All posts by clairecoxtranslations

Scaling the rhubarb mountain…

Alliums and tulips

It’s at this time of year that the rhubarb goes into overdrive: sunshine one minute, heavy showers the next – perfect growing weather! Despite cutting back my rhubarb bed when I downsized from a full allotment to three-quarters, the two smaller beds I created seemed to have expanded beyond all expectations. Every time I go up, I cut armfuls of strong stems, but it still looks just as abundant the next time I arrive. I give lots away, of course: I sent my son and his fiancée home with loads this weekend, and thrust yet more at my mum when we called in for lunch on Sunday. I even took some up to a friend in Cheshire when I went to my goddaughter’s wedding over the beautiful May Day holiday weekend.

Needless to say my menus feature rhubarb pretty intensively at the moment: roasted rhubarb & orange compote with homemade granola and natural yogurt is my breakfast of choice. You can’t beat a good old-fashioned rhubarb crumble or a traditional rhubarb pie with its mandatory (and delicious) soggy bottom either. Sometimes, however, you fancy a change, and I recently revisited a recipe from one of my first ever cookbooks, Jocasta Innes “Pauper’s Cookbook” from my student days, still my original dog-eared, much bespattered paperback version from the 1970s. The original recipe calls itself a rhubarb pie, but to my mind a pie has to have a top, whereas this is more of a tart with just a pastry base. It’s delicious, whatever you call it, and reminded me almost of the delicious Rhabarberwähen I sampled in Basel during my year abroad – heaven on a plate! I must track down a Swiss recipe for one of those too…. In the meantime, here’s my take on an open rhubarb tart. I often make enough pastry to make a spare case; they keep for a good couple of weeks in a tin in a cool place.

Rhubarb & Cinnamon Tart – serves 6

Rhubarb tart

1 part-baked 24cm shortcrust pastry case (see this recipe or use your own)
750g rhubarb, chopped
1 lemon, grated rind and juice
150g brown sugar
1 heaped tbsp cornflour
1 tsp cinnamon

Mix the sugar, grated lemon rind and juice, cinnamon and cornflour in a bowl and sprinkle half this mixture over the bottom of the tart case, top with the chopped rhubarb, then sprinkle the rest of the sugar mixture on top. Bake at 200°C, Gas 6 for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the rhubarb is tender. Cover with foil if it starts to get too brown at the edges. Serve just warm or cold with whipped cream or crème fraiche.

A chance conversation on Facebook led to my next rhubarb solution: rhubarb & ginger gin. I’ve yet to taste the results, of course, as it will have to steep for a month before it’s ready, but I can’t see why it shouldn’t taste divine: rhubarb, ginger, gin & tonic – what’s not to like? I’ll let you know in a month’s time whether it’s as good as it sounds – fingers crossed! Sarah Raven’s recipe for rhubarb & ginger vodka appealed most after my online searches, adapted for gin and tweaked to fit my 2 litre Kilner jar. I used Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell London Gin, which gets excellent reviews and won a gold medal in the International Wine and Spirits Competition earlier this year.

Rhubarb & Ginger Gin

Rhubarb and ginger gin

800g rhubarb, chopped into small chunks
1 litre gin
400g granulated sugar
5cm piece root ginger, peeled and sliced
thin strips of orange peel from 1 orange
1 vanilla pod

Put the rhubarb, sugar, ginger, orange peel and vanilla pod into a 2-litre Kilner jar and pour over the gin to cover completely. You probably won’t need it all; I reckon I used about 900 ml. Shake vigorously, then put in a cool place for 1 month, shaking every day to dissolve the sugar.

After 1 month, strain into a jug and decant into bottles. Serve with tonic and ice for a perfectly pink long drink for the summer months. Roll on June!

Garden flowers with alliums and tulips
Tulips and alliums from the garden
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Another weekend, more progress…

Allotment evening sun

Another weekend comes around, very different from the soaring temperatures of last weekend, but dry at least today, so I’ve finally ventured out into the allotment to do something other than harvesting. My gardening helper came in again on Thursday and did the heavy weeding and lawn mowing, which meant it was a much easier proposition to go up today and get started with the interesting bits! As it was, I still spent over two hours up there, preparing beds and soil – all very enjoyable, but I can certainly feel it in my knee now…

Carrots, parsnips and beetroot are duly sown, along with salad crops: spinach, Swiss chard, rocket, lettuce, oriental mustard, parsley, coriander, dill and chives. I also planted red onion sets around the outside of the bed where the leeks are due to go: currently still containing healthy-looking parsley and chard/spinach that’s about to go to flower, but should be good for a few more pickings. I had intended to plant my peas too, sweet and mangetout, but common sense prevailed and I’ll save that until tomorrow – weather permitting!

I returned home with vast amounts of rhubarb – clearly loving the typical April weather of sunshine and showers – and yet more purple-sprouting broccoli. Most of my meals this week have featured broccoli one way or another, not that I’m complaining. It’s a real delight to have something so fresh and tasty at this time of year, before the asparagus and the broad beans come into their own in a few weeks’ time.

Tonight I simply had it steamed served with salmon fillet, a cream and herb sauce, paprika-dusted chunky chips and a garlic mushroom. So good. Other uses during the week were my standby broccoli and anchovy pasta, a tuna, leek and broccoli pasta bake, and a broccoli and feta frittata. Nothing very taxing, but nice to ring the changes by cooking the broccoli in different ways. And just think of all those vitamins! A and C for starters, but it also contains calcium, iron and folic acid, to name but a few of its nutritional goodies. Let’s hope it goes straight to the knee….

Broccoli & Feta Frittata – serves 2

Broccoli frittata with sorrel mint salad

1 onion, chopped
1 medium potato, diced and parboiled for 5 minutes
1 handful of purple-sprouting broccoli, steamed or microwaved for 2-3 minutes
8-10 cherry tomatoes, halved
a glug of olive oil
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
100g feta cheese, cubed
4 eggs
Salt and pepper

Cook the chopped onion gently in the oil for 10 minutes until starting to soften. Stir in the cooked potato, cherry tomatoes and thyme, and cook for a few more minutes.

Meanwhile beat the eggs, add salt and pepper, then stir in the cubed feta. Tip in the onion, potato and tomato mixture and finally add the drained, cooked broccoli. Pour the mixture into a greased 7″ square roasting dish and make sure everything is evenly distributed. Cook for 12-15 minutes in a pre-heated oven (200°C / Gas 6) until just set to the touch.

Leave to cool for a few minutes and then cut into quarters to serve, preferably with a fresh green salad: mine was fresh red sorrel and mint, as they are both plentiful in the garden at home at the moment, with a handful of red grapes. The frittata re-heats beautifully the next day for lunch if you have any left over.

This next recipe isn’t a looker (are pasta bakes ever?), but it is a really tasty and comforting way of serving broccoli when you have it coming out of your ears… It also contains leeks, another vegetable I’m trying to use up at this time of year, before they flower, and to free up the beds for next month’s courgette and sweetcorn plants. You can still eat them when they go to flower, but they start to develop a hard central tube, so best to use them before if at all possible.

Broccoli & Pasta Bake – serves 2

1 x 160g tin tuna, drained
60g pasta (I used penne, but use whatever you have)
1 generous handful purple-sprouting broccoli
1 large or 2 small leeks, sliced into rings
25g butter
1 heaped tbsp plain flour
250ml milk
1 tbsp parsley, chopped
Freshly grated nutmeg
100g Cheddar cheese, grated
2 tbsp breadcrumbs (I keep a bag in the freezer and use from frozen)
Salt and pepper

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside. Steam the broccoli over the pasta for the last 3-4 minutes.

Meanwhile, gently cook the leeks in the butter until starting to soften. Stir in the flour and cook for a few minutes, then gradually add the milk. You may need to add more milk if the consistency is too thick – this is a matter of personal taste, so use your discretion! Grate in some fresh nutmeg, and stir in the chopped parsley and half of the grated cheese. Then stir in the flaked tuna and season to taste.

When the pasta is cooked, stir the pasta through the sauce, add the cooked broccoli, and turn into a greased ovenproof dish. I use a 20 cm round Pyrex dish. Mix the reserved grated cheese with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle on top. Bake at 200°C / Gas 6 for 25 – 30 minutes until golden brown. Serve with peas or a green salad.

Finally, to use up the feta left over from the frittata, I turned to yet another pasta dish, featuring one of my favourite pasta sauces and one my boys took away to university as easy student fare. I find it’s only too easy to forget about half a packet of feta in the fridge once you’ve opened it, so this is a delicious way of using it up before it goes off. I think the original recipe came from renowned Italian food writer Anna del Conte, but I’ve tweaked it over the years as usual. You can add sweet peppers, or omit the onion: it’s always good.

Spicy Sausage Pasta – serves 2-3

Sausage pasta_rotated

1 x 400g pack good sausages (I like to use Sainsbury’s Sicilian sausages, but any will do)
200g pasta (penne or rigatoni)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tin chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato purée
2 tbsp capers, drained
12 black olives
120ml white wine
2 tbsp parsley, chopped (or basil in season)
100g feta cheese, crumbled
salt & pepper

Cook the chopped onion gently in the oil in a frying pan. Use scissors to cut the skin off the sausages and discard. Chop the sausage meat into chunks and add to the frying pan after 5-10 minutes, then add the chopped garlic and chilli. Cook until the sausage is no longer pink, then add the tomato purée and the wine. Let it sizzle and die down, then add the tinned tomatoes, capers and olives. Season to taste. Simmer uncovered for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside, reserving a few tbsp of cooking water to add to the tomato mixture if it looks to be getting dry. Alternatively add more wine!

After 15 minutes, add the pasta to the sauce, toss thoroughly and serve topped with the crumbled feta cheese and the chopped parsley.

Poppy in bluebells 2018

Getting stronger…

Cherry blossom front garden

Me, and growth in the garden, that is! An unexpectedly warm and sunny week in mid-April is just what the doctor ordered, encouraging me out to ever longer dog walks (dry and less treacherous underfoot, thank goodness) and also spurring the gardens into heavenly spring growth: tulips, daffodils, camellias, magnolias, epimediums, bluebells – all flowering at once…. Stunning!

I took the opportunity of a trip over to my son’s near Sevenoaks at the weekend to visit a garden I’ve always meant to visit: Riverhill Himalayan Gardens, perched on a fabulous vantage point above the A21, overlooking the Kent and Sussex Weald. It didn’t disappoint with intoxicating bluebell walks, stately rhododendrons, magnificent magnolias and fantastic views everywhere you looked. Dogs were allowed (on leads), a rare treat in these days where dogs seemed to be banned outright in many of the classic National Trust gardens. A sorry tale of the few cavalier dog owners spoiling it for the many who do pick up after their dogs and keep them under control in public places. For the odd child who veered away from our three (on their leads, good as gold). there were lots of others who were keen to come and coo and stroke them, especially my daughter-in-law’s working cocker spaniel, Ollie, who basks in all the attention, true therapy dog that he is.

Ollie in coat

Part of the reason I was able to have such a relaxed weekend was that I’d taken the plunge to get a cleaner back in to clean my house, partly because of my accident, but also to free up precious leisure time. I’d also, for the first time ever, paid for help in the garden, to do the heavy jobs I’d struggle to do with a weak, though recovering knee. A very good move: my overgrown lawn is now neatly mown, hard-to-access areas under trees and shrubs weeded, garden compost distributed around the hungry beds and my potatoes (Ulster Sceptre, Colleen and Bonnie) duly planted at the allotment. Such a relief!

On a side note, Ulster Sceptre is a variety I trialled from T&M some years ago and absolutely loved. I haven’t been able to find them since, but tracked them down to a grower in Yorkshire this year, only to see them described as the variety often grown as early Cheshires – no wonder I loved them, if they are the new potato taste of my childhood!

This left me free to spend a lovely afternoon just pottering on Sunday. I sowed more seeds in the propagator as others germinate and are moved out onto the conservatory windowsill: sweetcorn Ambrosia, courgette Defender and squash Crown Prince (from my own seeds saved from last year) and Early Butternut. Oh, and I’ve tried more celeriac this year (Monarch), having enjoyed it so much in cooking last year: so good with venison. It’s always been a martyr to slug damage whenever I’ve tried it before, but we’ll see…

I also got around to potting up my dahlia tubers, to get them going in the protected environment of my growframe before they go out in the open. Somehow or other I must have gone crazy at dahlia ordering time and have ended up with 10 new varieties! Six from Sarah Raven: purple Ripples, Shooting Star (cream tinged with mauve), Genova (mauve), Snowstorm (white of  course), Wizard of Oz (baby pink) and Daisy Duke (copper). The cream and purple shades are admittedly geared to my younger son’s July wedding, when it would be nice to have at least some blooms to accompany their lavender theme – weather permitting! I have bought a new raised bed kit to be dedicated to cutting flowers, but need help to install it: one for my gardener’s list, I think.

I had also succumbed to a Gardener’s World/Thompson & Morgan dahlia offer: four tubers for the cost of postage; who could resist?! These included Arabian Night, a deep red black cactus variety I’ve had before and loved – and since my favourite dark dahlia Rip City finally disappeared last year, this was an ideal chance to re-introduce that burgundy shade. The others were My Love (cream), Orfeo (another deep red) and Mingus Toni (speckled rose). I’m sure I’ll manage to shoehorn them all in somewhere… It may even be that some of last year’s, all left in the ground to overwinter as usual, haven’t survived the very cold temperatures we had earlier this year. Time will tell.

TM dahlia offer

Most of the tuberous begonias I’d overwintered in the shed had perished in the extremely cold temperatures, but two of my monster tubers still feel quite solid and have been duly potted up. I’ve had them all for a good couple of years, so they owe me nothing; we’ll see if they shoot, and if not, I’ll start again with fresh plants and new varieties. Such is the joy of gardening 🙂

My final task of the weekend, still from a gentle sitting position with my potting tray moved to my garden table, involved pricking out the fibrous begonia seedlings my parents had brought over the previous weekend from Dove’s Barn, a nursery near them in East Grinstead, always very reasonably-priced for a wide range of seedlings and young plants. These are very tricky to grow from seed yourself unless you have a heated greenhouse, so I usually buy them at the tiny seedling stage and prick them out myself. These were one stage further on as mini plug plants, but it’s still a lot cheaper to buy them like this than to buy trays of garden-ready plants in a month or so’s time. And while it may seem unadventurous to always have begonias in my garden tubs, I know from experience that these are such good doers: come sun or rain, slug epidemic or drought, these do well whatever the season throws at them.

Bluebells at Tapsells April 2018

 

 

Spring celebrations

Spring celebration cake

One thing I am still able to do now I’m a little more mobile is bake – and, as it happened, we’d planned to do some more wedding cake experimentation last weekend by way of a joint birthday cake to celebrate three family birthdays at a picnic down at my friends’ smallholding on Saturday. We’d discussed making another two-tier cake even before I had my accident, but I didn’t see why I shouldn’t be able to go ahead with the bottom tier, especially with the assistance of my trusty KitchenAid. My daughter-in-law took control of the 8″ top layer, as she will for the wedding in July. This time we opted for a simple Victoria sponge with vanilla buttercream and homemade black & redcurrant jam. We had intended to cover the whole thing with buttercream as last time, but we ran out of time on the Saturday morning and opted for a very simple naked cake instead – actually really pretty!

After much research into increasing the quantities of cake mix to fit larger tins, I resorted to calculating the area of a 10″ tin compared to my usual 7″ sponge and multiplying by half as much again to get a three-layer cake rather than the standard 2-layer Victoria cake. Good old πr² – those maths lessons do have their uses after all! My standard 2-layer cake uses 3 large eggs and 6oz of self-raising flour, caster sugar and butter (I use the spreadable kind as it whisks up better in an all-in-one cake), plus one teaspoon of vanilla extract and one teaspoon of baking powder. I used Dove’s Farm gluten-free self-raising flour to great effect this time – no-one could believe it was actually gluten-free! For a larger 10″ cake with three layers, I used 9 eggs, and scaled up the other ingredients accordingly, while my daughter-in-law used 5 eggs and 10oz each of the other ingredients for her 8″ cake.

Spring Celebration Cake

8″ sponge (3 layers):
5 large eggs
10oz caster sugar
10oz self-raising flour (GF works well)
10oz spreadable butter
1.5 heaped tsp baking powder
1.5 tsp vanilla extract

10″ sponge (3 layers):
9 large eggs
1lb 2oz caster sugar
1lb 2oz self-raising flour (GF works well)
1lb 2oz spreadable butter
3 heaped tsp baking powder
3 tsp vanilla extract

I large jar (at least 1lb) red jam – homemade or good quality jam of your choice. Mine was a very large jar, so make sure you have more in reserve just in case!

Vanilla buttercream:
1lb spreadable butter
2lb icing sugar, sifted
1.5 tsp vanilla extract

Dowelling
1x thin 7″ cake board
Garden flowers to decorate

First make the cakes separately. If you have a KitchenAid or freestanding mixer, this makes the whole process a lot easier! I resisted for years, but can’t imagine baking without it now – and for these large celebration cakes they are a real boon.

Weigh out and place all the ingredients for each cake in the mixer and blend until light and fluffy. Make sure you go round the sides with a spatula and scrape right down to the bottom several times in this process to make sure all the dry materials are incorporated properly. Then divide the mixture between three greased and base-lined cake tins. You can do this by eye or for perfect results weigh the mixture and divide by three. Cook in a pre-heated oven at 160°C for 25 to 30 minutes, then allow to cool in the tins before removing to a wire rack.

Repeat for the second cake. I had two deep 10″ tins as opposed to three sandwich tins so ended up dividing the mixture into two, cooking the deeper cakes for 45 minutes  and then halving the resulting cakes with my clever cake slicer. This made a 4-layer cake for the bottom (which of course would have been covered by icing had we proceeded as planned!). It really didn’t matter in the event. but I will get another tin and make three separate layers for the wedding cake proper.

When the cakes are cool, sandwich them with jam and buttercream. I did alternating jam and buttercream layers, but you could equally well use thinner layers of jam and buttercream between each cake layer. Bear in mind that you might need more jam and buttercream if you’re doing this though!

Once you’ve assembled each individual three-layer sponge, cut pieces of dowelling to size so they are just smaller than the overall height of the bottom cake and insert 4 pieces into the cake in a square pattern around the centre. Carefully place the top cake onto the cake board (or assemble on the cake board in the first place) and position on top of the larger cake.

Finally, decorate with garden flowers of your choice. I put more buttercream on the top and placed camellias and primroses in that as a centrepiece, dotting more primroses in the layers around, but the choice is yours – any flowers would work, depending on the seasons. Dust with sifted icing sugar to finish.

I had lots of buttercream left over too, so ended up making old-school butterfly cakes the next day: same basic proportions for a 3-egg sponge, cooked in bun cases, then filled with jam and buttercream – delicious! And actually so much nicer than the ubiquitous and sickly cupcakes…

Butterfly cakes

We had to transport our celebration cake down winding country lanes to the party venue, which really wasn’t ideal, but it survived more or less intact and was very well received: the nicest Victoria sponge ever according to one enthusiastic guest! People really couldn’t believe that it was gluten-free either. We liked the naked cake effect so much that we may well keep to that idea for the wedding – it will certainly be less stressful preparing it on the day! Watch this space…

Spring cake from the top

 

Spring highs and lows

Hyacinths

Well, Easter has been and gone, and with it some lovely springlike weather last week. Unfortunately, I’m not quite as excited about the fact that spring has finally arrived as I would usually be. I managed to rupture my anterior cruciate ligament on a recent skiing trip in the French Alps and heavy gardening is going to be off the agenda for some while, I suspect. Not a good time of year for a gardener to be out of action!

Fortunately, two and a half weeks in, I now have my leg brace off and have started intensive physiotherapy to strengthen the muscles around my damaged knee. Gentle walking is also allowed, but I’m pretty sure this doesn’t cover long dog walks or heavy-duty gardening jobs like digging the allotment beds, creating new beds or spreading the compost around the garden at home. This last job was something I’d intended to do before going away, but the snow and constant wet prevailed against me, and it just didn’t get done. I’m definitely going to have to bring someone in to do all of that.

On the bright side, I did manage to sow some seeds in the propagator the night before we left (!): aubergines, leeks, chillis, sweet peppers and parsley, so at least they’ve had a head start. All bar the sweet peppers are showing already, and I’ve now sown some tomatoes (my favourite Sungold, Ailsa Craig and a new dark bronze cherry variety called Sunchocola from Mr Fothergill’s seeds), basil, delphiniums and hollyhocks. No problem putting my potting tray on the garden table so I can work sitting down!

I’ve also pottered around the garden dead-heading the hydrangeas now that the risk of frost should be less. I did have to restrain myself from leaping up to the back of the raised beds to the more inaccessible stems, but otherwise all quite doable – and the garden looks so much tidier as a result, plus I can now see the beautiful camellia blooms much better. Next job, also feasible as long as I’m careful, is to cut back my huge lavatera in the bed next to the garage. They need to go down to a foot or so at this time of year to encourage strong new growth and an abundance of flowers in the summer. Another job I should be able to do with a dodgy knee is potting up the dahlia tubers I ordered earlier this spring. I usually start them off in pots in the growframe, then plant them out at the allotment when they are showing strong growth and are less susceptible to slug attack. On the list for the weekend, weather permitting.

I persuaded my sons to take me down to the allotment on Sunday, not to do any work, I hasten to add – and actually things don’t look too bad due to the cold start to the year. Thursday and Friday last week had been particularly sunny, so I was thrilled to find a bumper crop of purple-sprouting broccoli ready for picking – and the first rhubarb of the year too, always a notable event! Parsley and leeks were still growing strong and completed my spring harvest, shared with my son due to the huge quantities! I’ll turn a blind eye to the rest for now, but may need to seek some help planting my potatoes in the not-too-distant future.

Spring harvest

In the meantime, a good old rhubarb crumble was just what the doctor ordered with the first crop of the season – heaven! I’ve given a recipe for a rhubarb & almond crumble elsewhere, but this is just my straightforward, basic crumble recipe, courtesy of my mum and her mum before her. I find it doesn’t work with gluten-free flour, as you lose the crispness. I usually make double the amount of crumble mix and freeze half, uncooked, for a quick pudding when I’m short of time. It can be added straight from the freezer to cooked or uncooked fruit – perfect for busy days.

Rhubarb Crumble – serves 4-6

Rhubarb

500g rhubarb, trimmed and sliced – no need to peel if fresh
3 tbsp Demerara sugar
125g self-raising flour
25g caster sugar
60g butter
1 tbsp Demerara sugar to sprinkle

Place the sliced rhubarb in a covered glass dish in the microwave with the sugar and cook for 4 minutes until starting to soften and produce juice.
Rub the butter into the SR flour and sugar until it resembles fine breadcrumbs and sprinkle over the just-cooked rhubarb to cover completely. Sprinkle over the remaining tbsp sugar and cook in a pre-heated oven at 180-200°C (Gas 5/6) for 30 minutes. Serve warm with custard or a mixture of lightly whipped cream and yogurt. Bliss….

Rhubarb crumble

In the meantime, patience is required in spades – and I’m enjoying the camellias, hellebores and spring bulbs from the window. My garden will have to wait this year…

Tete a tete daffs

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!

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, 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