Tag Archives: almonds

Decadent cakes

Sticky toffee wedding cake

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

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

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

Sticky Toffee Cake – serves 12-16

sticky toffee cake slice

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

Sticky Toffee Frosting

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

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

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

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

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

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

cake slicer

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

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

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

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

Chocolate & Squash Cake – serves 12

Chocolate and squash cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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
salt
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)

Moreish Macaroons

KitchenAidcropAll this Bakeoff fever of late has inspired me to treat myself – well, with some birthday money – to a coveted KitchenAid food mixer in shiny candy apple red. Having taken delivery a few weeks ago, I’ve been so busy with work and with going up to London every Saturday for the past three weekends, that I simply haven’t had time to christen it! Until today, that is, when I finally put it through its paces with some luscious lemon macaroons.

I’ve given a recipe for coffee macaroons before, and Nigella’s chocolate macaroons in her Domestic Goddess book are another favourite of mine, but I hadn’t tried lemon ones. It was surprisingly hard to track down a recipe that appealed, i.e. didn’t use an inordinate amount of egg whites, or sound too fiddly, so I ended up adapting a number of recipes I came across online and adding my own previous macaroon-making experience – so far so good! A number of recipes used cream, mascarpone or buttercream to fill, but I wanted the zesty, tangy hit of pure lemon to offset the sweetness of the macaroons themselves, so opted for home-made lemon cheese. Here’s what I did:

Lemon Macaroons – makes 16-18

Lemon macaroons100g icing sugar

75g ground almonds

Finely grated rind 1 lemon

2 large egg whites, at room temperature

75g caster sugar

Home-made lemon cheese to fill

 Spritz a silicone macaroon mat with oil (if you have one! See the coffee macaroon recipe for details otherwise – I really do recommend them for perfectly even-sized macaroons!) or line two baking trays with baking parchment.

Place the icing sugar, ground almonds and lemon rind in a food processor and blitz to a fine dust.
Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl until the mixture forms soft peaks, then gradually whisk in the caster sugar a little at a time until the mixture is stiff and glossy. (You can add a few drops of yellow food colouring at this point if you like, but I prefer my food to be natural, and am happy with beige macaroons!)
Gently fold in the icing sugar and almond mixture with a metal spoon, until well incorporated.
Transfer the mixture to an icing bag with a plain nozzle and pipe the mixture evenly into the macaroon tray or onto the baking parchment-lined trays. It should make about 32-36 small (say 4cm) circles.

Bang the sheets down a few times, to remove any air bubbles and peaks – that’s the theory anyway; I really struggle to make my macaroons completely flat without the little peak where you detach the piping stream – any tips gratefully received! It’s not really a problem, but completely smooth tops would be the ideal. Set aside for 30 minutes to dry out and form a skin.
Pre-heat the oven to 150°C, then bake the macaroons for about 18-20 minutes until the surface is firm and the macaroons lift off the paper or tray when gently eased with a knife or by bending the silicone mat. Leave to cool on the baking tray.

When cool, fill with lemon cheese and serve.

If lemon macaroons don’t appeal, I also experimented with another variation on the theme for my birthday afternoon tea party back in the summer, making coffee and vanilla macaroons (using vanilla extract rather than coffee essence), but sandwiching them together with a rather scrumptious salted caramel filling instead of the usual chocolate ganache. The filling is from a recipe by Eric Lanlard in Sainsbury’s magazine. Try it and see!

Vanilla Macaroons with Salted Caramel Ganache

Birthday afternoon tea_crop4oz ground almonds

4oz icing sugar

2 large egg whites

2oz caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract or paste

Mix the ground almonds and sifted icing sugar in a bowl until well blended.

Whisk the egg whites in another large bowl until they reach the soft peak stage, then gradually whisk in the caster sugar. Gradually fold in the almond/icing sugar mixture a third at a time and finally add the vanilla extract or paste until smooth and shiny.

Spoon into a piping bag with a 1cm plain nozzle and pipe 24 -28 small rounds, perhaps 1½” across, onto a parchment-lined baking tray or, even better, one of Lakeland’s macaroon moulds, placed on a baking tray for support and sprayed with a fine oil spray to prevent sticking.

Leave to set for at least 30 minutes so that a skin can form and they don’t spread during cooking.

Bake at 150°C (fan) / 170°C (conventional oven) / Gas Mark 3 for about 15 minutes or until firm and crisp on top. Another test is to see if one can be lifted gently from the tray without sticking or leaving a gooey residue – return to the oven if they do! When you’re happy that they’re done, remove from the oven and leave on the trays until completely cold.

Salted Caramel Ganache

175g salted butter

150g vanilla sugar

150ml double cream

Cut 25g of the butter into small cubes. Heat the sugar in a thick-based pan until it turns a dark caramel colour, stirring from time to time – it will happen! Remove from the heat and add the diced butter. Heat up the cream in a separate pan. Put the caramel back on the heat and gradually add the hot cream, bubbling for a few minutes – stir if lumps of caramel form and these should melt again. Allow to bubble for a few minutes. Pour into a bowl and leave to cool to room temperature. Whisk the remaining butter until pale and fluffy, then gradually whisk into the cooled, salted caramel.

This makes more than enough to sandwich both the coffee and the vanilla macaroons (i.e. a 4-egg white macaroon mixture in total) and still leave extra in the fridge to dip your finger in when passing…

Oh, and the KitchenAid, you might ask? It passed its first test with flying colours: simplicity itself to use, easy to dismantle and wash, and what a treat to be able to wander off to the other side of the kitchen whilst it’s doing its stuff!