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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Recipe: The best lemon curd

I’ve eaten a lot of lemon curd in my time.  A lot.

I think the obsession started with my granny, who used to make jam tarts with her lip-smackingly sweet homemade raspberry jam every time my brother I would stay with her.

Don’t get me wrong, my granny was not a spectacular cook. I’ll never forget those beige, viscous curries devoid of all spice (because who would want “that foreign muck”), the vegetables boiled into greyish, sodden submission, and my whole family may still bear the scars of those unidentifiable stews she would slop out to sustain us after our long drive from Hampshire to Dorset. Oh, how we dreaded those.

She could, however, make a bloody fantastic tart. I remember the smell of burnt sugar in her little 70s kitchen down in Bridport. The smears of flour she would leave around the counter top and on the rumpled edges of her old jumper as she pushed butter through the powdery dough. I remember sitting for hours after the hot, flaky, sticky things had been eaten, still sucking at the last few stubborn seeds that would always find their way behind my milk teeth.

Most of all I remember those sacred days when she would make a lemon curd alternative – jaw-paralysingly sharp-sweet, sunflower yellow and wobbling around seductively in thick golden pastry. They were my favourite,  made all the more precious by their scarcity and probably started a lifelong gluttony for all things citrus. As a grown up, I still find it hard to resist lemon curd. I don’t care how it comes: slathered on buttered toast, spread between layers of Victoria sponge, swirled through vanilla-spiked ice cream of ladled straight into my mouth. basically I’m a sucker for lemon curd.

So it was about time I found a good recipe for it, really. Slightly less sweet than most supermarket-bought brands, this zingy one-pan preserve is so easy to make I’m struggling to call it a recipe as such. All you really need are good, fresh lemons (I like checking a few pinkish tiger lemons for a softer flavour) and a strong arm as there’s a lot of whisking and grating involved.

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Make sure you’ve got an hour set aside to make this, however, as it’s one of those temperamental things that demands undivided attention. It can be a right bastard and, if you neglect it, it can ruin itself in an instant.

INGREDIENTS

6 small, sterilised jars plus wax paper covers and labels
6 unwaxed  lemons, zested and juiced
300g unrefined caster sugar
150g unsalted butter, chopped
3 eggs, plus 2 egg yolks

METHOD

  • Set a metal mixing bowl over a pan of gently simmering water on a low heat on the stove.
  • Add the butter, sugar and lemon zest and juice and stir until the sugar has dissolved.
  • Whisk the eggs and yolks and add to the mixture, whisking until completely combined
  • The curd needs to ‘cook’ now for around 10-15 minutes. Make sure you stir it every few minutes, whisking all of the zest up from where it will settle on the base of the bowl so it gets evenly distributed.
  • It’s ready when it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

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  • When it’s cooked, take it off the heat to cool completely before you pour into your jars. Stir the mixture occasionally while it cools as it helps whisk out any lumps that might form and leaves you with silky smooth curd.

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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.

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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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: Pear, vanilla and thyme shortbread tartlets

In between spending an embarrassingly long amount of time on YouTube scratching my latest (and strangest to date) music itch and hauling myself out of bed at 4am to go to Billingsgate Fish Market (it involved wine, which’ll be explained later) I unearthed some mini tart tins that my friend gave to me an age ago and decided it was probably about time I made use of them.

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And, since they’re perfectly in season – and happen to go with the glut of leftover vanilla pods and bunches of thyme that I rescued (possible stole) from a recent food shoot – a pear tart just seemed like the right thing to do.

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Call it Sunday laziness, but after knocking up some crème pâtissière, the inclination to make puff or even short crust pastry deserted me. So, instead of all-butter pastry, I opted for and all-butter shortbread; a sweet, crumbly biscuit alternative that’s actually perfect for little tarts like this as it has a firm structure and moulds itself like pliant play dough into tins.

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Pear, vanilla & thyme shortbread tartlets

Makes Four mini tarts with enough shortbread left over to make around 12 extra biscuits for mid-weeks snacking

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Ingredients

for the base
250g salted butter
110g caster sugar
360g plain flour

for the filling
8 egg yolks
120g caster sugar
50g plain flour
4 tsp cornflour
560ml full cream milk

for the top
2 ripe pears
4 tsp lemon curd
caramelised pistachios to scatter (optional)

Method
  • Grease your mini tins with butter and heat the oven to 180 C
  • Make your shortbread by creaming the butter and sugar together until soft and fluffy
  • Add the flour and mix until it becomes a thickish paste. if it’s a little crumbly, don’t panic, it’ll some together when you roll it out
  • Tip your mix into cling film and leave in the fridge until you’re ready to roll. Shortbread is a tricky thing sometimes as because it has a high butter content, it can start to melt and become oily if you don’t keep it in the fridge. Also, the more you work shortbread, the tougher it becomes, so try not to handle it too much
  • Make the crème pâtissière by whipping together your egg yolks and sugar in a large bowl until pale and a little frothy
  • Add the cornflour and plain flour and beat until smooth
  • Put the milk, a split vanilla pod and a few sprigs of thyme into a saucepan and bring to a gentle boil. When it’s bubbling, pour through a strainer (to keep the thyme twigs and pod separate) over the egg and sugar, whipping all the time
  • Then, simply pour the mixture back into the saucepan and bring it back to the boil, stirring all the time until it’s thick and cooked through. It’ll need to cool before it goes into the tarts, so just cover with cling film and leave in the fridge until you need it
  • Roll out your cooled shortbread between two sheets of baking parchment so the rolling pin doesn’t stick and gently fold over your tart tins, pushing it into the mould with your fingers. Don’t worry if the shortbread spills over the sides, you can neaten up the edges once they’re baked
  • Prick the bases with a fork to stop to them rising and put the tart cases into the preheated oven for around 10-15 mins until the shortbread is lightly burnished
  • Peel, core and slice your pears into thin slivers that you can layer as petals while the tart cases cook
  • Remove the tarts from the oven and leave to cool. They’ll need to be completely cold before you add in the crème pâtissière and decorate or they’ll melt the creme

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  • When they’re cool, fill them in the case as they’ll be less fragile. Just spoon in a generous amount of crème pât and top with sliced pears. For a little but of colour, heat a few teaspoons of lemon curd in the microwave and spoon over the pears. you can also scatter on caramelised pistachios for added crunch

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Carefully lever the tarts out of the cases and serve with a cup of tea and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, if you’re feeling extra greedy.

Weekend bake: Cherry and chocolate ganache cake with edible trees

I decided a few weeks ago that it had been far too long since I’d done a proper bake and, since this notion coincided with the realisation that I’d missed not one, but two work colleague’s birthdays, a tuesday evening seemed like the perfect time to go a bit mental in the kitchen with an elaborate mid-week bake.

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The remit for this beast of a cake was ‘chocolate’ and what better foil for rich chocolate than ripe, fresh in-season cherries. Once you start with dark chocolate and cherries, the path to edible trees is obvious…well, it was to me anyway. The only downside was that the night I was making this monstrosity, the cake wizzkids on Bake Off were constructing edible forests of their own, which makes mine look like a poor copout. Or perhaps a poor coppice?!

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Anyway, as daunting as this cake looks, it’s actually all rather easy to do, even the ganache, which is one of the simplest things you can do with chocolate.

And you’ll need a LOT of chocolate for this cake (because chocolate makes everything that much better) and will need to prepare for just a smidge of mess in your kitchen.

When my flatmates came to investigate how the baking was progressing they found me stumbling around the kitchen, picking my way through the piles of used bowls and sad little shrivelled piping bags in some sort of post-apocolypitic fondant battleground.

Apparently I was brandishing a spoon, my face smeared with chocolate like warpaint and squawking “S’NOT READY YET!” Although by that point of the evening, I’d inhaled a lot of icing sugar dust and things had all got a bit hazy. The moral of the story is that this cake will take a bit of time, which definitely makes it a weekend bake and not a post-work, pre-bed sugar-laden extravaganza.

But it’s definitely worth a stroll down to the woods today to make it.

Cherry and chocolate ganache cake with edible trees and pistachio brittle

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There might seem like a lot of ingredients for this recipe, but you need to make a lot of sponge to get enough height to be able to stand the trees around the edge. This recipe is as easy-to-make as they come and uses real butter – unbeatable for dense, rich cakes – combined with extra-fine sponge flour, which you can find in most supermarkets.

for the cake
170g self raising flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3 tbsp cocoa powder
170g softened butter
170g golden caster sugar
3 eggs

for the decorations

white chocolate ganache
200g white chocolate, chopped finely
300ml double cream

dark chocolate ganache
200g dark chocolate
300ml double cream

pistachio brittle
50g pistachios
100g golden caster sugar

chocolate trees
100g dark or milk chocolate
50g pistachios

600g cherries

Method

  • Always start with your chocolate work as these will take the longest to set. I didn’t temper the chocolate for this recipe so it didn’t have much of a glossy sheen when it dried, but if you’d like to find out how to make tempered chocolate, just head to my chocolate bark recipe.
  • Split your 600g of cherries in half. Try to pick out the ones that still have their stems attached, double stemmed cherries are even better as these will sit on top of your cake prettily and are easier to dip in chocolate.
  • Melt 100g of dark chocolate over a bain marie or gently in the microwave and dip your stemmed cherries into it, leaving them to dry on some baking paper.

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  • Next, chop 50g of pistachios to make leaves for the chocolate trees. You can leave some whole if you like – they’ll make bigger, more impressive leaves.
  • Melt a further 100g of either dark or milk chocolate and quickly pour it into a piping bag, squeezing it all the way down to the nozzle, before roughly piping out the shape of a tree trunk and branches onto greaseproof paper. You can draw a shape with pencil before you pipe if you like, but I think these trees look better a little more abstract.

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  • I made a mixture of piped and freehand trees, which you make by smearing chocolate on greaseproof paper with the back of a spoon. The key is making sure that you get a thick enough layer on the trunk and canopy/branches so that it will be strong enough to support the crushed pistachios and won’t snap when you stand them against the cake.
  • While the chocolate is still melted, sprinkle over the pistachios to make leafy treetops. Set aside to cool and harden.

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  • Cook the cream in a heavy-based saucepan on a medium heat on the stove. The key is to take the cream off the stove when it’s just about to boil and you can see tiny bubbles bursting at the sides of the pan. Quickly pour it over the chopped chocolate and stir furiously. As it cools, the mixture will start to get thick and glossy.
  • Repeat with the dark chocolate.
  • As a general rule of thumb, when it’s thick and glossy it makes wonderfully drippy, pourable icing for cakes; when it cools a little more, it’ll be more like a rich buttercream and, if you let it go completely cold, it turns into a moussey sort of fudgy icing that’s perfect for smoothing over a cake with a palette knife. For this, I wanted the thickest kind, so I left my ganaches to cool completely before I used them to decorate the cake.
  • Make the cake while the chocolate ganaches and decorations cool down. Start by setting your oven to 170 degrees centigrade and greasing and lining two 8-inch cake tins.
  • Beat the butter and sugar together until creamy and then gradually add in the eggs, beating well after each addition.
  • In a separate bowl, sieve together the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder then start to add these dry ingredients to the butter and egg mix, gently folding the mixture with a large metal spoon.
  • When it’s all mixed together, divide it between the two cake tins and pop into the oven for about 30 minutes or until the cakes have risen and are cooked all the way through (you can test it with a skewer if you aren’t sure – stick the skewer into the middle of the cake, if it comes out clean then it’s cooked, if it’s coated in mixture then it needs longer in the oven) and leave them to cool for at least 20 minutes before you try to turn them out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
  • While the cakes are cooling, make the pistachio brittle by letting the sugar melt in a heavy-based saucepan over a low heat until it’s turned into a golden caramel and is completely liquid. Scatter the remaining pistachios over some greaseproof paper and pour the molten sugar over them and leave to harden. If you have any caramel left, you can drizzle it over your treetops.

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  • Prepare the remaining half of your cherries. These will be going inside the centre of your cake, so you just need to halve them and remove their stones.
  • When the cakes are cool, place one dome side down on a large plate (putting it dome-side down means you’ve got a flat surface to decorate) and smother it with the white ganache. Arrange cherry halves all over the white ganache and then cover those with more dollops of ganache.
  • Carefully place the second cake dome side down on top and, using a palette knife, cover the whole cake – top and sides – with the dark chocolate ganache.
  • Arrange your chocolate dipped cherries on top of the cake along with any spare cherry halves that didn’t make it into the inside of the cake. Smash the pistachio brittle into little chunks and chuck these at random on the top of the cake too. If you have bigger pieces left you can use them to decorate around the bottom of the cake between the trees.
  • Oh so very very carefully peel your chocolate trees from the greaseproof paper and carefully stick them to the outside of the cake. If they snap or branches come off, glue them back on using any leftover ganache.

You should now have a monstrously large, uber chocolatey cake to show off and to scoff. One final word of warning, this is possibly the messiest cake in the world, never attempt to eat it without napkins…unless you’re an animal like me, in which case I can thoroughly recommend going face first.

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If you aren’t a fan of dark chocolate, this would work just as well with milk chocolate, and you can always use different nuts and fruit to decorate if pistachios aren’t your cup of tea – I think this would be lovely with blackberries and hazelnuts come Autumn.

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Weekend bake: plum and frangipane tart

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I never liked plums much growing up. They seemed like a sad, sour cousin of the much sweeter and more tempting cherries that you would only really eat under duress (or in times of cherry famine). I never particularly liked the marzipan-flavoured denseness of frangipane either, mainly because an almond slice was the last thing I remember eating before my family – excluding my iron-gutted father – came down with food poisoning at Club Med in Morocco when I was eight and was only able to stomach crackers and laughing cow cheese for the rest of the trip.

As a grownup, I’ve started to appreciate that uniquely sharp-sweet, almost fizzy tang that only plums have and have come to my senses about the true glory of a proper slice of fruit tart bubbling over with golden-brown, fluffy frangipane. We’re now coming into peak British plum season so it seemed the perfect time to showcase one of the plum’s more unusual varieties: the redgage.

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I’ve found this particular plum variety, which is a smaller, sweeter, pinker version of a traditional red plum, embarrassingly fascinating. Mainly because I made it my mission to track some down to feature for my weekly editor’s pick at work, but also because they’re notoriously difficult to find. Marks & Spencer are the only place you can pick these little ruby beauties up this summer, and only for a limited time.

Redgages are so exclusive to M&S, in fact, that they’ve trademarked their name. Bitchin’. But I won’t go on too much, as I’ve already probably bored the nation silly rambling on about them on Style & Living, but suffice to say, as soon as I tried them all I could think about was putting them into some sort of dessert.

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No pudding is quite as good at showing off a ripe soft fruit like a traditional tart and this easy-peasy recipe for shortcrust pastry filled with pillowy mounds of almond and vanilla and studded with juicy redgages is as good as Sunday afternoon tea gets.

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Ingredients

for the pastry
185g (plus extra for dusting) plain four
85g cold diced salted butter
35g caster sugar
1 egg

for the filling
12 redgages (you can use normal plums if you can’t track any down)
1 vanilla pod
85g ground almonds
85g caster sugar
2 medium eggs
85g soft, salted butter

Method

  • Start by washing, drying and halving your redgages, carefully removing the stones.

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  • Make your pastry by rubbing the flour and butter together by hand until the mixture has reached a breadcrumb consistency. Then stir through the sugar and egg to bind the dough.
  • When it’s just holding together, tip it onto a lightly floured surface and roll it out until it’s about 2cm thin. Don;t overwork the party or it will become tough. If the butter starts to melt in the heat of the kitchen, wrap it in cling film and pop it into the fridge for 10 mins to cool down again.
  • Gently drape the dough over a 12-inch fluted tart tin and prick with a fork all over to stop it rising. The pastry in this tart is so thin that you don’t have to blind bake it first to ensure a crispy base.

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  • Make the filling for the tart by creaming the butter and the sugar and mixing through the found almonds, eggs and the scrapings from your vanilla pod.

“Sprinkling extra ground almonds on the cooked pastry base before adding fruit helps to absorb extra moisture.” – Mary Berry

  • Sprinkle a handful of ground almonds over the base of your tart before smoothing over the frangipane with a pallet knife.
  • Push the redgage halves into the frangipane and blob any leftover mix around the fruit.

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  • Bake in the oven at 180 degrees centigrade for around 30-45 minutes until it’s golden brown and serve with a cup of tea and a blob of cream.

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Lazy Sunday heaven.

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Weekend bake: Pact Coffee meringues with coffee cream, chocolate & crushed pistachios

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It seems like everyone on Twitter and Instagram has been going mad for Pact Coffee, from yoga goddesses in printed lycra balancing steaming cups of the stuff on various twisted and contorted limbs to the mention that the brand is getting on an almost daily basis when it appears artfully arranged alongside Symmetry Breakfast’s latest creation.

So, when the inevitable email dropped into my inbox asking if I’d like to try some, I was intrigued.

Unless you’ve been brought up on babychinos by your yummy mummy, few people can say that they loved a cup of coffee when they were little. I first started appreciating it when I worked at an Italian restaurant and began knocking back creamy cappuccinos and jolts of espresso on the advice of my manager, who had a special sort of disregard for the average Englishman’s coffee making skills.

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Nowadays, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve turned into a bit of a closet coffee snob and have been lucky enough to guzzle some delicious mouthfuls of the black gold, from fruity almost floral beans in Ethiopia to rugged, rip your tastebuds off tar in Turkey and heavenly burnt butter-rich brews in Laos and Vietnam.

That being said, i’ve never considered shelling out monthly for a regular supply of curated coffee, which is what the ethos of Pact is: an on-demand, to-your-door delivery coffee subscription service.

“At Pact we are on a mission to get the UK drinking better coffee by making incredible, freshly roasted coffee accessible to everyone. Our world-class beans are bought from dedicated farmers, roasted in small batches at Pact HQ in Bermondsey and shipped within 7 days.”

Ed, who contacted me, was thorough to say the least, taking particular care to find out exactly how I made my coffee and what utensils I used to make sure he sent me exactly the right sort of blend for my tastes and coffee making capabilities – somewhat of a rarity when it comes to free samples!

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When it arrived, I could smell the blend before I’d even ripped open the envelope and, when I finally did, the whole kitchen was flooded with the luscious, almost acrid burnt sugar smell of freshly roasted coffee.

I’d been sent a fudge, figgy smokey blend called Farenda Lagoa from the Sul de Minas region in the heart of Minas Gerais, Brazil, where the beans are grown on the slopes of Serra do Pau D’Alho and the coffee is produced at altitudes of up to 1200 metres.

One of Pact’s head honchos had tasted this blend and decided that it reminded him of juicy raisins and buttery pastry, hence it’s moniker ‘Pain au Raison’, and, after trying, I can’t disagree. It’s a delicate flavour and takes a lot of coffee to produce a brew with enough punch to give a decent whack of flavour, but, when you do get enough into it, the result is delicious: nutty, sweet and incredibly mellow.

After making it for the first time all I could think was how well this coffee’s inherent dessert flavour would translate into a sweet recipe.

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So, after a few more tastings, I came up with the following: crispy, chewy meringues that combine this fruity coffee with rich, dark chocolate, crunchy nuts and lashing of freshly whipped, coffee-swirled cream.

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PACT coffee meringues with coffee cream, chocolate & crushed pistachios

This makes around six cream-filled bites. Double it if you’re having a bigger feast or more people over.

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Ingredients
for the meringues

3 egg whites
100g caster sugar
2tbs strong black coffee

for the filling and topping

2-4tbs strong black coffee
300ml whipping cream
1tbs icing sugar
a handful of pistachios
100g dark chocolate

DSC_5669I was using my favourite new toy for this: The Kenwood Multione and my Lakeland piping bags

Method
  • Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and pre-heat your oven to 100 degrees.
  • Make a small cafetiere of strong coffee and pour it into a bowl once brewed to get cold.
  • Make sure your bowl is utterly dry and grease free otherwise you’ll end up with soggy, split egg whites that won’t whip well. Separate your eggs (I always keep my egg yolks to make mayonnaise or lemon curd with them later on) and whisk the  three egg whites with the whisk attachment on your mixer.
  • When the eggs begin to puff up and become frothy, start to add the caster sugar a spoonful at a time and whip until the mixture has become glossy, smooth and forms stiff peaks.
  • Gently drizzle through most of the 2tbs of coffee and turn with a spatula before scooping the mix up and pushing it into a piping bag.

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  • Pipe fat blobs into your baking sheet and drizzle over with drops of the remaining coffee – this mixes with the sugary meringues to make a sort of sticky coffee toffee that adds a wonderful chew to the cooked meringues. If you don’t have a piping bag you can just spoon the mixture onto the baking sheet.

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  • Bake in your preheated oven for between 2-3 hours. After two hours your meringues will be soft and chewy on the inside, after three they’ll be crisp and crunchy so it entirely depends on how you like them!
  • Leave the meringues to cool while you whip your cream and icing sugar into stiff peaks. Swirl through the cold coffee you’ve set aside for the cream. You can always add more icing sugar or a drop more coffee if you’d like it a little sweeter or stronger.
  • Set aside your whipped cream in the fridge until you’re ready to pipe it onto the meringues. Meanwhile, melt your dark chocolate in a bowl above a saucepan of simmering water before dipping the bottom of your cooled meringue halves into the rich chocolate goo.
  • Leave these to set and let the chocolate harden before piping one half with cream and sandwiching your meringues together.
  • Crush or chop your handful of pistachios and drizzle the meringues with the remaining chocolate before chucking over the nuts.

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You can keep these in the fridge for 24 hours before the meringues start to go soggy…but to be honest I doubt that they’ll last that long!

Weekend bake: Pink grapefruit posset with lavender & almond shortbread

It’s a bit late in the day for a weekend bake. Then again, I seem to be late for a lot of things recently as I am exhausting all of my energies juggling a new job and trying to find a new place to live in London, which, if you’ve ever run the Spareroom gauntlet, you’ll understand is no mean feat.

But, aside from all of that and preparing for the imminent struggle of hauling my life from one end of this busy city to other in a few weeks time, I did manage to enjoy this glorious weather we’ve been having this weekend and slip in a picnic with close friends in Battersea Park.

I also managed to indulge my insatiable sweet tooth and knock up a little afternoon treat: a zingy, creamy blush-coloured posset that’s simply bursting with sweet sunshine.

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I can never resist creamy desserts. I remember I used to spend half my working evening at my first restaurant job lusting over the homemade panna cottas that wobbled seductively at me every time I opened the kitchen fridge.

This posset is similar to a panna cotta, only much simpler to make and it really is as creamy a dessert as you can get…in fact it only has three ingredients: cream, sugar and fruit.

Possets are ancient puddings made from cooked cream that used to be curdled with alcohol instead of the acid from fruit that is used today.

They were originally given as curative medication for fevers or colds…it’s unlikely that I’m going to find that prescription recommended on the NHS website these days but it’s definitely something I’ll remember next time I come down with a cold!

“It is mentioned in the Journals of the House of Lords in the year 1620 that King Charles I was given a posset drink from his physician… Shakespeare mentions possets several times in his writings, in Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5, he mentions the posset’s medicinal properties and that it is made from curds”
– British Food History 

I’m not convinced I’m suffering from any particularly life threatening fevers at the moment (unless Spring fever counts), but there’s no doubt that this little pot of soft, unctuous goo did me the world of good and hopefully it’ll brighten anyone’s weekend who needs a little sugary boost.

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This is the perfect dinner party pudding for summer as you can make it hours in advance. You’ll probably want to use fancier glasses than I did if you’re making it for a party…that’s one of the things about house sharing, all of your crockery and utensils are a mish-mash of collected and found pieces.

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Pink grapefruit posset with lavender & almond shortbread

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Ingredients
for the posset

300ml double cream
100g caster sugar
2 pink grapefruits (100ml freshly squeezed grapefruit juice and the rind from two grapefruits)

for the shortbread

125g salted butter
55g caster sugar
130g plain flour
50g ground almonds
1 tsp dried lavender – I like to use delicately dried lavender from Bart. Be careful not to put too much in or your biscuits run the risk of tasting a bit like an old lady’s knicker drawer!

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Method
  • Pop some assorted small glasses into the fridge to keep cool.
  • The possets take up to three hours to set in the fridge so get these out of the way first. Grate the rind from your two grapefruits before slicing and squeezing them to make 100ml of juice.
  • Pour the cream and sugar into a saucepan and heat over a medium heat and keep stirring it until the sugar has dissolved. Let it come to the boil for a minute before taking off the heat and quickly stirring through the grapefruit juice and rind.
  • Pour into your cooled glasses and put back in the fridge until set and firm with a little wiggle – this should take 2-3 hours.
  • Make these quick shortbread biscuits by beating the butter and sugar together to a creamy pulp before adding the flour, ground almonds and lavender.
  • Mix together until it forms a soft dough. Shape balls of the dough into rounds or soft ovals with your hands and push down onto a greased baking sheet.
  • Leave these to cool down and firm up in the fridge before cooking – too much handling makes the butter in these break down into an oily mess.
  • Bake at 180 degrees for 10-12 minutes until they turn a soft golden brown and leave to cool before dusting with icing sugar and serving with the possets.

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