Category Archives: baking

Parsnips – the unsung heroes of the winter vegetable plot

Parsnip

Parsnips are a very underrated vegetable in my opinion; indeed, many of our fellow European countries regard parsnips as animal fodder, not fit for human consumption. They clearly haven’t enjoyed the delights of a roasted parsnip with their Sunday lunch or a mound of creamy mashed carrot and parsnip accompanying virtually any meat, but particularly the slightly gamey cuts of venison or lamb. I wouldn’t be without them, in the kitchen or in the plot. They are in the ground a long time, admittedly, but they also come into their own in the dog days of winter/early spring, when there are very slim pickings to be had from the kitchen garden. What’s more, you can leave them in the ground all winter and dig them up as you require – unless you live in a very cold area, when you might struggle to break through the frozen soil in the winter months! In these cases, you can lift your root crops and store in sand in a cool place like a garage or shed. Temperate Britain doesn’t usually warrant such extreme measures, though.

I usually sow my parsnips in late March/early April, depending on soil temperature. If you can remember to cover your chosen bed with enviromesh or fleece for a few weeks beforehand, that can give you a start too. Just weed the bed and rake thoroughly to a fine tilth, removing any stones; don’t add manure as this can cause root crops to fork, reducing your crop significantly. I usually plant parsnips in a dedicated root crop bed as part of my 4-year rotation scheme, sowing three rows of parsnips along with successional sowings of carrots and beetroot. Parsnips take a long time to germinate – up to three weeks – so if they don’t germinate for whatever reason, it’s often too late to plant more. Germination isn’t normally an issue, however – I rarely have a complete crop failure with them, unlike carrot seedlings which can get annihilated by slugs overnight if you’re not careful. Interplanting the rows of parsnips with fast-cropping radish can be a good idea, as it reminds you that the parsnips are there, but the radish can be done and dusted by the time the parsnips are big enough to need the space. As they start to grow, thin out as you would with any root crop, and remember to water them occasionally in dry weather. Then just (!) wait until after the first frosts to enjoy them in their full glory. The cold turns the starch into sugar, enhancing the taste in the process. You can eat the thinnings or young roots earlier on, but they taste very mild at that stage. Parsnips may be huge, they may be scabby, but, after you’ve peeled and chopped them, the flesh is always delicious. You’ll be glad you made the effort in December when you can serve your own roast parsnips with your Christmas dinner.

Christmas parsnips

Most of the parsnip recipes I’ve shared here have been side dishes such as the unctuous Parsnip & Leek Dauphinoise or parsnip scones based on my trusty Cheese & Apple Scone recipe. I’ve always struggled to find a good parsnip soup recipe, as they can be quite cloying unless you add a lot of spice – and then the spice can overpower the taste of parsnip. However, I recently discovered a delicious parsnip soup recipe in an American cookbook called Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden. As ever, I’ve tweaked it based on my years of soup-making experience, but what gave this one the edge was the delicious, zingy garnish, which really lifted the soup to a whole other level. Try it and see!

Parsnip Soup – serves 4-6

Parsnip soup

Olive oil (or butter if you prefer)
1 large onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
500g parsnips, peeled and chopped (you can add potato if you don’t have enough parsnips)
2-3 celery sticks, chopped (reserve the leaves for the garnish)
1 litre vegetable stock
Freshly ground nutmeg
1 bay leaf
Seasoning
Milk (or water) to taste

Garnish:
50g currants (or sultanas)
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
50g sunflower seeds, toasted (or pine nuts, almonds or cashews if you prefer)
handful parsley, chopped (or coriander)
1 tsp lemon zest, finely grated
1 tsp lemon juice (or lime, if that’s what you have!)
1/4 fresh red chilli, finely chopped (to taste)
seasoning
olive oil

Add a glug of olive oil (or a knob of butter) to a large soup pan and add the chopped onions, garlic, celery and parsnips. Cook gently for about 10 minutes until starting to soften. Add the freshly ground nutmeg, seasoning and stock, bring to the boil and cook for 20-30 minutes or until all the vegetables are tender. Remove from the heat and purée with a stick blender, or transfer to a liquidiser and blend until smooth. Return to the pan if necessary and adjust the consistency by adding milk or water if too thick. Reheat to serving temperature.

While the soup is cooking, prepare the garnish: put the currants or sultanas in a small bowl and pour over the red wine vinegar. Allow to soak for at least 15 minutes. Then toss the currants and their soaking liquid, toasted pine nuts, chopped parsley (or coriander) and reserved celery leaves, lemon zest and juice, finely chopped chilli and seasoning together. Add a glug of olive oil to finish and apply to your soup with a decorative flourish!

My final parsnip recipe comes from the same book, heavily adapted to adjust the US cup measurements for an English audience! It’s a parsnippy take on a carrot cake and quite delectable: lusciously soft, yet decadently crumbly at the same time. Even confirmed parsnip haters won’t detect its presence…

Parsnip, Date & Hazelnut Loaf

Parsnip loaf, slice

250g parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
150g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
100g chopped dates
100g hazelnuts, coarsely ground in a food processor
150g caster sugar
50g dark brown Muscovado sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp cinnamon
150 ml olive oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon zest

For the icing:
100g icing sugar, sifted
Juice and grated zest of half a lemon, setting aside some zest for the cake

Grease and line the base of a standard loaf tin. Pre-heat the oven to 150°C fan (Gas 3).

Put the chopped parsnips into a food processor and process until finely chopped, or grate if you prefer. Place the sifted flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Add the chopped dates and finely chopped hazelnuts (you can chop these by hand if you haven’t got a food processor, but they have a habit of rolling all over the board because they’re round!).

Place the eggs, caster and Muscovado sugar, vanilla extract and 1 tsp lemon zest in a large stand mixer, or beat with a hand mixer. Add the finely chopped parsnips, then gradually pour in the olive oil until well mixed. Fold the parsnip mixture into the dry ingredients until completely incorporated.

Transfer to the prepared loaf tin and cook in the pre-heated oven for 1 hr to 1 hr 10 minutes. This will vary considerably depending on the age/texture of your parsnips and your oven temperature. The original recipe said 35 to 45 minutes, but mine was nowhere near ready by that time (homegrown parsnips perhaps?) and took nearer 1 hr 10 minutes. Do keep checking with a skewer (it should come out clean when inserted in the centre of the loaf) and touch with a finger to make sure it springs back to the touch, rather than still looking soft.

Meanwhile, prepare the lemon glaze by mixing the sifted icing sugar with the remaining lemon zest and a tbsp or so of lemon juice until the consistency is thick enough to coat the cake. You can add more icing sugar or lemon juice to adjust if necessary. Set aside.

Cool the loaf in the tin for 15 minutes, then carefully turn out onto a cooling rack, place greaseproof paper beneath (to catch drips) and pour over the glaze, making sure it covers the top surface and runs prettily down the sides.

You could, of course, go down the traditional carrot cake route and top with cream cheese frosting, but bear in mind that frosting won’t keep as long out of the fridge if it’s not all going to be eaten straightaway.

I found the glazed version keeps for a good week in the tin – the perfect afternoon treat!

Parsnip, date and hazelnut loaf

The February Blues

When I booked a trip to visit my son and daughter-in-law in Boston at the end of January, I envisaged snow and arctic conditions across the pond, followed by a return to early spring in the UK when I got home in February. But no. It was not to be. New England was experiencing its mildest winter for some years, with temperatures hovering around freezing, but brilliant blue skies and sunshine – a far cry from the wettest autumn/winter on record (or so it seems) we’ve experienced at home. So far, so welcome – and a delightful break, lovely to be reunited with family and spend time together, of course. Plus we got to see some snow in a trip to beautiful Vermont, so that satisfied my snow longings.

Unfortunately, my son had a nasty cold while I was there and my throat was starting to feel suspiciously tickly on my night flight back. It quickly developed into a decidedly croaky voice, followed by a full-blown stinker of a cold – just what you want when you get back from holiday. Nearly two weeks on, and I’m gradually shaking it off, although now my 86-year-old father has it and I’m feeling bad about passing it on to him in the brief time I saw them between landing and picking up my car.

Needless to say, gardening has been off the agenda over the past two weeks, even had the weather been kinder, but no, we’ve been battered by storms, mirroring my mood. I did manage to venture out to the allotment last weekend, while Storm Chiara (my name in Italian – how apt!) was doing her worst, and my poor shed is definitely on its last legs. Only the clematis is holding it up, I suspect – a new one will have to be on the agenda very soon, when I feel up to doing the research, that is! More torrential rain is on the way this weekend in the shape of Storm Dennis, so we’ll see whether that finishes it off – it hasn’t been as bad as last weekend so far, although the main road to Tunbridge Wells is flooded again. For the time being, my tools – and, more importantly, my little stove! – are covered and I daren’t try and rescue them in case the whole thing collapses on my head!

Poorly shed

Cooking from scratch is another thing I haven’t really felt up to, most unusually for me, but this is where a well-stocked freezer and all those soups transformed from bumper harvests last season come into their own. Tomato soup, carrot & coconut and turkey broth have gone down particularly well: all those vitamins doing my throat good on their warming way down, even if my sense of taste and smell isn’t all it should be either. Hot drinks have been my salvation: copious amounts of tea (even more than usual, which is pretty good going, even for me!), hot blackcurrant and lemon, plus Lemsip at bedtime. I’ve even gone off coffee and alcohol – it must have been a really nasty bug! Herbal remedies from my friend have really helped, though: andrographis compound, plus eucalyptus and thyme for my chesty cough and eyebright (euphrasia, who knew? Augentrost, or eye consolation in German, which is also rather nice) & calendula for my streaming eyes. Oh, and beetroot juice to boost my immune system.

Carrot & Coconut soup

Before I lost my sense of taste and appetite, however, I did manage to make a batch of chocolate chip oat cookies – having returned post-holiday to a house with empty biscuit and cake tins! That would never do… As it happened, we’d made some American-style choc chip cookies in Boston from a new cookbook borrowed from their excellent local library. They were very good (especially when we’d halved the amount of sugar in the original recipe!), but it reminded me to dig out my old recipe, adapted from a magazine many moons ago. Mine are definitely more traditional crispy biscuits than the American softer cookie-style ones, but try both and see what you think:

English Chocolate Chip Oat Cookies – makes 24

Choc chip oat cookies

4oz butter, softened
3oz soft light brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
3oz oats
3oz self-raising flour, sifted
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
4oz dark chocolate, roughly chopped

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C fan (Gas 4) and grease two baking sheets, then line with baking parchment.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and creamy, then gradually beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Stir in the remaining ingredients and mix well. Place heaped teaspoons of the mixture on the baking sheets, spaced apart to allow for spreading during baking. Bake for 15 minutes, cool for a minute on the trays and then remove to wire racks to finish cooling. Enjoy with a steaming hot cup of tea.

And the American version appeared in this book, duly adapted for a less sweet English tooth:

Book cover

American Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Cookies – makes 24

8oz butter, softened
4oz caster sugar
4oz soft brown sugar
1 large egg, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp golden (or maple) syrup
4oz self-raising flour
4oz oatmeal
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
6-8oz dark chocolate, roughly chopped
4oz oats

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C fan (Gas 4) and grease three to four baking sheets, then line with baking parchment.

Cream the butter and sugars until light and creamy, then gradually beat in the egg, syrup and vanilla extract. Stir in the remaining ingredients and mix well. Place heaped teaspoons of the mixture on the baking sheets, spaced apart to allow for spreading during baking – these will spread more than their English cousins! Bake for 12 – 15 minutes or until just cooked: American cookies are usually softer than their British counterparts. Cool for a minute on the trays and then remove to wire racks to finish cooling. Enjoy with coffee (if you must!) or still excellent with a steaming hot cup of tea.

American choc chunk cookies

The suggestion in the original recipe is for these to be served as ice-cream sandwiches, with homemade raspberry ripple ice cream – now there’s a thought for the balmy days of summer at the height of the raspberry season…

In the meantime, I think I need another holiday to recover from my horrible decennial cold – just as well I have a restorative week in the Alps (not skiing this year, sadly) lined up in March 🙂

Frozen blackcurrants

 

 

 

 

An apple a day….

An apple a day – or more, actually. At this time of year, I still have bags full of apples in the garage and overflowing fruit bowls in the house, so my thoughts tend to turn to apples when baking or making desserts. All my apples are long since safely gathered in, but they still need monitoring every so often to make sure that any rotten ones don’t spoil the rest. With so many creamy and/or chocolatey desserts in the run-up to Christmas, apple-based dishes are the ideal antidote to all that excess, nice though it is – think a simple mincemeat-stuffed baked apple, or apple compote topped with a refreshing oatmeal yogurt cream, to say nothing of a simple apple pie or a good old apple crumble, perhaps mixed with mincemeat or cranberries for a festive touch – or an added banana just before it goes in the oven is a nice twist too.

Earlier this autumn I made some dried apple rings, a perfect addition to my bowl of breakfast granola, and easy as pie to make, especially if you have a mandoline for ultra-thin slices – but hand-cut is fine too, if you haven’t.

Dried Apple Rings

Apple rings pre-cooking

Eating apples
Lemon juice
Ground cinnamon
Vanilla extract

Wash and core the apples and cut away any damaged areas. Slice into even rings about 2.5mm thick – a mandoline makes this extremely quick and easy, but you can do it by hand too.

Fill a large bowl with water, add a squeeze of lemon juice and a teaspoon of vanilla extract, then let the apple rings soak for 5 minutes to stop them discolouring.

Place the apple rings onto a clean tea towel and pat dry, then transfer them to baking trays lined with greaseproof paper making sure they don’t overlap. Sprinkle with a dusting of cinnamon powder, then transfer the trays to a cool oven (90˚C) for one hour, then turn the slices over before returning to the oven for a further hour and a half. Finally, turn the oven off and leave the rings to cool inside the oven.

When cool, store in an airtight jar, where they should keep for a good few months to brighten up your breakfasts.

apple rings in jar

Another favourite recipe that I can’t quite believe I haven’t shared here before is the nutty apple cake I’ve been making since time immemorial. This recipe is a hand-written scrawl in one of my very first recipe notebooks – so old, I can’t even remember where it came from in the first place, and of course the measurements are imperial, always a bit of a giveaway! The only thing I would add is that, as with other cakes containing fresh fruit (or veg), it does go off if you don’t eat it within 3-4 days, so either freeze half or make sure you serve it for a crowd.

Nutty Apple Cake

Nutty apple cake

1 large cooking apple
1 tsp lemon juice
1oz walnuts
6oz caster sugar
8oz self-raising flour, sifted
6oz softened butter (I use the spreadable variety)
1 rounded tsp mixed spice
3 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp milk
1 heaped tbsp demerara sugar

Pre-heat oven to 150˚C. Grease and line a round, deep 8″ cake tin with a loose base. Peel and core the apple, and cut off 6 even slices, placing these in cold water and sprinkling with lemon juice to prevent discolouring. remove the core and roughly chop the rest of the apple. Finely chop the walnuts.

Place the sugar, butter, sifted flour, mixed spice, beaten eggs and milk in a large bowl and beat with a hand whisk for several minutes until the mixture is smooth, creamy and lighter in colour. Fold in the chopped apple and walnuts, then transfer to the prepared tin. Level the top, then place the reserved apple slices neatly around the edge and sprinkle with the demerara sugar. Bake in the preheated oven for 1 hr 20 – 1 hr 30 mins, checking towards the end as ovens vary. A skewer inserted in the centre should come out clean. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then eat in generous slices with a lovely cup of tea.

My final offering is an adaptation of a gooseberry & pecan flapjack recipe I discovered earlier this year. I’d thought for a while that it would work well with apples, and sure enough, it did. You can ring the changes with walnuts or hazelnuts rather than pecans here, of course. Blackberries would work nicely with the apples too.

Apple & Pecan Flapjack – makes 12-16

Apple & pecan flapjack

200g butter
3-4 large cooking apples
1 tsp ground cinnamon
150g light soft brown sugar
200g spelt flour
150g oats
1 tsp cinnamon
100g pecans, chopped (or walnuts or hazelnuts if you prefer)
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180°C fan (Gas 5) and grease and line a rectangular baking tin – mine measures 28cm x 18cm x 3.5cm, but the original recipe from Waitrose uses a 20cm square tin.

Peel, core and roughly chop the apples, sprinkle with lemon juice, then place in a pan with 50g of the sugar (or to taste), a tbsp or so of water and 1 tsp ground cinnamon. Cook over a low heat until the apples start to fall. Turn up the heat and continue cooking, stirring regularly, for 10-15 minutes until you have a thickish, jam-like mixture.

Take off the heat and set aside.

Mix the flour, ground ginger, oats, salt and chopped pecans (or nuts of your choice) in a large bowl. In another pan, melt the butter and remaining 100g sugar, then pour over the flour mixture. Mix together until you have a rough dough.

Press half of the dough over the bottom of the baking tin, then spread the apple mixture on top. Sprinkle the remaining dough on top – I found it easier to crumble it with my fingers, so it didn’t cover the jam layer entirely and was quite chunky.

Place in the preheated oven and cook for 25-30 minutes until nicely browned. Cool in the tin, then cut into 12-16 bars (depending how hungry you feel!) and enjoy with your morning coffee. Delicious! They should keep well in an airtight tin for several days.

 

 

 

Pumpkin party

At this time of year, the amount of fresh stuff coming back from the allotment is much more limited: leeks and parsnips certainly, rocket and parsley of course, plus spinach and chard too. I even managed to pick a few side shoots of calabrese, but the main purple-sprouting broccoli won’t be ready until the New Year and the kale is slow this year, not helped by being attacked by caterpillars in the mild September weather. I haven’t checked on my flower sprouts (kalettes), and have only just realised that they grow up the stem like Brussels sprouts, so I really ought to look. However, the Crown Prince squash I harvested in October are still going strong in their basket in the conservatory and make a beautiful addition to autumn recipes, sweet and savoury. That said, I actually used a tin of pumpkin purée in the recipe I’m going to share today, mainly because my son and daughter-in-law brought a couple of tins over from the US when they visited in November, which just happened to coincide with this recipe appearing in the Weekend magazine.

I’ve made carrot, courgette and even beetroot cakes before, but never pumpkin, so I was pleasantly surprised by the texture and taste of this one. I tweaked the recipe slightly, mainly by using a different frosting to the rich double cream version suggested in Martha’s original recipe. Unless you’re catering for a houseful, I’d suggest you want something that keeps a little longer than a cream-based topping. In the end, I adapted an Ottolenghi cream cheese frosting – and froze half the cake (unfrosted), as the end result was quite large! I think it would also be good made as a traybake, adapting the cooking time accordingly. Here’s what I did:

Spiced Pumpkin Latte Cake – serves 10-12

Spiced pumpkin latte cake

½ x 425g can pumpkin purée (you could use steamed and puréed fresh squash too)
2 large eggs
100ml vegetable oil (I used groundnut, but sunflower would be fine)
100ml strong coffee
125g caster sugar
125g light brown sugar
250g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp salt
1 tsp mixed spice
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger

Coffee syrup:
50ml strong coffee
50g caster sugar

Frosting:
180g cream cheese
70g butter, softened
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
50g icing sugar, sifted
2 tsp espresso powder (for dusting)

Preheat the oven to 180ºC, gas mark 4, and line a 900g loaf tin with baking parchment. In a large mixing bowl, beat together the pumpkin purée, eggs, oil, coffee and both sugars.

In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and spices. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and mix until a smooth batter forms, with no flour visible. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 50 mins to 1 hour or until a skewer comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in the tin while you make the syrup.

Stir the coffee and sugar together in a small saucepan and warm over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Turn the heat up and simmer for 2-3 minutes until thick and syrupy. While the cake is cooling, brush the top with the warm syrup.

To make the cream cheese frosting, whisk together the cream cheese, butter and vanilla extract using an electric whisk until smooth. Add the sifted icing sugar gradually until soft and fluffy. Pile on top of the cooled cake and dust with a fine sprinkling of sifted espresso powder (or more cinnamon if you prefer, as used in the original recipe).

Having made the cake, I was left with half a tin of pumpkin purée, but what to do with it? While I was deliberating, Rebekka Gross, a breadmaking colleague on Foodie Translators, suggested pumpkin bread and passed over her tried and tested recipe. It makes a huge loaf, so once again, I froze half – it freezes beautifully and is good fresh or toasted. Quite delicious with today’s carrot and coriander soup. Leave out the spices if you don’t want quite such a savoury taste, although I served it with peach and basil jam for breakfast and it worked really well. I proved it in a basket overnight in the fridge, according to Rebekka’s instructions, but it deflated when I turned it out, so I suspect it had overproved. Fortunately, it still rose again in the oven and tasted great, but I think it needs to be moulded and put in its baking receptacle first if you’re going to go down the overnight proving route! I also chickened out of baking it in a Le Creuset casserole, as suggested, but here’s what I did instead:

Spiced Pumpkin Bread – makes one large loaf

Pumpkin bread

200g wholemeal spelt flour
400g strong bread flour
1.5 tsp dried yeast (I like Dove’s Farm)
280ml lukewarm water
1.5 tsp salt
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp olive oil
200g puréed butternut squash (or 1/2 x 425g tin)
1/4 tsp ground cumin (optional)
1/4 tsp ground coriander (optional)
Pinch ground cloves (optional)
Grated nutmeg

Mix the dough using the dough setting of a breadmaker – or mix in a KitchenAid or by hand if you prefer. Shape and place on a baking tray or in a large bread tin, then prove overnight in the fridge (or at room temperature for 1-2 hours). The following morning, remove from the fridge, allow to stand at room temperature for 30 mins or so while you heat the oven to 180ºC, Gas 5 (it should have risen quite dramatically!). Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the bread is nicely brown and sounds hollow when you tap underneath. Cool on a rack and enjoy!

(Rebekka suggested the Le Creuset method: heat a large Le Creuset casserole at full whack for 20 minutes – only heat the lid if it has an ovenproof handle. Bake for 50 minutes altogether: 30 minutes at 225ºC with the lid on, 20 minutes at 180-200ºC (depending how brown it is) with the lid off.)

Pumpkin bread, cut

Baking aside, I even managed to snatch an hour up at the allotment on Sunday afternoon: finally planting out the tulip bulbs from last year’s containers in the new cutting garden beds. Of course, I had to clear the beds of the spent sunflower stems and cosmos plants from the summer first – surprisingly tough to get out of the ground! Those sunflowers must have been well over 15 feet tall and had extremely thick stems that required a pruning saw to cut through them, to say nothing of the effort required to extract the roots… All done at long last, with two strenuous treks up to the bonfire site pushing an overladen wheelbarrow over muddy ground – phew! I cut back the blackened stalks of this year’s new dahlias too, and mounded them up with compost from some of the tomato pots from home – waste not, want not. Hopefully, it will help the tubers come through the winter, whatever the weather….

Crochet workshop
Crochet workshop in Tenterden – a lovely way to spend a December afternoon

 

 

Old favourites are often the best

Sunflowers and cosmos

Having recently returned from a fabulous holiday in the US, visiting my son and daughter-in-law in their new home just north of Boston – and just about recovered from the trials and tribulations of the flight cancellations triggered by British Airways’ industrial action: see my language blog for the gruesome details – I’m still trying to catch up with the allotment and garden produce that accrues when you’re away for over a fortnight at this busy time of the gardening year!

Three types of toms

This has clearly been an exceptional year for tomatoes and apples, leaving me with kilos of both to deal with. No wonder I’ve already made 32 individual portions of soup for the freezer (three different tomato varieties and broccoli and blue cheese soup using the calabrese heads that were nowhere to be seen before I left, yet threatening to flower by the time I arrived home!). The sweetcorn has virtually gone over, and, while I harvested a good number or reasonable-sized courgettes, I also left five monster marrows on the allotment sharing table along with green and purple French beans that were fatter than I usually like to eat them! The Marjorie plums were also ready, although sadly some of these are still infested by plum maggots, despite the plum moth trap that worked so well with my early plums; better than last year, certainly, so I’ll definitely try again next year with the greasebands and traps and hope to eradicate them next season.

Produce after hols Sept 2019The allotment flowers too were simply amazing . It had clearly been warm and dry in my absence, but most things were flourishing and blooming away in gay abandon. The sunflowers are still heading skywards, albeit with a bit of a lean, but my Heath-Robinsonesque supports had done their job and held them largely in position. Cue armfuls of flowers for the house, including some of those amazing sunflowers, along with dahlias, asters (now known as Callistephus – ugh!) and zinnias, which have to be my flower of the year. They were everywhere in New England too, especially the giant varieties which I already have on my must-grow list for next year…

Zinnias and astersWhile I was frantically dealing with all my own produce, a friend brought round some autumn raspberries, which of course I couldn’t turn down, especially as mine are always pretty sparse. I do brilliantly with summer raspberries, but I suspect my autumn canes are planted in too much shade and don’t get enough water. No matter: my friend has the opposite problem so we are able to share our successes and compensate for the other’s relative failures.

Autumn raspberries have a richer, mellower taste than their sharper summer cousins and I always used to make them into a raspberry & cinnamon torte in the days when we lived in Scotland and had plenty of berries in the damper climate and peaty soil. For some reason this recipe had slipped out of my repertoire and I was only reminded of it a few months ago when reading a magazine in which a journalist described a very similar recipe and said he too had stopped using it – probably having done it to death, as I did! With this now at the forefront of my mind, I decided to revisit this old favourite and the scent of it cooking in the oven brought it all flooding back – how on earth could I have let this one lapse? I hope you’ll agree that it is a stunning late summer pudding/cake. I can’t remember where the original recipe came from, possibly Good Housekeeping magazine, but it’s very, very good.

Raspberry & Cinnamon Torte – serves 6-8

Raspberry and cinnamon torte

150g butter, softened (I use organic spreadable butter)
150g caster sugar
150g ground almonds
150g self-raising flour, sifted
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp ground cinnamon
250g fresh raspberries
icing sugar, sifted

Grease and base line a 20 cm springform cake tin with greaseproof paper.

Place the butter, sugar, ground almonds, self-raising flour, egg and cinnamon in a large bowl and beat well. Spread half the mix over the base of the cake tin, using a fork to flatten lightly. Sprinkle the raspberries on top, then dot over the remaining almond mixture to almost cover the fruit. I tend to do this with my fingers, then pat it down with a fork again.

Stand the tin on a baking sheet, then bake at 160°C fan (Gas 4) for about 50 mins – 1 hour, until just firm to the touch with a springy texture. Cover if it is browning too much but not yet done. Cool in the tin slightly, but try to serve warm if you can, dusted with icing sugar and served with crème fraîche, clotted cream or whipped cream. Ice cream would probably be pretty good too. Inhale the heavenly cooked raspberry and cinnamon aromas and tuck in – bliss!

Raspberry and cinnamon torte_slice

If you haven’t got enough raspberries – and I’m aware that 250g raspberries is a lot if you have to buy them from a supermarket, where they always seem to come in miserly little punnets – I’ve made this with half raspberries, half sliced dessert apples before and that works well too, if slightly less luscious than the all-raspberry original. This is still good cold if you have any left over, or you can warm it in the microwave to recreate the just-cooked sensation.

Beverly by the sea

 

From plums to peaches

Perfect plums

This season’s bounties just keep on giving. My early Opal plum, which tends to be a biennial bearer, producing a good harvest every other year, surpassed itself this year with an amazing crop of sweet reddish-purple plums for a couple of weeks at the end of July/early August. Sadly, they often coincide with the arrival of the first wasps and once the striped devils discover the plums, I know their days are numbered… Even hanging a glass beehive trap filled with lemonade only delays the effect, but is definitely worth doing to distract them from their juicy targets.

Wasp trap

I still managed to harvest plenty of perfect plums – not a maggot in sight this year, thank goodness. The grease bands I put around the trees last autumn and the pheromone trap I hung in the orchard in May seem to have done the trick in deterring the dreaded plum moth. Extremely successfully, judging by the number of moths caught in the trap! Here’s hoping the later Marjorie plums, which were virtually inedible last year as every last one contained a maggot, are as good.

Plums are always a delight in the kitchen and many of my standby plum recipes came out again: sticky upside-down plum & almond cake, a heavenly plum frangipane tart and roasted plum compote, to say nothing of plums eaten straight from the fruit bowl, or sliced on my breakfast granola. Needless to say, I gave loads away too. Every year I try and experiment with at least one new recipe when I have glut situations: this year, I adapted my gooseberry flapjack recipe to make a plum & almond flapjack, which was good, but perhaps missed the tanginess of the gooseberries despite using much less sugar. Try it and see – but be careful, as bakes made with fresh fruit go off very quickly at this warm and humid time of year: freeze half if you know it’s not all going to be eaten within a few days!

Plum & Almond Flapjack – makes 16 bars

plum flapjack

200g butter
450g plums, stoned
125g light soft brown sugar
200g wholemeal spelt flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp almond extract
150g oats
100g whole almonds, chopped (or hazelnuts if you prefer)
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180°C fan (Gas 5) and grease and line a rectangular baking tin – mine measures 28cm x 18cm x 3.5cm.

Stone and halve the plums, then place in a pan with 25g of the sugar and cook over a low heat until the sugar melts and the juice starts to flow. Turn up the heat and continue cooking, stirring regularly, for 15-20 minutes until you have a thickish, jam-like mixture. Take off the heat and set aside.

Mix the flour, cinnamon, oats, salt and chopped almonds in a large bowl. In another pan, melt the butter and remaining 100g sugar, then pour over the flour mixture. Add the almond extract. Mix together until you have a rough dough.

Press half of the dough over the bottom of the baking tin, then spread the plum mixture on top. Sprinkle the remaining dough on top – I found it easier to crumble it with my fingers, so it didn’t cover the jam layer entirely and was still quite chunky.

Place in the pre-heated oven and cook for 25-30 minutes until nicely browned. Cool in the tin, then cut into 16 bars.

I also experimented with plum ice cream, although I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the results and will tweak further before I share my recipe here. I’d tried Jamie Oliver’s quick plum sorbet before (from Jamie at Home), where he just freezes the stoned plums, skins and all, then blitzes them in a food processor with orange and sugar before serving, but found the skins far too obtrusive, if not downright unpleasant! This time I found a recipe for Plum Ripple Ice Cream, but again it wasn’t quite right: it takes far too long to reach a scoopable consistency, although if you can wait an hour, the taste is delicious! Watch this space…

Unfortunately, the plums are no more, but just as I’d resigned myself to the end of the Opals this year, friends brought around some delicious English peaches from their glasshouse – just superb! The skins are suprisingly fuzzy and are in fact better peeled – perhaps shop-bought specimens have had the fuzziness bred out of them?! Suffice to say that these peel easily and the stone pops out with ease too, making them ideal for serving on crackers and cream cheese for a light lunch, in salads with feta or halloumi, and lightly roasted with maple syrup and thyme or lavender (and a dash of Amaretto if you’re that way inclined – which I usually am!) to create a fragrant compote.

Peaches

This week’s treat to take to an open-air theatre production of Ikarus Inc. (by the excellent Rude Mechanicals) on the village school playing fields was a cobbled-together invention to make the most of my unexpected bounty. Based on my rhubarb shortbread recipe, this peach and marzipan shortbread tray bake is quick to make and simply divine – peaches and almonds are a match made in heaven.

Peach & Marzipan Shortbread Bites – makes 16 small squares

Peach and marzipan shortbread

Shortbread:
125g butter, softened
125g plain flour
25g cornflour
2 level tbsp icing sugar, sieved
1/2 tsp almond extract

 Topping:
3-4 peaches, stoned, peeled and roughly sliced
Juice of half a lemon
2 tbsp Amaretto
125g marzipan, preferably homemade
Few sprigs of lavender flowers (optional – to taste)
Icing sugar to dust

 18cm square tin, 4cm deep, lined with foil or baking parchment

 Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas 5.

 To make the shortbread, mix the butter, flour, cornflour, icing sugar and almond extract together in a food processor or by hand if you prefer. If the mixture seems very soft and sticky, you can add 1 or 2 tbsp ground almonds at this stage. When it comes together to form a dough, press evenly into the tin, prick with a fork and cook for 20 mins until starting to look pale golden brown.

 Combine all the topping ingredients in a bowl and tip onto base. Return to oven and cook for 35-40 mins until the topping is set and golden brown. Allow to cool, then cut into 16 small squares and dust with icing sugar just before serving. These are very rich, which is why I serve them as bitesize squares – you can opt for bigger bars if you prefer though!

Finally, the arrival of another crate of peaches had me reaching for the ice cream maker to concoct a peach sorbet – just peaches, sugar, lemon juice and Grand Marnier – what’s not to like?

Peach Sorbet

Peach sorbet

4-6 ripe peaches, peeled and stoned
125ml water
3 tbsp granulated sugar
Juice of one lemon (or lime)
1-2 tbsps Grand Marnier (optional)

Put the water, sugar and lemon juice in a small pan and simmer gently for 5 minutes or so until the sugar has dissolved. Leave to cool.

Roughly chop the peeled and stoned peaches, then put in a blender with the cooled sugar syrup and blend until well mixed. Add the Grand Marnier if using – this helps make the sorbet easier to scoop when frozen. Pour into an ice cream maker and churn until starting to freeze, then place in the freezer to complete the process. Of course, you can also make this the old-fashioned way by freezing for an hour or so, then whisking in the ice crystals and repeating until softly frozen.

Apricot begonias

Yet more rhubarb….

Shed under clematis

Another holiday weekend, and while the weather hasn’t been as glorious as the Easter weekend, it has at least been dry and sunny in parts, if cold for the time of the year, so limited gardening has been on the agenda. Having mown the lawn – and neatened the edges with a half-moon spade – last week, and paid someone to cut the over-long grass and edges at the allotment, I’ve been able to concentrate on weeding the raised beds and potting on my chilli and aubergine seedlings at home. For some reason, my sweet pepper and basil seeds have failed to germinate in the propagator this year. While I can sow more basil (from a new packet), it’s too late to sow pepper seeds in May. I’ll either have to do without, or buy a couple of plants. Strange how the chilli and peppers seem to germinate better in alternate years… I also dead-headed my hellebore flowers to give other plants more room and stop the plants putting energy into producing seed. I have quite enough self-sown hellebores around the garden after all!

At the allotment, I spent a good hour yesterday painstakingly prising the dreaded couch grass out of my existing strawberry bed, where it has really taken hold. I’ve already planted up a new bed earlier this year, so if I can just keep this one going this season, I can empty the whole bed over winter and really blitz this pernicious weed. I also cleared my sprouting broccoli beds: most of the plants have gone to flower by this stage and I need the tunnel structure to protect my peas, sown last weekend, from the pigeons. The sprouting broccoli has done amazingly well this year, so the individual plants took some removing – four-feet tall triffids with yellow flowers everywhere! The stalks are too chunky for the compost heap, so up to the communal bonfire pile they went. I still have a couple of plants with edible shoots, but I suspect they won’t last more than a couple of days. Just in time for the asparagus to come on stream 🙂

Needless to say, the rhubarb is still going strong and more experimentation has been in order to keep up with the flow. I hosted another four-generational lunch this weekend with my parents, my elder son and his wife, plus my granddaughter of course, and inevitably rhubarb had to feature on the menu, this time in the guise of a rhubarb & ginger trifle, perfect for my gluten-intolerant daughter-in-law. You could also make it with plain sponge if you felt so inclined, or, if you are catering for coeliacs, make sure you check that the Amaretti really are gluten-free – homemade macaroons would fit the bill in that case too.

Rhubarb & Ginger Trifle – serves 8

Rhubarb and ginger trifle

500-600g rhubarb, trimmed and chopped into 1cm slices
3-4 tbsp demerara sugar
Juice and rind of 1 large orange (or 2 small)
2 tbsp syrup from a jar pf preserved stem ginger
2 pieces preserved stem ginger, finely chopped
2 tbsp rhubarb gin (or Grand Marnier / liqueur of your choice)

4 egg yolks
2 tbsp caster (or vanilla) sugar
2 heaped tsp cornflour
300ml milk
few drops orange blossom water
Rind of 1 orange

15 or so Amaretti biscuits, plus extra to garnish
300ml double cream (or mix whipped cream and mascarpone)

First, trim and cut the rhubarb (unpeeled unless really thick and woody – shouldn’t be necessary with early-season produce) into 1cm pieces, halving the stems first if really chunky. Place in a shallow, rectangular baking dish and sprinkle with the brown sugar (to taste), orange rind and juice, plus the chopped preserved ginger and 2 tbsp syrup from the ginger jar. Roast in a pre-heated oven at 180°C (Gas 5) until tender, but still whole, for about 30-40 minutes. Leave to cool, then add the rhubarb gin (or alcohol of your choice)

Combine the egg yolks, 2 tbsp caster sugar and cornflour in a small bowl. Stir in the cold milk, then strain into a small pan. Cook gently until the mixture starts to thicken, stirring constantly. Add the grated orange rind and orange blossom water to the custard. Allow to cool slightly.

Place the cooked rhubarb into a trifle bowl and place the Amaretti biscuits on top to cover, pushing partly into the liquid to allow them to take up the juice. Pour over the cooled orange custard and place in the fridge to set for a couple of hours.

Whip the double cream and spread carefully over the custard, making generous swirls with a large spoon. Crumble a few extra Amaretti and sprinkle on top, adding pansies or other spring flowers to garnish if the mood takes you! Trifle fans will be in seventh heaven…

You’ll have four egg whites left over from this recipe, so you can either make macaroons or, as I did, lemon & almond ricciarelli, which conveniently use precisely 4 egg whites and are also ideal for gluten-free guests. In actual fact, I adapted the recipe to make lime & almond ricciarelli and they were equally good.

lime and almond ricciarelli_landscape

Then again, if you decide to turn the egg whites into meringues, either one large pavlova, or smaller rounds or individual cases (using 225g caster sugar to 4 egg whites) to keep for another day, you could consider combining crushed meringue and rhubarb to make a wonderful Rhubarb Eton Mess.

Rhubarb Eton Mess – serves 2-3

300g rhubarb, chopped
Juice and rind of 1 orange
2-3 tbsp demerara sugar
150ml double cream, softly whipped
2-3 tbsp natural yogurt
2-3 meringues, roughly crushed

Place the rhubarb in a shallow ovenproof dish and add the grated rind and juice of the oranges, then sprinkle with the demerara sugar. Roast in the oven at 180°C (Gas 5) for 30-40 minutes or until tender. Leave to cool.

Whip the double cream until soft peak stage, then fold in the natural yogurt, followed by the roughly crumbled meringues – aim to leave some big chunks for texture.

Spoon into 2-3 glass dishes and swirl the top, decorating with toasted flaked almonds or crushed biscuits depending what you have at hand.

A variation on this theme when you haven’t any rhubarb is a Blueberry Mess: Sainsbury’s had large punnets of blueberries on offer recently, so I stirred a large handful, washed but uncooked, into the cream and yogurt mixture above along with 1 tbsp Chambord raspberry liqueur and crushed Amaretti rather than meringue. Grated white chocolate and blueberries to decorate – to die for…

Blueberry mess_cropped

Rhubarb rules – OK?

Blossom

This time of year used to be known as the hungry gap because of the dearth of fresh produce available in the garden. I’ve just lifted the last of my leeks and (now very fibrous) parsnips, and the purple-sprouting broccoli, which has been incredibly prolific this year, is going to flower faster than I can harvest and eat it. The asparagus is just showing, but won’t be ready for a week or so yet – especially if we don’t have any much-needed rain! But there’s one crop you can always rely on in an English garden in the springtime: good old rhubarb.

Both my early and late varieties are now in full swing, giving me ample pickings for pies and other desserts several times a week – and plenty to give away to family and friends too, of course. There are so many ways to ring the changes with rhubarb, other than the ubiquitous compotes, crumbles, pies and fools, and I make it a personal challenge to experiment with new recipes each season. I’ve been trying for some time to recreate the delicious Swiss rhubarb tart, or Rhabarberwähe, I tasted in Basel on my year abroad, so this year I finally tracked down some authentic Swiss recipes and experimented: result! By combining a couple of the recipes I unearthed (see here for the originals: Rhabarberwähe and again here – only in German, I’m afraid, I made a tart that closely resembled my Proustian memories. It’s not dissimilar to my favourite rhubarb shortbread recipe, but creamier, with added double cream, although one of the original recipes I found used quark – if you can lay your hands on the proper full-fat version, rather than its poor relative, the 0% fat offering which is often all that’s available in UK supermarkets. I imagine crème fraîche would work just as well. I used a shortcrust pastry tart case in my experiment as I had one lying around (as you do), but a sweet shortcrust pastry would be even better – and more authentic. I halved the recipe for my trial, but this is the full quantity – just halve everything for a smaller tart.

Swiss Rhubarb Tart – serves 6

Rhabarberwahe

Sweet pastry:
5oz plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1oz caster sugar
pinch salt
2 tsp milk
2 1/2 oz butter
1/2 beaten egg

Filling:
Generous 1lb rhubarb (5 or 6 stalks), trimmed and chopped into 1/2″ chunks
3 tbsp ground almonds
2 tbsp demerara sugar
2 eggs, beaten
150 ml double cream (or quark)
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 tbsp vanilla sugar

First, make your pastry case: sift flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Stir in sugar, egg and milk until evenly mixed, then work in butter (I find it easier if you grate it from cold) using fingers. Knead lightly to form a smooth dough, then chill in fridge for 30 mins. Do not leave too long, as it will set really hard and be impossible to roll!

When chilled, roll out on a floured surface (it will be very fragile, but can be patched if necessary!). Line a 9″ tart tin, then bake blind at 200°C/Gas 6 for 10 mins, then remove foil and beans and cook for another 5 mins until just set and golden.

For the filling: sprinkle the ground almonds over the base of the part-baked tart case, then scatter the rhubarb pieces on top and sprinkle with sugar. Return the tart to the oven for 15-20 minutes until the rhubarb starts to soften.

In a separate bowl, combine the beaten eggs, cream (or quark), vanilla sugar (you could just use caster here if that’s all you have) and vanilla extract, then pour over the part-baked rhubarb in the tart. Return the oven and bake for 20-25 mins until just set. Leave to cool and dust with icing sugar to serve – so good.

Another rhubarb-based pudding I discovered this year came originally from the BBC Good Food magazine calendar, often an excellent source of inspiration, if only as the pictures tantalise me every morning as I walk past! This is a posh take on a bread and butter pudding, and very comforting and delicious it is too. Again, I halved the ingredients and it still lasted several meals – warms up beautifully in the microwave too.

Rhubarb & Ricotta Brioche Pudding – serves 8

Rhubarb brioche pudding uncooked

500g rhubarb, trimmed and chopped into 3cm pieces
150g caster sugar
300ml whole milk
300ml double cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs, plus 1 egg yolk (I just used 2 eggs when halving the mix)
250g brioche, thickly sliced
35g butter
200g ricotta
25g icing sugar
zest of one lemon
zest of one orange

Heat 100 ml water in a small pan and add 50 g of the caster sugar. Bring to the boil, then add the rhubarb. Simmer for a couple of minutes, then lift out with a slotted spoon and arrange on a single layer on a tray or plate. Set aside to cool.

Put the milk and cream in a large pan and bring to the boil, than add the vanilla. Beat the eggs, extra yolk and remaining sugar in a large bowl, then pour over the warm cream and milk mixture. Set the oven to 160°C fan or Gas 4.

Slice the bread and butter, then spread the ricotta thickly on top of the buttered bread. Cut into triangles. Sprinkle the bread with the citrus zest, then layer the slices with the rhubarb in a large 20 x 30cm baking dish – a lasagne-type dish is perfect. Pour over the egg and cream mix and leave to stand for 30 minutes (this makes the end result lighter).

Place the dish in a large roasting tin and pour boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the baking dish. Bake for 45-50 mins until puffy, set on top and golden. Remove from the oven, but leave to cool in the dish for about 10 minutes before serving.

Dust with icing sugar and serve with pouring cream or crème fraîche for a lusciously lovely spring treat.

rhubarb brioche pud cooked

My final variation on a rhubarb theme is an adaptation of a cake I usually make in September with my plum harvest: plum and almond cake, equally good as a dessert or a cake with tea. I do a different rhubarb upside-down cake, where the fruit is all piled on haphazardly, but this was inspired by a colleague on the Foodie Translators’ group on Facebook, who posted a picture of a rectangular rhubarb tart with the rhubarb immaculately laid out in a chequerbord design. Very smart.

Rhubarb Lattice Cake – serves 8

Rhubarb lattice cake

9 1/2oz caster sugar
7oz butter
400g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into equal 4cm lengths
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 1/2oz self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
3 1/2 oz ground almonds
1 tsp cinnamon
Grated rind of one orange
2 tbsp fresh orange juice
2 tbsp milk

Grease and line an 8″ solid-bottomed cake tin with baking parchment – I use a heavy tarte tatin tin.

Put 4 1/2oz sugar and 3fl oz water in a small pan and simmer gently until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and cook to a golden caramel colour, watching like a hawk so that it doesn’t burn! Remove from the heat and add 2oz butter, stirring well. Pour into the prepared cake tin and place the rhubarb pieces on top in a neat lattice pattern. If you use a round tin, as I did, you’ll need to trim the outside pieces as you go to fit the tin.

Beat the remaining butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, then gradually mix in the beaten eggs and vanilla extract. Add 1-2 tbsp flour if it shows signs of curdling. Then fold in the dry ingredients and orange zest, alternating with the milk and orange juice.

Spoon the mixture onto the plums and bake for 45-50 minutes at 160°C / Gas 4 until golden brown, spongy to the touch and a skewer comes out clean.
Cool for a few minutes, then, while still warm, run a knife round the edge of the cake, place a large plate on top of the tin and firmly but gently turn the whole plate and tin upside down. Shake a little and the cake should just turn out of the tin onto the plate. Remove the parchemnt to serve.

Serve warm with cream or crème fraiche for a delicious dessert or cold as cake – delicious either way! You could also add chopped stem ginger and 1 tsp ground ginger instead of the cinnamon in the sponge, substituting 2 tbsp stem ginger syrup for the orange juice.

Leo watching bluebells Tapsells 2019

 

Bananas about bananas

Colours
Magnificent Sheffield Park in Sussex

As the winter months get underway, bananas are one fruit I always have in the fruit bowl. Perfect for quick puddings when you suddenly realise you’ve nothing else planned – see my recipes for Banana cream and Brazilian rum banana cream for simple ideas, or for Toffee Bananas simply cut into chunky pieces, fry in butter until starting to brown, then add brown sugar and orange juice (desiccated coconut works well too if you’re a coconut fan), and continue cooking until you have a toffee-like sauce. Delicious with cream or ice cream. Then again, bananas simply grilled (or barbecued) in their skins, then opened up, sprinkled with sugar and a dash of rum, are pretty much food of the gods too…

Another so-simple dish if you find yourself with a surfeit of overripe bananas is to whizz them into a divinely good ice cream. This is an especially useful recipe to bear in mind over the festive period, when you suddenly realise you’ve got far too much cream nearing its sell-by date.

Easy Banana Ice Cream

4 bananas, peeled and mashed
Juice of 1 lemon (or lime)
400ml double cream
50g caster sugar

Simply put all the ingredients in a blender and whizz until smooth. Then pour into an ice cream maker and churn, or pour into a freezer container and freeze for a couple of hours, then whisk again, and keep doing that every hour until it forms ice cream. The flavour has to be tasted to be believed….

Then again, baking with bananas is another tempting option. One of my go-to recipes is the cherry and banana buns I’ve been making since time immemorial, but the other day I was fresh out of glacé cherries, so decided to experiment (very successfully) with chocolate and banana buns using the same method – a hit! The beauty of these buns is that the flavour continues to mellow over a few days – if you can keep them that long! – but they are also excellent eaten warm from the oven.

Chocolate & Banana Buns – makes 24

175g butter, softened
150g caster sugar
150g self-raising flour, sieved
25g cocoa powder, sieved
2 eggs, beaten
1 ripe banana
Lemon juice
50g dark chocolate, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 180°C fan, Gas 5. Place 24 bun cases in bun tins. Mix butter, sugar, flour, cocoa powder and eggs together using a hand-held mixer until the mixture is light and creamy. Mash the banana in a small bowl, adding lemon juice to stop it browning. Fold the banana and chopped chocolate into the cake mix. Spoon into the cases and cook in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes until springy to the touch. You could ice these with melted chocolate if you felt so inclined, but they really don’t need it.

This week I once again found myself with three large bananas in the fruit bowl, blacker than I like to eat them, and coincidentally I found this new recipe for a banana & cinnamon loaf in the Waitrose Weekend newspaper that I sometimes pick up when I’m shopping. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I decided to give it a go and was very impressed with the outcome – different to my other banana cakes, but also extremely good in its own sweetly spiced way.

Banana & Cinnamon Loaf

Banana loaf_whole

125g butter, softened
125g caster sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
125g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
2 ripe bananas
Juice of half a lemon

For cinnamon sugar:
25g granulated sugar
25g soft dark brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
generous pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

To top (optional):
1 ripe banana, sliced lengthwise, brushed with lemon juice

Preheat oven to 160°C fan, Gas 4. Place the butter, caster sugar, beaten eggs, sifted flour and baking powder in a large bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Peel and mash two of the bananas with the lemon juice until nice and soft, then fold into the cake mixture.

Mix the ingredients for the cinnamon sugar in a small bowl and set aside.

Put half of the mixture into a greased and base-lined loaf tin, then sprinkle half the cinnamon sugar evenly over the surface. Top with the remaining cake mix and sprinkle over the remaining cinnamon sugar.

If you wish you can divide the remaining banana in half lengthwise and gently place on top of the cake at this stage. Don’t press too hard – I found mine sank to the bottom of the cake, so didn’t look as pretty as I’d hoped – and the cake would still have been delicious without!

Place the tin into the oven and bake for 60-65 minutes or until golden and a skewer inserted in the cake mix (try and avoid the whole banana if using!) comes out clean. Cool in the tin before removing the cake to a wire rack. Delicious warm with cream and crème fraiche as a dessert, or equally good cold with a cup of tea – and like the previous recipe, the banana flavour just gets better and better as it matures….

Banana loaf

Let me finish with a few more pictures of this weekend’s glorious walk at Sheffield Park, a National Trust garden not far from here. I always try and go at this time of year as the autumn colours are so fabulous. My own garden can’t compete with the grandeur and magnificence of this landscaped park, but it’s good to take time out and go and enjoy other people’s creations for a change. Just stunning…

LakeAutumn walk

Lake and trees

 

 

Diary of a Wedding Cake

The finished cake - in the fridge_cropped

I know, I know, it’s been a long time since I last posted: just the small matter of my younger son’s wedding at the end of July, and the accompanying cake to make for what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year! I have to confess there were times as the day approached and the weather got hotter and hotter, that I wondered what on earth I’d let myself in for. The venue, Grove House, an old manor house, now part of Roehampton University, was precisely that, an old house with a lot of glass, no air conditioning, and no proper kitchen facilities. The caterers bring in their own kitchen equipment and use a (south-facing) converted lecture theatre as their kitchen for the day. Ho hum.

Let me rewind to the initial idea, though. Having made the top tier (a coffee sponge) and provided the flowers for my elder son’s wedding last July, I’d been persuaded that it would be a mere hop, skip and a jump from there to make the whole cake, with my other daughter-in-law’s help. Gulp. We’d had two trial runs, or even three if you count the top tier last year, although one of the bride’s friends, who’s an experienced celebration cake maker, had assembled the structure then, so making the cake itself really was a piece of …. cake. It rained cats and dogs all day long, so temperature wasn’t an issue – and the beautiful country house school hosting the wedding celebrations had an extensive kitchen and refrigeration facilities for the coffee mascarpone filling.

Wedding cake

Back in February, I’d made a sticky toffee cake (at my son’s request – it’s his favourite pudding!) in two tiers for a family 21st birthday; no problem with assembling the tiers, but we decided that sticky toffee, delicious though it was, would be too heavy for a summer wedding and that we preferred the effect (and not too sickly taste) of a naked cake.

Sticky toffee wedding cake

Roll on to April and we had another go, this time making a two-tier Victoria sponge, each tier having three layers, to celebrate a clutch of family birthdays. For an added challenge, I’d ruptured my ACL a couple of weeks before and was still wearing a leg brace, and the entire cake structure had to be transported down to my friends’ smallholding where we were having an impromptu outdoor barbecue feast! Despite all the constraints, it worked beautifully, and tasted delicious, so we decided to work on similar lines for the wedding cake proper.

Spring celebration cake

As the big day approached, I started to make lists of all the equipment I’d need and worked out quantities of ingredients based on the amounts I’d used last time, multiplied up for a bigger bottom tier. Quite a military operation, but it didn’t all go exactly to plan, needless to say. Fortunately I’d taken the week before the wedding off to allow myself plenty of time for cake-making and other preparations, so I had time to adapt – just as well!

The first obstacle came in the shape of cake tins: my existing 8″ sandwich cake tins have sloping sides and I only have two of them, so I’d decided to order more online. Likewise last time I’d used two deep 10″ cake tins and halved each cake, but had decided to order three proper 10″ sandwich tins this time. I already had one 12″ tin, but ordered two more. What amazed me was that some of the tins that arrived, allegedly the size I’d ordered, or their equivalent in cm, were not actually the right size! Either the dimensions had been taken from the outside of the tin, which had a lip, so the internal diameter was wrong, or they quite simply didn’t measure what they said! Motto: always double-check the tin dimensions before you bake! Fortunately I did, and was able to return the offending items and order all the same make (more expensive, but excellent quality): Silverwood. Sometimes, it doesn’t do to cut corners.

Check that you have the dowelling for the cake too – I used 4 pieces per lower tier, but took extra just in case. Having had issues cutting the wooden dowelling when we experimented in February, I’d had the brainwave of asking my father, a former joiner, if I could borrow his junior hacksaw. It may sound a bit extreme, but scissors or a carving knife won’t cut the mustard (let alone the dowels), and you really don’t want to be panicking on the day! I’d bought plastic dowelling this time, probably thinking it might cut more easily, but actually found it quite slippery in the heat of the day and ended up returning to the tried and tested wooden dowels – which fortunately I’d also taken with me – glad I’d prepared for every eventuality! Even with a sharp saw, they take quite a lot of effort to cut, so allow enough time. Thin round cake boards 1″ smaller than each tier of cake are also essential; again we learnt from our first experiment that the boards show if you don’t have them slightly smaller than the cake.

Then there’s the ingredients: 30 eggs, 6lb icing sugar…. – there’s nothing half-hearted about these quantities! I didn’t use gluten-free flour this time, but the cake worked perfectly well last time with Dove’s Farm gluten-free SR flour, so feel free to swap if you prefer. My daughter-in-law made a separate cake for the few gluten-free guests on this occasion – a much easier solution 🙂

Eggs

My cake had to be transported from home to the wedding venue near Clapham, so I had to make sure I had everything I needed – cue more lists! Other things to take included spatulas for spreading icing/jam, a cake lifter – invaluable piece of kit; we really couldn’t have managed without it! Palette knives for additional support, spoons, extra knives, flower scissors, large plastic box for transporting everything, and boxes for transporting the cakes, of course. I left mine in their individual cake tins for transport purposes, and took the jam (at least 8 jars of homemade raspberry jam!) and vast quantities of buttercream separately too.

This is the recipe I used for the cakes – I made them on the Wednesday for the wedding on the Friday, travelling up to London on the Thursday with my precious cargo:

8″ sponge (3 layers):
6 large eggs
12oz caster sugar
12oz self-raising flour (GF works well)
12oz spreadable butter
2 heaped tsp baking powder
2 tsp vanilla extract

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

12″ sponge (3 layers):
13 large eggs
1lb 12oz caster sugar
1lb 12oz self-raising flour
1lb 12oz spreadable butter
4 heaped tsp baking powder
4 tsp vanilla extract

Cakes

8 large jars homemade raspberry jam. I didn’t use it all, but always better to have too much rather than too little, especially if you’re assembling far from home!

Vanilla buttercream:
3lb spreadable butter
6lb icing sugar, sifted
4.5 tsp vanilla extract
(2-3 tbsp cornflour if very hot, to stabilise – optional!)

Buttercream

Dowelling
1 x thin 7″ cake board, 1 x 9″ cake board and 1 x 11″ cake board
Garden flowers to decorate – I used dahlias, lavender, cornflowers, eucalyptus leaves
Iglu florist’s foam (again if hot!)

First make the cakes separately, preferably using a KitchenAid or freestanding mixer.

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 ensure 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/Gas 4 for 25 to 30 minutes, then allow to cool in the tins.

Repeat for the second and third tiers. I wasn’t sure what the KitchenAid’s maximum capacity was, so for the final large tier I made one 10-egg mix and did a 3-egg mix by hand, then combined the two – I really didn’t want to overload my trusty machine at that juncture! These will take longer in the oven, but not that much longer, maybe 40 – 45 minutes, so keep checking and testing to see that the sponge springs back when a finger is pressed gently onto the cake.

Make the buttercream in 3 batches for this large quantity. Again I used my KitchenAid, blending the butter first, then adding the sifted icing sugar and vanilla separately. Add more icing sugar if necessary to adjust taste or consistency, but these quantities should work as they are. I added a couple of tbsp of sifted cornflour in a bid to stabilise the mixture because of the extreme heat; it was still quite soft once out of the fridge for any length of time, but I wouldn’t have wanted to add more as it would affect the taste.

When the cakes are cool, sandwich them with buttercream and jam. I applied the buttercream first to avoid the jam seeping into the cake on such a hot day.

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 assemble the middle tier on the cake board and position on top of the larger cake. Repeat with the top tier.

This, of course, is a counsel of perfection. It’s what we intended to do, but I started to worry about the temperature when making the buttercream on the Wednesday. Frantic googling brought the not very comforting news that buttercream should stand happily up to 25°C, but after that, there’s no knowing… With temperatures that week already in the early 30s and forecast to go up to 37/38 on Thursday/Friday, it was all rather worrying…

Yet another concern was the flowers: I had hoped to just add the flowers around and on top of the cake as we did last year and in April, but with much cooler temperatures. I decided that I’d have to use oasis on top of the cake to give the flowers at least some water and stop them wilting in the heat. Between the tiers I could use lavender and eucalyptus, which were already dried, or wouldn’t mind the lack of water. After picking the flowers from the allotment on Thursday morning and immersing them in deep buckets of water for their journey, I nipped into the village and sought the advice of the florist who did the wedding flowers last year. I knew I only had a 5″ plastic saucer for oasis, which was rather on the large side for what I had in mind, but she hadn’t anything smaller, so that would have to do. I also double-checked with the other florist in the village, who suggested an Iglu, a marshmallow-shaped piece of florist’s foam with an integral plastic base. At first glance, this looked far too small, but I decided to take one in any event, just to be on the safe side – I’m so glad I did! I’m by no means an expert flower arranger and had forgotten how heavy it goes after you soak it in water for a couple of hours. Even after cutting the small piece I had in half, the oasis itself would have been far too heavy for such a delicate cake, already fragile in the heat, whereas the Iglu, just 2″ tall and across, was perfect. It just meant I had no second chances when arranging my flowers for the top of the cake, as you can’t reposition once you make holes in something that’s already so small! No pressure then….

Back to the cake itself… When I arrived at the venue on Thursday afternoon to meet Ellie, my daughter-in-law and partner-in-crime in this crazy cake venture, she was cock-a-hoop because the caterer’s equipment had arrived and included two huge fridges, currently completely empty. At least that meant we could assemble the cakes that afternoon (before going on to the church rehearsal and dinner) and leave them to chill overnight, rather than worrying about them slowly melting…. I had thought we might have to postpone the assembly process until the crack of dawn the next morning if we hadn’t had access to refrigeration – thank goodness for technology!

I was concerned that refrigerating the sponge might affect the texture, but my worries were thankfully unfounded – not that we had a choice! Do be careful, though, if you’re making gluten-free cakes; they tend to have a drier texture and to go even drier after refrigerating. In any event, faced with that or melting, there’s no contest :-).

As the sun streamed through the windows into the already-roasting temporary kitchen, it was soon apparent that this was going to be no easy task. The buttercream was very soft, which meant that as soon as we tried to assemble the three layers of each cake, and then the tiers, the whole thing started to ooze and lean. Disaster! The jam and cream were also running into each other, so in the end we decided to assemble each tier separately, apply a thin crumb layer of buttercream to each one and chill in the fridge overnight. At this stage, I have to admit I was panicking; Ellie remained very calm throughout (must be her psychologist’s training!). As we left for the evening, taking all our equipment to wash up back at the AirBnB as we didn’t even have a sink in our makeshift kitchen, I had visions of the cake having to be left as three separate cakes, without stacking…. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night, although that was doubtless partly due to the unaccustomed London airlessness and sub-tropical temperatures…

Things looked much more optimistic the next morning when we got there bright and early, with the cake having chilled nicely in the fridge overnight. Still no sign of the caterers, thank goodness, so we had the kitchen to ourselves to finally assemble the tiers. It was obvious by now that we’d have to ice the whole cake – good thing I’d made industrial quantities of buttercream on the off-chance! Ellie, clearly a plasterer in a former life, got on with doing that while I recut the dowelling after the sinkage the previous afternoon. I then addressed myself to the flowers for the top, which turned out to be quite easy in the end – once I’d decided I had to be positive and just go for it! Fortunately, I’d picked way more flowers than I needed, both from my allotment and a neighbour’s, so I was able to choose some truly choice blooms. That done, we assembled the tiers in the fridge (to avoid any more melting!), and then Ellie arranged the eucalyptus leaves and lavender around each tier to finish it off. Phew! We left it on the cake lifter in the fridge for the caterers to transfer to the cake stand as late in the day as possible. Not perfect, by any means, but I was so happy that it was still standing and tiered as we dashed off to have our hair and make-up done – possibly not the most relaxing morning for the mother of the groom and bridesmaid, but what can you do?!

I’m pleased to report that it did survive being manhandled by the caterers onto the cake stand, although they did take it out of the fridge rather sooner than we’d have liked. Once the day was underway, there was nothing we could do in any event – nor any time to worry really! It was leaning slightly for the cutting ceremony, but still looked good – and most importantly of all, tasted delicious. No official photos yet, hence the photo of the cake in the fridge still at the top of this post – I wanted to record it for posterity in case it all came tumbling down! As you can see from the picture below from one of the guests, I (far right) was praying that it didn’t fall over as they cut it….

Cutting the cake_cropped

One last postscript in this diary of a wedding cake: when we came to collect all our stuff the following day, lots of my equipment, mostly what had been in the fridge with the cake, was missing and still hasn’t come to light, although the caterers have said they definitely have some items which were swept up with their stuff by mistake. They are based in North London, so we’ve had to arrange a mutually convenient time and place to hand over. I’d tried to tidy up as we went along, but it’s not easy on someone else’s premises, especially when there’s another function the following day. In hindsight, I should have double-checked before leaving the reception, but it really isn’t at the top of your agenda after such a lovely and full-on day.

Two sons married, two wedding cakes made (or contributed to) – I think that’s me done with tiered cakes for a while!

A & L under arbour