Date and Ginger Cake

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I recently heard of the concept of a ‘house-cooling’ (from the infinite wisdom that is Kinfolk magazine). This is pretty self-explanatory, being the opposite of housewarming: it involves saying a fond farewell to a dwelling that has provided so many memories, and welcoming in the transition and all its exciting new developments. My friends Alex and Heather have lived on a houseboat for the past 3 years. The time has come to say goodbye to the converted Dutch barge, and they are moving out of the boat onto dry land.

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I made this dark and sticky ginger and date cake to take to the ‘boat–cooling’ gathering. I felt that feeling something stodgy and spicy might be in order, not least to fuel the impending sorting and moving of an entire boat-worth of stuff. We ate the cake huddled in the warmth of the boat, feeling the calm sway of the water and remembering all the many previous days and evenings spent there. This time felt poignant given the shift in seasons too – saying farewell to the boat and farewell to summer. There was a definite fizz of excitement around the anticipation of the next exciting phase, of things to come.

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Sweet Potato, Goats’ Cheese and Walnut Muffins

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At the moment, I’m loving the chill in the air that signals early Autumn. The leaves are starting to turn, the days are drawing in and there’s already a sense of anticipation about the ‘C’ word. I also want to eat nothing but orange vegetables. Carrots, sweet potato and butternut squash become a staple of my weekly trip to the greengrocers. Most often I roast them with spices such as cumin and cinnamon, but also enjoy them simply boiled and mashed with lots of butter and salt.

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Sweet potato is so versatile, being equally at home in sweet and savoury recipes. The unassuming knobbly vegetable lends itself really well to being baked into cakes. Vegetables in cakes is nothing new – if you go beyond the undeniable cliché of carrot cake there’s a whole new world out there. I’ve got a whole cookbook dedicated to cakes which contain all manner of vegetables, from courgette and lemon cakes to aubergine in brownies (yes, really).

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My friend Clare and I thought that some gentle Sunday afternoon baking was in order. So we decided to use the sweet potato to make some savoury muffins, utilising the natural sweetness of the vegetable to combine with the sour goats cheese. We used a combination of wholemeal, plain and polenta flour in this recipe, giving the muffins a slightly grainy texture and a more full flavour. But if you don’t want to faff around with this just use plain or wholemeal. The general muffin method is to mix together all the dry and all the wet ingredients and fold one into the other. The highlight for me of making these muffins was mashing the boiled sweet potato together with a frankly obscene amount of butter into a gooey puddle, then eating a sneaky spoonful (or three).

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All About Apricots: Apricot and Cardamom Cookies

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I remember when I first discovered that it was cardamoM, not cardamoN. My world was turned momentarily upside down – a bit like when you first find out that Father Christmas isn’t real. It took a good few minutes of staring intently at the final letter of the word for it to really sink in. But cardamom it is, and this versatile spice was chosen for this recipe as it goes surprisingly well with sweet things. Even chocolate. If you don’t believe me, try this gorgeous white chocolate and cardamom mousse from the one and only Nigel Slater.

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Me and Paris chose the combination of apricots and cardamom as the focus of this recipe. The delicate little pods need to be pried open and the tiny black seeds crushed in a pestle and mortar, then sprinkled over the mixture and mixed well to combine. Cardamom is a strong spice but can be very subtle when used sparingly. We decided the best choice for this recipe would be dried apricots, as fresh would be too wet. We teamed the apricots and cardamom with oats, pecans, flour and glued the whole lot together with peanut butter.

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These cookies come out more like flapjacks – given the oats and honey combination. They have a pleasingly dense, healthy texture, and are, because of dear Paris, completely vegan. They keep for a good long time, only getting more moist and gooey with time. They  make the perfect after work snack with a good cup of char.

Read Paris’ take on the cookies here, with some much appreciated flattery to go along with it.

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Sesame and Yoghurt Bread

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I got home from work one day feeling particularly frazzled. It had been a stressful day, for whatever reason, and I desperately needed a way to wind down and switch off from the day. I tried my usual technique of going for a brisk walk around the block, but this did nothing to calm me down. I tried watching TV to distract me, but this didn’t help either. After wandering around in a hapless manner for a while, I decided that the only thing that would relax me was baking. I wanted the soothing reassurance of putting ingredients together and seeing them transform into something else. And I decided that baking bread would do the trick. There is something about the process of mixing the dough, kneading it into submission, then watching it rise, that I knew would provide the calming effect I was after.

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I read in a recipe book once that bread just needs flour, a yeast and a liquid, but these can come from all sorts of different ingredients. You could include things like beer for the yeast, and milk instead of water for the liquid. So when I make bread, I get tempted to chuck all sorts of things in. This time, I experimented with adding an egg to enrich the dough, and natural yoghurt for the moisture, both of which helped to make the dough silky and soft. I used several flours too – mostly wholemeal, but mixed with some plain flour to lighten it slightly. I also used a little bit of Emmer flour, made from an ancient variety of wheat, that gives an interesting nutty taste to the bread. At the end of the evening, the act of inhaling the wholesome, homely, comforting smell of freshly baked bread was exactly what I needed.

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Vegessential: Beetroot and Chocolate Muffins

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If someone had said to me a year ago that I would bake a vegan muffin that tasted ‘just like the real thing’ I would have given a derisory snort of disbelief. But in my new wholesome existence, thanks in no small part to becoming friends with Paris (the founder of the lifestyle website called Avocado Please, nonetheless), I have opened my mind to the possibility that you can bake something delicious without butter. Yes, some things will always need dairy – cheese scones for example – but muffins, I have recently discovered, are not one of them.

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For our last Vegessential recipe using beetroot, we opted for the well-known and loved combination of chocolate and beetroot. We used a combination of ‘Beyond Dark’ 85% chocolate chips and melted chocolate, for a double whammy of the good stuff. The beetroot gives a deep, rich flavour and provides the moistness that is so essential for a good muffin. There is a ‘secret’ ingredient that flummoxed everyone who tried to guess it: avocado. This binds the mixture together, and gives the muffins a smooth, buttery texture. Paris sums the muffins up rather well, describing them as combining ‘a vibrant purple complexion, an earthy aroma and nutritional brilliance’. Well said, Paris.

Muffins and ice cream

The styling team (me and Paris) had great fun creating ‘muffin chaos’ shots on my bedroom floor, arranging bits of muffin haphazardly in amongst chocolate chips and beetroot leaves. The chocolate drops melted in the sweltering July heat, leaving shiny little circles on the slate that we gleefully scooped into our mouths once we’d finished the shoot. That thing that is slopped on the side of the muffins is a rather remarkable banana and cashew ice cream (recipe coming soon.)

Muffin Chaos

You can find the recipe on Avocado Please here.

You will require a muffin tin and an open mind.

 

Mini Pavlovas with Summer Berries

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My friends Heather and Alex live on a boat. They have recently moved said boat from a 1,000 berth marina in Brighton to a tiny little enclave just outside Bristol. The setting is pretty idyllic: lines of squat houseboats with names like Katie-Jayne, with terracotta pots full of plants balanced on top. Last weekend was the boat launching party. It’s been out of the water for the last few months, being given an odd sort of TLC that involves its underside being shot-blasted. It has also been given a coat of paint, and now sticks out from its more demure neighbours with its bright shades of green and yellow.

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It was one of those perfect summer days that you call up the memory of in the depths of the English winters: sunny, clear and with a gentle breeze. It was also, conveniently, the summer solstice – the longest day. We were sat on the deck of the boat until at least midnight, and there was still a glimmer of light in the sky. We had a barbeque, the sure-fire sign that summer has started. There is a large, Australia-style communal barbeque at the marina. There’s something intensely primal about cooking and eating outside, and watching meat hiss and spit as it cooks over a flame.

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I made these mini pavlovas to follow the vast quantites of barbequed meat. I wanted to make something that was creamy and summery, but could be eaten without the need for plates or cutlery. The meringue acts as a little bowl for the marscapone filling and summer berries. I used raspberries, blueberries and some strawberries that I managed to salvage before they went into the Pimm’s. I also added pomegranate seeds, more for artistic frippery than taste, but they were actually surprisingly pleasant.

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Raspberry Cheesecake Brownies

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I made these when my friend Jenny came round. She is gluten intolerant, so brownies seemed like an obvious choice. Wheat flour can easily be substituted for another flour, such as rice flour, or ground almonds, as I’ve used here. Adopting a gluten free lifestyle seems to be all the rage nowadays, whether or not you actually have coeliac disease. Two of my favourite food blogs are by people who don’t eat gluten – Tartlette and La Tartine Gourmande.

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Gluten seems to be hidden in a remarkable amount of things. According to a quick Wikipedia glance (the extent of any ‘research’ I do for this blog) gluten is found in cosmetics and hair products. Baking powder often contains gluten – although I’m skeptical of how useful baking powder is. Especially in brownies, as I’ve made them with or without, and can’t see any discernable difference, so I was happy to leave it out here. I’m still a little uncertain as to what gluten actually is – in my local healthfood shop you can buy large packets of a flour-like substance that is simply, and a little bizarrely, just called ‘gluten’.

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This recipe was inspired by something I had from the Hummingbird Bakery in London. They produce an amazing concoction: a layer of brownie, topped with a layer of cheesecake, then a layer of vibrantly pink raspberry-flavoured cream. I did away with the separate layers, and swirled a mixture of cream cheese, egg and crushed raspberries into the top of the brownie batter before it goes in the oven. Doing my bit to make coping without bread and pasta a little bit easier.

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Apricot and Raspberry Frangipane Tart

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I have just submitted the above photo to a food photography competition in Observer Food Monthly. The competition asks people to send in pictures of their favourite comfort food to get them through the winter. Well, it would be difficult to get through the winter without pudding. This is the ideal combination of comforting stodginess from the rich almond frangipane, and a hint of freshness from the tangy raspberries and sweet apricots, reminding us that summer is not too far away.

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It seems to have been constantly raining for weeks on end, and we’re only now starting to see anything resembling clement weather.  A day slowly pottering around in front of a warm oven seems a fitting antidote to the rain. I wanted to make something that I had all the ingredients in the house for, to save braving the raging storm outside. I found a tin of apricots in the cupboard that were (just) within their expiry date, and an icy cluster of raspberries in the freezer, from when the plants in the garden were fit to bursting in the summer.

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I decided to make a tart, as the last time I made one was the Rhubarb and Custard Crumble Tart, which was the first recipe on the blog almost a year ago. When working at the café, I discovered the joys of frangipane – an Italian pastry cream made with eggs, sugar, butter and ground almonds. It’s really easy to make, unlike the more troublesome crème patisserie, as you just mix all the ingredients together and pour it into the pastry case. And the result is not bad for a casual bit of rainy-day baking.

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Chocolate and Salted Caramel Puddings

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Salted caramel seems to be all the rage at the moment. Particularly using a posh variety of salt such as Maldon Sea Salt. It’s drizzled over the top of banana cakes, ladled into pastry cases, and poured over ice cream. A sprinkling of salt offsets the cloying sweetness of the rich, buttery caramel rather nicely.

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Calling these ‘puddings’ is a little vague, and I apologise. They are a cross between a chocolate fondant and a collapsed soufflé. However, they do encapsulate the very definition of a pudding – rich, indulgent and very, very bad for you. The salted caramel is swirled into the chocolate mixture before it goes in the oven, so it oozes down the side of the ramekin (and drips onto the bottom of your oven, so you might want to put them on a tray).

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I served these as the final hurrah to a Come Dine With Me style dinner party I threw for a few friends before Christmas. We had the filo wrapped carrots for a starter, followed by duck, followed by these. Unusually, I managed to not go to overboard on portion sizes, so the general consensus was that we were full but not uncomfortably so. I wish I could say the same for Christmas Day…

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Cranberry and Orange Florentines

florentinesI have started feeling very festive all of a sudden. I guess it must be due, in part, to decorating the tree today. This was accompanied by the crashing overtones of Handel’s Messiah, not directly Christmas-y, but, being choral, it puts me in the festive mood nonetheless.  Having resisted the descending season with some effort for the last few weeks– even with the repetitious Christmas playlist pounding its way into my head at work – it now seems time to embrace the inevitable.

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I made the optimistic, blasé resolution way back in October to make edible Christmas presents this year. I already have the Rhubarb and Ginger Gin in the bag, along with some Quince Cheese, but need to supplement it with something else. I decided to take the plunge with Florentines, which I have never attempted before. More to the point, I’ve only ever eaten a nice on one occasion. I managed to eat a total of about ten in small little ‘tastes’, which I assured myself were for quality control purposes.

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I underestimated just how many I would need (due to, unfortunately, having lots of friends and family to give them to) and the amount of time it would take to make around 100 Florentines. They are basically simple, but anything made in a large quantity gets a bit stressful, and you end up staring around slightly manically, covered in bits of whatever it is you’re making. I kept leaving trays of cooked Florentines around the house to cool, then forgetting about them. The tipping point came for me when I’d thought I’d finished, only to find a rogue batch on top of the washing machine a few hours later.

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