Category Archives: Something sweet

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

Bulb planting time again…

Poppy with ball Nov 2017 Rotherfield Woods

Despite a couple of sharp frosts, it’s still resolutely autumnal here: the trees are still (just about) decked in their golden and orange autumn finery, although I don’t think the colours have been quite as rich as usual this year. After a rainy day yesterday, which stopped play in the garden quite convincingly, today dawned crisp, bright and blustery – an ideal opportunity to get out in the garden and allotment and get on with more of those end-of-season jobs.

I’d managed to finally empty my summer containers and plant up my winter/spring offerings a couple of weeks ago and they’re looking good: blue pansies from the garden centre, with pinky-peach wallflower Aurora (grown from seed in a nursery bed at the allotment), all underplanted with a mixture of crocuses and daffodils from last years’ containers, but new tulips of course, as they don’t come again reliably. As usual, I like to ring the changes and had ordered a new selection from Sarah Raven – if you’re haven’t ordered yours yet and you’re quick, I believe there’s up to 50% off some varieties in the end-of-season sale. Tulips can be planted right up to the end of the year, and it’s actually better to plant them from November onwards to avoid any residual fire blight

This year I went for Sanne, an apricot and pink blend I’d seen and loved at the Chelsea Flower Show this year, two other apricot tulips from the Apricot Sorbet collection: Charming Lady (double) and Apricot Foxx, and Mistress Mystic, a silvery pink. The final variety, bought on impulse from my local garden centre on a 20% off day, is Hemisphere (finally found it by checking my receipt – thank goodness for computerised till receipts!). This is supposed to start off white with pink flecks, then deepen to a dark pink over time – sounds glorious, but we shall see!

This weekend it was time to plant last year’s saved tulip bulbs in the beds at the allotment. They did so well last year that I was finally able to cut some for the house without spoiling the display (precisely the point of planting them there in the first place!). I hadn’t labelled them, so they’ve all gone in together, but with white, cream, soft pink and palest lemon, they’re sure to look good in any event. I don’t expect them all to flower, but quite a few of the bulbs looked extremely fat and hopeful – a sure sign that they will flower again. Less likely for those that split into a number of smaller bulbs.

The rest I planted up at home on the island bed opposite the house, where tulips usually do extremely well in the full sun. This year, they hadn’t done as well as in previous years, but I put it down to the takeover ambitions of Phlomis samia, which seems to have suppressed a lot of other growth in its all-encompassing vigour! I decided to remove a whole swathe of it and have replanted a new rose, Frilly Cuff, a gorgeous neat, deep red shrub rose that I’ve seen a couple of times at Chelsea and coveted each time. I decided to treat myself with some birthday money and ordered online from the breeder, Peter Beales. Here’s hoping it likes this aspect too….


All in all, a very satisfying day in the fresh air, and I really enjoyed my much-needed cup of tea and slice of cake when I finally came indoors after walking the dogs at 5 o’clock – virtually in the dark! This was a whisky tea loaf I like to make in the winter as it keeps really well. If you double the ingredients and prepare two at once (not really any more effort), you can freeze one for when you’re too busy to bake! The original recipe was from Rachel Allen, although it’s not dissimilar to the cold tea cake my mum has made since time immemorial. This one is a fatless loaf – although I have to confess I like to serve it slathered with butter 🙂

Whisky Tea Loaf

Tea loaf

200ml strong warm tea (I use Assam or Early Grey, but any tea will do!)
150g light muscovado sugar
50ml whisky
300g mixed dried fruit (sultanas, raisins and currants are my usual choices)
1 medium egg, beaten
150g self-raising flour, sifted
2 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp baking powder

Pour the tea into a bowl, add the sugar and stir, then add the whisky and dried fruit. Cover with clingfilm and leave to soak for a few hours or even overnight. (Alternatively, if you want to make this in a hurry, you can boil the tea, sugar and dried fruit in a pan for 2 minutes, then add the whisky and allow to cool before using in the cake.)

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C fan, Gas 3 and grease and line a loaf tin (or two if doubling the recipe). Add the beaten egg to the tea and fruit mixture, then fold in the sifted flour, baking powder and spice. Pour into the tin and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes, or until just firm to the touch and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool in the tin and serve sliced with butter and a lovely cup of tea.

One final recipe that I really want to add here before I forget is one I made last weekend when all the family were home for Bonfire Night. My younger son had requested Sticky Toffee Pudding, but some of the party are gluten-intolerant so I decided to make a Pear & Amaretti Cheesecake as well – which coincidentally also goes extremely well with the sticky toffee sauce! This is another recipe torn out of a magazine in my very ancient recipe scrapbook. I think it was by Gordon Ramsay in the first place, but I’ve adapted it with an Amaretti base, and rewritten the instruction sequence, as chef’s recipes often make rather a lot of assumptions that can prove frustrating for the amateur cook. My son’s fiancée had offered to help prepare this, but found the steps in the original in a very strange order!

Pear & Amaretti Cheesecake – serves 8-10

Pear and Amaretti Cheesecake

250g bag Amaretti biscuits*
100g butter, melted
2 large pears (or 4 small)
50g caster sugar (or vanilla sugar if you have it)
1 tsp lemon juice
Vanilla extract
300g cream cheese
150g caster sugar
150g crème fraiche
1 x 300ml pot double cream
75g Amaretti biscuits

Make the base by crushing the Amaretti biscuits in a food processor (or in a large plastic bag with a rolling pin), then mix in the melted butter until thoroughly blended. Tip into a 24cm round springform cake tin, greased and base-lined with a circle of baking parchment. Chill in the fridge while preparing the filling.

Prepare the poaching syrup for the pears by dissolving the sugar in 100ml boiling water, then add 1 tsp vanilla extract (if not using vanilla sugar) and 1 tsp lemon juice. Prepare the pears by peeling, removing the cores, cutting into quarters and then chopping into 1cm dice, and add to the simmering syrup. Simmer until just tender – 5 -10 minutes or so. Drain and reserve the syrup to use elsewhere. Allow the diced pear to cool.

Whisk the cream cheese with 150g caster sugar and 1 tsp vanilla extract. Add the crème fraiche, then whisk the double cream in a separate bowl until soft peaks form and fold into the cheese mixture. Finally crush the remaining 75g Amaretti biscuits roughly in a plastic bag with a rolling pin. Fold the crushed biscuits into the cheese mix with the cooled, diced pears. Spoon onto the prepared base, level the top and chill in the fridge for a good couple of hours.

Serve with toffee sauce (see Sticky Toffee pudding recipe) or make a bitter caramel sauce by melting 9oz granulated sugar in a small frying pan until dark golden in colour – watch like a hawk, but do NOT stir! Add 2 tsp boiling water (care as it will spit!), then add 1 tsp vanilla extract and single cream until you get the consistency you want – not too thick. You can also add some of the reserved pear syrup to the sauce.

*Note: true Amaretti biscuits (or home-made macaroons) shouldn’t contain any wheat flour, but some of the mainstream brands may. I’ve just checked on the Doria Amaretti I usually use and surprise, surprise they do contain a small amount of wheat flour. Fortunately my guests weren’t coeliac, but PLEASE check if it’s an issue for you.

Leo in Rotherfield Woods

Apple watch

The apple season has been unusually protracted this year, starting as it did in late July/early August with the shiny red Katy apples and now in full flow with the main crops ready to be harvested for storage: Bramleys and an unidentified, but delicious Cox hybrid in my case. I’ve been eating windfalls for months, but this weekend is on my calendar as apple harvest time – if the weather decides to play ball! I’ve been away or otherwise occupied so much recently, and am going away for work again next week, so this weekend is really my last chance before the winter weather sets in and the prospect of frost rears its ugly head.

After a delightful couple of days here in the South-East with glorious autumn sunshine and a soft breeze – combined of course with a full workload and no time to go outside and play – Saturday morning dawned wet and gloomy: not the ideal weather to cut the long overdue lawn and harvest my apples…. Fortunately, tomorrow’s forecast looks better, so I abandoned all hope of a day catching up in the garden/allotment and spent a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon pootling around in the kitchen, baking instead – good for the soul :-).

I haven’t had much time to bake since getting back from holiday, so a good opportunity to restock the cake tins (and freezer). My younger son is dog-sitting next week while I’m away; heaven forbid that I should leave him with no cake! Today’s session included spiced apple shortbread, hazelnut maple biscuits (courtesy of Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries III, and a brace of ginger cakes, including one for the freezer. I also made a mocha ice cream and a good, old-fashioned apple crumble for tonight’s dessert. My favourite kind of afternoon….

I also wanted to share two other apple recipes I’ve made recently in this most apple-centric season: a walnut apple galette and a fragrant Apfelkuchen, a yeasted cake topped with sliced and spiced apples. The galette is from an ancient M&S Seasonal Freezer cookbook I’ve had since the year dot: Leo the labrador (6 today!) chewed it indiscriminately during his puppyhood, so it now has no front cover and rather mangled edges, but I haven’t the heart to throw it away. As for the apple cake, it’s based on a Nigella recipe from her delightful Domestic Goddess book, but with lots more fruit following a discussion with German colleagues in the Foodie Translator group on Facebook. Definitely one to make for breakfast or brunch when you have a house full of guests as it makes a rather large cake.

Walnut Apple Galette – serves 8

Walnut galette

3oz walnut pieces
3oz butter
2oz soft brown sugar
4oz plain flour, sifted
2-3 large cooking apples
Juice of half a lemon
2oz sultanas
1/2 tsp mixed spice (or cinnamon)
1-2 tbsp sugar (or to taste, depending on the sweetness of your apples)
1/4 pt double cream
3-4 tbsp natural yogurt
Icing sugar, sifted (to serve)

Grease two baking sheets and pre-heat the oven to 180°C, 375°F or gas mark 5.

Grind the walnuts to a coarse powder in a food processor, then add the sugar, butter and flour, and process until it comes together to make a firm dough. Divide the dough in half and roll out each half on a piece of floured baking parchment until you have an approximate disc shape measuring at least 8″ in diameter. Then mark a disc shape on the rolled dough using the base of an 8″ cake tin. Place a greased baking sheet on top of the shortbread disc and carefully flip it over using the paper at the sides to hold it in place. Remove the paper and repeat with the second half of dough and the second baking sheet. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 15 minutes or until golden. Remove from the oven and cut one of the shortbread discs into eight segments while still warm (it will crack if you try to do it when it has cooled!). Leave to cool on the trays.

While the shortbread is cooking, prepare the filling. Peel, core and slice the cooking apples and put in a pan with 2 tbsp water and a dash of lemon juice to prevent the apples going brown. Add the sugar to taste and the mixed spice or cinnamon. When the apples are soft and fluffy, add the sultanas and leave to cool.

When ready to assemble, whip the cream until soft peaks form, then whip in the natural yogurt (or you can just use cream if you prefer – I like the lighter and tangier effect with added yogurt). Place the unsegmented base on a serving plate and spread half the cream on top. Spoon on a generous layer of the apple mixture, then spread the remaining cream and yogurt mix on top. Arrange the shortbread segments on top and dust with icing sugar. This softens the longer you leave it in the fridge, so if you want to enjoy the contrast between the crispness of the shortbread and the soft billowing layers of cream and apple, don’t assemble too long before eating! That said, I adore it in its slightly softer state the following day too: the flavours just seem to meld superbly….

Apfelkuchen – serves 8-10

350g strong bread flour
1 tsp dried yeast (I use Dove’s Farm)
1/2 tsp salt
50g caster sugar
200ml milk
1 medium egg, beaten
25g butter

1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp cream (or crème fraiche)
7-8 eating apples (I used Katy, but any crisp dessert apple will work beautifully)
Juice of 1/2 lemon (or lime)
1 tbsp demerara or caster sugar
Fresh nutmeg, grated
1/2 tsp cinnamon or allspice
Handful flaked almonds

I make my bread dough in a breadmaker, but you can do it by hand if you prefer. For the breadmaker method, just put the first seven ingredients in the breadmaker and prepare the dough using the dough setting. My machine (Panasonic) takes 2 hours and 20 minutes for dough, but other machines may differ. I tend to make the dough in the evening and then leave in the fridge, covered, in a bowl overnight for a long, slow second prove.

The following morning, knock down the dough on a floured surface, then press into a greased 20 x 30 cm Swiss roll tin or roasting tin. It will take some pressing to make it expand to fit the tin, so be patient – it will get there in the end! Then set aside in a warm place to prove again while you prepare the filling. I find this takes up to one hour in a warm kitchen; if you’re lucky enough to have a proving drawer or an airing cupboard, you may get away with less.

Peel and core the apples, then cut into slices, coating in lemon juice to prevent browning as you work. Place in a bowl with the sugar, cinnamon or allspice and toss to mix evenly. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C, 375°F or gas mark 5.

In a small bowl, mix the beaten egg with 1 tbsp cream and grate in some fresh nutmeg. Then brush this mixture over the proved dough. Finally arrange the apple slices neatly in rows on top of the dough and sprinkle with flaked almonds. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 30 minutes until the fruit is tender and starting to turn golden brown. Dust with icing sugar and serve warm in chunky slices with a beatific smile. My German colleagues suggested lashings of whipped cream – but even I draw the line at whipped cream for breakfast!

Still catching up

Poppy in the shade Aug 2017_cropped

An extra day off this Bank Holiday weekend has meant that I finally feel I’m catching up with myself down at the allotment – and in the garden at home for that matter! What a difference an extra day makes, especially when the weather was kind to us for a change, and the sun shone throughout. Lawns duly mowed, fruit trees summer-pruned – well, what I can reach at any rate. Even with extendible loppers I couldn’t reach the topmost branches of one of the crab apple trees at home, and I restricted myself to just trimming the branches I could reach with secateurs in the allotment orchard. Pruning all five apple/plums in one go is too much otherwise. As it was, I took 3-4 barrowloads up to the allotment bonfire site, and there will no doubt be the same again when I finish the job with the long loppers next weekend. So satisfying 🙂

Apple juice with lunch

The harvest is coming in thick and fast now with courgettes multiplying in size overnight and windfall apples aplenty. Fresh apple juice with the red-skinned Katy apples is a must at this time of year, especially as they don’t keep. I even resorted to putting a basket on the road outside the house this morning for people to help themselves to overgrown courgettes and apples – virtually all gone this evening, thank goodness, especially as I came back from the plot with yet more apples, windfall Bramleys this time, and spare French beans.

New basket

Beetroot is another veg in plentiful supply this year. Much as I love having a bowl of cooked beetroot (baked in their skins, after which the skin peels off beautifully, and served sprinkled with balsamic vinegar) in the fridge to accompany my lunchtime cheese and crackers, I’ve been wondering how else to extend my beetroot repertoire. I’ve already made my favourite spiced beetroot & orange chutney, but wondered about a cake. I’ve made Nigel Slater’s beetroot & chocolate cake before (Tender Book I) and liked it, but my beetroot-averse daughter-in-law cold still detect its presence. This time, I thought I’d try some brownies. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe appealed, but contained normal flour, no good for gluten intolerance. Searching for a gluten-free version, I came across this Riverford recipe, which sounded perfect – and was! Delightfully chocolatey, fudgy and moist, I can’t detect the beetroot at all – it remains to be seen whether it will pass my daughter-in-law’s test….

Chocolate & Beetroot Brownies – makes 18

Chocolate and beetroot brownies

250g dark chocolate, chopped
200g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 tbsp Tia Maria or other liqueur (optional – I forgot and it still tasted divine!)
250g raw beetroot
3 eggs
A drop of vanilla extract
200g caster sugar
50g cocoa powder
50g rice flour
1 tsp gluten-free baking powder
100g ground almonds

Preheat oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Use baking parchment to line a rectangular tin, roughly 28x18cm.

Wash the raw beetroot, remove leaves and surplus roots, then wrap individually in foil  and place on a baking tray. Bake in the oven for 1 hour – or longer depending on the size of your beetroots! Leave to cool in the foil, after which the skins should peel off easily. Turn oven down to 160°C/Gas 4.

Put the chocolate and butter in a large bowl and place it over a pan of simmering water, making sure the water doesn’t touch the base of the bowl. Leave to melt, then remove from the heat and stir in the Tia Maria, if using.

Purée the cooked beetroot in a food processor. Add the eggs one at a time, followed by the vanilla and sugar, and mix until smooth.

Sift the cocoa powder, rice flour and baking powder into a bowl and stir in the ground almonds. Stir the beetroot mixture into the melted chocolate and then fold in the dry ingredients.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 30–35 minutes, until just firm to the touch. It’s important not to overcook brownies; a skewer inserted in the centre should come out slightly sticky. Leave to cool in the tin and then cut into squares.

Delicious with coffee, but would also be good as a dessert with whipped cream 🙂

Quick bakes

Pett Beach April 2017

A busy bank holiday weekend with family home and my elder son moving house to just up the road (comparatively speaking!) meant I didn’t have much time for baking, but I didn’t want to let the side down with empty cake tins! Cue my very quick and easy rocky road flapjack: dead simple to throw together one evening after cleaning the house and makes enough to take half as a welcome offering. Also gluten-free, which is always a good thing as my son’s fiancée and her mum are both gluten-intolerant.

Saturday was forecast to be the nicest day of the weekend weatherwise, so we headed down to the coast to Pett Level, a fabulous stretch of pebbly beach backed by cliffs, and completely sheltered from the wind on this particular day. Followed up by tea with friends, it was the most perfect afternoon, but left very little time for baking/cooking when we finally got back home, so dinner was quickly assembled freshest Rye scallops on a spinach purée with crispy bacon, salmon fillets with homemade hollandaise sauce, roast asparagus and new potatoes, and a traditional rhubarb pie to finish. It may have been quick, and a joint effort between my younger son and me, but it was also absolutely delicious – and the perfect showcase for seasonal produce.

I barely need to offer a recipe for the pie: just (homemade) buttery shortcrust pastry, rolled out to fit an old-fashioned enamel pie plate, filled with chopped (uncooked) rhubarb – at least 500g, depending how high you want to mound it. It always loses volume when cooked. Don’t forget to sprinkle with 4-5 tbsp sugar, then top with the remaining pastry, seal and trim the edges, glaze with milk (or egg) and a sprinkling of granulated sugar and cook at 200°C (fan) / Gas 6 for 20-25 minutes. It’s certainly not elegant, but it remains one of my favourite desserts for all that; especially the soggy bottom (sorry, Mary) – rhubarb pie wouldn’t be the same without all that delicious syrupy juice at the bottom.

Rhubarb pie
Next day we were all off to my elder son’s to see the new house, and I knew there would be a house full of family and a need for cake as well as a picnic lunch for the workforce! With little time to prepare, lunch was going to be lovely cheese from my local deli, olive sourdough bread and sourdough crackers, and salad with fresh leaves and pea shoots from the allotment. Cake had to be quick, gluten-free and transportable, so with a couple of egg whites in the fridge, left over from last night’s hollandaise sauce, I hit upon these coconut macaroons, a taste from my youth – and ready to go in next to no time.

Coconut & Almond Macaroons – makes 20 or so

Coconut macaroons

2 egg whites
200g caster sugar
100g ground almonds
100g dessicated coconut
75 – 100g good dark chocolate to drizzle

Line 3 baking sheets with baking parchment (I used to use edible rice paper for these when I first made them in the 70s – but they’re much nicer without their papery backing). Set the oven to 160°C (fan) / Gas 4.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then gradually whisk in the caster sugar, followed by the ground almonds and coconut. Place heaped teaspoonfuls onto baking trays, spaced well apart to allow for spreading and bake for 15-20 minutes until a light golden colour. Allow to cool.

Meanwhile, melt the chocolate (I use a microwave in short bursts), then drizzle over the macaroons when cooled sufficiently.

Mission accomplished – quick and delicious!

The bank holiday itself was a gloomy day weatherwise, as they so often are, but an excellent opportunity to catch up on potting up and sowing seeds, chilling with the weekend newspapers and generally chatting. We all need days like that. It also gave me a chance to experiment with a recipe I’d been keen to try for a while, since buying  some bone and paw-shaped biscuit cutters in Jeremy’s, Tunbridge Wells’ Aladdin’s cave of a kitchen shop. And yes, I know, who bakes their own dog biscuits?! In my defence, I had some gram flour that was past its sell-by date and needed using, son’s dog, the adorable Ollie, has a sensitive constitution and also does better without gluten, so why not see what I could produce?

Cheddar & Rosemary Dog Treats

Dog bones

225g gram flour
50g grated Cheddar cheese
120ml milk
few sprigs rosemary, chopped leaves

Mix together all the ingredients in a large bowl until they form a soft dough. Adjust liquid or flour until it can be rolled out on a floured surface. Roll out to 1/2cm thick and cut out with your choice of cutter – I’m sure the dogs won’t mind if you haven’t gone a bone cutter!

Bake in the oven at 160°C (fan) / Gas 4, cool, then store in an airtight tin. My dogs seemed impressed – but then anything with cheese in was always going to go down well….

Poppy at Pett

My final baking of the weekend was a snap decision to bake some almond tuiles to accompany our Monday dessert of luscious rhubarb fool (obviously been watching too much Masterchef!). I used plain flour rather than the rice flour I used last time I wrote about this recipe, but both work well.

Rhubarb fool and tuiles_cropped

A citrussy sort of week…

Shed and clematis

Citrus fruit have featured heavily in my cooking this week; I’m not quite sure why. They seem to go with the delicious produce I’m bringing home from the allotment at the moment: fresh spears of asparagus in particular. It’s still extremely dry everywhere, worryingly so for early springtime, so the asparagus harvest isn’t huge yet, but quite enough for a solo diner to feast every couple of days – decadence indeed.

I brought a handful of spears home on Wednesday and just fancied something really simple to accompany them. From out of the blue, I had a notion to make hollandaise sauce, although I’ve never made it before. Could you make it for one, though – I only had one egg, so I very much hoped so! Cue a quick online search, which brought up the recipe below, from a blog called And Here We Are – worked a treat, and definitely child’s play to make. I was lucky enough to have organic eggs from my friend’s hens – hence the lovely, golden colour. I served it with roast asparagus, linguine and chopped flat leaf parsley – just divine.

Linguine with Roast Asparagus & Hollandaise Sauce – for one
(but multiply upwards to feed more!)

For the hollandaise sauce:

1 egg yolk
1 tbsp hot water
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp butter
freshly ground pepper

Put the egg yolk in a small bowl and whisk with a small hand whisk – I like these, but you could use a small balloon whisk too. Then whisk in 1 tbsp hot water and a pinch of salt. Finally add 1 tsp fresh lemon juice and 1 tbsp or thereabouts of butter.

Place the bowl in a steamer insert over a pan of gently simmering water and keep on whisking until it thickens to a lovely creamy consistency.

Hollandaise sauce

Remove from the heat, but you can leave the sauce standing over the hot water to keep warm while you prepare whatever you’re serving it with.

In my case, I’d been roasting asparagus in olive oil (10 minutes in a hot oven at 200°C fan, Gas 6), and had the linguine on to cook at the same time. I simply served the drained pasta with the roast asparagus, topped with hollandaise and garnished with chopped parsley. Absolute heaven….

Roast asparagus with pasta and hollandaise

More lemons came into play this weekend when I was pondering what sweet treats I could make relatively quickly before my parents came over for an early lunch on Saturday. My mother and I were heading out shopping for wedding outfits for my son’s July wedding, leaving my father at home, dog-sitting and sports viewing. A quick lunch of homemade granary bread, Delia’s leek & potato soup (puréed, rather than the chunky version I usually make) and Italian lemon & almond cookies fitted the bill perfectly. We may not have found an outfit, but lunch was delicious 🙂

No lemons in the soup, of course, but the leeks at the allotment are fast pushing up their statuesque seed heads, which means I’m trying to use them up. I also need to free up the bed for the next rotation, although courgettes and sweetcorn/squash are next in line and I’ve only just planted the seeds in the propagator, so I do have a few weeks yet….

Velvety Leek & Potato Soup – serves 6

4-5 leeks, finely chopped and well rinsed
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
50g butter
1 litre chicken stock (or use vegetable stock if you prefer)
275ml milk
1 bay leaf
Salt & pepper

Melt the butter in a large pan and add the chopped onions, potatoes, leeks and celery. stir well to mix, add the bay leaf and then leave the vegetables to sweat over a low heat, covered, for about 15 minutes. Add the stock and milk. bring to the boil, cover and cook for 20 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Leave to cool, then whizz in batches in a liquidiser until smooth. Reheat to serve with good bread.

Back to the lemons, and specifically these ricciarelli, soft lemon & almond cookies. I had four egg whites in the fridge, left over from last weekend’s tiramisu, and though I toyed with the idea of macaroons, I didn’t have time to make them, leave them to stand and allow to cool before filling. This recipe had caught my eye in Sainsbury’s April magazine, so I doubled the quantities (it uses just two egg whites) and gave it a go – impressively light and citrussy, oh and gluten-free, of course, which is always good to know. I shall be making these again….

Soft Lemon & Almond Ricciarelli – makes 20-24

Lemon and almond cookies

250g caster sugar
Grated zest of 2 large lemons
250g ground almonds
2 tbsp flaked almonds (plus a few more to sprinkle – optional)
4 large egg whites
150g icing sugar, sifted
4 tsp lemon juice

Line 3 baking trays with baking parchment.

Place the caster sugar in a food processor with the grated lemon zest and pulse until well mixed. Tip into a large mixing bowl and add the ground almonds.

In another bowl, whisk the egg whites with 50g icing sugar until they form stiff peaks. Fold the sugar and almond mixture gradually into the egg whites, adding the lemon juice as you go, until evenly combined, then finally fold in the flaked almonds.

Place the remaining 100g icing sugar on a large plate and drop heaped tablespoons of the mixture onto the sugar, one by one, rolling them around with your fingertips until coated all over. Be warned: this is a messy process, but it does work – you may need to add more icing sugar towards the end if you run out of dry powder.

Transfer them to the lined baking trays with a spatula and space well apart; the original recipe suggested 6 on each, but they didn’t spread as much as I thought, so you could definitely get away with 8 or 9 on each tray. Sprinkle with more flaked almonds if you like. (These weren’t in the Sainsbury’s version, but I like the added crunch.) Sprinkle with any remaining icing sugar, then bake at 140°C fan, Gas 3 for 15-20 minutes until a very light golden brown, with a slightly cracked surface. Leave to cool on the tray, then enjoy with a cup of tea and a happy smile.

Tulip Sapporo and philadelphus
Tulip Sapporo against the gorgeous Philadelphus coronarius aureus (golden mock orange)