it is: World Tripe Day), because there is apparently some silly culinary designation for every single day of the year now, so by that logic I would never ever be able to make a spontaneous decision regarding what I cook. I can also take or leave Valentine’s Day, and it certainly doesn’t inspire me with culinary ambition (if I see one more hackneyed recipe feature telling me that I must serve oysters and fillet steak on the special day, I might find a decidedly more violent use for my oyster knife).Read More
Sometimes, you need a dessert that is pure chocolate indulgence. Not a scattering of chocolate chips here and there, or a bit of cocoa added to a sponge mixture, but a proper mouthful of thick, rich, silky molten chocolate. The kind that envelops your tongue like dark cashmere, and leaves you wanting to bathe in a pool of rippling cocoa. This is that dessert. A layer of smooth, fudgy dark chocolate ganache is baked until just set inside a crunchy, buttery pastry shell, flecked with hazelnuts for that praline hit. It's so thick and smooth you need a hot knife to cut through it, and it's scattered with freeze-dried raspberry pieces for delicious bursts of fruity sharpness in every mouthful. On the side, a glorious ice cream rippled with vanilla, crushed meringues and a tangy raspberry coulis, vibrant with the fragrant heat of pink peppercorns. It's perfect against the silky, complex ganache and the crisp pastry. Head to my post on Great British Chefs for the recipe!
I remember when I first acquired my kitchen blowtorch. It was during my early days of learning to cook, when I attempted to emulate the dishes of Masterchef and used silly silver rings for ‘plating up’ (yes, in those days I actually did a thing called ‘plating up’), daubing everything with smears and garnishes and spending a fortune on fancy cuts of meat and fish. Essential kitchen kit in those days comprised dariole moulds (for making the classic chocolate fondant, of course), a mandolin, an oyster knife, square plates (vital for that restaurant look) and a piping bag. And, of course, the kitchen blowtorch. Programmes like Masterchef are designed to make you believe that you simply cannot cook without one: how would you get that glistering crust atop a chalky round of goat’s cheese, or achieve the perfect crack on a crème brulée?Read More
A friend of mine once asked me what ingredient I cook with the most (staples like salt and oil aside). I answered limes, but on reflection it could equally be raspberries. Having said that, I don’t tend to ‘cook with’ raspberries much: I prefer to eat them unadulterated, scattered over porridge or granola or with cubes of golden papaya or juicy ripe mango for dessert when I can’t quite justify eating loads of chocolate or crumble. I occasionally bake them into cakes: I love the way baking intensifies their sharp, almost grassy flavour, and the way they stew their rosy juice through the buttery crumb, perfuming it with that heady scent of summer. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about the savoury uses of raspberries.Read More
For me, mornings are the worst part of winter. I normally count myself as a guaranteed lark, reveling in the early hours of the day, but those early hours in the colder months of the year barely deserve the label ‘morning’. Mornings mean sunshine, beams streaming through the window and the promise of productivity and good things to come. Mornings don’t mean opening your eyes in darkness; the hazy, nauseating orange glow of streetlamps replacing real rays; the rasp of cold, clammy air against your skin as you tentatively reach an arm outside the duvet to check the time and remind yourself that no, it isn’t a mistake, it genuinely is time to get up despite the dark and the cold and the feeling that you might be turning into a hibernating mammal. Mornings shouldn’t mean having to shiveringly shroud yourself in a dressing gown to make the briefest of journeys between bedroom and bathroom, or turning all the lights on in the kitchen just so you can find the all-important switch on the kettle.Read More
I've recently discovered the joy that is the blondie. Before that, my 'special occasion' baking repertoire was firmly dominated by the brownie. Birthdays, Christmases, thank yous, thinking of yous, I love yous, et cetera - there are few occasions that don't benefit from a small foil-wrapped bundle of brownies, slightly still warm and gooey from the oven. Since I made these salted caramel and cacao nib brownies a few months ago, they've been my go-to recipe for any occasion that demands ridiculously indulgent sugar-butter-chocolate goodness.
Brownies seem to be the kind of thing people don't really make at home, perhaps eating them only in restaurants. This is due at least in part, I suspect, to the fact that once you've seen just how much butter and sugar go into them, you can't bear to eat the homemade variety - at least in a restaurant you can remain in blissful denial. Regardless, they've always gone down a treat, and I can never resist nibbling the bits left in the tin when I've made a batch for someone else.
However, a couple of months ago I stumbled across a raspberry and white chocolate blondie recipe online. I forget why I had a need to make blondies, but I think they were for a friend. I had immense fun browning a pan of butter, stirring in shards of glossy white chocolate, folding in brown sugar, eggs and raspberries, and baking the lot to golden perfection. They were ridiculously delicious, the kind of delicious that only comes from pairing toasty brown butter with caramel-sweet white chocolate and lifting the lot with the tang of juicy raspberries. (You can find my tweaked recipe - I added pistachios - here).
Blondies have a different type of allure to brownies. Where brownies are dark, decadent and mysterious, rich and indulgent-looking, often almost bittersweet with dark cocoa, blondies are the other end of the spectrum. They have none of that mystique, instead appearing more homely and cakey. They are often more cake-like in texture, too, with less of that smooth truffley mouthfeel you get from a good gooey brownie. Importantly, they have gorgeous notes of butter and caramel from the inclusion of white chocolate; the butter flavour of an ordinary brownie tends to get hidden by chocolate, which dominates and overwhelms (often in a good way, of course).
I've never really cooked with white chocolate until I jumped on the blondie bandwagon. I don't really eat it, finding it a bit overly sweet and a tad greasy. But cooked and melted, something magic happens to white chocolate. It has the most irresistible moreish sweetness, possessing a delightful gooey, slightly grainy texture, with notes of butterscotch and caramel. I love its texture and flavour, especially combined with brown butter.
A lot of people who tried this recipe looked nonplussed when I listed one of its key components as brown butter. Brown butter is basically what happens when you heat butter so that the milk solids separate out from the fat and brown (almost burn), resulting in the most incredible toasty, biscuity aroma. You end up with a dark golden liquid, flecked with deliciously aromatic toasted nuggets.
Once you start browning butter for recipes, it's quite hard to stop - why would you not go that extra mile and add delicious digestive-biscuit-esque flavour to your baked goods?
Inspired by recent blondie baking adventures, and by this recent recipe on one of my favourite baking blogs, I decided to have a go at making a sort of cross between banana bread and blondies. Banana bread because most of the moisture is provided by mashed ripe bananas and a little milk, rather than loads of butter; blondies because the resulting baked good is studded with gooey chunks of sweet white chocolate and enriched with a little browned butter. I used muscovado sugar for its delicious butterscotch flavour, and decided to sprinkle some flaked coconut on top, because why not? They are enriched with a little vanilla, and I used spelt flour for a lovely nutty flavour to accompany the coconut.
White chocolate, brown butter, caramel-scented sugar, sweet bananas, and nutty coconut. You can see why this made sense in my head. They were always going to be good.
If you're a fan of banana bread, you'll love these. Banana bread but in handy sliceable squares, they have a fabulous combination of decadent flavours and textures. A subtle biscuity note from the brown butter; the sweet perfume of ripe bananas; a hint of vanilla; the caramel notes of brown sugars; gooey chunks of sweet white chocolate; and finally, the irresistible crunch and flavour of toasted coconut. They're not quite as rich and gooey as sickly sweet blondies, which I think is definitely a good thing.
They're everything a baked good should be, just a little bit more special.
Banana blondies with white chocolate and toasted coconut (makes 16):
- 60g unsalted butter
- 75g light muscovado sugar
- 50g dark muscovado sugar
- 1 large egg
- 2 ripe bananas
- 2 tbsp whole milk
- 1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
- A generous pinch of salt
- 150g spelt flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 100g white chocolate chips/chopped white chocolate
- A small handful of flaked coconut
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease and line an 8-inch square cake tin.
In a wide saucepan, heat the butter over a medium heat until the white solids separate from the yellow liquid. Keep it on the heat, swirling it round the pan occasionally, until brown flecks start to form in the butter and it smells biscuity (for an excellent tutorial on browning butter, see here). Set aside to cool.
Using an electric whisk, beat the sugars with the egg until pale and creamy. In a separate bowl, mash the bananas with the milk, vanilla and salt. Mix these into the eggs and sugar along with the browned butter. Sift in the flour and baking powder, and mix gently to incorporate. Finally, fold in the white chocolate.
Pour into the prepared tin, then scatter over the coconut. Bake for 25 minutes, until firm and golden (lower the heat slightly if the coconut starts to burn). Leave to cool, then enjoy.
Sometimes, you make a recipe that you know people are just going to love. It's hard to put your finger on exactly how you know this. Maybe it's because you yourself were just blown away upon first tasting it, and uttered a deeply antisocial grunt of 'ohmygodyum' with a mouth half full as you took your first bite. Maybe it's because it happens to incorporate a certain set of ingredients that are generally just pleasing to everyone. Maybe it's because it's sugary and cakey and is the kind of ridiculously moreish sweet thing that everyone just loves to partake in.
All of the above applies to this recipe.
One of the things I love about being a student again is that there are people around me every day who I can force my baked goods onto. There's nothing worse than whipping up a calorific feast in the privacy of your own kitchen only to be forced to devour the entire lot, when really you only wanted a few pieces to quality control. What could have been a pleasant sugary treat suddenly turns into a couple of extra inches on your thighs, and no one is happy.
What a hard life.
Anyway, now I can bake with peace of mind. I have neighbours. Supervisors. Friends. Sometimes people I don't know very well but who I am sure will appreciate cake. It's a good network to have.
And if all else fails, there are lots of ducks on campus. In fact, the other day a duck was so intent on stealing my/my friends' lunch that it actually nibbled my exposed toes in a desperate bid to get me to part with my couscous. That was somewhat unexpected. The moral of this story is: probably don't feed ducks your lunch. They get accustomed.
Also, don't take pity on it and throw it one of the chickpeas from said couscous. The duck will not appreciate this, and you will have wasted a chickpea. Not sad if you don't like chickpeas, but I really do. I'm cool like that. Every chickpea thrown to an unappreciative duck is a chickpea wasted.
Back to the point. I bake a lot of things. I test a lot of recipes that I make up in my head, and need to turn into reality. Sometimes they are a little bit out of the ordinary, like maybe a mango, coconut and cardamom cheesecake, or a lime, lemongrass and ginger cheesecake. Or a quince and marzipan cake. Things that I am surprised don't exist already, because they just seem to make sense. So I make them happen.
And yet for all the creative love and skill that goes into something like that, all the many minutes of ingredient and technique planning, of scribbling down ideas while you're supposed to be writing a PhD, of deliberating in the aisles of the supermarket, of tasting as you go, tasting, tasting..
...what people actually seem to prefer is a totally trashy, chocolate- and butter-heavy blondie.
I can't even be cross, though. Much as I love some of the recipes I've created over the years, after a couple of bites of these I seriously considered never bothering to make anything more sophisticated ever again.
That basic combination of butter, sugar and chocolate appears in so many permutations, but it probably beats any other for sheer gastronomic satisfaction. Sure, dairy is nice - a lovely cheesecake can be a beautiful thing - and fancy sugary concoctions like meringues or macaroons have their place. But for serious tastebud and texture appeal, you want something like a good brownie or blondie. Rich. Moist. Gooey. Slightly crunchy on the outside. Inducing salivation with the very first taste.
These are what you'd call crowd-pleasers, in the dessert world. There's a reason restaurant dessert menus pretty much always feature some form of chocolate brownie. It's the ultimate 'treat yourself' food. While I hate to apply adjectives like 'sinful' and 'naughty' to food (no really, I loathe it), that's kind of what a brownie is.
Decadent. Decadent is a better word.
Much as I love to experiment with desserts, I also love to get into the kitchen on a beautiful summer evening, put on my apron, switch on some ridiculous music (think Carly Rae Jepsen), and spend twenty minutes mixing together vast quantities of fat and sugar in the knowledge that EVERYONE WILL LOVE ME FOR IT. I'm often pretty good about not licking the spoon (often because I bake straight after breakfast, having brushed my teeth, and I can't really be bothered to go and brush them again), but with these it's totally inevitable.
This is a recipe I've developed over a few different tries. The first time I made it, from an internet recipe, I was in love. Guttural, primal, salivating love. I've tweaked it (after making it at least four times, much to the delight of my nearest and dearest) to incorporate a few other favourite ingredients: cardamom, which goes wonderfully well with white chocolate. Pistachios, which also go excellently with white chocolate but also with raspberries, which are the star of the show here.
Actually, having said that, the star of the show is the brown butter and white chocolate base. It's basically everything you could ever want from a baked thing. Moist and cakey, with a ridiculously delicious biscuity-caramel flavour from the mixture of molten, brown-flecked butter and sweet chocolate, with a delicate fragrance of cardamom in there, so slight you can barely put your finger on its presence. There's also a mixture of light and dark muscovado sugar in there, beaten with eggs to a glorious caramel creaminess. Then on top you have a fabulous crunchy crust of white chocolate chips, which keep their shape and deliver little pockets of oozing sweetness, and toasty pistachios. The raspberries are crunchy on top and gooey within, sweet and sharp, balancing out all the sugary goodness around them.
I use frozen raspberries for these, which are much cheaper than fresh. You don't need fresh. You just need them to be bold and purple and stain the surrounding cake with their delicious sweet-tart juice, brightening the rich canvas of chocolate and butter. You could adapt these, too, to your taste - maybe use hazelnuts, almonds or pecans instead of pistachios (I reckon any of those would be divine); blueberries instead of raspberries; a mixture of milk and white chocolate; a little ginger instead of cardamom.
Think of them as a blueprint for all your most ridiculously decadent dessert dreams. Forget making anything more sophisticated - I can guarantee people will appreciate these more.
Raspberry, white chocolate, pistachio and cardamom blondies (makes 2 x 16-20 blondies):
- 300g butter
- 300g white chocolate chips (or chopped white chocolate)
- 200g light muscovado sugar
- 200g dark muscovado sugar
- 6 large eggs
- 6 cardamom pods, seeds crushed to a powder
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 200g plain flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 280g raspberries (I use frozen as they're cheaper)
- 60g pistachios, roughly chopped
In a large, wide saucepan, heat the butter until bubbling then cook over a medium heat, swirling occasionally, until the white solids separate from the gold liquid, then brown flecks start to appear, the colour darks, and it smells biscuity (for a tutorial on the technique, see here). Leave to cool for five minutes, then stir in half the chocolate chips to melt them. Grease and line two 8x8 inch cake tins, and pre-heat the oven to 165C.
In a large bowl with an electric whisk, or using an electric mixer, beat the sugars with the eggs until pale and creamy - about 3-5 minutes. Beat in the cardamom and vanilla, then the white chocolate and butter mixture. Gently beat in the flour and salt, then when you have a smooth batter fold in half the remaining chocolate chips and half the pistachio nuts.
Divide between the two tins, then scatter over the raspberries. Scatter over the remaining chocolate chips, then the pistachio nuts. Bake for 45 minutes, or until firm and golden on top with only a very slight wobble in the centre (they will continue to cook as they cool).
People sometimes tell me that they think I am an obese person trapped inside a thin person's body. I think this is often intended as a general comment pertaining to the fact that I love to cook and I love to eat, and I can, on certain occasions, consume quite a substantial amount (such occasions usually being marked by either a significant amount of exercise or a significant amount of stress; quadruple portions needed if both factors are present). It isn't, however, entirely accurate, because if people looked closely at this blog, my recipes and the kind of things I eat, they'd realise that actually most of it is pretty healthy.
Sometimes, though, I like to get into the kitchen, put on my apron, and let that obese girl within me cook whatever the hell she likes.
These times usually arise when there's baking to be done for someone else. I enjoy such occasions, because it means I can go crazy with the butter and sugar without worrying that the fruits of my labours will be sitting dangerously on the worktop for days forcing me to gorge myself upon their sumptuous goodness. I don't believe in deprivation, but I do believe that having to single-handedly polish off an entire cake or batch of biscuits/brownies on a weekly basis is probably not very good for you.
I revel in the things that find their way into my kitchen on these occasions. Slightly out-of-place things that probably feel a bit alien there, that don't generally make much of an appearance. Chocolate, for one. I just don't eat much of the stuff; not because it's unhealthy, more because I'm not that bothered about it. I'd much rather have a big slice of fruit pie or cheesecake than anything chocolatey. I have been ridiculed over my ability to make a standard-size Dairy Milk bar last more than a month.
But when there's baking to be done for chocaholic friends, family or neighbours, I do rather enjoy the process of melting voluptuous waves of glossy dark chocolate in a bowl or pan, stirring its viscous form through flour, eggs, sugar, butter and whatever else finds its way in there. There's always a spoon or bowl to lick, and it always makes me wonder why I don't eat more chocolate.
Derivatives of chocolate also apply. Ganache, for example. There's something obscenely decadent about melting chocolate and swirling through delicate silky folds of double cream. I love the magic that takes place as it transforms from runny liquid to thick, smooth, spreadable icing.
Caramel is another thing that my kitchen doesn't see very often. Oddly enough, the last time I made caramel was for a savoury dish: a Vietnamese chicken and sweet potato coconut curry, that features a good dose of light caramel added to the sauce where it lends a gorgeous honeyed sweetness to the spicy coconut overtones. It sounds weird, perhaps, but it truly works. Other than that, apart from the occasional caramel for a tarte tatin, I generally don't find myself indulging in that magic alchemy of sugar, butter and cream very often.
When I do, though, how I enjoy it. There's something mesmerising about the ability of solid sugar to melt and turn golden, bubbling ferociously and combining lusciously with double cream and a little butter to form a glossy, golden mass of sweet honeyed goodness. I always add salt to my caramel, because I just don't see the reason not to: it completely enhances the taste experience, taking something just plain sweet to dizzying heights of mouth-filling richness. If your only experience of caramel has been that horrible sickly runny stuff that pours out of a commercial chocolate bar, you really need to sort your life out. Salted caramel is on another plane altogether. It's like comparing a supermarket frozen pizza with the kind churned out by an Italian pizzeria on a daily basis.
A while ago I was sent some 2012 vintage cacao beans from the wonderful Blyss Chocolate. They're Arriba Nacionale beans, grown in Ecuador, and - unlike many commercially treated cacao beans - their subtle fragrance and aroma is preserved by ensuring they are never subjected to heat over 50C. I've been meaning to try them out in a recipe for months, and while I'm incredibly excited about their apparent potential for use in savoury dishes like a chicken tagine, my initial thought was that they'd be excellent in a brownie.
You may have heard of cacao nibs before - those dark, crunchy, bitter nuggets of pure cacao that have become quite trendy recently and add wonderful texture and flavour to desserts, as well as carrying a host of purported health benefits. Chopping up my cacao beans and removing their beige, papery skin yielded basically the same thing. They have a wonderful flavour, like the darkest dark chocolate, bitter yet fragrant and aromatic, with a delicious crunch. They also have a beautiful slight purple sheen to them.
I'd seen a ridiculously decadent recipe for salted caramel brownies with cacao nibs over on the excellent Poires au Chocolat a while back, and decided that these would be perfect to show off the beautiful cacao beans to their full advantage. You make a brownie mixture by melting a load of delicious things (butter, sugar, golden syrup, chocolate) together in a pan and adding flour and eggs, then into this you swirl a glorious few dollops of salted caramel - made with sugar, cream, butter and, of course, sea salt. A scattering of the cacao nibs, and into the oven they went.
I love the way the cacao nibs look almost like rose petals strewn over the top of the brownie. The chocolate mixture turns rich and gooey, while the caramel and its salty sweetness permeates throughout. In each bite there is a beautiful blank canvas of slightly bitter dark chocolate, through which run veins of sweet and salty caramel. On top of all this gooey sweetness are the bitter crunchy cacao nibs, fragrant and delicious. Every mouthful is different.
I adapted Emma's original recipe a little - I added a bit more flour to give a more solid, chewy texture. I had to use some honey as well as golden syrup, as I ran out of the latter. I used a bit less chocolate, again because I ran out. I also almost halved the amount of sugar in the brownie mixture, because I figured the caramel would be very sweet and they might be a bit sickly otherwise. The result is perfection: the brownie isn't too sweet, it has a slight bitter tang from the 70% dark chocolate, which means the ripples of salted caramel provide a contrasting and delicious burst of sweetness, which also contrasts with the tang of the cacao nibs over the top.
Incidentally, if you don't have cacao beans to scatter over the brownies, use roughly chopped pecan nuts, as I did in another batch - the combination of toffee-scented pecans, caramel and chocolate is just ridiculously good.
I think these are the perfect vehicle to show off the beautiful cacao beans, while also being one of the most gloriously decadent things I've ever made. I have to say I enjoyed every minute of sugary, buttery, sticky, messy activity that these entailed, all the more because it's not very common in my kitchen.
This, my friends, is what happens when the trapped obese girl gets to cook. I think I should let her loose in the kitchen more often.
Salted caramel and cacao nib brownies (makes 2 batches of 20 brownies; easily halved):
(adapted from Poires au Chocolat)
For the caramel:
- 150g white caster sugar
- 100ml double cream
- 20g unsalted butter, in cubes
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
For the brownies:
- 200g unsalted butter
- 200g caster sugar
- 150g light brown sugar
- 50g golden syrup
- 60g honey
- 450g dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), broken into pieces
- 8 eggs
- 160g plain flour
- To decorate:
- 4 tbsp cacao nibs or chopped pecan nuts
Put the sugar in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan in an even layer. Heat over a medium-high heat until the edges start to melt. Swirl it around the pan occasionally (don't stir it!) until all the sugar has melted and turned golden. Place back over the heat and cook until it is a golden-bronze colour.
Quickly take the pan off the heat and whisk in half the cream, to stop the caramel cooking (I wear oven gloves to whisk the cream in, as hot caramel can spit and cause very nasty burns). Keep whisking and adding the rest of the cream as you go, then whisk in the butter and salt until smooth. Set aside to cool.
Pre-heat the oven to 160C. Grease and line two 20x20cm tins (at least 2.5cm tall) with greaseproof paper or baking parchment.
In another large saucepan (I used a Le Creuset casserole dish), add the butter, both sugars, syrup and honey. Gently heat until it is all melted together, stirring until smooth. Turn off the heat and add the chocolate, stirring until it is all evenly melted in. Whisk the eggs in a small bowl then beat into the chocolate, then finally fold in the flour and stir until smooth. Pour this mixture into the two prepared tins.
Divide the caramel between the two tins, spooning it evenly over the top of the chocolate mixture. Use a knife to lightly swirl it through the brownie batter. Scatter the cacao nibs or pecans over the top.
Bake for 20 minutes, then remove and leave to cool in the tin. When cool, slice into twenty squares per tin. Eat as they are, or with some ice cream for dessert. They can be stored in the fridge and eaten cold, and they also freeze very well.
What food would you find it hardest to give up? Sometimes, when I'm bored, I ask myself this. Because I'm gastronomically masochistic like that. I've frequently toyed with the idea of going vegetarian or even vegan for a month, just to challenge myself. In fact, I very nearly went vegan for Lent this year, until I realised that I was going on holiday to Italy slap bang in the middle of it. There's pretty much no point in going to Italy unless you're going to eat vast quantities of meat and cheese. Apparently they have some decent art and some Roman ruins and stuff, but we all know that the only reason to go to Italy is to gorge oneself on bread, cheese and meat, preferably all together in that excellent vehicle designed by the Italians to combine these things into one coherent meal: pizza.
There's one main thing that stops me embracing vegetarianism, and it isn't, as you might suspect, bacon. I'm not much of a carnivore; in fact, I have an unhealthy habit of hoarding meat in my freezer without ever actually getting round to cooking it. Currently the contents of my freezer include two chickens, four pig cheeks, two goose breasts, three grouse breasts, four pheasant breasts, a stuffed mallard, and ten rashers of bacon. (I'm sure there's some kind of breast joke in there somewhere, but I'm too mature to make it. The comments box below is designed for just such a thing).
While not a carnivorous eater, however, I am a carnivorous cook. This I think is an important distinction. I really enjoy cooking meat, especially meat that lends itself to all sorts of diverse flavours like game or lamb. I enjoy the potential for experimenting that it offers, particularly with so many different cuts for every animal. Pigs aren't just for chops and sausages, for example; pig cheeks are surprisingly delicious, as are ham hocks and ribs. I love cooking meat, though more often than not I don't actually tend to eat very much of it. But I know I would feel like a huge part of my cooking repertoire had been removed if I turned vegetarian.
Veganism would be an interesting challenge, but it's never going to happen full-time. Two words: eggs and cheese. In fact, mainly eggs. Scrambled eggs on toast is the ultimate 'can't be bothered but it will still taste delicious' dinner. When I was contemplating Lent veganism, I thought about how my usual daily intake of food would be affected. Porridge for breakfast as usual, I thought - that's totally vegan. Except it's made with milk. Soya milk is not a thing I want in my life. Lunch is usually couscous, roasted veg and feta cheese. Feta cheese is a thing I want in my life. You see where this is going.
Sometimes I think the food I'd miss most would be couscous. It struck me today that I think I've eaten couscous literally every day since I started university again in October. I'm not sure what I'd do without its comforting starchy goodness for a mid-library lunch. That said, giving up porridge might make it impossible to get out of bed in the morning. And giving up fruit would undoubtedly leave me in a state of traumatised despair, possibly with rickets and maybe also scurvy. I'd have to find something new to replace my five-a-day, and I'm pretty sure it would end up being cake.
I gave up gluten for five days back in July as part of a gluten-free blogger challenge. While it wasn't as hard as I thought, what really struck me was the myriad of places where gluten hides its wily self. Soy sauce, stock cubes, sushi and packaged salads all fell victim to the gluten plague. It made me think much more about how difficult it would be to live with a real gluten intolerance, particularly when eating out. Plus, gluten-free porridge oats are approximately one million times the price of normal porridge oats, which is not really OK. And gluten-free bread is generally one million times more cardboard-like than normal bread. However, gluten-free pasta is pretty much the same. Those are my profound conclusions from my gluten-free five days.
This cake arose out of a need for a gluten-free, lactose-free dessert. I have a friend who can't eat either, and I wanted to make her something so she didn't feel left out during a night when the rest of us were tucking into a giant apple crumble I'd made.
Unfortunately, it's surprisingly hard to find cake recipes that are both gluten- and dairy-free. Gluten-free cakes are everywhere these days now that awareness of food intolerances is much higher than it used to be, which is great. Such cakes usually replace the flour with ground almonds (or other nuts) or something like polenta. However, they nearly always use a lot of butter to compensate for the lack of that wheat-based tastiness. Dairy-free cakes, generally made with olive oil instead of butter, usually feature flour. I reckon you could substitute the butter for olive oil in the gluten-free cakes and the flour for ground nuts in the lactose-free cakes, but I wanted to be sure before embarking on a baking mission.
Fortunately, I found this excellent recipe from Nigella. I think it's actually from her latest TV series, which is impeccably good timing. I was pretty excited about the idea of a chocolate olive oil cake, but even more excited about the prospect of using some delicious mandarin-infused olive oil that I had in the cupboard (as you do). A while ago, I wrote about a nice Italian man named Mauro, who came to our house in Cambridge selling beautiful Calabrian extra-virgin olive oil. I used this delicious oil in a blood orange and cardamom syrup cake (every bit as amazing as it sounds - click and ogle the pictures), and when Mauro came back to our house a few months later he introduced me to a range of six different flavoured oils: bergamot, mandarin, chilli, balsamic vinegar with black pepper and garlic, rosemary, and lemon. Unable to choose between them, I bought all six. They're really wonderful and incredibly versatile for cooking, especially the black pepper, garlic and balsamic one which is basically an instant salad dressing. If you want more information on where to get them, click here. (Incidentally, I'm not being asked to write about these - I just really like them and wanted to share, particularly since Mauro is so friendly and sells such a brilliant product).
I hadn't had an opportunity to use the mandarin version yet, and it seemed the perfect ingredient for this cake. Obviously, chocolate and orange work very well together - those awful Terry's chocolate orange adverts have certainly immortalised that flavour pairing - so I swapped the normal oil in the recipe for the mandarin version. I also scaled down the recipe to fit a smaller cake tin, using 2/3 of Nigella's quantities.
You dissolve cocoa powder in boiling water and add vanilla, then whisk together eggs, sugar and olive oil until thick and creamy. The scent of citrus as my KitchenAid whisked the whole thing round at lightning speed was delicious. In goes the cocoa mixture, turning everything a gorgeous rich chocolate brown, followed by ground almonds, bicarbonate of soda, and salt.
I was a bit sceptical as I poured the batter into the tin, as it seemed very runny, but who am I to distrust the buxom Ms Lawson herself?
Obviously, this cake was delicious. You only have to look at the photos to see how dark and moist it is. I was quite surprised by the sheer darkness of it; it's pretty much black which is rather odd as a food colour (just try not to think that you're eating coal), but once you get past that it's just plain wonderful. The crumb is incredibly light and incredibly moist from the olive oil and almonds; it's rich and flavoursome while still remaining feather light. There's a real chocolate hit with just a hint of citrus tang from the olive oil. My cake sunk a little bit in the middle, perhaps because I scaled the recipe down, but this was more than compensated for by the flavour (also, I think it looks quite charming - a bit like it's sighing wistfully at its own goodness).
It's definitely an unusual cake and probably unlike anything you've made before. For that reason I'd urge you to try it.
It's also a fabulous recipe to have up your sleeve for anyone with allergies to either gluten or lactose (or both). It works well as an afternoon slice of cake with a cup of tea, or as a lavish dessert accompanied by some juicy red berries and - if lactose isn't an issue - a scoop of ice cream (though I think you can get very good dairy-free ice cream these days). Decorate with orange zest and a good dusting of icing sugar, and you have a beautiful decadent cake no one would guess was missing a good hit of flour and butter.
Chocolate and mandarin olive oil cake (serves 6-8):
(Adapted from Nigella Lawson's recipe here)
- 35g good quality cocoa powder (I used Green & Blacks)
- 85ml boiling water
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 100ml mandarin-infused olive oil (or other flavour/plain oil)
- 130g caster sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 100g ground almonds
- 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- Pinch of salt
Pre-heat the oven to 170C. Grease and line an 18cm springform cake tin (you could use a 20cm tin too, it will just give you a slightly flatter cake).
Sift the cocoa powder into a bowl then whisk in the boiling water to form a paste. Whisk in the vanilla then set aside to cool.
Using an electric mixer or whisk, whisk together the oil, sugar and eggs for several minutes until thick and creamy. Turn down the speed then pour in the cocoa mixture, whisking well to incorporate it. Fold in the almonds, bicarb and salt. Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin and bake for around 40 minutes, until the edges have started to pull away from the side of the tin and the top is fairly firm.
We don't really tend to think outside the box that much with clementines. Unlike oranges, which permeate our gastronomic consciousness in all manifestations, clementines seem generally reserved, in the popular mindset, simply for raw eating, usually around Christmas. The few times clementines have cropped up on my culinary radar in other guises, they seem wildly exotic. I noticed cartons of clementine juice on the shelf in M&S a while back, which held a great allure for me simply because of its novelty factor. It is also, I suspect, a cunning ploy to charge twice the price for it because of said novelty; a bit like the fact that you can buy 'Pink Lady apple juice' and pay through the nose for the privilege of having a branded apple pulverised inside your carton.
Sometimes they crop up in baking - Nigella's clementine cake is justly famous around the world (and by 'the world', I mean 'recipe books and the internet', because that is my world), although I don't think it was Nigella who invented it; Claudia Roden has a version too, and versions abound everywhere under different titles and with a couple of ingredients added or tweaked.
The basic principle is always the same - boil clementines (or oranges) in water until soft, then smash in a blender with ground almonds, eggs, sugar and other good things to make a fabulously moist, orangey cake. Sometimes you see clementines in savoury cooking, but usually only where you'd otherwise find oranges - with duck, for example - rather than in any wildly novel pairing.
I've often thought that the clementine is the fruit I'm most fussy about. Sure, I like apples to be crisp without a hint of woolliness, but generally I find them edible in most shapes and forms. I like pineapple to be super-sweet without that mouth-puckering astringency, but I'll still tolerate it if it's a bit sour. Mango - ideally ripe and dripping with marigold juice, but I'll still settle for one rather firmer and with a hint of a chalky texture; these can be pleasant too, in their own way.
Bananas I enjoy when green (though my gran always swore these would give me headaches), but I'll still eat them riper than that, when really hungry. Soft fruit - raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries - is rarely inedible once given the room-temperature-and-sugar treatment. Papaya you can't go wrong with, really - I don't think the notion of an overripe papaya even exists in my consciousness. Pears can still be nice even if you've misinterpreted their state of ripeness; glassy and crunchy, they can be rather refreshing, albeit less perfumed and succulent than when truly ripe and dripping.
But the clementine? I reckon only 50% of the time a clementine gets it right.
I honestly believe I can tell a good clementine by sight. Sometimes I need the additional confirmation of picking it up, but generally I have a good idea how it's going to taste by how it looks. The skin should be quite thin, clinging desperately and lovingly to the flesh of the segments inside, rather than bulging out - this suggests lots of air spaces in between, which means the clementine has started to dry up and the segments are puckering unpleasantly. The best specimens are usually quite small, which means they are less watery and more full of sweet, tart juice. The clementine should feel swollen in the hand, bulging out against its skin, which should be taut and shiny.
I've had some really horrible clementines in my time. Nothing worse than biting into a segment to have your mouth filled with hideously flavourless juice, often with a slightly stale taste about it. Nothing worse than segments which are pale and puckered. A clementine should be tart, almost sour, but sweet at the same time. It should be irresistibly moreish - when you find a good batch, you should be able to contemplate eating eight in a single sitting.
A few weeks ago I was sent a box of such clementines by ClemenGold, a South African company specialising in exceptionally delicious clementines grown around the world. They have selection criteria for their fruit that are even fussier than I am: 48% juice content; 11% sugar level; acidity between 0.7 and 1.3%; each fruit containing no more than three seeds. This formula adds up to a clementine that is truly special, with just the right balance of sweetness and tartness. They're also easy to peel and virtually seedless, which is a bonus.
Apparently they're technically Nadorcott mandarins, though only the best get given the ClemenGold trademark. I'm still not entirely sure of the difference between a clementine, a tangerine, a satsuma, and a mandarin (can anyone enlighten me?) apart from the fact that mandarins are the ones you find in tins, and I think generally mandarins are a bit tarter than clementines. But they all get subjected to my sight-test criteria, and the same rules apply to them all.
When I say I was sent 'a box', perhaps 'a crate' would be more accurate. The most gigantic treasure trove of orange orbs arrived in the post, leading me to wonder if perhaps the company had mistaken me for a wholesaler. There must have been at least 200 fruits in said box. However, this may also have been a clever marketing ploy, because I was forced to distribute clementines to everyone I know so as not to waste them (much as I love a good clementine, even I am not a citrus-ingesting machine), and everyone who tried them was as wowed as I was. I'm pretty sure I must be single-handedly responsible for a spike in sales.
Should you wish to pursue these luscious orbs and inject a little edible sunshine into your own kitchen/mouth, they sell them at Asda, Morrisons, Booths (posh northern supermarket; can't wait til I move to York next week); Sainsburys and Waitrose. I bought some more yesterday, which are much larger than the original ones, but still have that excellent sweet-tart flavour, so I can (sort of) vouch for their consistency.
Should you ever find yourself in the privileged position of possessing a box of 200 clementines, I would obviously suggest eating them raw with gluttonous abandon, but if you want to do something a bit more creative, have a look at the recipe suggestions on the ClemenGold site, or do what I was just criticising (sorry for my gastronomic hypocrisy) and use them as you would oranges. In baking. In the form of mini muffins.
These are a simple cake batter, infused with clementine zest, a little honey, and some finely chopped rosemary. Don't ask me why; I just had an inkling that rosemary and clementines would work well together (and they do). I promise you it's not overly herbal or strange, just fragrant and delicious. The tops are smeared in a little molten white chocolate for added sweetness to complement the rosemary and citrus.
The best part is that they are tiny and adorable, with their little hats of white chocolate and clementine zest. This is also the worst part, because they are incredibly moreish and easy to eat in large batches, so you may hate yourself afterwards.
But it's nearly autumn now, and we need to fatten up for the winter, so here's a lovely clementine-inspired way of doing it.
Clementine, rosemary and white chocolate mini muffins (makes around 30):
(You can also bake these as normal-sized cupcakes, in which case the mixture makes 12)
- 150g butter, at room temperature
- 100g caster sugar
- 2 tbsp clear honey
- 3 medium eggs
- 150g self-raising flour, sifted
- Zest of 2 large clementines
- 1 tbsp very finely chopped rosemary
- 60g white chocolate
- Clementine zest, to decorate (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 190C/170C fan oven. Line three 12-cup mini muffin tins with mini muffin paper cases (you may not need them all).
Beat the butter, sugar and honey together in a large bowl using an electric whisk, until the mixture is light and fluffy (about 3-5 minutes). Add the eggs and flour, then beat until smooth. Stir in the clementine zest and chopped rosemary.
Divide the mixture between the paper cases - a scant teaspoonful in each should do it - and bake for 10 minutes until just risen and slightly golden - they should be firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a wire rack.
When cool, melt the white chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water (don't let the bowl touch the water), then spoon a little over the top of each muffin. Finish, if you like, with a sprinkling of more clementine zest.
I've started bookmarking recipes in new cookbooks as soon as I first read through them, to make it easier to find them later on. I take this a bit too seriously, having created a geeky colour scheme of page markers (blue for fish, green for vegetarian, pink for desserts, purple for meat...) to categorise the recipes. It's lucky I'm going back to university in October, really, isn't it?
This recipe was bookmarked immediately. Just the title had my mouth watering in anticipation.
Perhaps because it just rolls off the tongue in this incredibly sexy fashion. Perhaps because the word 'chocolate' is effortlessly inviting, conjuring up images of dark, sweet, melting goodness; of the voluptuous flow of a chocolate fountain or the warm, molten centre of a chocolate truffle. There's something beautiful about the word 'marsala', too, its soft sounds reminiscent of a seductive whisper, a romantic sigh, the letters curling around each other like slumbering lovers.
I've always been fascinated by cooking with chocolate. It's not a new concept; the Aztecs used it in this way before we Europeans got hold of the stuff and pumped it full of fat and sugar. You still find chocolate used as an ingredient in some savoury Mexican cooking. I've been experimenting with its deep, tannic richness recently, finding it a perfect partner for smoked duck, caramelised pears and goats cheese in this beautiful salad, though it's also commonly paired with venison. If you use good quality dark chocolate, it can add an intriguing complexity of flavour to a dish; a hint of bitterness, a touch of fragrance, a soft and melting mouthfeel.
The scent emanating from the pan as I stirred this heady mixture was intoxicating. The combination of spicy fennel, warm cinnamon and perfumed bay is unusual, wonderfully fragrant in a way that manages to be both sweet and savoury simultaneously. The pine nuts toast, offering up their nutty aroma, while the onions soften into translucent slivers.
To this you add a generous amount of marsala, or medium sherry (I went for the latter as marsala is pretty expensive). The duck legs sit in this sauce, covered, for around 45 minutes, braising gently away while infusing all of their meaty liquor into the sherry.
The finishing touch, once the duck is cooked, is to stir some dark chocolate into the sauce, where it melts and colours the whole thing a deep, dark brown. Being dark chocolate, it lends more of a bitterness than a sweetness to the mixture, which is already quite sweet from the alcohol, rounding off the complex mixture of spices, nuts and raisins. It also thickens the sauce, turning it glossy and unctuous. I stirred in a little parsley at the end, to lend its welcome freshness to the whole affair.
The recipe suggests no other accompaniment than plain couscous or wilted spinach, owing to the complexity of the flavours. I'd have to agree. I served my duck with bulgar wheat (slightly nuttier and chewier than couscous, so a good match for the strong sauce) and the suggested spinach, which worked perfectly.
I'm hoping I don't even need to tell you how unusual and delicious this dish is, because the title has already caught your eye, like it caught mine, and made you think "Right. I can go no longer without this in my life". It's just a fabulous combination of ingredients that work in total harmony. It's sweet yet bitter with cocoa, it bursts with juicy raisins and the crunch of toasted nuts, it melts in your mouth like chocolate. It doesn't overpower the rich flavour of the duck meat, instead complementing it perfectly and allowing its iron-rich gameyness to shine. It is incredibly rich, though, so a little sauce goes a long way. In future I might try it with pan-fried rare duck breasts, which are less intense in flavour than the legs.
I'm not going to give you a recipe, unfortunately, as I cooked the dish word-for-word from the Bocca cookbook, and I think it would probably infringe some kind of copyright to replicate it exactly on this blog. But do go out and buy Jacob Kennedy's excellent book; you'll find far more delights than just this gorgeous dish nestling in between its hallowed pages.
Three layers of dense, dark, cocoa-rich chocolate cake. Interlaced with layers of silky, creamy dark chocolate ganache. The entire thing smothered in more ganache, lovingly applied and smoothed with a palette knife in an attempt to achieve a flawless, mirror-smooth finish. Like a chocolate ice rink. Topped with fresh, glistening strawberries pointing upwards like a delicious crimson mountain range, their peaks slicked with glossy apricot glaze to make them shimmer. Finished with bright green mint leaves for a hint of spring, and a dusting of snowy icing sugar. The concentrated aroma of cocoa, a product of the intense chocolate content, wafting in glorious seductive waves around this magnificent creation.
I made this for my mum, because she is awesome.
Perhaps I should have bought her a nauseating card from Clintons with some soppy rhyme on, proclaiming her to be the ‘world’s best mum’. Maybe a matching keyring, or one of those disgusting little grey soft-toy bears clutching a blue heart (which, now that you think about it, is really creepy. Why is the heart blue? Is the bear secretly implying that although he loves you, he is going to asphyxiate you at the first opportunity, pluck out your wasted, oxygen-starved organ and thrust it out for the world to see?)
Maybe I could have treated her to a ‘spa day’, but to be honest I can’t imagine anything she’d enjoy less. Enforced relaxation is definitely not my mum’s cup of tea. I could have made her breakfast in bed, but she’d have looked at me like I was mad and worried about the crumbs. Besides, I wouldn’t have woken up in time. Maybe I could have bought her some more of the expensive Crabtree & Evelyn stuff that she likes, but to be honest I can never bring myself to pay their extortionate prices, because I used to work there when I was sixteen and get 50% discount, so paying full price as a pleb hurts me somehow.
I could have bought one of those hugely expensive bouquets of flowers from M&S, but I know deep down mum would be thinking about what a waste of money it is, so buy expensive flowers when they still die like cheap ones. Thrift is practically her middle name. She’s got a glut of chocolate left over from Christmas (which always makes an appearance after dinner, no matter how full she proclaims she is, and how little of my lovingly handmade desserts she fails to eat because of said fullness), and I don’t really want to buy her jewellery because it’s not easy to pick something that’s exactly to someone’s taste.
So, naturally, I decided to tell my mum that I love her in the best way I know. With food.
There are many reasons why my mum is great. Not least that she puts up with me living at home, getting in the way and leaving my stuff everywhere. She doesn’t go too mad when I leave used (only for non-noxious substances like bread) freezer bags in the drawer in the name of recycling, which results in her using one for her toothbrush and it emerging covered in damp bread crumbs, all nestled into the gaps between the bristles and looking pretty vile. She allows my weird cooking experiments to sit in various places in the house (Christmas pudding still up in the loft, ‘maturing’, sourdough starter stashed in the airing cupboard, sloe gin ripening in the living room) and no longer really bats an eyelid when I announce we’re having something like octopus or pig’s cheeks for dinner.
Generally, she’s pretty good at putting up with me. My first memory of severely disappointing her was, I think, from primary school. For some utterly inane reason completely oblivious to me now, I’d decided that the multicoloured screwdrivers we had in the science lab at school were so pretty that I just had to take them home with me (Mrs Messenger, if you’re reading this, I’m really sorry. Honestly. But they were so shiny...) Some of my friends also helped themselves to various supplies, and there must have been a phone call home because I remember my mum in tears at the outlandish antics of her normally so well-behaved daughter, clearly believing this was the starting point of a rapid, inevitable and deeply tragic descent into a life of petty larceny.
Well, it wasn’t, fortunately. But it was by no means the last incident involving me in trouble. A few years later, I found my email access blocked at school and I was hauled before several teachers and told I was a “liability”. The cause of all this outrage? I had sent - without really thinking about the implications and assuming that all the rubbish the IT department came out with about our emails being scanned and recorded was nonsense to scare us into meek and boring submission - an email to my then ‘boyfriend’ (in quotation marks because I was at this point fourteen and we all know that the silly hormonal whims of fourteen year olds cannot be legitimated by this term) describing my P.E. teacher as a “red-faced lesbian”.
To this day, what I find absolutely hilarious about this episode is that the school knew straight away which teacher I was referring to.
Anyway, my mum was summoned before the headmistress to be given an account of my shocking behaviour. I cycled home that day in trepidation, terrified at the reaction awaiting me, terrified at another crying incident like the one with the screwdrivers.
Instead my mum opened the front door, looked at me, and burst out laughing.
This is why she is awesome.
Naturally, I turn to her for advice on all the important decisions in life. Do these sunglasses make me look too much like an insect? Should I spend nearly £200 on a single pair of shoes? She was an invaluable help at seeing me through my first (and, consequently, most gut-wrenchingly terrible) break up a few years ago. Yes, obviously it was helpful that she put up with the constant weeping, wailing and proclamations that my life was over and that I’d never love again.
But what was most helpful was when she promised to buy me an Urban Decay eyeliner if I could go a whole day without crying. It worked an absolute charm, kick-starting me on the road to recovery and heart mending. I still have it. It’s gold.
Then another eyeliner was promised if I lasted a week. Admittedly, that one took a lot longer to achieve, but I managed. It was blue, but unfortunately I had it confiscated at airport security on a trip to Barcelona. Should probably have realised that liquid eyeliner counts as a liquid, and therefore can’t go in your hand luggage. Sad times.
There are other crises that my mother has seen me through. Like the time when I burned my hand so badly on chillies that I lay in bed desperately clutching a fridge-cold bottle of cider (I'm sure she was relieved to find out that I was simply in agonising pain, rather than the kind of teenager who sleeps embracing her liquor), moaning piteously and crying because it was so damn painful. It really was, though. It felt like someone had forced me to take a pan out of the oven without wearing oven gloves, and they were just making me hold onto it. She sat there with me, waiting for NHS Direct to phone back and confirm that no, I wasn't likely to go into anaphylactic shock, and enduring my self-indulgent whimperings. Eventually I fell asleep; no such luck for Mum, who had to wait for the nurse to call back and allay her(/my) fears.
There was a similar incident with a wasp sting on my leg that turned my left thigh into something resembling a huge, pink, quivering, gelatinous ham. It was approximately 70% larger than its normal size, throbbing and warm and mottled with alarming white spots. I'm pretty sure I sent her a gruesome photo to prove that I wasn't just making a fuss.
Or the time I woke her up in the middle of the night having such a bad pre-Finals panic attack that I was completely and seriously convinced that I had gone into cardiac arrest and was going to die, vomit and explode simultaneously. Of course, none of these things happened and if they had she would have been unlikely to prevent them, but the moral support helped immensely. Though I still feel bad for waking her up.
I like to think I inherited my cake-baking skills from my mum, who has made us the most incredible birthday cakes every year until recently, when I think she deemed us too old (or maybe me being at university kind of put a spanner in the works). Each year, we’d get a birthday caked designed and decorated around whatever phase we were going through at the time. When I was seven, I was absolutely fascinated by ancient Egypt. The pharaohs, the pyramids, the tombs, the sarcophagi, the Nile. I even taught myself how to read hieroglyphics, which I now realise was probably why I didn’t have many friends in primary school. Mum made me a pyramid cake, white with little blue hieroglyphics drawn all down the sides. When I was obsessed with tamagotchis (oh come on, who wasn’t? OK, maybe I took it a bit too far. Especially because I had ten. All strung up on this one keyring that must have weighed an absolute ton to carry around. Real life motherhood can surely be no harder), I had a tamagotchi cake, meticulously researched with the screen an exact replica of a real-life one. Fortunately it was less noisy and demanding – the only thing this bad boy demanded was to be eaten. The cakes carried on over the years – Disney must have had a special place in my heart, as I had two Disney cakes consecutively. Yes, I was sixteen and seventeen. One was a magic carpet with little plastic Aladdin figurines.
I also attribute to her my academic success. Every year when it came to that grim time, exam season, she’d take me to WH Smith and we’d load up a basket brimming with coloured and flamboyant stationery – the kind of thing you’ll probably never need or use but really, really want anyway for the sheer frivolity of it. Colour coded. Heart-shaped. Fancy highlighters. It made revision so much more bearable, almost a joy.
Actually, it might be the fact that I’m capable of seeing revision as a ‘joy’ that is the reason for my academic success. But I’m sure the stationery helped.
She also maintained that when one is doing exams, one needs ‘nice things’ to help them through it. So the desk was loaded with fancy stationery, while the fridge and larder were loaded with treats. From M&S, naturally. There were yum yums – those amazing long doughnut twists, which I used to love because I’d nibble off the flaky, crystallised sugar before eating the squidgy, sweet dough underneath. There was madeira cake, dense and sweet and crumbly. Crumpets, which I still consider one of the ultimate comfort foods. Probably a load of other vastly unhealthy and processed stuff which I now wouldn’t consider food at all, let alone comfort food: Frazzles, those bacon-flavoured yet simultaneously vegetarian crisps; plasticky white bread; doughnuts.
The treats, unlike the homemade birthday cakes, did continue well into my university career. The brownies sent the week before my finals probably prevented some kind of mental meltdown in the middle of Exam Schools. The enormous bouquet of flowers I like to think sat in my room and absorbed all the negative energy from my quaking anxious form. Yes, I realise that actually that is not scientifically possible and the only thing plants do absorb from the air is carbon dioxide, but I’m sure they assimilated a significant amount of pain and woe along with my bitter, suffering exhalations, trapping it in their pretty pink petals and thus preventing numerous crises.
This cake is quite a thing of beauty.
It's also the kind of thing I would NEVER normally make, being approximately 90% saturated fat. I'm also not much of a chocoholic, generally preferring fruit-based confections over the cocoa kind (not, I should point out, out of any delusion that they're healthier, just because I am a fiend for fruit of all shapes and guises). But I was reading last month's delicious magazine, and Mum pointed to the photo of this cake and said it looked amazing. I retained this information and decided to proffer the whole thing, in all its chocolatey, calorific glory, to her on Mothers Day.
Is there an apostrophe in Mothers Day? If so, where does it go? Is it the day of every single mother individually, their uniqueness maintained, so Mother's Day? Or is it the day for all mothers, Mothers' Day? I feel it could be either. This is exactly the same dilemma I had with goats'/goat's cheese. Oh how these things haunt my poor tormented soul.
Anyway, ramblings of my inner grammarian aside, this cake is very nearly epic. I won't claim it's really epic, because every time I hear that word colloquially massacred I can hear the rumblings of Homer turning in his grave. But it's quite a feat of engineering, though not that difficult to make at all.
Three chocolate sponges - fairly straightforward but using buttermilk as a component, which is interesting - interspersed and covered in chocolate ganache. I've never made ganache before and probably never will again, because my arteries started to quiver in horror as I stirred together the block of butter, two-and-a-half bars of chocolate and pot of double cream in a bowl. Oh, wait. There was golden syrup in there too.
OK, I say all that about how unhealthy it was and how I'd never touch it. But someone had to lick the bowl clean and there was no one else in the house, so...
Anyway, once the ganache has cooled and set, you can smother it - literally SMOTHER; if the cake was a human it would be blue and shrivelled - all over the sponges, which is great fun.
The cake in the magazine was decorated with edible flowers, but I thought strawberries would look just gorgeous against the chocolatey backdrop. Plus the cake isn't actually that sweet - all the chocolate is at least 70% cocoa solids and the ganache barely has any sugar in - so I figured their sweet tartness would be the perfect foil. It was, and I'm glad I put them on, as I think the cake would need some sort of berry with it to complement the total decadence that is three layers of dark chocolate sponge doused in dark chocolate ganache. I glazed the strawberries with a little melted apricot jam to keep them glossy, shiny and inviting (Moroccan strawberries need all the help they can get, to be honest). The mint leaves were the finishing touch, to give it a bit of colour contrast.
As I'm sure you can guess from the photos and my continual descriptions of chocolate smothering, this cake is divine. It is, as I said, not too sweet, which is a good thing I think as it allows the cocoa flavour to really shine. It's a great contrast in textures between the silky, melt-in-your-mouth ganache and the sturdier moist sponge. It also looks utterly, utterly fabulous, particularly with the strawberry decoration.
Be warned that it is very rich, very delicious, very chocolatey, and will serve a lot of people. I'd also recommend keeping it in the fridge between devourings. I think it should probably freeze quite well though, so fear not. Really, there's no excuse not to make this. It's spectacular and tastes every bit as good as it looks.
There is no better way of spreading love, I truly believe, than via the medium of calories. If that is true, then I must love my Mum an awful lot. Almost as much as she loved this cake, I hope.
Triple-layer chocolate ganache cake with strawberries (serves 10-12)
(Recipe by Edd Kimber, taken from delicious magazine April 2012 issue)
For the cakes:
- 110g unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing
- 110g good quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
- 280ml boiling water
- 3 tbsp good quality cocoa powder
- 140ml buttermilk
- 280g plain flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 340g light brown soft sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 medium free-range eggs, lightly beaten
For the ganache:
- 225g unsalted butter
- 285g good quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
- 2 tbsp golden syrup
- 240ml double cream
- 2 punnets strawberries
- 4 tsp apricot jam
- Mint leaves
- Icing sugar, for dusting
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/fan 160C. Grease and line three loose-based 20cm cake tins. Melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water (don't let the water touch the bowl), then set aside to cool slightly. In a medium bowl or measuring jug, whisk together the boiling water and cocoa until smooth. Whisk in the buttermilk then set aside.
Using an electric mixer or hand whisk, cream together the butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy (about 5 minutes, though I left my KitchenAid happily beating away for ten). Add the eggs a little at a time, beating until fully combined.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Turn the mixer speed to slow and pour in the cooled melted chocolate. Once fully combined, alternately add a little of the flour and buttermilk mixtures, starting and finishing with the flour. Divide between the three prepared tins and bake for 25-30 minutes until springy to the touch. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely.
Before making the icing, get the cream out of the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature.
For the ganache, melt the butter, chocolate and golden syrup in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water, as before. Once melted, stir to combine and remove from the heat. Allow to cool to room temperature, and when it is the same temperature as the double cream, slowly stir the cream into the cooled chocolate (they must be the same temperature, roughly, or the mixture may seize and turn lumpy). Leave for 10-15 minutes until it has thickened enough to spread on the cake.
Place the first sponge on the plate you want to serve the cake on, and spread with just under a third of the ganache. Place the second sponge on top, then repeat. Smother the rest of the ganache over the cake, smoothing it with a palette knife.
Cut the leafy end off the strawberries so they'll stand upright. Arrange on top of the cake in the ganache, then leave the ganache to set fully (I left mine overnight, but a couple of hours should do the trick). When set, melt the apricot jam in a small ramekin in the microwave, then brush over the strawberries to glaze. Decorate with mint leaves and dust with icing sugar.
Serve to someone (or lots of people, preferably - this is one massive cake) you love, and make them smile.
I'm generally quite good at suppressing the need for a chocolate biscuit to go with my cup of tea. To me, a cup of tea is a highly important entity in itself, not merely the support act for the headlining baked good. It's why I'm always slightly wary of accepting a proffered cup of tea - unless I know I'll be able to drink it slowly, in a civilised fashion, sipping it daintily at first so as not to scorch my tongue, then proceeding to take larger, though still restrained and relaxed, gulps, all the while able to put my mug down and take a nice deep breath in between mouthfuls, I won't accept. It's why I would never have a cup of tea when sailing on HMS Tracker during my time in the Oxford University Royal Naval Unit.
OK, so the fact that we had to drink inferior tea with milk that had previously been in the freezer, out of questionably clean mugs with a piece of clingfilm over the top to stop the tea spilling everywhere at sea didn't really whet my appetite for a brew, but the main reason was that I knew I wouldn't be able to give it the attention it deserved.
It's why if I know an appointment is going to last only ten minutes, I'm not going to say yes to the beverage proffered politely by the person I'm meeting - by the time we're finished, the tea would have just about cooled down to drinking point, and I'd have to leave without drinking it. It's why if I'm told "we'll have a cup of tea, and then we'll [insert strenuous and time-consuming task here] as soon as we're finished", I'm not going to indulge in said cup of tea, because I know that everyone else will down it like a glass of water and start working, while I look like a slacker because I want to sit there for a while and concentrate on the sheer joy that is a cup of tea.
A good cup of tea should be savoured as it is, with no time limit, with no other tasks to distract from its relaxation-giving properties - except perhaps reading a magazine or, in my case, writing a blog post. For me, reaching for the Yorkshire Tea tin doesn't automatically necessitate a reach for the biscuit or chocolate tin. I treat tea almost as a meal in itself; it can be remarkably satisfying if you have a growling stomach, sating the appetite for half an hour or so and allowing you to get through the long gap between lunch and dinner without snacking.
Yet having said all this, sometimes, just occasionally, I like to have some form of baked good with my cup of tea. Usually because it's been a very long afternoon, lunch was hours ago and dinner is hours away and I need an energy boost. Maybe because I'm planning to go to the gym after said cup of tea, and know I won't be fully productive without a little bit of food to line my stomach. Whatever the reason, I like to have something to hand that I can nibble on should this need arise.
To this end, I'm always looking for vaguely healthy recipes for baked goods that I can justify eating halfway through the afternoon. Firstly, I just don't have the metabolism to be able to eat cake every day. Secondly, it's well-known that eating sugary things in the afternoon gives you that sought-after energy boost, but it's swiftly followed by a sugar low that leaves you feeling sluggish and tired. Not ideal unless you're able to have a little nap. In an ideal world, I would eat the cake and then have a nap.
I love naps. I'm lucky in that I'm one of those people who is able to nap and then wake up able to carry on with the day, rather than one of those people who either lie down for a nap and wake up six hours later, or lie down for a nap and then wake up feeling even more tired than they were before and consequently unable to do anything at all except scowl at the world. I fully credit the role of naps in enabling me to get a First from Oxford. For the two months or so that I spent in a hellish pit of despair revising for my Finals, naps were pivotal in preventing me from hurling myself off a dreaming spire, textbooks in hand.
This is one of the many reasons why I'm afraid of entering the world of work. The Real World. Exiting the Oxford Bubble. I just don't think, in any normal job, my boss would take too kindly to me heading off for a little snooze after lunch. This I see as a real problem with working life. I suspect I'm not the only person in the world who is immeasurably more productive if they have a short power nap after lunch. It seems ridiculous that employers don't offer beds where employees can have a short snooze if they so wish, to enable them to return to work at their full potential, rather than half asleep. Millions of pounds are lost every year due to the inability of employees to nap; I'm sure of it.
So, for those days when I'm not able to curl up on my bed and doze away mid-afternoon, there are these courgette, chocolate and cardamom brownies.
I normally get a bit annoyed at the notion of "healthy" cake recipes. I spend a lot of time at the moment flicking through the
app on my iPhone - it shows you a gorgeous gallery of beautiful food photos from bloggers all over the world, with a short blurb under each to tell you what the recipe is. I'm inevitably sucked in by delicious-looking cakes that purport to be "healthy", only to find that the reason they've declared themselves so is because they contain fruit. There's still the oodles of butter/cream, sugar and white flour that constitute a normal cake, but apparently the inclusion of some apples or peaches negates this. Or, another common one, the recipe just uses oil instead of butter. Perhaps a little less high in saturated fat - but it's still FAT, people. Disappointed, I move on, declining to add them to my 'Favourites' (naturally, the ultimate rebuff for any recipe writer).
It's the same when I read cake books that include recipes involving vegetables, and then automatically declare them to be "healthy". Yes, a beetroot chocolate cake might be marginally healthier than a normal chocolate cake because of the inclusion of veg, but it's still not exactly healthy. Ditto carrot cake - there's enough oil in a slice of that to deep-fry a portion of chips. To me, a healthy cake is one that has less butter, sugar and white flour in it than your average cake. If it has fruit or veg too, even better, but don't show me a piece of carrot cake and suggest it's almost as good for you as eating some carrots.
So when I found this "healthy" brownie recipe on foodgawker, I was delighted. Not only is it fat-free, it also contains lots of veg and you have the option of using wholemeal or spelt flour. Admittedly it still has a fair bit of sugar in it, but you can't have everything. As chocolate cakes go, this is probably as nutritious as you can get. You could think about replacing the sugar with a healthier alternative, like honey or agave nectar. I'm not even sure the recipe needs the full amount, but I've listed it below for people with more of a sweet tooth - go ahead and adapt away if you'd like.
I admit, I was sceptical. I've read recipes for courgette and chocolate cakes before, and everyone is always adamant that they're delicious, but I just couldn't imagine how courgette would taste in cake form. It shouldn't sound that weird, really - it's only the same principle as carrot cake, but with the addition of chocolate. As the vegetable cooks, its natural sugars bolster the sweetness in the cake and its juices add a lovely moisture to the texture. Courgette is renowned for being quite watery, and this results in the most incredible gooey, delicious texture when it's baked into cake or bread.
These are, quite honestly, amazing. The texture is not as dense and fudgy as a full-on, buttery, sugary chocolate brownie, but it still has a gooey centre where the chocolate chips all melt together. The rest is light and cakey. The courgette is completely undetectable in flavour; you can see tiny green flecks in the cake, but they're the only indication of its presence. Instead, it contributes a delicious moistness to the brownie and a slight sweetness that's heightened by dark brown sugar and chocolate chips. This recipe really is ingenious; you'd never guess there was no fat in it, but a clever combination of egg and apple purée binds the mixture together without the need for butter or oil.
The cardamom and pistachio flavouring lifts this basic chocolate goodness to another level. I can't get enough of the pairing of chocolate and cardamom, ever since I first coupled the two in a mousse with coffee. The spice, with its citrus notes, lightens the rich dark flavour of the chocolate, and gives an incredibly moreish flavour to the brownie. The pistachios on top just add a delicious crunch and a deep, savoury nutty flavour.
I'd urge you to try this recipe. You'll never guess it's ever-so-slightly good for you, and I'd go so far as to say I almost prefer it to a normal brownie, because it has that beautiful contrast between airy, light cake and dense chocolate pockets where the chocolate chips melt into the batter. A couple of squares with a cup of tea are about as close to chocolate heaven as I have ever been. However, these are also delicious warm from the oven with some good vanilla ice cream for dessert. They're even better if you leave them for a couple of days, because they become even more moist and gooey in the centre.
Yet as with all 'healthy' baked goods, there is a problem - the overwhelming temptation to eat the entire tin because it's 'good for you'. A word of caution: yes, these are vaguely healthy, but probably not if you eat them all at once.
"Healthy" cakes - a great idea, or impossible and against the spirit of cake? What do you think? Do you have any healthy cake recipes you're particularly fond of?
Courgette, chocolate and cardamom brownies (makes 16-20 pieces):
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 90g light muscovado sugar
- 90g dark muscovado sugar
- 1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and finely diced, simmered with a little water to make a thick purée
- 150g spelt flour
- 45g unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp cinnamon
- 8-10 cardamom pods, seeds removed and crushed to a powder in a pestle and mortar
- 2 large courgettes, grated
- 100g dark chocolate chips
- A large handful of pistachios, roughly chopped
- Pre-heat the oven to 175C. Grease and line a 20x20cm baking tin, or brownie tin, with baking parchment.
Whisk together the eggs, vanilla, salt, sugar and apple purée. Sift in the flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon and ground cardamom and mix with a large spoon to combine.
Fold in the grated courgettes and chocolate chips so they're mixed evenly into the batter. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and scatter over the pistachios. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the brownie has set and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin, then cut into squares to serve.
(Adapted from food + words, here)
I didn't eat chocolate until I was about fifteen years old. If I'd ever had to play that irritating "tell us your name and an interesting fact about yourself" game at that age, that would have been my interesting fact, largely because it always met with such sheer astonishment. People, especially my peers and teachers, were aghast. However, when considered on the spectrum of other things I didn't eat, it perhaps wasn't that strange, considering I also refused to consume most basic foodstuffs. I remember going on a French exchange at the age of about fourteen; the family wrote to me before I visited, asking if I had any dietary requirements. I wrote back, in French, a long list of things I wouldn't eat, including "pâtes et riz": pasta and rice. I can just picture the poor family's reaction as they opened this missive. It was fortunate that I didn't also say "fromage et boeuf", or they may have refused me entry to France altogether. That said, maybe that would have been a blessing: my exchange partner was an utterly bizarre human being, with eyebrows too enormous to be fully comprehensible, and a lingering body odour.
I didn't eat sweets, either. I remember I was once handed a sweet at a friend's birthday party when I was quite young. The other kids shrieked in delight and rapidly consumed their sugary lozenges. I contemplated mine for several minutes, feeling its smooth oblong contours and gazing curiously at the tiny bubbles of air trapped in the amber-like exterior. I didn't know what to do with it; giving it away would clearly reveal my awful secret dislike of sweets and no doubt cause endless social stigma for years to come. I would be friendless. I would be shunned by the sweet-eating cool kids, relegated to a lonely corner of the playground and pelted with sweet wrappers every break time. Yet I couldn't bring myself to ingest this alien, lurid, fructose-laden pellet of woe. Instead, when I was sure no one was looking, I scuffed a hole in the gravel driveway outside my friend's house with my shoe, and buried the sweetie under the pebbles with the same furtive glances and guilty conscience as if I were burying a freshly murdered corpse (I imagine).
I have absolutely no idea what finally caused me to try chocolate, nor do I remember my reaction upon first tasting it. Did I find it strange? Was it something I had to be weaned onto before addiction struck, like cigarettes? (Mother, if you're reading this, I am only speculating - tobacco has never passed my lips). Or was I instantly in love? I wish I could remember. Was it a good quality bar of the finest dark stuff that first got me hooked on cocoa? Or was it something in foil from a box of Celebrations? Probably the latter. I do remember, though, that quite soon after I found chocolate, I found Twirl bars. I loved the way the outer hard casing gave way to that irresistibly flaky, melt-in-the-mouth, crumbly chocolate centre. These were a favourite of mine for a while; I think it was probably a good couple of years or so before I enjoyed real dark chocolate. Though I still have a soft spot for the commercial, sugar-heavy variety. Sometimes nothing hits the spot quite like a square of Cadburys fruit and nut.
That said, I am still not what you'd call a chocoholic. My friends know this; they are constantly bemoaning the fact that a box of Ferrero Rocher that I received for my birthday seven months ago still sits, over half full, in my bedroom (and the only reason it isn't more full is because they help themselves to it every time they visit, convinced they're doing me a favour). It's not that I don't really like chocolate; I just like it in very small doses. I love Ferrero Rocher, but I'm just pretty good with willpower. Very rarely will I get a sudden craving for a big bar of chocolate; if I do, a couple of mouthfuls will normally sate said craving, especially if it's dark chocolate, which I find so flavoursome and intense I can only stomach a couple of bites. It's a different story for those Lindor truffles or the easter bunnies in gold wrapping, though...I could easily polish off a whole one if I didn't have aforementioned willpower of steel (you need it, to write a food blog).
Chocolate just isn't something I go completely mad for. I would never order a chocolate-based dessert in a restaurant, and I rarely bake them either. I much prefer fruit-based desserts, largely because they're often more exciting and inventive, and because I love fruit more than I love chocolate. Fruity desserts possess that necessary tartness required to balance out creaminess or sugar; chocolatey desserts all too often err on the side of sickliness. Give me a ripe mango or pear over a box of Lindor any day. Weird, but true. I crave chocolate maybe once a month, and I can't eat it without a cup of tea or coffee - I hate the way it coats your mouth; you need hot liquid to dissolve it from between your teeth or your mouth just feels horrible. This is good, because it means I'm unlikely to eat chocolate on a whim; I have to really sit down and take my time over it, alternating sips of steaming tea with little nibbles of sugary goodness. It takes me, on average, over a week to eat a normal, small bar of Dairy Milk, the kind most people would wolf down without a second thought mid-afternoon. People find this absurd and infuriating, but that's just me.
Fruit is better than chocolate in my opinion. However, when you combine the two, you have something incredibly special, far more than the sum of its parts. Many fruits pair extremely well with chocolate. Oranges, pears, figs (you can buy dried figs coated in chocolate in posh delis all over Italy) bananas and strawberries all go exceedingly well, but most other fruits will work too, except maybe apple or melon. Just think of those awful ubiquitous chocolate fountains you get at parties; pretty much any fruit tastes good dipped in those (though it won't when I tell you that those things are at least 30% oil, in order to get the chocolate to flow properly, and very likely to breed horrible bacteria because of their consistently warm temperatures).
Another classic combination is chocolate and cherries. This works well not just from a flavour point of view; the glossy purple-red skin of a cherry looks beautiful paired with a muted canvas of dark, silky chocolate. The slight tang and sweetness of good cherries is just what you need to lift the deep richness of good chocolate. I've been toying with the idea of a cherry and chocolate mousse for a while, especially because the cherry season is in full swing and there are some lovely (and extraordinarily cheap) specimens around at the moment. However, mousse is another thing I'm not hugely fond of; I generally like my desserts to have a bit more texture. Basically, I love them to be stodgy and satisfying, like a good crumble (incidentally, cherry and chocolate crumble is something I am going to have to try). Mousse just doesn't sate me in a way something packed with flour, butter and sugar will.
I say that, but this cake doesn't actually contain any butter. In fact, apart from the fairly small quantity of good quality dark chocolate it contains, it is fat free. I debated whether to tell you that, because it makes it sound like it will be dry and horrible. In fact, it's entirely the opposite. Something magical happens when you put the very loose mixture, thickened using beaten egg whites, into the oven. The outside hardens to a flaky crisp while the inside stays molten and gooey, rather like a chocolate fondant. When eaten warm, it basically tastes like a chocolate fondant, but with the immensely pleasurable squash of a tart, juicy cherry every couple of mouthfuls. I've made this before with brandy-soaked prunes, but the cherry version is even better, because of the juiciness and the slight sourness. I too often find cherries rather disappointing; they don't seem to have a real flavour, just a generic burst of tart juice that I can take or leave, unlike the clear fragrance of a strawberry or blackcurrant. However, they take to heat very well, so are perfect for tucking into the chocolate-rich batter of this cake, where they give just the right subtle fruitness to balance it without overpowering and hogging the limelight.
This is an incredibly easy cake; you add beaten egg whites and flour to a liquid mixture of molten chocolate, boiling water, sugar and cocoa powder. The result is an extremely runny batter, more like a crepe mixture, that looks like it will never work as you pour it into the tin and drop pitted cherries into it, watching them sink into the chocolatey lake like quicksand swallowing a hapless wanderer. Yet under an hour later, you remove a perfectly formed cake from the oven, perfuming your kitchen with that irresistible aroma of baked cocoa. I decided to adorn it with nothing more than a drizzle of almond-flavoured icing: just icing sugar, almond essence, and a drop of water. It hardens to a satisfying crunch, the pronounced, bakewell-like almond flavour marrying incredibly well with the rich chocolate and juicy cherries. The cake in itself isn't too sweet, so the icing sets it off nicely, and the contrast in textures between the crispy exterior of the cake with its crunchy icing and its warm, oozing interior is sublime.
I love this cake. I love it even more because it's basically guilt-free, but tastes like something that is laden with butter and sugar. It really is just as good as a melting chocolate fondant, but accompanied by none of the self-loathing. The inside stays almost liquid; you need a spoon rather than a fork to eat it which, when chocolate is concerned, can only be a good thing. Served still warm from the oven, I can think of few better things to enjoy for dessert or just with a cup of tea. The scarlet cherries studded throughout the dark, melting cake batter lift it from delicious to incredible; I can't think of a better combination. Because I so rarely eat chocolatey desserts, I often forget just how wonderful they can be, and how fine a thing chocolate actually is. This reminded me.
I might have to go and eat one of those Ferrero Rocher now...
Cherry and chocolate cake with almond icing (makes one 20cm cake):
- 300g cherries, pitted, plus extra for serving
- 75g good quality dark cooking chocolate, broken into small pieces
- 25g cocoa powder
- 150g muscovado sugar
- 150ml boiling water
- 25g caster sugar
- 4 egg whites
- 75g plain flour
- 5 tbsp icing sugar
- 1/2 tsp almond essence
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Grease and line a 20cm springform cake tin. Mix the boiling water, cocoa, chocolate and muscovado sugar in a mixing bowl, stirring until thoroughly melted.
Whisk the egg whites until stiff and you can turn the bowl upside down without them moving. Whisk in the sugar until the mixture has the consistency of shaving foam.
Sift the flour into the chocolate mixture and fold in with a spoon until incorporated. Add a spoonful of the egg white mixture to the chocolate and fold it in to loosen it, then add the rest of the chocolate to the egg whites. Fold in gently, being careful not to knock all the air out of the whites, until just incorporated.
Pour into the prepared tin and drop the cherries over the surface of the batter. Place in the oven and bake for 35 minutes until just firm.
For the icing, mix the icing sugar, almond essence, and a little water to achieve a fairly thick paste, but one that you can still drizzle over the top of the cake. Serve with extra fresh cherries.
Bank holiday weekend means baking. Fortunately, I've been sent some recipes to test by Baking Mad. With a selection including cupcakes, biscuits and even a cupcake wedding cake to choose from, I had a hard time selecting this cheesecake (particularly as I was sent recipes for two others, including a Tia Maria version). However, it's one of the most successful and delicious cheesecakes I've ever baked, so I'm glad I tried it out, and I now get to share it with all of you. You can scroll down for the rest of the recipes, but be sure to ogle the photos of this gorgeous dessert on the way.
This cake owes its deliciousness, I think, to its chocolate biscuit base. The recipe suggests using a mixture of digestive biscuits, blitzed in a blender, and Silver Spoon dark chocolate drops. I improvised by blending a packet of chocolate digestives into crumbs, stirring in oodles of melted butter, and spreading it onto the base of a tin. As I did so I told my boyfriend about my rather disgusting adolescent habit of mixing up a cheesecake base mixture - digestive crumbs and melted butter - and then refraining from actually making the cheesecake, instead choosing to sit in front of the TV and eat the lot. Needless to say, I was a lot fatter then than I am now, though as I stirred the melted butter into those crumbs I had to fight an urge to just spoon the whole bowl into my mouth.
I deviated from the recipe slightly in that I baked the base before adding the filling. I always think that, unless you do this, you end up with a soggy biscuit base. Crisping it in the oven while it's heating up to bake the cheesecake is the perfect solution, resulting in a nice crunch that is a pleasant contrast to the creamy filling. You don't really need to do this with gelatin-based set cheesecakes, but I do think it's an important step when making the baked variety. Plus, the smell of buttery biscuit emanating from your oven is worth it.
The cheesecake filling is a simple mixture of eggs, cream cheese and creme fraiche, but instead of using sugar to sweeten it, the recipe suggests melting a bar of Silver Spoon white chocolate cake covering and stirring it in. I reckon you could also just use normal white chocolate. Because there's no extra sugar added to the cake, it isn't quite as sweet as you might expect. I think this is a positive thing - it has the slight tang of the classic New York baked cheesecake, and the sweetness of the chocolate base is more than enough for the filling. However, if you have quite a sweet tooth, I'd suggest adding a bit more sugar - maybe about 50g.
Also, the cheese mixture is studded with fresh raspberries before baking, and swirled through with raspberry coulis (the recipe tells you how to make your own from fresh raspberries, but I cheated and bought some ready-made stuff because I didn't have enough berries). The juicy berries contrast perfectly with the crumbly filling, and I love the look of the white cake rippled with pale pink coulis - it reminds me of those funny ice cream and raspberry desserts we used to have for school dinners, that came in a little pot and consisted of (no doubt cheap, processed) vanilla ice cream with a perfectly formed pink swirl through it. Does anyone know what I mean? Do these things actually have a name? I remember them very vividly from my childhood. Not that I ate them; I was a very fussy eater (would you believe it now?)
After baking for about an hour, the cheesecake needs to chill in the fridge for a bit, though I think it's best served just below room temperature - too cold and you can't appreciate all the different flavours and textures. The recipe suggests decorating with fresh raspberries, but I used them all in the cake so I went for strawberries. Either would be excellent, though I think strawberries are actually slightly better, because they have a juicy sweetness that complements the rather un-sweet, dense filling, whereas raspberries can be quite tart and I'm not sure there's enough sugar in the whole cake to balance it out.
This is a superb recipe, my minor tweaks aside. It's also very simple to make but looks like you've spent hours on it. Because there's no cream in the filling, it's a fairly light dessert option, particularly if you use low fat cream cheese and half fat creme fraiche, which I did, and it still tasted wonderful. It would be excellent with some extra raspberry coulis.
White Chocolate and Raspberry Cheesecake (serves 8-10):
For the base:
- 225g digestive biscuits
- 100g unsalted butter
- 50g Silver Spoon Cakecraft dark chocolate drops
For the filling:
- 450g soft cream cheese
- 4 large free-range eggs
- 1 tsp Silver Spoon Cakecraft Natural Vanilla essence
- 225g crème fraîche
- 225g Silver Spoon Cakecraft White Chocolate Flavour Cake
- butter, for greasing
- Raspberry coulis:
- 300g fresh raspberries
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 100g Billington’s Unrefined Golden Caster sugar
- ½ tsp raspberry liqueur (optional)
For the coulis: Place half the raspberries in a microwaveable bowl and cook for 1 minute. Crush them with a fork and then pass the liquid through a fine sieve to remove the seeds.
Place the raspberry juice, sugar and lemon juice into a small saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes until syrupy.
Remove from the heat and stir in the raspberry liquor if using. Allow to cool and thicken before using.
Place the digestives in a food processor and process into crumbs. Melt the butter over a low heat and mix in the biscuit crumbs and chocolate drops. Lightly grease a 25cm loose-bottomed cake tin and press the crumbs into the base.
Beat the cream cheese in a bowl until soft and smooth. Add the eggs one by one with the vanilla essence. Fold in the crème fraîche.
Melt the white chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water. Remove from the water and beat until a little cooler. Add to the cream cheese mix and fold in gently. If the chocolate becomes a little lumpy do not worry.
Sprinkle the remaining raspberries over the chilled base of the cheesecake. Pour the chocolate and cream cheese mixture into the tin and bang down on a firm surface to remove any air bubbles. Drizzle the raspberry coulis onto the cheesecake mix and swirl using the tip of a knife to give a marble effect.
Bake in a low oven, 150°C/fan oven 130°C, 300°F/Gas 2, for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the centre is just firm.
Allow to rest for several hours to firm up. When ready to serve use a warm palate knife to release the cheesecake form the tin, before turning out the cake and serving topped with fresh raspberries.
Should you fancy making the Tia Maria or the lemon and ginger version, the recipes are
at Baking Mad. Here's a little preview of how theirs look. Their raspberry and white chocolate one is a little neater around the edges than mine - I think all the butter I used to grease the pan turned it that interesting 'caramelised' colour! It still tasted brilliant though.
You might also like to try the recipes for these gorgeous little
, if you're still feeling full of patriotic fervour after the Royal Wedding.
For the venison, I seared the loin in a pan before rolling it in a mixture of crushed walnuts, crushed juniper berries, dried thyme and seasoning. It then went in the oven for ten minutes; the walnuts became crispy, and I left it to rest under foil while I finished the mash, greens and sauce. It sounds like a fairly complicated recipe, but it isn't really: the trick is getting all the elements finished at the same time.
I was really pleased with how it turned out. The meat was cooked exactly as I like it: very rare. Anything else would have been wrong with such a tender cut of meat. I was surprised at its moistness, too - game can often be very dry, even when left bloody. I sliced it into beautiful rounds, still with a few walnut crumbs clinging to them, placed them on the mash, and drizzled over the jus and raspberries. The sauce is absolutely wonderful: the beef stock gives it a richness that the chocolate then enhances, and it works so well with the texture of the meat. There are lots of very big, rich flavours going on, but they're balanced by the greens and the raspberries, and the slight sweetness of the rare meat. One to repeat, I think. If I could change one thing, I'd toast the walnuts first for extra crunch.
Pancakes, to me, normally mean brunch. I tend to make thick, pillow-like cakes that you can pile high and adorn with gleaming drizzles of maple syrup or honey. As you sit down to eat them, there's always that brief pause where you have to decide whether to try and cut down through all the pancakes, and eat a mouthful containing multiple layers, or eat them one by one. However, a recent skiing holiday in the Alps put me in mind of the famous French crêpe, wafer thin and designed to provide an envelope for all sorts of delights: the simplicity of lemon and sugar is hard to beat, but you can go all out and opt for fillings guaranteed to replenish those calories lost through skiing: chocolate and banana, chestnut purée, chantilly cream. I thought pears, caramelised in butter and demerara sugar, would be a perfect filling, and chocolate also leapt to mind as an ingredient possessing a perfect affinity with the sweet, grainy fruit.