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
When I was a child, I used to collect the Michelin ‘I-spy’ books. These were little pocket guides to various aspects of the natural world – birds, flowers, rock formations – that gave detailed and illustrated overviews of the various things you might encounter within these genres, and a handy checklist for you to tick off whenever you’d seen one. While the guide to exotic frogs remained largely unticked during family holidays to rainy National Trust properties throughout the UK, I had largely more success ticking off fossils, plant and bird life, getting incredibly excited when I encountered a new bird species or tree that I could proudly tick off as ‘done’. It’s a habit I’ve retained in adulthood with countries of the world, although unfortunately this is a far more expensive hobby than ticking off different types of fern.Read More
There’s an obvious answer to the question ‘Why don’t people cook with gin much?’
The answer is, of course, thus: because why on earth would you want to cook with gin when instead you could do all of the following things with it, preferably in the following order:
1. Admire beautiful simplicity of bottle of gin.
2. Feel small thrill of excitement at the promise contained within said bottle’s glassy depths
3. Wonder if it is the right time of day to drink ginRead More
Sometimes, I feel there should be an official ‘British summer’ checklist. Like with trainspotting or birdwatching, you could tick off the various items as you spot them, aiming for a complete full house before the summer is out. I think it would run something like this:
Barbecue implements moved to the front aisles of the supermarket
Signs up on the tube advising people to carry a bottle of water
Gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants on sale at the supermarketRead More
I was recently invited by Allinson (the bread and flour company) to take part in a recipe challenge. Harking back to founder Thomas Allinson, who in the nineteenth century encouraged healthy eating by prescribing the consumption of two salads a week, Allinson are encouraging consumers to grow their own herbs by offering them a Kitchen Herb Garden when they send off tokens from the Allinson bread range. The herb garden includes a box for growing the herbs, compost, and three packs of seeds - basil, parsley and chives. The challenge was to come up with a recipe featuring one or more of the herbs along with bread from the Allinson range, and to focus on healthy eating, in the spirit of the company's founder.
Like many pioneering geniuses, a lot of Allinson's ideas were regarded as a bit mad during his time. He outlandishly believed nearly all ailments could be cured by a good diet, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle. Apparently this was regarded as 'rebellious' by his peers. Oh, how times have changed.
I've never had much success with growing my own herbs. I did try, diligently, when I moved into a house in my second year of university and found myself with a window ledge. It was promptly filled with pots of mint, coriander and parsley. They all showed promising progress for a while, and then almost as promptly decided to stop growing altogether and die. From then on I kept mint in my room, and had a bit more success, but it still had a tendency to grow rapidly for a couple of weeks then stop, turning wispy and lacking in foliage to be used for Moroccan tea-making.
I've always been so envious of people who complain that fresh mint grows like a weed in their garden. Oh, to have my own giant supply of this wonderful, fresh, versatile herb. I've tried so many times and failed, and I think I deserve a successful mint plant far more than most people, seeing as it's one of my favourite herbs and I would actually use and treasure it rather than dismiss it as a weed and moan about it.
In spite of these failures, I gave the Allinson box a go. I sprinkled my seeds - which came in cute little sachets bearing quotes from Allinson himself, such as "Pure air is our best friend", "A man is what he eats" and "Brown bread is not a luxury but a necessity" - into the soil, watered, and waited.
Lo and behold, after a week or so, green shoots started to appear.
Despite this promising start, the shoots still remain in this state, several weeks later. The basil has gone a bit mouldy and the chives have wilted, but the parsley is still growing, I think. Perhaps this is due to my assiduous over-watering. I did desperately try not to over-water them, but I'm useless at knowing when to stop. Here's a tip if you're thinking of collecting the Allinson tokens (6 tokens and £2 P&P, or 3 tokens and £5 P&P) and getting your own herb garden: if you think it needs watering, it probably doesn't. Err on the side of dryness, and you'll probably have much more success than me. It's a lovely little box and I love the idea of it growing happily away on the kitchen worktop. If only I'd held back with the water.
Fortunately I wasn't required to use my own home-grown herbs for this competition, or you might be looking at a recipe for 'strawberry French toast with a tiny sprinkling of mouldy basil shoot'.
I had numerous ideas for recipes involving bread and a combination of chives, basil and parsley. Cheese was involved in nearly all of them, as were eggs. However, I wanted to do something a little bit different.
Generally, people think of herbs as an ingredient for savoury cooking. However, the dessert potential of herbs is something I find fascinating, and enjoy experimenting with. I once made a rosemary ice cream which was beautiful with slices of poached quince, and I imagine would have worked well with poached pears too. Bay leaf ice cream was another hit; served alongside a very spice-heavy, fruity crumble, it added an intriguing herbal note that cut through all the other flavours.
Perhaps the most common herb used in desserts now is basil. It has a fairly sweet, citrus flavour which makes it easily adaptable for sweet dishes; you'd probably have a harder time getting chives, sage or parsley to taste good alongside sugar (although I love a challenge in the kitchen...maybe I'll have a go one day). Basil ice cream was a hit with everyone who tried it; they were often expecting to be repulsed, and ended up going back for thirds. It worked beautifully alongside strawberries, whose light, fruity sweetness sits comfortably with the more complex, slightly metallic flavour of basil.
Basil sugar was an experiment for me last summer; I used it to sprinkle over these honey mango tartlets, giving them a fabulous crunch and another dimension of flavour to set against the super-sweet Pakistani mango topping and soft, creamy ricotta filling. When I entertained the concept of doing a sweet dish for this recipe competition, I immediately decided to incorporate the basil sugar. It's different, interesting, and surprisingly delicious, delivering a totally unexpected flavour and texture.
It's the simplest thing to make, too - you just blitz caster sugar and fresh basil together in a blender, until the sugar becomes pungent with heady basil flavour, and the leaves disintegrate to colour the sugar. It ends up looking rather like green snow.
French toast seemed the obvious sweet way of using bread in my recipe. You might argue that French toast isn't exactly healthy, and the emphasis is supposed to be on healthy eating, but I disagree. French toast is actually healthier and more nutritious than toast itself - you're soaking it in milk and egg, which are good sources of protein and nutrients. It's basically the same as having toast, a boiled egg, and a small glass of milk. I used wholemeal bread, too, which ups the health quotient a bit. You add a tiny amount of sugar and pan-fry it in a very small amount of butter, no more than you'd have on your normal toast.
The result is, of course, a delicious crispy, chewy exterior giving way to a fluffy, soft, gooey crumb, subtly flavoured with vanilla and a touch of cinnamon. It's also a great way to salvage stale bread, which makes the best French toast as it soaks up more milk.
The French call it pain perdu, 'lost bread', which I quite like - I have this image of the lost souls of countless loaves wandering bread purgatory until their redeeming kitchen angel decides to save them through a good baptism of milk and egg.
So, then you cover your little lost bread it in sliced strawberries - one of your five a day - and sprinkle over a little of this delightful basil sugar.
The sugar is the star of this recipe. OK, so the delicious squidgy French toast is pretty spectacular, and the sweet strawberries go very well with it, but it's the herbal, citrussy crunch of the basil sugar that turns the whole thing from an ordinary breakfast or brunch to something classy and a bit special. It gives another texture to the plate, adds a pretty green finishing touch, and works harmoniously with the strawberries.
This is probably a breakfast or brunch dish, but if you made the portion a bit smaller it would make a lovely dessert after a light meal, too. You could swap the strawberries for raspberries or even blueberries; basil would work well with them all, I think.
Strawberry French toast with basil sugar (serves 2):
- 2 tbsp caster sugar
- A small bunch of fresh basil
- 4 slices wholemeal bread, preferably a bit stale
- 2 eggs
- 150-200ml milk
- 5 tsp sugar (caster or light brown)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- A pinch of cinnamon
- A knob of butter
- Sliced strawberries, to serve
First, make the basil sugar. Put the 2 tbsp caster sugar in a blender along with the basil, and grind until the sugar turns green and fragrant with the basil - there should only be tiny bits of basil leaf still visible. Set aside.
Cut the crusts off the bread and cut into triangles. Mix the eggs, milk, 5 tsp sugar, vanilla and cinnamon in a shallow dish using a whisk. Put the bread into the dish to soak up the mixture for a minute or so, then flip over and soak the other side. You may need to add a bit more milk, depending on how 'thirsty' the bread seems.
Heat the butter in a non-stick frying pan until foaming. Add the bread slices and cook for a couple of minutes, until they develop a golden crust, then flip over and cook the other side in the same way.
Place the toast on a plate to serve, and scatter over the sliced strawberries and basil sugar. Serve immediately.
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.
You're looking at a prize-winning recipe. About a month ago I entered Good to Know Recipes' Strawberry Tea competition, which involved designing a strawberry cake or pudding - the winner would receive a lot of beautiful pink Le Creuset, which was my main incentive for entering. Yesterday I received an email telling me my entry had been voted runner-up (you can see it on the Good to Know website in all its glory here). Although I was not to be the proud owner of all that gorgeous kitchenware, I still won a copy of Bake and Decorate by Fiona Cairns, who designed Kate and William's Royal Wedding cake. Which, come to think of it, is far more practical, as I had no idea where I was going to store all that Le Creuset. Also, being pink, it would have clashed with the turquoise Le Creuset collection I am already well on my way to establishing. We couldn't have that.
I have to say, I'm really glad my entry won something, because it involved quite a lot of stress. I was working in London the weekend before the deadline, and only found out about the competition with two days to go. Meaning that I started baking these little beauties in the evening after the commute home, was icing them in my pyjamas at midnight, and had to get up at 5.30 the next morning in order to photograph them and still catch my train on time. Let it never be said that food blogging is all relaxation, freebies, and stuffing one's face.
Coming up with a recipe for this competition was a bit of a struggle. I had so many amazing (well, in my head they were amazing) ideas, but so little time - only one evening. A lot of great concepts went out of the window simply due to this lack of time - I couldn't risk a cheesecake not setting overnight, or wait for an ice cream mixture to chill. I wracked my brains for all the different flavour combinations involving strawberries, and my mind kept settling on strawberries and basil, which worked so well the last time I tried them together in tart and ice cream form. Again, I mentally put this combination into all sorts of forms - cheesecake, tart, loaf, mousse - but I don't really know why I settled on a cupcake.
I think it's because the competition called for a recipe that could be served both as dessert and as 'tea'; cake, in my opinion, is good eaten at any time of the day. Cupcakes are also quite easy to make, they look quaint and pretty, and they can also be made in quantities as large or small as you like. When I thought of a 'Strawberry Tea' (the idea is to hold such a party to raise money for Breast Cancer Care), I imagined dainty little cake stands piled high with scones and little cakes. I could just see these cupcakes on such a stand, preferably in the middle of a lovely white tablecloth, surrounded with pink flowers.
Yet I never bake cupcakes. I don't really like them, if I'm honest. They're far too sugary and unnaturally coloured. Beautiful to look at, sure, but I think I'd get far more pleasure from gorging myself on a big wedge of baked cheesecake or a simple fruit cake than I would a synthetic, fussy little cupcake. Perhaps my main problem with them is they're small and self-contained. I'd much rather have a whole enormous cake that I can keep coming back to and cutting progressively smaller pieces from, telling myself that if you eat a quarter of a cake in little slivers, it doesn't count. The same goes for those horrific 'cake pops', like lollipops but with a ball of cake on a stick. What on earth is the point of them? They actually disgust me a little bit. I can't think of anything more ridiculous. Why would you mess around with cake by cutting it into tiny orbs and putting it on a stick? The mind boggles at the sheer absurdity of these creations.
These cupcakes, however, are quite restrained. The hint of basil in the sponge stops them from being cloying and over-sweet. The icing is sugary but quite plain. The little strawberries on top add a refreshing fruitiness. The only concession I made to gimmicky decorations is the addition of pink homemade strawberry sugar, which I think looks just beautiful sprinkled on top of the plain buttercream icing. It was this stroke of genius, apparently, which made my cupcakes stand out from all the other cupcake entries.
Not bad for someone who never bakes cupcakes, I think. I'm looking forward to receiving my prize in the post!
Strawberry basil cupcakes (makes 6 large or 12 small):
- 120g plain flour
- 150g caster sugar
- 1.5 tsp baking powder
- 40g butter, at room temperature
- 130ml milk
- 1 egg
- A large bunch of basil
- 250g icing sugar, sifted
- 1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
- 80g butter, at room temperature
- 20ml milk
- Strawberries, to decorate
- Granulated sugar, to decorate
Put the 130ml milk in a saucepan with the basil, roughly torn. Bring to the boil then remove from the heat and leave for an hour or two to infuse, then remove the basil.
Pre-heat the oven to 170C.
Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder and butter with an electric whisk until just combined. Pour in the basil-infused milk and the egg and beat until just incorporated, then mix for another couple of minutes until smooth.
Spoon the mixture into 6 muffin cases or 12 cake cases, so they are two-thirds full. Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown and the sponge springs back when touched. Cool on a wire rack.
For the icing, beat together the icing sugar, vanilla and butter with an electric mixer until well combined. Add the milk and beat for 5-10 minutes until light and fluffy. Using a piping bag, pipe circles of icing on top of the cupcakes, or just spread it on with a knife.
Decorate with basil leaves and fresh strawberries. If you want to make strawberry sugar, simply press a strawberry through a tea strainer to extract the juice, then put this in a blender with a few spoonfuls of granulated sugar and blitz until the sugar is pink and fragrant.
I mentioned in my recent post about my trip to Prague the discovery of bublanina, or Czech 'bubble cake'. I also mentioned that it was a bit of a revelation for me, in that it made me realise that it is possible, against all popular culinary advice, to cook a strawberry. The strawberries I unearthed in that beautiful sponge were not the sad, flaccid specimens that such advice would have taught me to expect, but rather a gorgeous juicy surprise with a flavour reminiscent of strawberry jam. For this reason, I was inspired to update my favourite Sunday brunch dish, pear and hazelnut pancakes, with a summery twist. You can tell it's my favourite, because I've posted about it twice in less than a fortnight.
The British strawberry season, much like the British asparagus season, has seemed to begin very early this year. I'm not complaining: there really is no beating a British strawberry. Asparagus I can take or leave, but these scarlet berries have to be British to be truly enjoyable. I sometimes use imported varieties outside this season, but they always have to be dolled up with a little sugar, lemon juice or balsamic vinegar before being edible, and more often than not they end up in a smoothie with an orange and a little orange flower water, where their tartness is appreciated.
No such tartness in the British berries: only beautiful, sweet, yielding flesh. Their colour is different too: they are much more of an orange red than the purple-blue red you find in Spanish and Moroccan strawberries. In order to showcase their loveliness, I chopped up a few and added them to my usual pancake batter (yoghurt, flour, baking powder, egg and a little milk). I also put in a little vanilla extract, to evoke strawberries and vanilla ice cream (probably one of the most simple but most delicious combinations on the planet).
Still a bit wary of the berries turning to mush in the heat, I threw in some blueberries too. At least I knew these would be excellent in the pancakes, because I've used them before. Also, I figured their tartness would bring out the sweetness of the strawberries, and provide a nice burst of juicy sweet-sour flavour. I also love watching them burst in the pan, oozing their delicious purple juice everywhere. The best part of these pancakes is their unevenness: some will end up with loads of blueberries in, others with hardly any but lots of jammy, strawberry goodness. Either way you're in for a treat.
These were unexpectedly delicious. I mean, I expected them to be tasty, but I didn't quite anticipate the way the strawberries softened in the heat, resulting in incredibly moist pancakes. Normally some sort of syrup is an essential addition to the pear variety, because the pears retain their shape and don't emit too much juice. However, you really don't need any with these - I put a little golden syrup on the side of my plate but didn't end up eating it. The strawberries kind of collapse inside the batter, permeating it with their perfumed juice. It's almost like eating plain pancakes with a berry compote.
I decorated the plate with some extra whole strawberries, which is both a nice contrast in texture and temperature, and also has the benefit of making the plate look quite healthy. Which, actually, I suppose it is. Not that you need an excuse to make a huge batch of these and gorge yourself on them for brunch, though. A dusting of icing sugar is all you need to complete a perfect breakfast feast, and an ample celebration of the British strawberry season.
Strawberry and blueberry pancakes (serves 2):
- 130g plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- A pinch of salt
- 1 egg
- Plain yoghurt - about 200ml
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 200g strawberries, finely chopped, plus a few whole to garnish
- 100g blueberries
- Icing sugar for dusting
Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl. Add the salt. Make a well in the middle and add the egg and yoghurt, then combine with an electric whisk. While whisking, add enough milk to make a thick batter - about 4 tbsp. I don't tend to measure the milk and yoghurt, but just do it by instinct - you want the batter to be like thick custard. If it's too runny, just add more flour. Stir in the vanilla extract and berries - be gentle and try not to crush the strawberries.
Heat a little butter in a frying pan until sizzling. Drop spoonfuls of the batter into the pan and cook until bubbles appear, then flip over and cook for another couple of minutes. Keep warm in the oven while you use up the rest of the mixture.
Serve garnished with sliced fresh strawberries and dusting of icing sugar. You can add syrup if you like, but I'm not sure they need it.