Tag Archives: baking

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

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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

 

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….

frilly_cuff_-_c_35_1000px

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

Spring is in the air…

Aquilegia and hellebore foliage

I can’t believe it’s over a month since I last wrote – so much for my good intentions! What with pressures of work, a skiing holiday, decorators in painting the kitchen /utility room after having a new oak floor fitted at the end of last year, a wedding food tasting and lots of family visits, blog-writing has definitely taken a back seat of late. This weekend was Mother’s Day, with one son and his fiancée home, then a trip over to my parents’ to see all the family on Sunday – and beautiful spring weather for once too!

The recent springlike weather has tempted me out into the garden to mow my lawn (just the once!), cut back my buddleias and the giant lavatera, prune the roses, dead-head last year’s hydrangea flowers and chop back any remaining perennials that I’d left through the winter to provide shelter and food for birds and insects. There was still a cold wind when I ventured out on Saturday afternoon, but I was determined to pot up my new dahlia tubers from Sarah Raven and the overwintered monster begonias. I also sowed the first batch of seeds, always an exciting moment: sweet peas in pots on the conservatory windowsill (I’ve reverted to trying some inside this year after such a late crop last year, but I will plant more straight into the ground later too, when the soil warms up). Tomatoes (my favourite Sungold and the old-fashioned Ailsa Craig), chillis (Summer Heat and Padron), Romano sweet peppers, aubergine Bonica, lobelia Crystal Palace, and the three leek varieties Bandit, Pandora and Nipper for a succession of leeks all through the autumn/winter – all now tucked up in the propagator. Let the season commence!

Back side bed

I’ve still to distribute last year’s compost around the garden, but there’s always next weekend… In the meantime, let me finish with a springtime lemon & ricotta cake I adapted from a River Café recipe. I had some ricotta in the fridge and fancied a light, lemony and gluten-free cake. This was the result – exactly what I was looking for. The original quantities make a huge cake – I didn’t have a tin big enough and there were only five of us for dinner, so I cut the quantities back by a third – perfect. I found the original recipe here if you’re catering for a crowd!

River Café Lemon, Ricotta, Almond & Polenta Cake – serves 10

Lemon ricotta cake

150g butter, softened
170g ground almonds (you could also use almond flour)
65g fine polenta (whizz in the food processor if you can’t buy fine)
finely grated zest of 4 lemons
170g caster sugar
4 large eggs, separated
200g ricotta
juice of 2 lemons
icing sugar, for dusting

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C.  Grease a 24cm round springform cake tin and line the base with greaseproof paper.

Combine the almonds and polenta (whizzed in the food processor for extra fineness if necessary) and add the lemon zest. Beat the butter and sugar together using an electric mixer until pale and light.  Add the egg yolks one by one, then add the almond mixture and fold together. Put the ricotta into a bowl and beat lightly with a fork, then add the lemon juice. Stir the ricotta into the cake mixture. Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl until they form soft peaks.  Finally fold the egg whites into the almond mixture.

Transfer the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 40 – 50 minutes, until set.  Test by inserting a skewer, which should come out clean.  Leave in the tin to cool for at least 10 minutes before turning out. Dust liberally with sifted icing sugar before serving, and garnish with fine strips of lemon rind if desired.

I served it with a jostaberry purée from the freezer, but any red fruit coulis would be good – and it was delicious on its own too. Enjoy!

Standen March 2017
Beautiful Standen near East Grinstead – perfect Mother’s Day outing