Category Archives: Something sweet

Guilty secrets – or super-easy puddings…

poppy and me recuperating after knee op

Sorry for the huge amount of time that’s elapsed since I last posted – I can only blame pressures of work, frantic Christmas preparations and finally getting a date for my knee operation on Christmas Eve of all days! Despite my fears about the operation being cancelled, it went ahead like clockwork – very impressed with the staff in the orthopaedic unit at Maidstone Hospital. I was back at my son’s house in time for Stollen and tea the same day and able to enjoy a very small portion of Christmas lunch the next day with my family. I’m so grateful that I can now look forward to the year ahead with the prospect of my knee improving at long last – and I should have recovered sufficiently by the start of the gardening year in late March/April to do most of the jobs I want to do.

Christmas has been a time of sitting with my knee raised, ice pack in place, religiously doing my physio exercises, while everyone else cooked, walked the dogs and waited on me hand and foot – a very novel experience! Slowly but surely I’ve been feeling stronger, returning home on New Year’s Day. Today I had the clips removed from my various (very neat) wounds, and last Friday the physio gave me the go-ahead to walk with one crutch or even none if I felt strong enough. So much better than when I ruptured the ligament in the first place and had my knee in a brace for the first couple of weeks, causing my muscles to atrophy in the meantime… This consultant doesn’t believe in leg braces, preferring to allow people to gradually move the joint as they are able, aided by judicious use of physio – so far, so good.

New Year’s Day also marked the return of my younger son and daughter-in-law from their world travels: so good to be reunited with them. Perfect timing as they are now on dog-walking and cooking duties until I’m back in action fully 🙂

Yesterday we had a houseful of guests for a welcome home party, with my son cooking a delicious roast dinner – rib of beef, roast potatoes and parsnips, mashed carrot & swede, sesame-fried kale and Yorkshire pudding: delicious! They even had to go down to the allotment first to harvest the parsnips and kale. In return, I felt strong enough to make a pudding or two – very easy, minimal-effort puddings I should add! My son had opened a can of condensed milk the day before to make Vietnamese coffee, brought back from his travels, so I turned to one of my stand-by storecupboard sweets, based on a recipe from an M&S Family Cookbook from the 1980s. Called simply lemon flan, it tastes for all the world like a lemon cheesecake, yet contains no cheese – and always goes down well, especially with fresh fruit. Oh, and I used the rest of the tin of condensed milk in this equally easy traybake, one of my boys’ all-time favourites: Marbled Energy Bars. Waste not, want not…

Lemon Flan – serves 6

lemon flan

60g butter
120g digestive biscuits
200ml condensed milk (1/2 standard tin)
150ml double cream
2 lemons, grated rind and juice

Fresh fruit of your choice to serve

Melt the butter in a small pan and crush the digestive biscuits at the same time – either in a food processor or put them in a plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin. Tip the crushed biscuits into the melted butter and mix well, then use to line the base of a greased 20 cm deep flan tin (preferably with a removable base) and slightly up the sides. Press down firmly all over, then place in the fridge to chill while you make the filling.

Lightly whip the cream, then stir in the lemon rind, juice and condensed milk. Whip again until starting to thicken. Transfer to the flan case, smooth the surface and leave to chill in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Turn out onto a decorative plate to serve (leaving on the base) and serve decorated with fresh fruit – I like it with kiwi fruit, blueberries or in this instance last year’s summer raspberries from the freezer. Or you could decorate with a rim of crushed digestive biscuits and crystallised lemon slices if you fancy going old school 😉

My next super-easy pudding is very much a guilty secret. My foodie credentials are in danger of being withdrawn, as this recipes uses (shock,horror!) that 70s favourite, Butterscotch Angel Delight. Before you recoil in shock, do give it a go: I’ve never yet served this to anything other than rapturous delight; and it still gets requested by family members and friends alike at regular intervals.

Rum & Raisin Flan – serves 8

rum and raisin flan

60g butter
120g digestive biscuits
125g raisins
2 tbsp dark rum
1 packet Butterscotch Angel Delight
275ml milk (semi-skimmed works fine)
300ml double cream
Grated dark chocolate to decorate

Place the raisins in a pan with some boiling water to cover and boil for a few minutes. Set aside in the water to cool.

As in the previous recipe, melt the butter in a small pan and crush the digestive biscuits at the same time – either in a food processor or put them in a plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin. Tip the crushed biscuits into the melted butter and mix well, then use to line the base of a greased 20 cm deep flan tin (preferably with a removable base) and slightly up the sides. Press down firmly all over, then place in the fridge to chill while you make the filling.

Meanwhile, make up the Angel Delight by whisking the powder into the cold milk until it thickens. Stir in the cooled raisins and the rum and mix well. Transfer to the chilled flan base and smooth evenly over the base. Return to the fridge to chill for a couple of hours.

Before serving, whip the double cream until soft peaks form and spread over the rum and raisin base. Make soft swirls with your knife, then decorate with grated chocolate. Serve to an appreciative silence……

reserved for the dog poppy

 

 

 

 

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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
75g 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

 

 

Guinness in the kitchen

Faded asparagus

There’s something rather nice about when the clocks have gone back and you can start thinking about comforting casseroles and sticky cakes on those dark afternoons and evenings. This weekend was no exception: I managed to get out in the garden both days, planting the last of my tulip bulbs and cutting down my yellowing asparagus stems, despite torrential rain overnight, but it’s definitely winter-warming weather now. My lunch of choice is soup, more often than not, and a rich casserole really hits the spot after dark.

One of my favourites is a Beef and Guinness casserole inspired by a Good Housekeeping recipe leaflet years ago. I don’t particularly enjoy Guinness as a drink, but its flavour transforms when cooked long and slow in the oven with delicious shin of beef from my local farm shop and seasonal vegetables. This particular recipe is served with herby dumplings as a change from potatoes, but I like to make very light, cheesy wholemeal dumplings (originally intended to accompany a vegetarian aduki bean casserole – I really must revisit that recipe too!) rather than the heavier and more traditional variety mentioned in the original recipe. Here’s my version:

Beef and Guinness Casserole with Cheese & Herb Dumplings – serves 3-4

Beef and Guinness casserole

2 tbsp olive oil
450g beef shin, trimmed and chopped into small chunks (or stewing steak)
2 medium onions, finely sliced
2-3 sticks celery, chopped
2 carrots, sliced
300g swede, peeled and diced
2 tbsp plain flour
250ml Guinness
300ml hot beef stock
2 tsp dark brown sugar
1 tbsp Worcester sauce
1 bay leaf
leaves from a few sprigs of fresh thyme
Dumplings:
125g wholemeal self-raising flour
pinch of salt
30g butter,diced
60g Cheddar cheese, grated
Chopped herbs – (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme – or your choice!)
50-75ml milk

Preheat the oven to 140ºC, Gas 2. Put 1 tbsp olive oil in a large pan and brown the chunks of beef, then set aside. Add the remaining oil, and brown the onions, carrot, celery and swede until starting to soften – about 10 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook for a minute or so, then add the Guinness and the stock, stirring as you go. Add the sugar, Worcester sauce, bay leaf and thyme, then bring to the boil.

Cover and cook in the oven for 3 hours, stirring every hour or so. Add more liquid (stock, Guinness or just hot water from the kettle if that’s all you have) if you think it’s drying out. Ovens vary so much that it’s hard to predict.

A few minutes before the end of the 3 hours, make the dumpling mix: put the flour and salt into a bowl. Rub in the butter until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in the herbs and grated cheese. Add the milk gradually until you have a firm dough. Divide into 8 pieces and place onto the surface of the casserole after 3 hours. Replace the lid and cook for a further 20 -25 minutes until the dumplings are cooked.

Serve with green vegetables of your choice (I used pan-fried cavolo nero with sesame seeds) and enjoy!

Freezes beautifully (without the dumplings – but you won’t have any of those left anyway!)

Having used half the bottle of Guinness in this recipe, I was left wondering what to do with the rest. I can’t stand waste and I don’t drink the stuff, as I said, or any beer really – the only exception is an ice-cold shandy (or Radler in Austria – the cyclist’s drink!) when walking in the heat of the summer. When I was in hospital having my first son nearly 30 years ago, lunch one day was a ploughman’s lunch with a bottle of Guinness – for the iron presumably! I gave mine away, much to my then husband’s disgust when I told him later….

This time, I vaguely remembered a recipe for Chocolate and Guinness Cake, so had a little search online and was directed to one of my favourite Nigella books: Feast. Result! I made it in a 20cm x 30cm deep rectangular tin rather than the 23cm round tin Nigella recommends, mainly because I knew there was no way that I would eat a whole round cake that size! With a rectangular tin, I could freeze half and just make half the quantity of frosting for the rest. As it was, I ended up taking the iced half to my parents when I called in for lunch last week, then got the other half out of the freezer and iced it for this week, so I could probably have made the whole thing anyway! But this worked extremely well. I ended up using yogurt rather than sour cream as my local Coop was fresh out of the latter on a Sunday afternoon. I adapted the frosting too, as Nigella’s uses double cream, which I thought might be a problem if it wasn’t stored in the fridge – and the weather is still quite mild, so not ideal for a creamy topping to be sitting at room temperature. Here’s what I did:

Chocolate & Guinness Cake – serves 12
Chocolate Guinness Cake

250ml Guinness
250g butter
75g cocoa powder
400g caster sugar
150ml natural full-fat yogurt (or sour cream)
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
275g plain flour
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

Cream cheese frosting:

100g butter, softened
100g icing sugar
grated rind 1 orange
1 tbsp orange juice
200g full-fat cream cheese

 

Preheat the oven to 160°C Fan/Gas 4, then grease and base-line a 20cm x 30 cm deep rectangular cake tin.

Pour the Guinness into a large wide saucepan, add the butter and heat until the butter has melted, then remove from the heat and whisk in the cocoa and sugar. Beat the yogurt (or sour cream) with the eggs and vanilla and then pour into the Guinness mixture in the pan. Finally whisk in the flour and bicarbonate of soda.

Pour the cake batter into the greased and lined tin and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Leave to cool completely in the tin before icing.

Make the frosting by whisking the soft butter and sugar with a hand mixer, or in a stand mixer if you prefer. Add the orange rind and juice and mix again, then whisk in the cream cheese until smooth. Chill in the fridge, then use to ice the cake.

Delicious 🙂

 

 

 

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

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

 

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!

When life gives you shreddings, top up your paths!

Where has the time gone since I last wrote a post?! Lots of work, wedding preparations and family birthdays, I suspect… Fortunately, there’s still nothing much doing on the gardening front, but this weekend’s lovely sunny weather – for a change! – suggests that spring might be round the corner.

At this time of year, with mud everywhere and dank, wet days still far outnumbering the fine ones, you have to take your opportunities where you can. I was sitting at the computer in my study a couple of weeks ago, beavering away on my latest translation, when I realised that a couple of vans, one towing one of those heavy-duty shredders had pulled up outside. I watched them disgorge men and chainsaws, who duly went into my neighbours’ back garden, clearly intent on taking down the only large tree, a nondescript specimen that had grown far too close to the boundary and had been casting increasingly large shadows over both our gardens in recent summers. Thrilled at the thought of it being removed, it then occurred to me that this might be a great opportunity to top up the paths at my allotment. Well, if you don’t ask, you don’t get! Out I trotted and asked if they wanted the wood chippings themselves or whether I could have them. Bingo! Tree surgeons are often delighted if you ask them for shreddings, as they have to pay to dispose of them at the dump, and my neighbour certainly didn’t want them. He was removing the tree to make room for a shed cum playroom for his daughters, and tree residues were not foremost in his mind. A few hours later, I had a rather large pile of shredded bark and branches in my spare car parking space, and just the small matter of how to transport it down to the allotment…

Shredding pile

Roll on a few weeks and I’d managed to borrow a large skip bag from a friend, my son and his fiancée were home at the weekend, the sun was shining, and between the three of us and five round trips to the allotment, we managed to transfer the pile of shreddings down to the plot and spread it over the paths between the raised beds and in the utility area between the shed and my compost bins. It must be four or five years since I last replenished the bark and inevitably, as organic matter, it rots down over time and weeds start to germinate and grow. I do try to garden organically as a rule, but figured that pernicious couch grass and buttercups in the paths (on top of weedproof membrane!) were fair game for weedkiller, so sprayed a very targeted jet of weedkiller (which allegedly biodegrades quickly once it’s been absorbed by the weedy green matter) on the paths first, then covered with a very generous layer of my woody haul. So much better – and an excellent workout for us all too. No need to go for a run or the gym when you have an allotment! To say nothing of the savings over buying vast amounts of bark; even those big bales went nowhere last time I did it!

Lauren and Alastair with the barrow

Of course, after all that hard work, it was only fair that we had a reward when we collapsed in front of the fire on arriving home. Lemon & coconut bars were this week’s home-baking treat, and very good they were too. I had extra lemon cheese left over from making a trial run of two tiers of my son’s wedding cake last weekend (of which more soon!), and really didn’t want it to go to waste. A brief hunt online brought up this recipe for lemon curd squares, which sounded promising, and so it proved. Duly adapted, here it is:

Lemon & Coconut Bars – makes 8 large bars or 16 small squares

125g butter
125g plain flour
1 heaped tbsp semolina (or polenta)
100g caster sugar
Grated rind of 1/2 lemon
1/2 jar lemon cheese – use homemade if you can, so much nicer!
25g desiccated coconut
25g flaked almonds
15g coconut flakes (or use more almonds if you can’t find the coconut flakes)

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Whizz the butter, flour, semolina, sugar and lemon rind in a food processor until they resemble coarse breadcrumbs. Press 2/3 of the mixture into a 7″ (18cm) shallow, square cake tin with your fingertips, then bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes or until pale golden brown. Leave to cool for 10 minutes, then spread the lemon cheese on top to cover with a nice thick layer. Add the desiccated coconut, almonds and coconut flakes, if using, to the remaining crumbs, mix lightly and sprinkle over the lemon cheese, pressing down lightly. Lower the oven temperature to 160°C/Gas 4 and bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.

Leave to cool into the tin, but cut into 8 large rectangles or 16 small squares before completely cold. Enjoy with a cup of Earl Grey tea and a very smug grin.

Lemon bars

Just in case you want to try a different lemon curd recipe, or only have egg yolks, as happened to me after the Christmas baking marathon, I recently discovered this Mary Berry recipe, which is, if anything, even simpler than my standard recipe (see link above). This one is possibly slighter richer, but good to know in case you end up with a lot of egg yolks to use up after a pavlova or meringue-making session! Mary’s recipe makes a huge quantity of curd, so I’ve adapted it to make a more manageable amount, which should still leave you some left over after you’ve made the lemon bars. Like my original recipe, it doesn’t need to be cooked over a water bath, so really is easy to make. Even if you’ve been put off the idea of making curd before, do give it a go! Sieving it at the end makes it pretty foolproof.

Mary Berry’s Easy Lemon Curd

4 large egg yolks
160g granulated sugar
Juice and grated rind of 2 large lemons
70g butter, cubed

Mix the egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest together in a medium-sized pan. Cook over a low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, making sure it doesn’t stick. Cook for 5-7 minutes, or until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until it melts. Pass through a sieve into a large jug. Pour into a sterilised glass jar and seal with a lid when cool. Refrigerate until needed: this will keep for several weeks in the fridge.

Shreddings on paths