Decadent cakes

Sticky toffee wedding cake

The cakes I make in winter tend to be different from the lighter, airier confections of summer. Winter (and spring equinox or not, the current weather still feels very much like winter!) cakes need the warming, stick-to-your-ribs qualities of chocolate, toffee and caramel. Ginger and treacle do it for me too, whereas ethereal Victoria sponges belong much more to the spring and summer months. Think chocolate brownies, sticky ginger or marmalade cake, and marbled energy bars to name just a few…

So when, a few months back, my younger son and his fiancée twisted my arm to make the wedding cake for their July wedding this year, it was no surprise when they mooted the idea of a sticky toffee layer. Despite feeling that it might be too heavy for a summer wedding, I agreed to give it a go for a trial two-tier birthday cake for two family birthdays in February. I already make a sons’ favourite sticky toffee pudding, which is cooked as a square cake, served warm with lashings of sticky toffee sauce, but it wasn’t quite the effect I had in my mind for a celebration cake. My daughter-in-law has offered to make the top layer of the wedding cake and decided to make a gluten-free lemon sponge for the top of this birthday cake, all to be topped with butter cream, so I just needed to track down a suitable toffee version.

Searches online brought up a few contenders, but it was this recipe, by Miranda Gore-Browne, for a gloriously sticky toffee cake, that caught my eye and formed the basis for the bottom layer of my tiered creation. I basically followed Miranda’s recipe for the sponge, but made it in a deep 25cm cake tin, cooked for longer and at a lower heat of course, and sliced it in two after cooking and cooling. I found I had to adapt the frosting, though, adding much more icing sugar than suggested! I was very worried that it would be far too sweet, but actually it tasted divine with the sweet, treacly earthiness of the date cake. My advice is to keep tasting as you make it, and stop adding the icing sugar when it’s sweet enough for you, but the consistency is thick enough to spread, yet not too gloopy. I also added orange zest, which cut through the sweetness beautifully – but you could use orange blossom water/pure orange extract if you don’t want to see the bits of zest in the finished frosting.

Sticky Toffee Cake – serves 12-16

sticky toffee cake slice

375g dates
250ml water
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
4 large eggs
250g light muscovado sugar
2 tbsp golden syrup
200g butter, melted
2 tsp vanilla extract
350g self-raising flour
pinch of salt

Sticky Toffee Frosting

250g butter
up to 1kg icing sugar (!)
4 tbsp Nestlé Caramel (or use dulce di leche)
grated rind of 1 orange (or use 1 tsp orange blossom water/pure orange extract)

Grease and base line a large 25cm cake tin and pre-heat the oven to 150°C / Gas 3.

Place the chopped dates in a pan, cover with the water and bring to the boil. Add the bicarbonate of soda, stir, remove from the heat and leave to cool, then whizz in a food processor until smooth.

Whisk the eggs, sugar and syrup in a large bowl until pale and fluffy, then whisk in the melted butter, vanilla extract and cooled date mixture. Fold in the sieved flour and salt until combined, then transfer to the prepared tin. Cook in the pre-heated oven for 1 hr to 1 hr 5 mins: it should feel just springy to the touch and a skewer inserted in the centre should come out clean. Leave in the tin to cool.

To make the icing, whisk the butter until soft and fluffy, then gradually whisk in the sifted icing sugar – this is where I am very happy to have a pouring shield on my Kitchen Aid as it keeps the clouds of icing sugar to a minimum. (I was surprised to learn that these don’t come as standard with all Kitchen Aids, so do check if you’re tempted to invest in one of these kitchen classics.) Add the caramel and grated orange rind or orange extract. Keep tasting as you add the final quantities of icing sugar and stop when you’re happy with the taste/consistency. This can be prepared ahead and left in the fridge before using.

When you’re ready to assemble the cake, slice carefully into two. I used this fantastic device from Amazon that a colleague had shared on the Foodie Translators group on Facebook – it makes wonky cutting a thing of the past!

cake slicer

Sandwich the cake together with some of the frosting, then spread a thin “crumb” layer over the rest and leave to set so that you don’t get crumbs in the top layer afterwards.

If you’re making a tiered cake, this is where you carefully measure and cut the dowels to size, before placing the top tier carefully on top, on a cake board exactly the same size as the top tier. Cover the entire cake with a generous layer of frosting and decorate as you wish. Breathe a huge sigh of relief and enjoy!

Much as we enjoyed the sticky toffee cake, we were all agreed that this was probably not ideal for a summer wedding, and will revert to variations on the Victoria sponge theme – watch this space!

However, for Mother’s Day last week, I continued with the decadent approach, using the remains of my last huge Crown Prince squash to make a divine chocolate & squash cake: squidgy, dark and delicious! The original recipe is by Billy and Jack in a recent edition of Sainsbury’s magazine. I’ve adapted it slightly as usual, using far less baking powder than they suggested. The chocolate frosting with squash purée is a revelation! It’s also gluten-free to boot, so perfect when you’re trying to ring the changes for gluten-intolerant or coeliac guests.

Chocolate & Squash Cake – serves 12

Chocolate and squash cake

about 400g peeled and chopped squash – I used a large slice of a huge Crown Prince squash, but I imagine you’d need at least one decent-sized butternut squash
75g dark chocolate, chopped
100g butter
200g caster sugar
3 large eggs, beaten
1 heaped tsp gluten-free baking powder
300g ground almonds
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of salt

For the salted chocolate and squash frosting:
150g dark chocolate
100g butter
250g icing sugar, sifted
pinch sea salt
(reserved squash purée – see above)

First make the squash purée. Place the prepared squash, chopped into 2 cm cubes, in a pan of boiling water and cook for 20-25 minutes until tender. Drain off the liquid (I save this for vegetable stock – too good to waste!) and mash the squash with a potato masher until smooth. You should have at least 300g. Set to one side to cool. Melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water and leave to cool slightly.

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C / Gas 5. Grease and base-line 2 x 20cm sandwich tins. Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, then gradually whisk in the beaten eggs. Gently stir in 250g of the squash purée. In a separate bowl, mix together the ground almonds, baking powder, salt and spices, then fold into the wet mixture. Finally fold in the cooled melted chocolate and make sure it is all combined. Transfer into the prepared tins and bake for 25-30 minutes until just firm to the touch and a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tins.

For the frosting, melt the second lot of chocolate as above and set aside to cool. Beat the butter until creamy, then add 50g of the squash purée and continue beating. Gradually add the sifted icing sugar until blended, then finally add the melted chocolate and a pinch of salt, and beat until light and fluffy.

Turn out the cakes when cool and sandwich together with a good third of the frosting. Use the rest to decorate the top in luxurious swirls, then grate over some white chocolate and decorate with blueberries or whatever you have to hand! I can imagine chocolate mini eggs going down a treat at Easter….

Keeps really well in a tin. The height of decadence – while surely providing at least one of your five a day 😉 Enjoy!

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Here we go again…

Snow again

I had intended to do some serious spring gardening today, distributing last year’s compost, cutting back lavateras and roses, and weeding the allotment beds before the onslaught of spring, but Nature had other ideas… A bitterly cold wind and more snow from the East made gardening a rather uninviting prospect, so I’ve spent the day doing much-needed admin in the warmth of the house instead. This is clearly going to be a very late start to the gardening year! You can’t fight the elements, though.

At least my sons had managed to take down my rickety old wooden arch last weekend and erect the new, elegant Gothic arch. The climbing roses Ginger Syllabub and Bouquet d’Or have had to be cut back extremely hard, as they were intertwined in the old trellis, but fingers crossed they’ll shoot again when the growing season starts. Likewise the clematis, both late-flowering viticella varieties (Kermesina and Black Prince), were cut back in February as usual and should grow strongly once the weather warms up. I just need to wire between the uprights to give them some more support before the roses provide them with a woody framework. This was the perfect Mother’s Day treat for me: solving one of my garden problems 🙂

New arch

Back to winter today, and a chance to jot down some spicy fish recipes I’ve been meaning to share for quite some time. One, a tuna curry, is another of those store cupboard standbys that I’ve had in my repertoire for years. It came originally from a fellow translator when I worked in-house in Cheshire many moons ago and it always goes down well – and freezes well too, developing even more flavour after a spell in the cold. My sons both took it to university as part of their arsenal of easy recipes, and it’s certainly ideal hearty, yet tasty student fare. It’s one of those recipes where you can vary the vegetables and spices, but I’ll write down the basic, oh-so-easy recipe and leave the rest to you.

Tuna Curry – serves 4

1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 sticks celery, sliced
1 green or red pepper, chopped
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
2 tbsp tomato purée
seeds from 8-10 cardamom pods, crushed
1 red chilli, finely chopped
2 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp garam masala
2 tsp sugar
seasoning
50g desiccated coconut
50g sultanas
2 160g tins tuna (drained)
chopped fresh coriander to serve

Cook the chopped vegetables in a large deep pan for one hour, stirring in the spices after 10 minutes or so once the vegetables have softened and started to turn golden. Add the chopped tomatoes, sugar and seasoning, swilling the can around with water and adding that too, to make sure the mixture doesn’t dry out. After an hour, stir in the drained tuna, coconut and sultanas and cook for another 5-10 minutes until heated through.

Serve with basmati rice, mango chutney and chopped fresh coriander to serve.

Simple, yet delicious!

My second spicy fish dish is adapted from a Sophie Grigson recipe, discovered in a magazine many years ago. While it’s called a biryani, I make no claim to its authenticity, but love the end result of a gently spiced oven-baked rice dish. I often make this with leftover rice, or indeed make twice as much rice one night, with a view to making this the following evening. Just stir in the spices with the cooked rice if you decide to follow suit, as the original recipe cooks the basmati from scratch with the turmeric and cinnamon stick.

Smoked Salmon Biryani – serves 3

Smoked salmon biryani

150g basmati rice
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 cinnamon stick
6 whole cardamom pods, seeds removed and crushed
3 tbsp rapeseed oil (or oil of your choice)
2 tsp black mustard seeds
2 large onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 leek, sliced
1 red or green pepper, deseeded and diced
1 or 2 red chillis, finely chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
100g frozen peas
250g smoked salmon, roughly chopped
juice and zest of 1 lime
1 tbsp chopped dill (or coriander or parsley!)
50g butter, diced
seasoning
halved cherry tomatoes to serve (optional)

Start by cooking the rice in boiling water with the turmeric and cinnamon stick for 8-10 minutes. Drain and set to one side.

Meanwhile cook the onions, garlic and chilli in a large frying pan, or an ovenproof shallow casserole if you have one. When the onion is starting to soften and turn golden, stir in the mustard seeds, crushed cardamom, cumin and coriander, then add the pepper and leek. Continue to cook gently for another 5 minutes or so, then stir in the frozen peas and cook for another couple of minutes. Finally stir in the smoked salmon, juice and zest of one lime, the cooked rice, and seasoning.

At this point, you can either transfer the mixture to an ovenproof casserole, or just dot the biryani with the butter in situ, cover with a lid or with foil, and transfer to an oven pre-heated to 160°C, Gas 4 for 30 minutes.

Serve with chopped dill (or coriander/parsley) and cherry tomatoes to garnish if you feel so inclined.

Roll on Spring!

Spring bulbs

Winter warmers

Front garden

This week’s unexpected late snowfall brought the deepest snow to the village that we’ve had in 6 or 7 years. Leo the labrador was a puppy last time we had snow on this scale and consequently very overexcited to see all this lovely white stuff last week! Poppy likes it too, but at 12 1/2, she sometimes finds it a bit cold on her paws, and especially dislikes the patches of salt on the roads.

While I’m extremely glad I work from home at times like this, so don’t need to venture out in the car, I do find that snow brings out all my survival instincts. Despite having a freezer full of soup and casseroles, I have the urge to make more! There’s nothing like a big pan full of simmering soup to warm you up when you get back from a snowy dog walk in the winter wonderland… The suspension of my usual evening activities means I have more time to cook in the evening too, so warming hotpots are definitely the order of the day. The freezer casseroles can wait for another day; the aroma of slow-cooked vegetables and meat is just heavenly on those days where the thermometer is well below zero all day long…

Last week’s soups included old favourites such as tomato & lentil (a good store cupboard standby if you have beef stock in the freezer, as it really only needs red lentils, a tin of tomatoes, a chilli, onion and celery – so good!), and Scottish Country Soup, a true winter warmer chock-full of vegetables with barley flakes and milk for extra nutrients.

Scottish Country Soup – serves 6

Scottish country soup

25g butter or 1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
1 leek, sliced
Handful kale or Savoy cabbage, shredded (I use Cavolo Nero from the allotment)
125g frozen peas
50g barley flakes
sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
1 bay leaf
500ml chicken or vegetable stock
500ml semi-skimmed milk
seasoning

Melt the butter (or oil) in a pan, then gently fry the onions, celery and carrots for 10 minutes, until golden. Add the leeks, peas and cabbage (or kale) and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Stir in the thyme, bay leaf, barley flakes, stock and milk, then bring to the boil, turn down to a simmer and cover. Cook for 30 40 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Remove the bay leaf and serve.

Hotpots are proper winter fare, especially to a Northern lass like me. My tried and trusted recipe is my mum’s and she in turn had it from her mum. I suppose it’s a variation on Lancashire hotpot (although without the sliced potato topping, and always with beef not lamb in my book) or even lobscouse, that traditional Liverpool stew. I’ve always known it simply as hotpot, preferably with a delicious flaky crust and made with skirt steak if you can find it. Traditional butchers should have it and it’s well worth hunting down – it has a flavour and texture all of is own, but you can use shin of beef instead if that’s all you can find). The aroma of a hotpot in the oven, slowly building over the afternoon, takes me right back to my childhood and is just what I fancy on a cold winter’s night….

Hotpot – serves 6

350-450g skirt steak (or shin if you can’t find skirt), diced
4 onions, chopped
3-4 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
1/2 swede, diced
4 large potatoes, chopped into 2cm chunks
handful of pearl barley (or red lentils)
1-2 shakes of crushed, dried chillis (or omit if you prefer)
seasoning
1l hot beef stock (using 2 stock cubes is fine)

Crust:
125g self-raising flour
40g lard
salt

Place the diced meat into a large casserole or traditional ceramic hotpot dish. Add the rest of the vegetables, pearl barley, chilli and seasoning, then pour over the hot stock until everything is covered with liquid. Stir well, and place in the oven at 140-150°C. Cook for 4-5 hours, stirring after one hour, and check towards the end that there is still enough liquid. The idea is for everything to become incredibly tender and to “fall”.

Half an hour or so before you’re ready to eat, turn the oven up to 200°C. Make the crust by rubbing the lard into the flour, then adding water until a soft dough forms. Handle as little as possible, but quickly roll out into a rough circle the size of your pot and place on top of the cooked hotpot. Slash two cuts in the top to allow the steam to escape, then return to the oven for 20 minutes, or until just starting to turn pale golden. Serve in ladlefuls with red cabbage, peas, beetroot or winter relish. The taste of home, for me at any rate 🙂

A variation on the hotpot theme from Jamie Oliver’s “Jamie’s Dinners” uses a more newfangled range of ingredients, including squash and red wine (unheard of for cooking in my grandmother’s day!), but leads to a similar comforting result. Jamie calls this Jools’ Favourite Beef Stew, but I call it posh hotpot. The basic recipe is very similar, and like my family recipe can be cooked without browning the ingredients before cooking, which makes it very simple to prepare once you’ve done all the chopping. I remember my mum dashing home from work in her lunchtime to prepare the ingredients for a hotpot and put it in the oven for later that evening. I don’t suppose we had timers on ovens in those days! You can use any root vegetables you like in this, mixing and matching to suit what you have in the fridge/vegetable rack. Our local Coop’s shelves were bare when I made this last week, so I used carrots, squash, celery, potato and sweet potatoes as that’s what I had – it isn’t a fussy dish. Jamie’s recipe browns the vegetables (but not the meat), but I really don’t think it’s necessary, By all means do if you prefer.

I broached the last of my Crown Prince squashes from last autumn for this, and a veritable monster it was too! I used barely a sixth of it in the hotpot, but it should keep well in the fridge while I work out what to do with the rest..

Jamie’s Posh Hotpot – serves 4-6

4-500g diced stewing steak (I like to use skirt again, but shin or just stewing beef is fine)
2 onions, chopped
3-4 carrots, peeled and diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
250g squash, diced into chunks
2 parsnips, peeled and chopped (or sweet potatoes or swede)
1 potato, peeled and diced
1 leek, chopped
handful sage leaves, chopped
2 bay leaves
800ml – 1l hot beef or vegetable stock (again, use cubes if that’s what you have)
1/2 bottle red wine
1 tbsp tomato purée
salt and pepper
grated zest 1 lemon
few sprigs of rosemary , leaves only
1 clove garlic, crushed

Pre-heat the oven to 140-150°C. Place the diced meat and all the chopped veg in a large casserole or hotpot dish with the bay leaves and chopped sage. Pour over the hot stock, seasoning and tomato purée, then add the red wine and stir well. Place in the oven and cook for 4 hours or until tender. Check the liquid carefully towards the end and top up with more water, stock (or wine!) if necessary.

Just before serving, mix the grated lemon zest, chopped rosemary and crushed garlic together and stir into the hotpot for a hint of je ne sais quoi. Serve with crusty bread, or you could make a pastry crust again (see above) or even herby dumplings.

Jamie's hotpot
The snow has all but gone now, as I write, and we’re coping with the aftermath in the form of no water (or in my case, barely a trickle) as water leaks spring up all over the village as part of the big thaw. Ho hum. It was nice while it lasted.

The next morning