Weekend bake: Valentine’s champagne, raspberry & French goats cheesecake

Did you know that the ancient greeks invented the cheesecake? They even served small cheesecakes to athletes during the first Olympic games in 776 B.C. and if that isn’t a ringing endorsement to consume them for health reasons then I don’t know what is.

We might have been a bit late to the party by the time it rocked Western Europe’s world in 1000 A.D. but we quickly made up for it by making it one of our best-loved desserts.

A fat wedge of cheesecake is one of my guilty pleasures too, which is why I decided to make one with a Valentine’s Day-apprporiate version for this most sappy of weekends using a very special ingredient…no, definitely not love, although I am unashamedly in love with the product in question: French goats cheese.

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When the lovely folk at Easy Chèvre sent me a cool bag full of goats cheese, I’ll admit, pudding didn’t automatically spring to my mind. But, after my experiments with ice cream in the last recipe challenge and after tasting the fluffy cloud of whipped fresh goats cheese with it’s salty sweet tang and sharp, lemony edge, all I could think about was how deliciously it would whip into a cheesecake.

My champagne & raspberry cheesecake with a brown butter shortbread base is an insanely rich and delicious dish to make for a weekend treat, as well a brilliant way to finish a meal – especially on Valentine’s Day, when the thought of shelling out cash to sit elbow to elbow with a bunch of strangers eating a reduced version of a restaurant menu for double the usual price seems less than appealing.

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Instead of more traditional ginger or digestive biscuits, I’ve opted for shortbread enriched with brown butter and crushed roasted hazelnuts to bring out the mellow edge of the fresh goats cheese and offset the sharp, citrus sweetness of raspberries and champagne.

Valentine’s champagne, raspberry & French goats cheesecake

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Ingredients

200g goats cheese
500g raspberries
1 bottle of champagne (you’ll only need two glasses but if you’re like me you’ll want to drink the rest of the bottle while cooking)
300g shortbread biscuits
100g roasted and chopped hazelnuts
125g unsalted butter
500g marscapone
75g icing sugar
4tsp caster sugar
half a lemon

Method

  • Start by cracking the champagne (obviously)! Halve 160g of raspberries and put into a bowl and then pour over a glass of champagne to cover the fruit and leave to stew until they’ve turned the liquid a pretty blushing pink. You can add a teaspoon of caster sugar along with the bubbles too, but I prefer to keep my berries tart to offset the sweetness of the cheesecake.
  • Grease and line a 7-inch fluted tart case with baking parchment. Then blitz the shortbread biscuits in a processor until you have a rough crumb consistency. Pour into a bowl with the roasted and chopped hazelnuts.
  • Heat your butter in a small pan on the stove until it bubbles and turns a delicious golden brown – this will add a lovely richness to your biscuit base and enhance the nutty flavour that the hazelnuts give. Pour over the crushed biscuits and nuts and mix before flattening into the base of your tart tin, ensuring you press right down into the edges. Pop the tin into the fridge to keep cool and firm up until you want to fill it.
  • Cream together the French goats cheese and the marscapone with the icing sugar and a good squeeze of lemon juice.
  • Take your chilled cheesecake base out of the fridge and arrange your champagne-soaked raspberry halves in concentric circles on the biscuit base (drink the marinating liquid if you feel inclined) and then carefully top with the creamy cheese mixture using a pallet knife to spread the topping over the fruit without crushing it.

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  • Put it back in the fridge to cool and set while you make a raspberry sauce to finish. Blitz the remaining raspberries in a processor with another glass of champagne and two or three teaspoons of caster sugar to taste. Pour the raspberry puree into a saucepan and gently heat until it’s reduced to the consistency of soft caramel. You’ll need to keep stirring the mix as those champagne bubbles make it a little volatile (I learned the hard way how difficult it is to clean pink foam off the stove top).
  • Finish by pouring the raspberry sauce into a squeeze bottle or syringe or, if you don’t have one in your kitchen (I didn’t) just dip the handle of a spoon into the puree. Take out your cheesecake and gently drop spots of the sauce in concentric circles on the top. As a rough guide, they should be about the size of a 5p coin and about an inch and a half away from each other.

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  • Then, carefully trail a skewer through the dots, dragging as you go around the cheesecake to create the effect of dripping hearts.

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  • Paint a few more hearts onto plates to serve with glasses of leftover champagne and the rest of the raspberry sauce to pour.

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Pays d’Oc IGP recipe challenge: Partridge in a pear tree pt.1

Sometime in the last decade, around the time Sideways came out, drinking Merlot, like drinking Chardonnay, became a little bit uncool.

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Perhaps it was the echo of Paul Giamatti as Miles Raymond spitting out: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!” Maybe it was market saturation, when every wine growing nation from America to Argentina became to make Merlot from vines planted in geography that would give quantity rather than quality. Either way, I never really got it.

An inherently heritage variety with the official stamp of ‘noble grape’ attached, Merlot is one of the most drinkable reds around. A good bottle almost goes out of its way to be welcoming: soft, rich, low-tannined and often, illicitly, voluptuously fruity. And when it’s good, it’s very good.

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So when I was asked to pick from four wines from the Pay d’Oc IGP 2015 collection and spotted a 2013 Les Boissières, it was a bit of a no-brainer.

The challenge was to match this plummy, purple-stained red’s notes of nutty oak and sweet, sticky berry to a dish worth serving up over Christmas. Given the whisper of winter that’s winding its way around London’s bleak December, and the fact the my palette is already laced with the biting spice of mulled wine and the woody richness of late Autumn vegetables and that I’m finding myself humming snatches of half-remembered carols that spill out unbidden at odd moments of the day, I took inspiration from a festive classic: The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Specifically, the first gift on the first day: a partridge in a pear tree. Given that this song was apparently French before it was taken by the British and published in 1780, it gave me a lovely excuse to mix the wine of France with some other English-adopted ingredients – pears, parsnips and partridges.

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This hearty, warming dish pulls all the sweet, spiced and nutty notes from the wine, while offering enough full-flavoured sustenance to stand up to this beautifully muscled Merlot.

 

Roasted partridge with braised onion barley risotto and parsnip crisps

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Ingredients

2 partridges
1 ripe Comice pear
4 white onions
800ml chicken or vegetable stock
120g pearl barley
1 bunch of sage
1 parsnip

Kitchen cupboard:
olive oil
balsamic vinegar
salt & pepper
salted butter

Method

  • Peel and halve four medium-sized white onions and chop half your pear into chucks and lay them both face down in hot pan coated in a slick of melted butter. Season with course sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Turn them after a minute or so to coat each side in butter, then pour over 500ml of chicken stock (homemade is best). Cover and leave to simmer on a medium heat for around 40 minutes until the fruit and vegetables have become soft and unctuous.

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  • Deglaze the bottom of the pan with a splash of boiled water and transfer the contents of the pan to a blender and whizz until you’ve created a sweet, aromatic onion paste. A generous spoonful of this paste is perfect for adding richness to risottos without cream or cheese and makes a brilliant base for winter vegetable soups.
  • Rinse the pearl barley in a sieve – 120g dry should be enough for two people.
  • Set aside a heaped tablespoon of the onion paste for later and put the rest in a big heavy-based pan along with the barley and 800ml of water. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook until the grains are swollen and tender, stirring occasionally to ensure the base doesn’t burn – this should take around 45-60 mins. Add more water if the pan gets dry.

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  • About half way through cooking the grains, put 20g of butter into a heavy-based frying pan along with a few sage leaves. As the butter starts to foam, drop in your two partridges and sear for about a minute on each side until they’re golden.
  • Pop the partridge in a pre-heated oven at 180 degrees C for 15 minutes to roast. Remove from the oven and leave the birds to rest for 10 mins. this should give you perfectly cooked, slightly pink breast meat.
  • Make parsnip crisps to garnish by shaving slivers of parsnip with a peeler and drizzling them with olive oil (or truffled olive oil if you’re feeling fancy – the earthy notes pair well with game birds) and balsamic vinegar. Bake at 180 with the partridge for around 5 mins until they turn a deep golden brown. Remove from the oven and peel away from the baking sheet, leaving them to one side while you make the sauce.
  • Deglaze your partridge pan with a splash of boiled water and a good glug of Les Boissières Merlot – it may seem wildly decadent, but as Julia Child once inferred, you should never cook with wine you wouldn’t drink!

“If you do not have a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one.”

  • Add in a your leftover tablespoon of onion paste and the remaining chopped pear and reduce down until you’ve got a glossy jus to dribble over at the end.
  • While it’s reducing down, carve your partridge. The principle is exactly the same as a chicken – find the ridge of the bone between the breasts and slice either side, carefully cutting the meat from the bone in short, sharp slices. You can also carve around the little legs and snap them off at the bone to serve whole – the meat on these is extra juicy and flavourful. I estimate one partridge per person. Keep the carcasses to boil into a beautifully gamey stock for later.
  • Spoon a generous helping of the pearl barley onto a plate and top with the partridge breast and legs. Top with shards of parsnip crisp and crispy sage leaves and pour over the reduced jus.

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Find out more about the exceptional wines of the region here: http://www.paysdoc-wines.com and on their twitter account @paysdocigpwines

And buy the wine I was matching, Les Vignes de L’Arque, Les Boissières, Merlot, 2013 (£10.25) at Leon Stolarski here: http://www.lsfinewines.co.uk/acatalog/Les_Vignes_de_l_Arque.html

The French goats cheese challenge part 1: Honey-roasted pears & walnuts with French goats cheese ice cream & fig crisps

French goats cheese is one of those rare foods that has a strange, hypnotic sort of power over me. Whether I’m in a restaurant or wandering around the supermarket aisles, if my eyes happen to graze over even a mere mention of it, I’m overwhelmed by a sudden craving and have to have it there and then.

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I suppose I grew up with it really. My mother is a hardcore cheese fanatic and she used to give me slivers of the milk white stuff as a saturday afternoon snack, smushed onto salty crackers with a tall glass of milk.

Later, when I was a teenager, I remember eating huge wedges of it balanced on a bitter frisee salad in pubs when I was trying to order something sophisticated. The last time I had it, it had been transformed into a decadent dessert with olive oil cake and splodges of tomato and strawberry. It was sharp and rich and…interesting, but all I could think was how much nicer it would be with a hint of caramel from some warm honey, or with the buttery crunch of toasted nuts.

I’ve always wanted to try a dessert with, as Frances Quinn from The Great British Bake Off put it, “a hint of goat.” Something that shows off this punchy cheese in all it’s glory without hitting you around the face with it.

So I was rather pleased when Easy Cheesy Chèvre got in touch and asked me to create a recipe using their ridiculously good French goats cheese. Because it meant I had an excuse to experiment with turning one of my favourite lunchtime ingredients into a dinner-party worthy pudding.

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For this recipe, I plumped for the creamy, soft Valençay cheese. While the most pungent in odour (I was possibly the least popular person on the tube carting these badboys home mid-rush hour), and, with its greenish, zombie brain like exterior, the most unappetising to look at, it is actually one of the softly-flavoured goats cheeses that I’ve come across, which made it perfect for this pudding.

“Valençay cheese used to have a shape of perfect pyramid with a pointed top. But when Napoleon returned to the castle of Valencay after his unsuccessful expedition in Egypt, he saw the cheese, in a fit of rage drew his sword and cut of the top of cheese. Since then the cheese has always been made with a flattened top.”

Honey-roasted pears & walnuts with French goats cheese ice cream & fig crisps

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Ingredients

for the ice cream
1 tbs runny honey
3 egg yolks
100g soft goats cheese, scooped from its rind
500ml double cream
70g caster sugar
pinch of sea salt

for the dried fruit
4 figs, thinly sliced
1 ripe pear

for the roasted pears 
100g roughly chopped walnuts
4 tsp runny honey
30g softened butter
3/4 ripe pears

Method

Start by making your ice cream. This is the simplest recipe for ice cream I know. You can add the scraping from two fragrant vanilla pods if you want to make it vanilla-flavoured, too.

This simple recipe uses double cream, which means that the ice cream won’t form crystals as it freezes so you don’t have to keep stirring it – just whack it in the freezer until it’s set.

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  • Pour the cream and sugar into a saucepan and heat until the cream is boiling and the sugar has dissolved. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks, honey and crumbled goats cheese until you’ve made a smooth, butter-yellow paste.
  • Slowly add the hot cream, whipping as you do to avoid a scrambled egg texture and sprinkle over the pinch of sea salt – you’ll need that sharp edge here to counter the honeyed sweetness and bring out the tang of the goats cheese.
  • Pour the mixture into some tupperware and freeze until it’s set, which can take anything from two-four hours.
  • While the ice cream is freezing, thinly slice the figs and one of the pears (don’t worry about removing the core or the skin) into little slivers and lay them on a sheet of baking paper.
  • Let them dry out in an oven preheated to 100 degrees C. After about three hours you should have tender, slightly crispy little shards of fruit, which are perfect for decorating cakes or puddings.

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  • When you’ve made your dried fruit and the ice cream is set, make a start on the roasted pears. Halve some ripe varieties of pear such as conference or comice and scoop out the core with a spoon. Pop into an oven-proof dish and spoon over the butter, honey and sugar mixture. sprinkle over the chopped walnuts and cook in the oven at 180 degrees C for around 20-30 minutes.

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  • When the pears are bubbling and have turned a rich, golden-brown, take them out of the oven. Scoop out a generous dome of ice cream and set onto of a mound of cooked pears, leaving it to slowly melt over the hot fruit. Decorate with shards of fig and pear crisps and serve.

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Wine recommendation: with its sharp , cheesy tang and sweet, honey-rich finish, this beautifully juicy pudding needs a dessert wine tat’ll cut through that sugar yet compliment those savoury notes. I’ll be eating this with a glass of L’or du Ciron Sauternes, an oak-aged dessert wine with syrupy apricot notes and a fizzing, acidic edge.

Weekend Bake: A Sundae for a Sunny Sunday with Movenpick Ice Cream

When I was little my parents used to take me and my brother to a little restaurant in a converted watermill called Bluebeckers. I loved it there. It was my favourite restaurant and always on the tip of my tongue when my parents asked if we wanted to eat anywhere special. Through my nine-year-old, rose-tinted view, the food here was magical. If we were good and minded our manners, there wasn’t a limit to the greasy and sugary delights we were allowed to shovel in on these special occasions.

I remember beaming from ear to ear, straining upwards in my seat, back so ram-rod straight and cutlery so carefully held and deployed that I must have looked like a marionette as plates of steak and juicy burgers dribbling cheese over thick-cut chips were placed in front of me. I remember the violent green of the ‘Vampire Float’ that came topped with a bobbing and writhing puff of vanilla ice cream, slowly dissolving into the fizzing, toxic spillage soft drink. I remember my brother rowing me out onto the little lake they had and smacking me in the face with an oar and the chocolate fudge cake my mother fed me to make the pain of my fat lip go away. But mostly I remember the hot fudge Sundaes they served there.

Before Bluebeckers I don’t think I had ever had a proper Sundae. I’d run for Fabs and Zaps from the ice cream vans that pootled along our road; I’d wolfed down globes of Gino Ginelli’s fudge swirl when I was staying at my grandparents in Dorset and I distinctly remember my first magnum ice cream and the dangerous crack of chocolate that thundered from that first, wondrous bite.

These Sundaes where the real deal: tall glasses with chocolate and vanilla ice cream layered with fudge bites and popping candy that arrived with a jug of warm, fudge sauce. Bluebeckers might be long gone now but I still dream about their baby jugs of fudge sauce.

So when I was asked by luxury Swiss ice cream brand Mövenpick if I wanted to create an original Sundae recipe using their premium range of ice creams, I was elated. And it would mean that I was in for a chance of winning a two-hour master class with The Langham’s head pastry chef, Cherish Finden, as well as afternoon tea in The Palm Court. I might not be able to have another Bluebeckers Sundae but I could still make my own version.

How can you possibly improve on such a winning combination as ice cream, fruit and sauce? The only thing I could think of was to make it more grown up and what do grown ups like? All together now, booze! Well, at least this grown up does and there’s nothing more that I love on balmy, summer days like this than a glass of Pimms, full of chopped fruit and clinking with ice.

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So here it is, my Pimms Sundae where orange Pimms jelly and lemon syrup infused shortcake meets candied cucumber, crystallised mint and as much creamy Mövenpick ice cream as I can squeeze into a glass, all topped with lashings of Pimms and strawberry syrup.

It’s grown up jelly and ice cream with a few little treats and surprises layered in, because everyone knows that half the fun of a Sundae is eating your way down through each layer until you manage to excavate something new.

It may seem like there are a lot of different components to this, but most of them can be made in advance. You can store the cucumber thins and mint leaves in tupperware for a few days until you’re ready to use them and the jelly, syrup and shortcake can be made the night before, meaning that come serving time the only thing you have to worry about is how much you can shove into a Sundae glass without looking like Bruce Bogtrotter on a mission.

for the orange Pimms jelly

6 ripe oranges
1 lemon
300ml Pimms
2 tbsp caster sugar (to taste)
10 strawberries, quartered
3 sheets of leaf gelatine

These jellies pack a hugely alcoholic punch and aren’t overly sweet, which make them the perfect accompaniment to the rest of the sugary ingredients in this Sundae recipe. Most Pimms jelly recipes use pre-made jelly cubes or lemonade, but this easy-peasy one just uses fruit juice and gelatine to set these bronze-coloured wobbly beauties.

You’ll need to start by making the jelly as this can take up to five hours to set in the fridge.

  • Slice and squeeze the oranges, making sure you get all the juice out and add the juice from the lemon – I like to warm citrus fruits in the microwave for 30 seconds or leave them in the sun for an hour or so to get the juice flowing.
  • Pass the juice through a sieve to get rid of most of the pulp and any stray seeds you may have squeezed into the mix and add the 300ml of Pimms – you should have about 600ml of liquid now.
  • Soak the gelatine sheets in cold water until they’re soft while you warm half of the juice mixture in a saucepan on the stove. When it’s warm, squeeze the excess water from the gelatine and stir into the warmed juice.
  • When it’s dissolved, pour in the remaining cold juice and mix. Test to see if you need to add any caster sugar to make the mix sweeter (I like to keep mine quite sharp to offset the sweetness of the Sundae) before pouring into glasses or containers and adding the fresh slices of strawberry. Refrigerate for four-five hours until set.

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for the candied cucumber

As I dreamed this Sundae up, I wondered if anyone had ever made a sweet cucumber garnish. While cucumbers are usually chucked into salads or gin and tonics or pickled and brined, you don’t see too many cucumbers being turned into sweets, which is odd when you consider how naturally sweet a vegetable they really are. A quick internet search revealed one recipe for candied cucumbers using the exact method I was planning to. So I have to dedicate these toffee-like, floral cucumber tuiles to Cluracon from The Indestructables. 

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200g caster sugar
half a cucumber
half a bunch of mint
200ml water

  • Wash your half a cucumber under cold water before slicing thin discs using a serrated knife – the thinner the better as they will crisp up in the oven as opposed to staying quite water-logged and chewy.
  • Roughly chop the mint leaves from your half bunch.
  • Heat the sugar and the water on a low heat until the sugar has dissolved and a clear syrup has formed. Add the mint leaves and give it a stir before throwing in the delicate little cucumber thins.
  • Leave these to poach for about 20 minutes while you heat the oven to a very low 90 degrees and line a baking tray with parchment.
  • After 20 minutes, carefully lever out the soft cucumber slices – which will now look a little bit like stained glass windows – and spread them on the baking tray.

Keep the poaching syrup from the cucumbers as a glug of this minty, fresh syrup makes an AMAZING addition to gin and tonics, glasses of prosecco or simple cloudy lemonade.

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  • Pop into the oven for around two hours to slowly dry out and crisp up as the residual sugar syrup dissolves.
  • Be careful when you’re pulling these from the baking parchment as they can be really sticky and break easily. I like to remove them when they are still warm as they’re a little more pliable.

for the crystallised mint 

the leaves from half a bunch of mint
100g caster sugar
1 egg white

Crystallised mint leaves as easy peasy to make and use the same technique as making edible flower decorations.

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  • Just rinse the mint leaves and dab dry on kitchen towel before brushing them with egg white and wiping them through a bowl of caster sugar on both sides.
  • Lay them on a lined baking tray and you can put them in the oven alongside the cucumbers to dry so that the sugar can crystallise.
  • Take them out after about and hour and carefully peel them from the parchment and you’ll have delicate little fronds of iced mint – so easy but so effective for drink or cake decorations!

for the lemon syrup shortbread

100g softened butter
50g caster sugar
125g plain flour
1 lemon
1 tbsp caster sugar

  • Beat the butter and sugar into submission with a wooden spoon before mixing through the flour. You can use an electric mixer but it’s really easy to overwork this dough, making the resulting biscuits harder and less crumbly.
  • Gather the dough into a ball and roll out to about 1cm deep before cutting out rounds. I used three different sized cutters for this recipe  to follow the trumpet shape of the Sundae glass.

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  • Bake for ten minutes or until just golden at 190 degrees and leave to cool. If the biscuits have spread during cooking you can cut them down to size again with the cutters while they’re still hot and soft.

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  • Squeeze the juice of a lemon with a tbsp caster sugar into a saucepan and heat until the sugar has dissolved. Add more sugar if it’s too tart and drizzle over the biscuits when they’re warm from the oven.

for the strawberry Pimms syrup

A punnet of ripe, British strawberries
100ml Pimms
100ml water
100g caster sugar

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  • This syrup is a great way of getting rid of overripe strawberries and goes fantastically on its own with ice cream or shortbread biscuits.
  • Hull and quarter the strawberries before adding them to a heavy bottomed saucepan along with the water, Pimms and sugar.
  • Let the mix come to the boil before leaving to simmer gently for around 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the mixture has reduced to a deep, rich, ruby coloured syrup with chances of strawberries still floating then you’re there – don’t leave it any longer than 20 minutes though or you’ll end up with jam!

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Now you’re finally ready to assemble your Sundae. Start with a layer of jelly in the bottom before adding the smallest biscuit and a generous scoop of Mövenpick vanilla ice cream. Top with a splodge of strawberry sauce and a few cucumber rounds before repeating until you’ve created a towering, boozy ice cream mountain of lusciousness.

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I used a scoop of Mövenpick‘s deliciously decadent white chocolate ice cream in between the two vanilla scoops for an extra sweet treat – heavenly!

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Mövenpick is available for purchase in Ocado, priced at £8.49 for a 900ml tub. For more information, visit www.moevenpick-icecream.co.uk