Recipe: Isabelle’s blood orange cake

Birthdays mean one thing to me: cake. I like birthday cake. At the risk of sounding a bit like Marjorie Dawes, I like cake in general. I like eating it. I like making. l like making cakes especially for people even more. And this week it was a good friend’s birthday, so, unsurprisingly, I decided that there should be cake.

“I love you like a fat kid loves cake.” – 50 Cent

And Isabelle (or Nana, as we call her, not cause she’s old -trust me, she’s a smoking 30-something-year-old, but she’s wise) deserves cake. She’s someone who should always be swaddled in cashmere and fed buckets of good Sancerre while she plumbs her ocean-deep dreamy depths to draw from her seemingly infinite well of old-before-her-time wisdom. Basically, she’s a good pal who deserves a good cake.

And good cakes mean they mean something to the person who’s eating them, whether it’s a flavour profile that reminds them of a banging holiday or an ingredient that they find irresistible.

So I asked her the following:

Pick a flour: “I love a bit of polenta”

Pick a spice: “cardamom

Pick a fruit/aroma: “orange blossom or pears”

Pick a nut: “almonds”

Pick a country: “something with Middle East vibes”

This could, of course, have gone horribly wrong if she’d decided, for example, that she liked peanuts and pineapples with a taste of Mongolia flavoured with rose water using spelt. Luckily for me (and her, probably…maybe peanut and rose water pineapple is a thing) she picked something I could work with: an orange polenta and almond cake with cardamom syrup and blood orange mascarpone icing.

There’s a lovely light, floral nature to blood oranges that works so well with cakes. Plus, that rosy, just-pink blush it lends white icing is a thing of beauty. And cardamom, too, with its almost-medicinal, mouth numbing tingle is something that gives a rustic, poor man’s polenta cake edge. All in all, this was a genuine joy to make.

Happy birthday Nana.

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Orange polenta and almond cake with cardamom and blood orange icing

Ingredients

for the cake
250g unsalted butter
250g caster sugar
4 large eggs
120g polenta
120g ground almonds
100g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
zest of 1 orange
zest and juice of 2 small blood oranges

for the cardamom syrup
handful of lightly crushed cardamom pods
200g caster sugar
100ml water

for the icing
150g mascarpone
300g icing sugar
zest and juice of 1 blood orange

Method

  • Preheat oven to 140 degrees centigrade in a fan oven (160 if it’s not fan) and grease and line a 9″ cake tin with baking parchment.
  • Cream the butter and sugar for the cake together before adding the eggs one at a time until combined.
  • Zest and juice the oranges for the cake and pour into the butter mix.
  • Add the dry ingredients and mix gently with a metal spoon. Pour into the cake pan and bake for around 45 mins-one hour. Check the cake after 45 mins by sticking a knife into the centre: if it comes out clean, it’s ready. If it’s still a little liquid in the middle, cover with foil and put back into the oven for the remaining time so the surface won’t get any browner.
  • While it’s cooking, make the syrup by putting all the ingredients into a pan and heating over a medium heat for around 15-20 minutes until the water has reduced and the mixture goes thick and sticky. Don’t be afraid to add a little more water if it burns down too quickly – you can’t muck up syrup as it’s basically just sugar. Pick out the cardamom pods, but leave the crunchy black seeds in and set to one side.
  • When the cake is cooked, remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin. While it’s still warm, pour over the cardamom syrup. It will soak in to the top layer and harden, giving a sugary, spicy crunch under the icing.
  • To make the icing, blend the ingredients together in a bowl – the blood orange will give it a delicate pink hue, while using mascarpone instead of butter keeps it a little lighter and easier to spread.
  • When the cake is completely cool, spread the icing over the top and sides and decorate with slices of fresh citrus.

NOTE: The canny-eyed among you will notice I used eucalyptus leaves to decorate with fresh citrus slices…don’t. I was going for a lush, forest, woodland creature concept and assumed that eucalyptus would be fine considering we use the oil medicinally. Turns out (after a cursory google search not the way to the pub), it isn’t. The tree sap is toxic to babies and the leaves poisonous to adults when consumed in large quantities. 

Awesome.

I did fall into paroxysms of fear-guilt-dread when I arrived, slyly sloping off to pick all the foliage and fruit off before it was served. And even then, even when I knew no sap had been anywhere near the cake, I was still imagining headlines like “Londoner massacres entire party with lethal polenta cake” or some sort of Game of Thrones Joffrey death scene on the floor of a Peckham Pub.

Happy to report, however, that no foaming of the mouth occurred and no party-goers where harmed in the eating of this cake.

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Weekend bake: Lavolio Easter egg nest cakes with pineapple, toasted coconut and rum buttercream

When you’re a grown up, Easter just isn’t as much FUN. And a little bit of me hates admitting that. There’s something about being a child and knowing that there’s a time of year when you are legitimately allowed to gorge yourself silly on chocolate with no repercussions (unless you grew up with a dentist for a father like me and had to suffer through the disapproving glances and constant, terrifying threat of egg confiscation). Somewhere along the way though, when you get old enough to have your own money and have thrown off the shackles of the pocket money dictatorship, the anticipation of events like Easter loose their potency.

Which is why you have to find some other way of getting excited about it. And what’s more exciting than a poorly concealed triple pack of Cadbury’s and or Nestle £1.99 egg specials waiting to be discovered in the garden? Actual grown up, decadent Easter treats made for adults whose discerning tummies no longer crave the sugar high that comes from wolfing down four creme eggs and most of a KitKat Chunky egg (you know, the ones that come with those god-awful mugs that invariably end up lurking at the back of an office kitchen cupboard coated in inedible tea stains).

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Grown up little morsels of deliciousness like Lavolio’s mini Easter eggs. Created by former banker Lavinia Davolio, who quit her job to set up a bespoke chocolate company, these sugary bites are made by hand coating roasted almonds in layers of white, dark and hazelnut chocolate before spinning them in a pristine shell of sugar. It’s safe to say that when Bake with Maria, the baking school who taught me all about gluten and sent me on a culinary odyssey to Tuscany, posted me a tin of these eggs and asked me to come up with a cupcake recipe using them for Easter, I was pretty pleased.

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The below recipe is my tropical take on Easter nest cupcakes and is made with adults in mind…which basically means it has a tasty glug of booze in it and a sweet surprise hidden inside each cake. Enjoy!
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Lavolio Easter egg nest cakes with pineapple, toasted coconut and rum buttercream

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Makes 12

Ingredients

125g self raising flour
125g caster sugar
1⁄4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
125g soft unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1 tbsp coconut milk
Lavolio Easter eggs

For the syrup
2 tsp caster sugar
1/2 ripe pineapple, cored and sliced into chunks
pinch chilli flakes
200ml water

For the buttercream
250g salted butter (you need salt here to offset the sweetness. If you only have unsalted, beat in a good pinch of Maldon sea salt along with the sugar)
250g icing sugar
2 tbsp good rum – I used Bajan Estate Barbadian rum

For the decoration
1/2 ripe pineapple
50g shredded toasted coconut (if you can’t find any, buy some fresh coconut, slice thinly and roast in the oven along with the pineapple)
Lavolio Easter eggs

Method
  • Slice the stalk and leaves from your pineapple and cut off all the hard rind and the ‘eyes’. Halve it horizontally and turn one half into slim slivers using a mandolin slicer – be extra careful here, I nearly lost a thumb to my mandolin when I wasn’t paying attention!
  • Lay the rounds of sliced pineapple onto a baking sheet lined with parchment and leave to dry out into an oven set to 100 degrees C for around 1-2 hours. Peel the dried pineapple from the parchment and set aside to cool and harden.
  • Put the syrup ingredients into a saucepan along with any leftover pineapple juice from the mandolin and simmer on a low heat until the pineapple chunks have broken down and you’ve got a sticky, sweet reduced syrup – about 20 minutes.
  • Make the cupcakes by creaming together the soft butter and eggs in an electric mixer. Add the coconut milk and beat for a further 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of your mixer and beat for another 30 seconds.
  • Fill cupcake cases 2⁄3 full of the cake mixture and drop one or two mini Lavolio Easter eggs in to each cupcake. Pop into the oven to bake for 20-25 minutes, until a cake skewer comes out clean. When they are hot out of the oven, spoon a teaspoon of the pineapple syrup over each cake and let it soak in.
  • While the cakes are cooling, make a start on the rum buttercream. Beat together the butter, icing sugar and rum and set aside until your cakes are completely cool.
  • Decorate by smearing over a generous amount of buttercream using a small palette knife (don’t worry about making it smooth – you want your cakes to look a little rustic) and top with two mini Lavolio Easter eggs. Arrange shards of dried pineapple and toasted coconut around the eggs to make a nest.

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Explore the upcoming classes at Bake with Maria’s school here, their private events here, and find out about their annual culinary holiday to Tuscany, here.
Find out where you can locate Lavolio’s chocolate shop, here.