I have made many a crumble in my life. I would count myself as something of a crumble connoisseur. I cut my teeth on the classics – apple, rhubarb – before graduating into a wild, wonderful world of pineapple, coconut and black pepper, or pear, chocolate and raspberry, or fig, blood orange and hazelnut, even venturing occasionally into savoury variations (tomato, rosemary and cheddar; butternut squash, sage and blue cheese). There is very little that I will not try to crumble, and there is very little that isn’t improved by being smothered in a blanket of butter, sugar and flour, rubbed together into an irresistible nubbly sweetness.Read More
In the way that some women are 'bag ladies', I am an apricot lady. I regularly impulse-buy and hoard these gorgeous summer fruits, becoming rather untrendily obsessive about them during the summer months. It's rare to find me without a punnet of apricots in my bag, a spontaneous purchase from some market or shop because they just looked too good. I think it's the same with early-season rhubarb, with its slender, hot-pink stalks - like a mad bull or a bee I'm attracted to those bright colours and find myself stockpiling these edible jewels on a regular basis. No fruit lures my gaze quite like the rosy apricot, though, with its beautiful marigold blushes, and no fruit proves so versatile in my kitchen during the warmer part of the year.Read More
The quintessential aroma of summer in my kitchen isn’t the smoky tang of barbecued meat wafting in from the garden, nor the heady sweetness of ripe strawberries sitting on the counter. It’s the deep, slightly musky perfume of apricots. Whether they’re simmering gently in a chamomile and vanilla syrup on the hob, baking into an almond custard tart in the oven or being churned into a pale coral ice cream on the counter, their unmistakable sweet, soothing fragrance tells me that sunshine and long days are (hopefully) ahead. During the season, I buy at least two punnets a week – I can’t get enough of their glorious colour and versatility in the kitchen.Read More
There are many benefits to cooking with coconut oil. It’s full of good fats, nutritious, it can replace dairy in many recipes, it has a pleasant slightly sweet coconut flavour…but, if I’m perfectly honest with you, one of the main reasons I love this new trendy ingredient is because you can melt it in the microwave without it exploding everywhere, as butter has a tendency to do. Who hasn’t felt their heart sink as that sickening ‘pop’ breaks the monotony of the whirring, grinding microwave, knowing the next few minutes will be spent painstakingly wiping a greasy yellow film off the hot plastic, the air heavy with the slightly sickly scent of warm animal fat? Who hasn’t opted for the microwave to melt their butter, out of laziness and not wishing to wash up a pan, only to end up spending those valuable saved minutes scraping away smears of grease? (You can, of course, avoid this problem by covering your bowl or jug with cling film while microwaving, but for some reason I take the chance every time…I think I just like to live on the edge).Read More
A couple of weeks ago, something magical occurred in my kitchen. Craving a warm, comforting pudding and wondering what to do with a quince hanging around in my fridge, I poached the fruit in a spiced sugar syrup and caramelised it, along with juicy chunks of ripe pear, in a hot pan. I added a little quince jelly, which melted into an amber syrup as it hit the surface of the pan, and bubbled in a splash of honeyed dessert wine. I tumbled this sticky, golden mixture into a baking tin, luscious juices clinging to the fruit, and topped it with a buttery crumble mixture flecked with crunchy almonds. Thirty-five minutes later, the best crumble I've ever had emerged from the oven.Read More
I’ve eaten more peaches this summer than probably the last five or six summers combined. I usually give up on peaches in England, because they’re imported rock hard and never ripen properly, tasting sad and woolly and a tragic shadow of what you know they could be. But they’re so cheap and abundant right now that I can’t resist buying a punnet or two in the supermarket, safe in the knowledge that, if all else fails, I can at least rescue them with the application of some sugar and searing oven heat.Read More
Baking, in our culture, is so often inextricably connected with love. Family memories and relations are shaped around food; some of our fondest recollections of our mothers and grandmothers are perfumed by the heady scent of a baking pie or cake. Missing the closeness of home and the familiarity of domesticity is frequently couched in terms of our longing for a particular dish, and even parental ineptitude in the kitchen is usually recalled with wry affection. Childhood friendships are formed and dissolved over the sharing of cake and other baked goods: I still remember once refusing to speak to my best friend for a week because she stole my lunchtime flapjack and ate it. We bake cakes, bread, brownies to cheer up our loved ones or as a token of our affection; the humble combination of flour, butter and sugar has become fetishized in our culture to such an extent that we apparently believe there are few gifts more redolent of love than a homemade baked good.Read More
Damsons are a high maintenance love affair. You can’t just coast with damsons, putting in minimal effort for a lot of reward, like you can with a strawberry, perhaps, or a pear – all you need with these easy goers is, at most, a knife. They’re not a fruit to be popped carelessly into the mouth while reading the morning newspaper, or something to munch as a snack on the go. They’re not something you can half-heartedly throw into a cake batter for a sweet and sticky result, or toss into the smoothie maker for an afternoon pick-me-up.Read More
In my mind, there are two types of plums. The first are those that appear year-round in supermarkets, often in plastic punnets with a label saying 'Ripen at home'. They are imported, usually from South Africa. They are often nearly perfectly spherical, firm and glossy-skinned, and come in three different colour varieties: bright greenish-yellow, slightly translucent; dark black-purple, with a matt white bloom misting the surface; or vivid uniform magenta. These are perfectly fine - they are very reliable, delivering without fail a pleasantly tart crunch when slightly underripe and something slightly more sweet when ready. They also cook well, holding their shape under the pressure of heat.Read More
Over a year ago, I had a sudden burst of culinary inspiration, arising from that notoriously profound and powerful motivator: sheer, unabashed greed. Exhausted by one too many episodes of menu indecision when it came to choosing dessert in a restaurant, I decided to combine my two favourite desserts into one glorious whole. Thus, the rhubarb ginger crumble cheesecake was born.
It was a quiet and humble success, enjoyed by myself and a few friends and family in the comfort of my own kitchen. Now, many months later, the phrase 'rhubarb crumble cheesecake' is the term that leads the most people, via google, to my blog. What happened?Read More
I've been trying to figure out what it is about gooseberries that makes me love them so. These are the kind of questions I ponder idly, you see, while rolling out pastry or chopping up fruit; measuring out tablespoons or stirring something around a pan. Cooking for me isn't something I do just to feed myself; it's something I like to think about, to analyse, to question and explore. I guess that's why my cooking is also something I balance alongside an increasingly difficult and mind-bending PhD. One of these days I'll find a hobby that doesn't involve thinking...I tell myself, knowing it'll never happen.Read More
Oops, I did it again. Having told myself I was going to completely cease hoarding various fruits in my freezer, and just eat things seasonally without worrying about storing them up for a period of dearth (it's not like we still live in medieval times, where pretty much nothing is harvestable between winter and spring), I found myself handing over the best part of a tenner at the market yesterday for a huge armful of hot pink rhubarb stalks. They were just so pretty, and it was the only stall still selling the lovely slender, pastel pink type, rather than the thicker, more purple-green woody stuff. I told myself it was the last time, but I bet if I see it again next weekend I buy some more.
Fortunately, I bought it at the weekend, and the weekend means brunch. Even though I live on my own, I still bother to cook brunch just for myself. It's a nice way to differentiate the weekend from the more monotonous weekdays, and I have to admit there are few things I enjoy more than sitting down on my own to a big bowl of brunch, a large mug of green tea and Masterchef on my iPad. Plus, while it's in the oven, I find myself doing useful tasks like laundry, tidying and writing blog posts. What a mad crazy weekend life I lead.
I'm not mad enough, though, to faff around cooking something like pancakes just for me. But a big dish of some kind of baked oatmeal is perfect, because you can make it at the weekend then eat the rest during the week - it microwaves well. One of my favourite rhubarb dishes is this blueberry and rhubarb baked oatmeal, where a delicious chewy and crunchy layer of oats, berries and milk bakes over a juicy layer of rhubarb. I'm also a big fan of this rather less fiddly pear and gooseberry oat crumble, which is incredibly easy and just requires mixing an oat mixture with some fruit, then baking for an hour.
One day I decided to try the aforementioned pear and gooseberry recipe with rhubarb. The recipe works because the pears and gooseberries release a lot of juice during the cooking process, which soaks into the oats from below and makes them beautifully chewy and gooey. Rhubarb, too, turns very juicy in the oven, as do blueberries. It seemed like something that had to be done.
I threw in some crushed cardamom with the rhubarb, a pairing which I have loved for a long time - the exotic citrus fragrance of cardamom works beautifully with sweet rhubarb and blueberries. Into the oat mixture I stirred some ground ginger and cinnamon, warming spices that just seem made to go with oats. To moisten the oat mixture, a delicious medley of maple syrup, olive oil, vanilla extract, and a splash of water. I use a beautiful mandarin-infused olive oil, which you can find here if you're interested - it has the most wonderful deep, orange flavour which survives the cooking process to leave a beautiful hint of citrus in each mouthful, a fantastic combination with the cardamom and warming spices.
You may think that breakfast is not the time to be messing around with cardamom, mandarin-infused olive oil, cinnamon and ginger. I think you'd be wrong. Brunch is exactly that: a time to make something a little bit more exciting for breakfast, to treat yourself. Plus, this is hardly a chore - it comes together in minutes and then sits patiently in the oven for just under an hour, leaving you to get on with other things.
Oh, and I haven't yet mentioned - it's delicious. It's like eating crumble for breakfast, as the name suggests, which is pretty much living the dream. You have a beautiful gooey mixture of rhubarb and blueberries, dark and inky purple, sweetened with caramel-scented honey and citrussy cardamom. You have a scattering of oats, crispy and crunchy on top, gooey and sticky underneath where they've absorbed the juice from the fruit, warm from cinnamon and ginger and with a hint of orange and vanilla. The contrast in textures is delicious, and the balance of the warm toasty oats and sharp, juicy fruit.
It feels like a pretty decadent breakfast, but it's actually not bad for you at all. It's even vegan (if you swap the honey for some caster sugar), so hopefully any vegan readers out there will find that exciting. And, I imagine, you could make it gluten-free if you used gluten-free oats and a gluten-free substitute for the spelt flour - buckwheat flour, for example.
Make this for your friends, or make it for just yourself. Either way, I promise you'll be impressed. If you're as big a fan of crumble as I am (and if you're not, why are you reading this blog?!), you will hopefully enjoy the slightly risqué excitement of indulging in it for breakfast (is that a bit tragic? I think it might be, but never mind). It's also one of the prettiest breakfasts you will probably ever make. And, if you have leftovers, they microwave very well - I normally put them in a bowl and microwave for 2 to 2 and a half minutes on full power. Leftovers are fairly unlikely, though - it takes me a huge amount of discipline not to eat the entire dish of this in one sitting (and I promise you, I could, easily).
I can think of few better ways to welcome the weekend than with a beautiful vibrant bowl of sticky, pink-purple, spice-scented crumble.
Rhubarb, blueberry, almond and cardamom breakfast oat crumble (serves 2-3):
- 400g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
- 150g blueberries
- 3-4 tbsp honey, depending on the sourness of your rhubarb
- 6 cardamom pods, seeds crushed to a powder
- 150g jumbo oats
- 40g spelt flour
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 3 tbsp olive oil (I use mandarin-infused oil)
- 3 tbsp maple syrup
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 tbsp water
- 3 tbsp flaked almonds
- Maple syrup, to serve (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 190C.
Scatter the rhubarb and blueberries over the bottom of a baking dish (a 20cm square one is good, or a similar capacity oval one like mine). Drizzle over the honey and sprinkle over the cardamom, then toss together with a spoon.
In a small bowl, mix together the oats, flour, salt, ginger and cinnamon. In a small jug, whisk together the olive oil, maple syrup, vanilla extract and water. Pour this into the oats then mix together until combined. Sprinkle this mixture over the rhubarb then mix gently, keeping most of the oats on top of the fruit. Scatter over the almonds.
Bake for 50 minutes, until the oats are toasted and crunchy and the fruit juicy. Check it halfway through and if it looks a bit dry, sprinkle over a little water. Leave to cool for five minutes once out of the oven, then serve, with maple syrup if you like.
The other day, I found myself standing outside the Co-op near my house crying a little bit. I had been trying to lock up my bike, when it fell violently onto my leg, scraping off all the skin and hurting rather a lot (there is very little cushioning on a shin). It had generally been a pretty bad day, a day that started at 5.30am due to my inexplicably overactive mind deciding it needed no further rest, and which by 2pm had turned into - in my mind - a tragedy of epic proportions. Why had I not just gone straight home and avoided this painful bike scenario, I hear you ask? Well, obviously, I needed to buy two pineapples.
At the moment, I am completely obsessed with pineapple. It started with these pineapple pancakes, an attempt to assuage feelings of deep nostalgia after my trip to Vietnam. I ate quite a lot of pineapple over there - in pancake form but also in the smoothies that I became obsessed with, a fixture of my daily diet. You can also buy prepared pineapple in supermarkets over there, just like you can in the UK, but the Vietnamese have an interesting habit of eating underripe pineapple as a savoury snack, with salt and chilli - it would come shrink-wrapped accompanied by a little sachet of this spicy salt, for dipping. I prefer my pineapple sweet, though, hence the delight caused by its inclusion in breakfast pancakes.
After caramelising chunks of fresh pineapple with cinnamon, vanilla and brown sugar, a revelation occurred in my kitchen. While fresh pineapple is, of course, delicious - bursting with juice, sweet yet tart at the same time, bright and almost perfumed - having tasted its cooked and sugared form, I'm not sure I can possibly express how infinitely more wonderful pineapple is after a little heat treatment.
Then there was this recipe for chilli and ginger stir-fried pineapple, a dish I've made at least fifteen times since discovering it only a couple of months ago, which is something I can't say for anything else I've ever made. The combination is just ridiculously moreish, with the sour and salty notes of fish sauce and the aromatic ginger and garlic spiking the sweet juice of the fruit. I'm now a big fan of pineapple in savoury dishes, a combination found in this incredible Cuban-influenced caramelised pineapple and avocado salad recipe from the excellent Food 52: I stumbled across it recently and had to try the very next day.
It didn't disappoint; my favourite part was sprinkling thick wedges of the fruit with molasses sugar and caramelising them under the fierce heat of my grill, ramped up as high as it would go. The combination with the creamy, delicate avocado and the peppery watercress was something else.
A few weeks ago, I visited Dishoom, a fantastic 'Bombay Cafe' in Covent Garden. My menu choices were completely based around the fact that I knew I had to leave room for the pineapple crumble on the dessert menu. When it arrived, I was so glad I hadn't devoured a second bowl of lentil dahl. Underneath a deliciously buttery crumble lay a sweet, sticky blanket of caramelised pineapple, juicy and ridiculously tasty. The crumble crust was unusual in its texture, full of crunchy seeds and, I think, coconut, which added a beautiful dimension to this fabulous spin on a classic pudding. There was a hint of fragrant spice - the menu mentioned black pepper - which mellowed the acidic sweetness of the fruit. To top it all off, a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. It was one of the best desserts I've ever eaten.
So, naturally, I had to bring this combination of flavours into my own kitchen. And, incredibly, I think I got it absolutely right. It tasted exactly the same as the restaurant crumble. It's too good not to share. (The crumble itself, incidentally, is way too good to share - halve your estimation of how many people it will serve, right now).
When you melt butter in a pan and add molasses sugar (the really really dark, sticky, caramel-scented stuff), the world is instantly better. When you then add a sprinkling of cinnamon and a large amount of juicy fresh pineapple, it is almost too good to be true. When you then let that caramelise and turn soft, golden and toffee-esque, you may as well accept that few things will ever be as good. Finally, a splash of vanilla - heady, tropical fruity perfection. I added a dash of black pepper to my pineapple, to emulate the restaurant version - just enough to give the fruit a very slight spicy edge, but you'd never detect it was there unless you knew.
I've come across black pepper with pineapple before, in an Indian-style chutney. It works very well in dessert form too. Pineapple, though quite tart raw, is incredibly sweet once cooked with a little sugar; the pepper helps to mellow it a little, yet also allow its flavour to shine.
Tumble the pineapple into a baking dish. Then it's time for the crumble. This basically involved putting all the ingredients I love into a bowl. Spelt flour, for nutty flavour. Butter - of course. Demerara sugar, to give that all-important crumble crunch. Then we start to turn things a little bit sexy and exotic.
Ground cardamom, because its mellow fragrance works so well with all kinds of fruit and sweet confections. Desiccated coconut, an ingredient many people cannot spell and I wish would learn because it infuriates me. Sunflower seeds, for delicious nutty crunchiness and because I think the restaurant crumble had them, though it may have been pumpkin. Slivered pistachios, because they are green and pretty and I cannot think of anything that isn't improved by them (except perhaps a nut allergy).
Oh, the sweet goodness that was this crumble. I was thrilled with how it turned out, exactly as I was hoping. If I made it again, the only slight tweak necessary would be to add a little more butter to the topping - I used my normal crumble topping, but because I added a few extras (coconut, seeds, etc), I needed a little more butter to hold it together. It was, as I suppose it should be, quite crumbly, which is why it perhaps looks a bit of a mess in the photos. This had no impact, however, on the resulting taste. I've adjusted the recipe below to include a bit more butter.
Butter issues aside, the heady mix here of juicy, sticky, toffee-scented pineapple with an exotically spiced, crunchy, coconut-sweet, nutty crumble is just ridiculously good. For traditionalists who believe crumbles belong solely in the realm of orchard fruits or perhaps rhubarb, it's time to rethink things.
This is a dessert that will surprise and delight. The unexpected inclusion of pineapple in a crumble is pretty exciting alone, but when you combine that with the hint of peppery spice and the exotic allure of cardamom and coconut, you have something really special. I couldn't stop eating this. It's fabulous with vanilla ice cream, though one day I want to make cinnamon ice cream to go alongside, à la the restaurant original.
It's time to take pineapple out of the fruit salad and into the kitchen. If you haven't experimented with cooking this wonderful fruit before, I suggest you change this situation, starting with this crumble.
Definitely worth crying over outside the Co-op.
Spiced pineapple and coconut crumble (serves 4-6):
- 2 medium pineapples
- 25g butter
- 2 tbsp molasses sugar/dark brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 160g plain/spelt flour
- 100g cold butter, cubed
- 50g demerara sugar
- 8 cardamom pods, seeds ground to a powder
- 80g desiccated coconut
- 25g sunflower seeds
- 1-2 tbsp cold water
- 40g pistachios, roughly chopped
First, make the pineapple mixture. Peel the pineapple and cut into small chunks, discarding the woody core. Heat the 25g butter in a large non-stick frying pan and, when melted, add the sugar and cinnamon. Add the pineapple and cook over a high heat, stirring, until soft, juicy and caramelised - about 5-10 minutes. It should have released a little bit of juice and be quite sticky and golden. Turn off the heat and add the black pepper and vanilla extract. Pour the fruit into a baking dish - I used a pie dish about 30cm in diameter.
Next, make the crumble. Pre-heat the oven to 170C. In a large mixing bowl, rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, cardamom, coconut and sunflower seeds, then stir in the cold water so that the mixture forms small 'pebbles'. Pour the mixture over the pineapple, gently pressing it down, then scatter over the pistachios.
Bake for around 35 minutes, until the topping is crispy and golden. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving with vanilla ice cream.
Rhubarb is nature's way of saying 'cheer up, it's not that bad'.
And my goodness, don't we need it at this time of year. As if the early onset of darkness in the afternoon weren't enough, in the past month the weather here in Yorkshire has decided to throw everything it's got at us. First there was the swift depositing of four inches of snow in a pristine blanket across the city, which but a few hours later had turned to the most revolting Dickensian slush, soaking into my boots and leaving them covered in meandering white salt stains. Then there was the torrential rain only a day later, which mercifully washed away the snow almost as quickly as it had descended. Then there was the gale, which raged for three days and managed, in its ferocity, to move my dustbin a good five metres down the road, to the extent that I thought my neighbours had stolen it. Then the torrential rain returned and this time combined with the gale, to result in the kind of rainfall that makes you abandon all hope of cycling and enables you to justify taking a taxi for 'safety reasons'.
Ridiculous meteorological events aside, it's definitely been a gloomy couple of weeks. The afterglow of a wonderful break skiing in the Alps for my birthday has subsided, leaving me with no vestige of that happy time other than a right toe the colour of a ripe plum and a big toenail that is soon to part company with it. While this is perhaps specific only to me, and not a general January/February gripe, it cannot be denied that these two months are a cruel period in the calendar. You're probably forcing yourself to stick to some awful diet, or abstaining from alcohol, or starting a new fitness regime, or other ludicrous forms of self-torture. Judging by how eerily empty my gym has been over the last couple of weeks, I'm guessing you're not doing too well.
This is why I always think everyone should have cooking as their hobby. It brings you so many opportunities for joy that you'd otherwise lack in your life. I can't count the number of times my entire day has been improved by the find of some beautiful ingredient in the supermarket, the stumbling-upon of some unexpected bargain, or the prospect of cooking a much-anticipated recipe for dinner that evening. I used to be a bit embarrassed by this, but then I realised that I'm lucky. I have little moments of excitement and enjoyment pretty much every day because of my cooking, and I dread to think what a pit of miserable despair my life would be without those. It would be permanently February.
Few things cheer me up more, food-wise, than the sight of beautiful new season Yorkshire rhubarb. This is the real thing, the good stuff. The total antithesis of anything you ever ate at school. The opposite of what people think of when they say 'I hate rhubarb'. The season seemed to start early this year - these slender barbie-coloured stalks were in the shops before the Christmas decorations even came down. They are thinner, sweeter, more tender and of course more beautiful than the rhubarb you get later in the year, which is perfectly fine but isn't going to win any beauty contests.
Now that I live in Yorkshire, I'm surrounded by this wonderful ingredient, and it seems rude not to take full advantage. I've already gone through over a kilo this week alone, making an appearance at the market on several occasions with my arms haphazardly cradling stalks and stalks of it, the hot pink stems sticking out of my bike basket on the way home and attracting several second glances from passers by. Seeing as York is mostly grey right now, rhubarb stands out.
February, month of sadness, is not the time to be going wild with experimentation in the kitchen. It's a time when you want a metaphorical hug from a recipe you just know is going to deliver. You just want to chop a few times, throw something in a dish, spend a minute or two performing the soothing rubbing of cold butter into powdery flour and the stirring in of sugar, oats and spice, then let the oven work away to bring you happiness.
For even more happiness, I recommend watching through the oven door as the fruit juices bubble up lusciously around the sandy crumble crust in glossy, vivid bubbles, oozing stickily between the cracks in the buttery rubble, staining the outside of your baking dish with promises of sugary deliciousness.
So yes, this is a good old-fashioned rhubarb crumble. Those stunning pink stalks get tossed with sugar then smothered with a blanket of flour, butter, oats, almonds and sugar. There's a slight twist, though, in that I've added cardamom and orange to the crumble mixture. Crushed cardamom seeds, because their slight citrussy fragrance and exotic perfume works very well with rhubarb (and indeed with most fruits, I think) and also with anything buttery and crunchy. Orange peel powder, to impart a subtle orange richness without the overpowering acidity of zest or juice - rhubarb is quite tart as it is.
I also added a little ground ginger, because its warmth is lovely with rhubarb - and let's face it, we all need a bit more warmth in our lives right now.
Rhubarb, cardamom and orange crumble (serves 4-6):
- 500g rhubarb, cut into 1.5 inch pieces
- 4-5 tbsp caster sugar (depending on how tart you like your rhubarb)
- 160g wholemeal flour
- 80g cold butter, cubed
- 80g demerara sugar
- 8 cardamom pods, husks removed and seeds ground in a pestle and mortar
- 2 tsp orange peel powder
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 50g jumbo oats
- 50g flaked almonds
- 2 tbsp cold water
Toss the rhubarb and caster sugar together in a baking dish. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Put the flour in a large mixing bowl and rub in the butter with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the demerara sugar, cardamom, orange peel powder, ginger, oats and half the flaked almonds. Stir in the cold water to make the mixture turn slightly 'pebbly'.
Spread the crumble gently over the top of the rhubarb and scatter over the remaining flaked almonds. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the crumble is golden and crunchy.
It's a time of celebration. A time to rejoice, cavort, frolic, caper, dance, jig. To make merry, pop open the champagne, utter gleeful exclamations with joyous abandon. To throw your hands in the air. To sing a small cheerful ditty or whistle a jaunty tune. To high five. Embrace. Jump up and down. Shriek. Shout. Grin. Guffaw. Chortle. Whoop.
That's right, you guessed it. I have a new oven.
If you think I'm being hyperbolic, suggesting a new oven is cause for celebration, let me paint you a picture of my old oven.
Imagine something in the vein of an Aga - a rustic type cooker with big heavy doors that stick out of the body of the oven. It's black, in places because that's the colour of the metal it's made from, in other places from encrusted charcoal and grime accumulated over years of use. There are two big doors, one for the 'main oven' and one for the 'top oven', which is also a grill.
Both ovens hilariously pretend to have temperature controls, although even these use the ancient 'Gas mark' system. The temperature reading on the dial has absolutely zero correspondence with the state of the inferno raging within. The oven sits at the temperature it feels like, and woe betide you if you were anticipating something being cooked at a certain time based on the temperature you'd set it to. Sometimes things blacken to a crisp on one side while remaining raw on the other, sometimes they're just raw all the way through.
You invite friends over for roast chicken, and dish up an hour and a half later than calculated, because the chicken is still stone cold despite the oven apparently being at its hottest.
You make a crumble tart, and have to keep rotating it on the oven shelf every fifteen minutes, to allow for even scorching (that's 'scorching', not 'baking') around the rim.
Roasted vegetables end up being steamed vegetables.
Things you would normally put on a single oven tray take up two, because the oven is just too damn small widthways.
Oh, and when the oven is on, the heat all comes out at the top, at the back of the hob. So when you leave a plastic sieve there while waiting to drain something, or the lid of the Lurpak butter packet, you return five minutes later to the smell of burning carcinogens and a nice pool of molten white plastic adorning your hob top that is impossible to remove and will release an unpleasant singeing smell from now on every time the oven is on. Plus a sieve with a giant hole in, that is no use for anything. (But you remember as you write this that, for some reason, you still have it in the cupboard...)
You see now why a new oven is worth dancing over.
(Not literally - that might break it).
To test it out, I baked these crumble slices. The recipe is from the Honeybuns Cookbook, a wonderful book full of gluten-free (and some dairy-free) baking recipes by Emma Goss-Custard, who runs a gluten-free baking business based in Dorset. I've been experimenting with gluten-free and dairy-free baking recently, now that I have a friend who can't eat either, and this is the first cookbook I own that is entirely gluten-free. It's a wonderful treasure trove of recipes, ranging from big wow-factor cakes (toffee-topped almond and rhubarb, for example) to muffins (strawberry and cream, upside-down peach), traybakes (sticky toffee apple shortbread), cookies (custard creams), flapjacks (fig and almond), brownies (including the wonderful 'dark and brooding' 'Heathcliff brownies') and proper puddings (peach and raspberry roulade, lemon cheesecake). If you thought gluten-free baking was restrictive, this book will prove you wrong - it contains some of the most imaginative and best-looking baked goods I've ever seen.
These apricot and ginger slices caught my eye because they looked fairly easy and used ingredients I already had in the cupboard. While some of the recipes in the book are a bit more complex and use some unusual ingredients to substitute for the flour (sorghum flour, guar gum, chestnut flour), many of them use things you're likely to have already, like polenta and ground almonds. And if not, there's a useful glossary in the back which tells you where to find the slightly more elusive items.
This is very simple. You make a luscious jammy apricot filling by simmering golden chopped apricots with sugar and chopped stem ginger in syrup until they collapse and turn glossy and plump (I nearly ate most of it there and then, it looked so good). You then make a very buttery crumble mix with brown sugar, toasted almonds, polenta, ground almonds, gluten-free oats (obviously you can use normal oats if you're not cooking for those on a gluten-free diet) and ground ginger. Half of this is layered into a tin and pressed down to form a thick base, then the apricots are spooned and spread over the top. The rest of the crumble goes over the apricots, where it bakes to form a delicious crispy, crunchy topping.
LOOK! In this new oven, you can watch things baking! Look how clean it is! Look how shiny!
One tip - I lined my tin with greaseproof paper, and the slices stuck horrendously to it. I would suggest either using a good non-stick tin and not lining it at all, or using proper baking parchment (as the recipe says) that you know is non-stick. Otherwise you end up losing half the crumble slices to the edges of the paper. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing - it meant I got to come home and nibble them all off while I was waiting for my dinner to cook...
There's a lot of ginger in these, and it's incredible. I've never paired dried apricots with syrupy stem ginger before, but I plan to make it as a compote for porridge because the combination is so good. The filling bakes to a gooey, jammy consistency with a real bright sweetness from the fruit and ginger, while the crumble turns incredibly crunchy (I suspect from the polenta), while still being rich and buttery; there's a perfect balance between the sharp heat of ginger and the buttery crust. You'd never guess these were gluten-free. They're also very pretty to look at, with their gorgeous golden filling and inviting crumbly topping, and very moreish.
A worthy recipe, I think, for christening the very, very welcome new addition to my kitchen. I'd forgotten what it's like to set an oven timer and find the contents of the oven actually at the required amount of doneness when it beeps.
Apricot and ginger crumble slices (makes 15-20):
(From the Honeybuns Cookbook - not reproduced word-for-word)
- Melted butter, for greasing the tin
- 350g dried apricots, chopped
- 115g granulated sugar (I used caster)
- 50g stem ginger in syrup (drained weight)
- 200g butter, chilled and cubed
- 150g light brown sugar, plus 1 tbsp for sprinkling
- 150g almonds, toasted and chopped (I used 100g whole and 50g flaked)
- 140g polenta
- 115g gluten-free oats
- 70g ground almonds
- 3 tsp ground ginger
- Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease and line a 30x23x4cm baking tin with baking parchment (NOT greaseproof paper!).
Put the apricots, sugar and 100ml water into a saucepan and cook over a medium-low heat for 8-10 minutes, until thick and jammy, stirring regularly. Crush the stem ginger in a food processor or blender, then stir into the apricots (I just chopped mine finely using a knife). Set aside to let the apricots absorb all of the liquid.
Put all the crumble ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Rub the mixture between your fingers to break up the butter, then beat with an electric mixer at low speed until the mixture forms a clumpy crumble texture (you can do it all by hand, as I did - just add the almonds right at the end after you've rubbed everything else together. I put the chopped almonds into the crumble and scattered the flaked almonds over just before baking).
Press half the crumble mixture firmly into the baking tin. Press down with the back of a spoon to form a solid, even base. Spread the jammy apricot mixture over the crumble base, taking care to leave the crumble undisturbed.
Press the remaining crumble lightly over the apricot mixture, then sprinkle 1 tbsp brown sugar over the top (I used demerara sugar here because it's crunchier). Bake for 35-40 minutes, until the top and sides are a deep golden colour and the filling looks darker. Cut into pieces (when cool).
This recipe was featured on ITV's Food Glorious Food in April 2013. I adapted the recipe slightly for the show to make a bigger, taller cake, so have updated this post with the latest version of the recipe (which can also be found in the Food Glorious Food cookbook). I hope you enjoy recreating it in your own kitchen!
Yes, my dear readers. I have gone and taken two of the best desserts in existence , and combined them into one luscious, creamy, buttery, crunchy creation.
I've been wanting to make this dessert since approximately April last year, when I froze the end of the season rhubarb with the express intention of doing just that. You know the stuff - those gorgeous pink stems, such a bright and vibrant fuschia they seem almost unnatural, quite unlike anything that could possibly have sprung up from the dark, dank earth. Sadly those colours don't last - as the season progresses, those stems progressively widen, darken, become stringy and sour. Still delicious, doused in a liberal coating of snowy white sugar, but best quietly hidden beneath a mound of buttery crumble or a blanket of pastry.
I froze the bright pink stuff to use in a dessert that would really allow its colour and natural sweetness to shine. Something pure and white to exaggerate its naturally beautiful qualities. I envisaged swirling it into a simple vanilla cheesecake batter, removing my finished creation from the oven or fridge to reveal a beautiful marriage of pink and cream curled lovingly around each other. Where the idea for the crumble topping came from, I don't know.
Oh wait, I do know. Plain common sense. Why would you NOT put a crumble topping on something?
I literally cannot think of any arguments against it.
I imagined breaking through that delicious buttery crust to reveal the yielding, creamy centre of a cheesecake rippled with tangy, sweet rhubarb. Not only would it taste wonderful, but the colours would be beautiful - the contrast of the snowy white cream against the hot pink fruit, mellowed by the pleasingly muted hue of the cheesecake base and the crumble topping.
I can't believe it took me nearly a year to get round to making this a reality.
This is just one version of a whole range of possibilities based on this theme. I chose to make a baked cheesecake, because I thought the slightly denser filling would marry better with the thick crumble topping - crunchy crumble on top of a quivering, gelatinous mousse didn't seem quite right, somehow.
I made a basic cheesecake mixture with ricotta, creme fraiche, eggs and sugar, adding quite a lot of vanilla because I love vanilla with rhubarb. I roasted the rhubarb in the oven with some sugar, mashed it with a fork to make a compote, then swirled this into the cream. It was spooned over a delightful crunchy ginger nut base (I make my cheesecake bases approximately two times more thick than is normal, because why wouldn't you add more butter and biscuit than required?) and topped with a simple crumble topping.
I say simple...I added some chopped almonds for crunch and used wholemeal flour and brown sugar for a more pronounced flavour, as well as a little ground ginger to complement the rhubarb and the biscuit base. I have to say, this was a great idea - wholemeal flour and brown sugar give it a much stronger 'crumbly' flavour - you can really taste the difference. I think I'll start making all my crumble in this way from now on. Plus you can even kid yourself it's healthy as it's wholemeal (that is how it works, right?)
I wasn't really sure when to put the crumble mixture on top of the cheesecake - too early and it would sink down into the cream cheese and end up ruining everything...too late and the cheesecake would overcook in the time it took the crumble to brown. In the end I removed the cake just over halfway through the cooking time, sprinkled on the crumble and put it back in (quickly, so that it didn't sink).
Somehow (I call it cook's intuition...some, however, may just call it luck), I timed it perfectly. The crumble cooked through to a rich, golden brown, oozing bubbling caramel juices down the side of the tin. The cake was creamy, fluffy and light but held its shape.
Until I tried to cut it, that is. It's quite hard to slice through thick crumble while not making a mess of the yielding mass of cream and fruit underneath...but it's not impossible. Use a serrated knife. No one will care once they taste this.
I was thrilled with how this cake turned out. You end up with something that is part pie, part crumble, part cheesecake. The rhubarb infuses into the cream cheese mixture, turning it a delightful pastel pink colour and lending it a tangy, fruity edge that pairs so well with the mild, sweet vanilla. Then you have the utterly satisfying crunch of the biscuit base followed by the gorgeous crunchy crumble. It's almost like eating rhubarb crumble with cream on the side, but all in one mouthful and with added biscuit.
And what on earth is not to like about that?
Rhubarb and ginger crumble cheesecake (serves 8):
- 400g rhubarb, cut into 2½cm lengths
- 4 tbsp water
- 50g caster sugar
- 1 drop red food colouring (optional)*
- 1 tsp arrowroot mixed with 2 tsp cold water
- 375g ricotta cheese
- 300ml half fat crème fraîche
- 1½ tbsp runny honey
- 120g caster sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
For the base:
- 60g butter, melted, plus extra for greasing
- 18 ginger nut biscuits, crushed
- 1 egg white (optional - helps prevent the base going soggy)
- For the crumble topping:
- 80g wholemeal flour
- 40g cold butter, cubed
- 40g demerara sugar
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 50g blanched almonds, roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp cold water
- Sprigs of mint to decorate (optional)
*The food colouring is useful if you're making this with late season rhubarb (as opposed to early forced rhubarb) which is greeny brown and looks less pretty in the end result. The food colouring helps make it gloriously pink!
1. Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/Gas Mark 5. Butter a 20cm (8in) springform cake tin.
2. Put the rhubarb into a baking dish with the sugar and water, toss together and bake for 25–40
minutes, depending on the thickness of the rhubarb, until tender. Remove and leave to cool.
3. Meanwhile, make the base. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, then mix in the biscuits. Tip the
mixture into the prepared tin and press it down evenly with the back of a spoon. Brush with the
egg white (if using) and bake for 10 minutes, until golden and firm. Set aside to cool.
4. Mash the cooked rhubarb to a purée with a fork. Drain well, then add the food colouring (if using).
Pour in the arrowroot mixture and stir to thicken. Set aside to cool.
5. Put the ricotta, crème fraîche, honey, sugar, eggs and vanilla extract in a blender or food processor and whiz until combined. Transfer to a bowl and swirl the rhubarb purée through it with a
fork. Don't overmix – the idea is to create pink streaks.
6. Reduce the oven temperature to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 and put an empty roasting tin in the
bottom of it. Butter the sides of the cake tin again, then pour the cheese mixture over the biscuit base. Cover the tin tightly with foil, then place in the oven and quickly pour a jug of cold water into the empty roasting tin. Close the oven door and bake for 30 minutes.
7. Meanwhile, make the crumble. Put the flour and butter in a bowl and rub together until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, ginger and almonds, then gently stir in the water to form small ‘pebbles’ in the mixture.
8. Remove the cheesecake from the oven, discard the foil and spread the crumble mixture over the top of the cake. Remove the tray of water from the oven and increase the temperature to 190°C/375°F/Gas Mark 5. Bake the cheesecake for a further 30 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Set aside until cool, then refrigerate until needed. Remember to bring it back to room temperature 30 minutes before serving: no one wants cold crumble! Decorate with mint sprigs if desired.
I don't eat a lot of butter. This may, perhaps, come as a surprise, as this blog has seen rather an influx of baking recipes lately, mainly due to the onslaught of delicious summer fruit that just begs to be folded into cake batters, rippled into ice cream or used to top a creamy cheesecake. I am continually captivated by the displays of cherries, peaches, plums, apricots, mangoes and berries that adorn the market, constantly thinking of new and delicious ways to incorporate them into as many parts of a meal as possible. However, if you look carefully at most of my baking and dessert recipes, you'll find very little butter or cream. Instead, I prefer to make cakes and desserts that give a starring role to the fruit, without relying on an overload of saturated fat to tickle the tastebuds. I tend to make cakes that use yoghurt to replace a lot of the fat, cheesecakes that use just cream cheese and a little creme fraiche rather than buckets of double cream, and - possibly my favourite - a cobbler topping that tastes unbelievably delicious yet has hardly any butter in at all.
I guess over the years I've just become good at recognising which baking recipes will still taste amazing despite a relative lack of butter. I'd never advertise my baking as "low fat" or "healthy" (if you read my rant regarding 'skinny' muffins, you'll know this already) because this makes it sound like it'll taste bland and sad. If I ever do mention to someone who's just eaten a hefty slice of a cake I've baked that it's actually relatively low-fat, the reaction is normally one of surprise, which I see as a positive thing. It also usually encourages them to have another slice, which is definitely a positive thing.
There's a simple reason for my reticence where butter is concerned: I went to an all-girls school.
Going through the delightful rites of puberty and adolescence surrounded solely by members of your own sex is a recipe for disaster on a number of counts. It's bad enough being surrounded by impossibly unattainable ideals of thinness and beauty when you're 22; it's unfathomably worse when you're thirteen and these enormous hips have just sprouted from nowhere, and suddenly you resemble a giant, flesh-coloured pear. Add to that a peer group who are still in the pre-pubescent, slim-hipped, androgynous stage and you're going to end up with some serious issues.
The worst part is when you try on each other's clothes, as all teenage girls do. I have a lasting memory of a tiny friend of mine trying on one of my skirts when I was about thirteen. The skirt fit snugly around my hips; she pulled it up over hers and it fell straight down again. Straight down. Like one of those comedy scenes in a film where a person's trousers just fall straight off. I may as well have given her a giant elephant suit to put on.
Of course, I didn't really help myself. I would go to McDonalds every Saturday and eat not only a Super Size meal (chicken nuggets, though - I've never let one of those pallid, flaccid, tragic excuses for a burger pass my lips and I never intend to unless I'm being held at gunpoint and the alternative is to drown myself in a vat of parsnip-flavoured yoghurt), but also a doughnut. This was a regular ritual for me, but at the time I never made the connection between my wildly expanding waistline and the sugary circle of additive-enhanced dough I would stuff my face with every weekend.
In retrospect, actually, I'm a bit worried, because I used to go to "Maccy Ds" in the days before they brought out that TV advert proudly announcing that their chicken nuggets are "now made with 100% real chicken". Lord only knows what they contained in the days when I used to eat them. There was a rumour going round at school that the McFlurry used pig fat as a thickener; I strenuously avoiding consuming those, but never gave a thought to what else might lurk in the things I did eat. Like most girls in their early teens, I imagine, I would eat what I wanted without giving a thought to calories or saturated fat, but at the same time bemoan the lack of resemblance between what I saw in the mirror and what I saw in either my peer group or the pages of Mizz magazine.
I say all this in a light hearted fashion, but I was pretty depressed by it. It seemed that all my friends were thinner and more attractive than me. It seemed that they all had boys chasing them when I didn't. They had nicer clothes, better hair, longer eyelashes, more shapely earlobes, skinnier ankles. I, in the meantime, felt like the ugly, fat, male-repelling lump. This mentality has never really left me, despite the passing of around eight years, a fairly decent amount of male attention (most of my unfortunate teenage dalliances cancelled out by a brief episode involving a Royal Marine Captain), and the undeniable physical proof - in the form of the size 8 label on all my clothes and a reading on the scales that always hovers nicely around the 8 stone mark - that I am not, in fact, an ugly, fat, male-repelling lump.
Despite all this, I've never really stopped believing that I am actually enormous and that one day people will start noticing. I feel uneasy if anything prevents me from my usual six-plus hours of exercise a week, as I see this as the only thing standing between me and obesity. Sometimes if I go out for dinner and eat a bit too much, I genuinely fear that I will wake up needing a crane to hoist me out of bed. I know all this is ridiculous, but I guess it's just the aftermath of an adolescence spent in the company of McDonalds and other teenage girls. Generally, though, I'm fairly relaxed, never embarking on crazy diets or starving myself for any longer than the long, difficult stretch of joyless time between lunch and dinner (mainly because if I did, I'd probably end up murdering someone). Instead I do a fair amount of exercise, mostly in the swimming pool or on the streets of Oxford/Cambridge, so that I can eat, within reason, whatever I want.
Fortunately, "whatever I want" usually tends to be pretty healthy anyway. I don't particularly like crisps or biscuits or even baked goods, unless I've made them myself - they're never as good. One of the nice (or potentially annoying, depending on how you see it) things about being a proficient cook is that you end up enjoying your own food far more than anything commercially mass-produced. I see the windows of a patisserie lined with sumptuous treats, and while they initially look tempting, my second thought is that I'd much rather have a big piece of home-made, fresh, preservative-free sponge cake or crumble, straight from the oven and impossibly delicious. Fast or processed food makes me feel quite sick, and that label generally encompasses most things that are bad for you. I find I'd rather cook my own dinner most of the time than go to a restaurant, usually because I know I could do just as good a job for a fraction of the price.
All this is simply a result of exercising a lot; if you invest so much time in keeping your body healthy, it seems counter-productive to stuff it with a load of fat and additives. As part of this habit, I tend to dismiss all recipes that list "100g butter" or "A carton of double cream" as part of the ingredients, to the point where I no longer feel sad about being deprived of such things, simply accepting that if I don't want to go back to being the girl whose skirt would fit no one (which sounds rather like a good title for an autobiography), I generally shouldn't let butter form the main component of my cooking.
Having said all this, sometimes I feel like I deserve a giant, butter-laden piece of cake. Maybe I've had a really busy week where I've lived off couscous salad and grilled fish, while running around between libraries or meetings, and just get a general instinct that my cake quota for the week has been left unfilled. I'll usually rectify this by going for a cream tea, or ordering some kind of sumptuous dessert in a restaurant. In this case, I spent most of last week in bed with a horrible stomach bug that left me feeling awful, and had a bizarre effect on my appetite in that all I wanted to eat was butter. Buttery crumpets, buttery croissants, buttery bread. I'm a firm believer in the idea that if you're ill and your body seems to be craving something, you should have it - the human body is fairly adept at sensing what it needs. Part of me wonders if the reason I was craving butter was because I was quite dehydrated, and needed the salt. That could well have been the reason. Buttery croissants are also, I think, far easier on an upset tummy than my usual mountain of porridge or couscous.
Whatever the reason, I threw caution to the winds and indulged in a week of eating things I'd never normally contemplate. Croissants. Crumpets so saturated in butter there was a little puddle of it left on the plate once the crumpet had been devoured. Pasta with no accompaniment other than a huge handful of grated cheddar, that turned sticky and congealed almost instantly but tasted so damn good. It was exactly what I needed and I even felt a twinge of sadness when I could sense my normal appetite returning, and knew I'd have to say goodbye to those fat-laden meals for the sake of my waistline.
This cake was my one last indulgence. It's something I'd been meaning to make for a while. Had I made it before I fell ill, I probably would have come up with some clever way to lower the butter content of the sponge without compromising on taste. As it was, I revelled in the block of soft butter I added to a bowl full of sugar and eggs, and the big chunks of fridge-cold fat I rubbed into a crumble topping for the already buttery cake. I ate two huge pieces, relishing every delicious mouthful and basking in the total absence of guilt, instead seeing it as necessary calories to replenish those lost after a week of sickness.
When I stepped on the scales the other morning to find myself a good three pounds lighter than pre-illness, I almost immediately headed straight to the kitchen to get the butter out of the fridge for baking. Yes, I may be a little neurotic about what I eat, but I don't want to look emaciated and I generally know when I need to eat more. This was one of those times.
Crumble is my favourite dessert. I love the combination of refreshing, tart fruitiness and comforting, crumbly doughiness. Even when full, I can always appreciate a good crumble, particularly when served with a scoop of freezing vanilla ice cream (preferably in a separate bowl, as I don't like it to melt all over the crumble and ruin the hot-cold contrast). Almost any fruit works, but particular favourites are rhubarb (also good with strawberries mixed in), apricot (add pistachios to the crumble topping), and a mixture of apples, pears and dates (tastes like Christmas). You can't really go wrong with a classic apple crumble; it's the ultimate crowd-pleasing dessert. I've wanted to recreate it in cake form for a while.
You could make this in a round cake tin, but I like the way you can slice it into squares that show off the fruit inside and crunchy topping to maximum effect. The cake is a basic (buttery!) sponge mixture, layered with slices of Bramley apple and blackberries tossed with lemon juice, sugar and cinnamon, baked for a little while then topped with a crumble mixture featuring butter, flour, oats, hazelnuts and almonds. The nuts and oats ensure it turns really crunchy and has a gorgeous toasty flavour that goes extremely well with the soft richness of the cake batter and its ripples of tart fruit. I particularly love the beautiful purple patches where the blackberries stain the surrounding sponge.
This is both a cake and a pudding, perfect with a cup of tea or a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a drizzle of double cream. I don't think I need to tell you that it tastes divine, everything I - and hopefully you - could want from a cake. Buttery, light, fluffy, interspersed with juicy morsels of autumn fruits and topped with a toasty, nutty, buttery crumble. It's also pretty easy to make, despite the longish list of ingredients.
If you didn't think crumble could be improved upon, then you'd be wrong. Just add cake. Use lots of butter, and consider this a treat for your tastebuds. If you're neurotic like me, find some excuse to allow yourself this gorgeous cake. If you're not (lucky you) bake it on a regular basis and go back for seconds.
Apple and blackberry crumble squares (16 pieces):
For the cake:
- 225g butter or margarine, softened
- 125g caster sugar
- 125g light muscovado sugar
- 4 eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 350g self-raising flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 4 tbsp milk
- 3 cooking apples
- 1 punnet blackberries
- Juice of half a lemon
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
For the crumble topping:
- 100g self-raising or plain flour
- 80g cold butter, cubed
- 80g coarsely chopped hazelnuts or almonds
- 40g rolled oats
- 40g light muscovado sugar
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1-2tbsp water
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/fan oven 160C.
First, using an electric whisk, beat the butter or margarine with the caster sugar and muscovado sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract and milk, then sift in the flour and baking powder and mix well.
Grease and line a 27x20cm traybake tin with baking parchment. Spread half the cake batter into the tin.
Peel, core and thinly slice the cooking apples. Toss them in a bowl with the lemon juice to prevent them colouring. Layer half the apples, slightly overlapping, on top of the cake batter in the tin. Sprinkle over a teaspoon of the cinnamon and a little demerara sugar. Scatter over the blackberries.
Pour the rest of the cake batter on top of the apples and blackberries and spread out as evenly as you can without dislodging the fruit too much. Layer the rest of the apples over the top and sprinkle with the remaining cinnamon and some more demerara sugar.
Bake in the pre-heated oven for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, make the crumble mixture. Rub the butter into the flour and oats until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the nuts, sugar and cinnamon, and mix briefly. Trickle over the water and stir into the mixture to make it turn 'pebbly'.
When the 20 minutes are over, remove the cake briefly from the oven and spread the crumble mixture over the top (don't worry about it sinking - mine didn't, and traybakes are less prone to it), pressing it with the back of a spoon to keep it on the cake. Return to the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes until the crumble is golden and crunchy, the cake springs back to the touch, and a skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
Dust with icing sugar and serve with ice cream, cream or crème fraîche.
Tonight, courtesy of my lovely friend Clare, I had the opportunity to whip out the blowtorch I was given for easter (cook's blowtorch, that is - I'm not into welding or anything) on TWO occasions.
Firstly, I decided to make Shakshuka, a north African dish of (in this version, anyway) sauteed peppers, onions, spices, tomatoes and herbs with cracked eggs on top. It's a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi's new cookbook, Plenty. I am having a massive Ottolenghi phase at the moment - I have his other cookbook and simply the thought of it makes me salivate (except not, because that is disgusting). More on that another time though - along with my ode to quinces which I am still intending to do. The eggs were taking a painfully long time to cook - watched eggs never boil - although admittedly it was quite fun watching their gelatinous forms slowly turn opaque in their little cocoon of tomato sauce. Clare had brought round a crumble to have afterwards, and I had the bright (and quite exciting - it takes very little to excite me these days, as my life is basically revision) idea of blowtorching the top to caramelise it. It then also occurred to me that I could cook the top of the eggs faster this way - normally I'd stick the pan under the grill, but someone was using the oven. It was amazing to watch - the surface of the egg sort of puckered under the flame and thickened, and then a little crust of white formed. Childishly satisfying. It was delicious, too - we ate it with warm baguette to mop up all the tomatoey goodness, and the eggs were just runny in the middle. I love sauteed peppers that have gone soft and sweet...add some caramelised onions, and yum.
The crumble, I have to report, was the most delicious crumble I have had in my life - and I am a bit of a crumble fiend (as anyone who has ever seen me rhapsodise over it at formal hall will know, or anyone who has seen me polish off several helpings, despite the two courses that have preceded it). Apparently it was a Nigel Slater recipe, and the reason it tasted so good was "massive amounts of sugar". Well, if tooth decay tastes that good, then I reckon I'll be seeing my dentist fairly soon.
Note the deliciously caramelised, toasted crumbly topping in the picture below...and be jealous that you don't own a cook's blowtorch. My housemates clearly thought I was ridiculous when I got it out of the cupboard...but I am clearly the one laughing now. Except I'm not laughing - I'm clutching my stomach and feeling slightly sick from sugar overload.