Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Cardamom crumb cake



When is it acceptable to eat cake for breakfast? 
a) when it's your birthday
b) when in Rome (or more literally, for me, in Stanwell Park, where I frequently stay with friends who strongly believe that cake is a legitimate breakfast food)
c) when the cake in question contains cardamom, walnuts, coffee and orange zest, all of which can be found in pastries traditionally eaten in the morning
d) when you are planning to get up at 4am for the next month to watch the World Cup and need some extra incentive to exit your very warm bed


The answer for me, obviously, is all of the above. But with the World Cup approaching, I've been stashing treats in the freezer like a manic squirrel. Because you really do want something in your stomach to help you wake up when you set your alarm for the early hours - nothing too intensely sweet for first thing, just a little morsel to comfort you in the cold. This fits the brief nicely - cardamom, coffee, and sweet orange cake topped with a nubbly, buttery walnut crumb. It's good eaten warm, whether freshly baked (and studying the form guide) or reheated (straight from the freezer to the oven) for kick off.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Elderflower, lemon and mascarpone cake



I've been away from my oven for the last month and haven't been baking but one sunny Saturday in Glasgow, staying with a friend, we went all out for the Royal Wedding. Neither of us are monarchists by any means (though my Princess Diana scrapbook from childhood would tell a different story) but it was impossible not to get caught up in a cultural moment that really did capture the public imagination, even in anti-England Scotland. My contribution to our high tea - in addition to scones - was a stab at the bride and groom's chosen cake - lemon and elderflower. While I couldn't compete with elderflowers harvested at the Queen's estate in Sandringham or the 200 Sicilian lemons reportedly flown in for the occasion, I made do with the very best M&S had to offer, cake tins that didn't fit the brief (see recipe note below), a lack of kitchen scales and an unfamiliar oven and it was still spectacular. For all of you who've purchased a bottle of elderflower cordial from IKEA and haven't got around to using it yet, here's your excuse. Other than that particular ingredient, the cake itself is very simple. All the usual suspects - butter, sugar, flour and eggs - beaten into a batter, baked in two tins, each cake cut in half to form four layers, each layer drizzled with sweet syrup, then the whole lot sandwiched together with elderflower-infused icing. The end result is light and summery, and altogether elegant. The two flavours - the delicate floral and the bright citrus blend together beautifully. Not your traditional wedding cake but then this was not your traditional royal wedding. And all the more delicious because of it. Long live elderflower and lemon.




Elderflower, lemon and mascarpone cake
Adapted from a recipe by Cygnet Kitchen

The original recipe recommends wrapping the cakes in clingfilm (once cooled) and freezing for ten minutes to make them easier to cut. I skipped this step as I was less concerned with perfection (read: lazy) and it turned out just fine but if you want to do things more professionally, then this seems like a good tip. Ideally, two six inch cake tins are what you want for this but I only had access to eight inch ones. The layers were slightly thinner but the cooking time was the same.



Cake
220g unsalted butter, softened, plus a little extra to grease the tins
220g caster (superfine) sugar
zest of 1 lemon
4 eggs (weighing a total of 220g in their shells), lightly beaten
220g self raising four, sifted
pinch of salt
3-4 tablespoons undiluted elderflower cordial

Lemon & elderflower syrup
freshly squeezed juice of ½ lemon
100ml undiluted elderflower cordial
2 tablespoons caster (superfine) sugar 

Icing
500g mascarpone
200ml double cream
3 tablespoons undiluted elderflower cordial
250g icing sugar, sifted to remove any lumps


 
Pre-heat the oven to 160 deg C. 

Grease and line two cake tins (see recipe note above).

Beat butter, sugar and lemon zest until light and fluffy. Gradually add the beaten egg, a little at a time, beating well in between each addition.

Gently fold in the sifted flour and salt, adding enough undiluted cordial (3-4 tablespoons) to create a dropping consistency ( the mixture should drop off a spoon when lightly tapped). Divide the batter between the two tins.

Put in both tins on the middle shelf of the pre-heated oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre of the cakes comes out clean.

Leave in the tins to cool for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to to cool completely.

Meanwhile, make the syrup by combining the 100ml undiluted elderflower cordial, lemon juice and sugar in a bowl.

Then make the icing by whisking the mascarpone, 3 tablespoons undiluted elderflower cordial, double cream and icing sugar together until thick and smooth.  

Once cakes are cooled completely, use a bread knife level the tops of the cakes if necessary and cut each cake in half evenly. With a pastry brush, brush the syrup on the cut side of each layer (or just drizzle it on with a spoon). 

Place the base of one of the cakes on a plate or cake stand and spread with mascarpone icing. Add the next layer cut side down. Repeat with remaining layers, ensuring that the top layer is placed cut side down. For a 'naked' look, thinly spread the rest of the icing thinly around the sides of the cake and then add on the top a thicker layer.



Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Spice cake



As I get older I have a greater appreciation for simple cakes - the sort that wouldn't turn a head in a display case beside chocolate extravaganzas, towering layers of cream, or pretty pastel citrus showstoppers. These runners-up in the great beauty contest of the cake world are homely to say the least but what they lack in looks they more than make up for in flavour. This simple spice cake from Sweet is case in point, its boring brown exterior belying its complexity. Each bite contains so many different tastes - caramel from the brown sugar, tang from the sour cream, zing from the orange zest and peppery punch of mixed spice to round things off. Plain is perfect.


Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Spelt orange cake



I've had my head down with a deadline and haven't been baking, but last Thursday I felt an irresistible pull towards my KitchenAid mixer. For my birthday recently, some good friends gifted me not one, not two, but three Scandinavian cookbooks. In the interests of hygge, it seemed necessary to step away from the laptop and make a cake. I couldn't take too much time off so this recipe jumped out immediately as both simple and comforting.



I have a soft spot for orange cakes. This one adds a wholesome element by cutting the pale sweetness of the citrus with the grainy goodness of spelt flour. All the things you love about orange cake. And more. Highly recommended for anyone with a baking itch that needs to be scratched - hygge in a hurry.


Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Coconut, almond and blueberry cake



I love it when friends come to stay. In the interests of repeat business, I usually ask them what sort of cake they'd like for their arrival, offering a selection of a few I've had bookmarked. This is how I came to make this, the latest in my Ottolenghi-athon. Modest but moreish, its mixture of nuts, berries and coconut is intensely satisfying. 



We had ours with milky tea and memories and semi-delusional conversation about a shack in the woods we hope to co-own one day. It was delicious. I think she'll be back.

 

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Waffles!



When I was a kid, my brother and I would get up early on Saturday morning and make waffles. It was a team effort. One of us measured flour, sugar, and milk, the other separated eggs. One of us melted butter, and the other took the bowl of egg whites out the front door and up the stairs to the footpath outside our house to noisily beat them into stiff peaks. All this was in the interest of keeping our parents asleep, which was in the interest of us being able to watch TV until they woke up and normal rules of the house resumed. But until then, in those dark early hours of the weekend, our life was a paradise of waffles and cartoons so it paid to keep things quiet. I'm pretty sure the electric waffle iron we had was something my grandfather won at golf. Certainly my mother would never have purchased anything so frivolous. Plus, she considered pancakes and waffles a bit déclassé, preferring instead thin, lacy crêpes. Not me! I'll take fat, fluffy and unrefined any day of the week.


My more recent waffle memories are from a road trip I did with my dad a few years ago, in the American south. We fell in love with a fast food chain called The Waffle House, whose cheery yellow sign seemed to greet us from whatever highway we travelled or motel we ended up in. Quite frequently, we'd begin or end each day with a stop there, and one of us would always get waffles. Look at us. See. We look happy. That's what waffles do to you.



To this end I asked my dad on a recent trip down to see me if he could bring the waffle iron. Not the electric one - that died long ago, in a cloud of black, acrid smoke - but one of my grandmother's old ones that had been relegated to my parents' camping kit. I don't remember Mum and Dad ever using them, nor does my father ever remember his mother - who he inherited them from - using them in her lifetime. It's entirely possible she bought them as kitchen accessories as they're so pretty with their jaunty red wooden handles, and my grandmother did love a theme in her kitchens. Anyway, Dad duly packed it in his suitcase and brought it down and one Saturday not so long ago, I whipped up some waffles. For old times' sake. For my family. And our history of waffles.


Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Nora Ephron's peach pie



Nora Ephron was a writer. Though she wasn't a food writer, all of her work, in one way or another, features food - from her screen adaptation of Julie and Julia (about how Julia Child became Julia Child), to perhaps her most-well known script When Harry Met Sally (whose most memorable scene takes place in Katz's Deli) to an early novel of hers I read just a few weeks ago, titled - memorably, perfectly - Heartburn. The book is the account of a marriage ending. Its heroine is a food writer who discovers her Washington journalist husband is having an affair while she is pregnant with their second child. It's funny, it's heartbreaking, it has recipes. Just like life.


To all those people who think making pie is hard (and that includes me), this recipe is for you. It's so simple, it's not even written in recipe form in the book, just unfolds in a few sentences. And in actuality, it really is that easy. No need for rolling pins, resting times, or chopping more than three pieces of fruit, it really is a marvel. Ephron's heroine makes hers at a lake house in West Virginia over summer, a time you're so hot and lazy you really can't be bothered to cook at all. It's the sort of thing that is perfect holiday house food - no need for fancy ingredients, or heavy reliance on an unfamiliar oven. The crust is crisp and buttery, the filling oozy and extravagant with the juicy sweetness of ripe peaches. Nora knows her stuff.


Heartburn is said to be a thinly veiled account of the end of Ephron's own marriage - to Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein, memorably portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in All The President's Men. Heartburn itself was made into a film in 1986, with Meryl Steep and Jack Nicholson, and is every bit as delicious as this pie. 


Though she'd achieved so much in her career, Nora Ephron died too soon in 2012. She is survived by her husband, writer/producer Nick Pileggi, and her two sons, Jacob and Max. In addition to her screenplays and novels, she wrote a lot of essays. In one - much earlier in her life - she reflected on dying and, as ever, came back to food. The New York Times included it in her obituary of June 26, 2012:

Ms. Ephron’s collection “I Remember Nothing” concludes with two lists, one of things she says she won’t miss and one of things she will. Among the “won’t miss” items are dry skin, Clarence Thomas, the sound of the vacuum cleaner, and panels on “Women in Film.” The other list, of the things she will miss, begins with “my kids” and “Nick” and ends this way:

“Taking a bath

Coming over the bridge to Manhattan

Pie.”


Nora Ephron's peach pie
From Heartburn by Nora Ephron, first published in 1983

I am going to just print the recipe exactly as it appears in the novel because it is perfect. A Cuisinart is a brand of food processor. Any will do. Only when transcribing the recipe did I see that it called for the peaches to be peeled. I didn't do that and was so pleased with my pie I couldn't imagine it could be any better. I'm sure Nora would approve of my minor (unconscious) adaptation.


Last summer they came to visit us in West Virginia and Julie and I spent a week perfecting the peach pie. We made ordinary peach pie, and deep dish peach pie, and blueberry and peach pie, but here is the best peach pie we made: Put 1 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 cup butter and 2 tablespoons sour cream into a Cuisinart and blend until they form a ball. Pat out into a buttered pie tin, and bake 10 minutes at 425°. Beat three egg yolks slightly and combine with 1 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons flour and 1/3 cup sour cream. Pour over 3 peeled, sliced peaches arranged in the crust. Cover with foil. Reduce oven to 350° and bake 35 minutes. Remove the foil and bake 10 minutes more, or until filling is set.