Tuesday 26 February 2013

What’s the fastest cake in the world?



Cheddar cheese scones, cucumber sandwiches and dark mocha cake.

When he was a little boy, my nephew Angus’s favourite joke was ‘What’s the fastest cake in the world?’. Answer: ‘Sssccccone!’, delivered with tousled head moving rapidly left to right. His second favourite joke was ‘What’s the second fastest cake in the world?’ Answer: ‘Merrrrrringue!’, delivered in the manner of a car racing around a tough corner at Brand’s Hatch. He’s now in his second year at Sheffield University and his jokes haven’t got any better. At least not the ones he tells me.

On Friday, I invited my friends Jane and Lola to tea. A batch of scones was certainly in order, along with cucumber sandwiches and cake. A plain scone with raspberry jam and clotted cream is a fine thing indeed, but as the cake was a dense chocolate number with a rich, coffee buttercream icing I thought a savoury scone might be better. They certainly vanished very quickly, quicker, in fact, than you could say ‘Sssccccone!’.

Cheddar Cheese Scones

This is the basic recipe but you can adapt it as you wish. Add a pinch or two of chilli flakes, or some finely chopped thyme, dill, chives or oregano if you like.

Makes 6 large scones or 10 smaller ones.


220g self-raising flour, plus a little more for dusting the cutter
1 tsp English mustard powder
Pinch of salt
60g unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small cubes, plus a little more for greasing the baking sheet
50g mature Cheddar, grated
A few grinds of black pepper

About 150-180 ml whole milk, plus a little more for brushing the scones

Preheat the oven to 220ºC/425ºF/Gas7. Lightly grease a baking sheet.

Sift together the flour, mustard and salt. Rub in the butter with your fingertips then use a knife to mix in the cheese and pepper. Make a well in the middle and use the knife to stir in enough milk to make a soft dough.


Turn out onto a lightly-floured surface and knead very gently, just enough to bring it together. Pat the dough out into a round about 2cm thick. Dip a 7cm cutter in flour (or a 5cm one if you’re making smaller scones) and cut the dough out into rounds. Transfer them to a baking sheet.


Gently knead together the leftover dough and cut out some more scones until you’ve used up all of the dough. Brush the tops lightly with milk. Bake for 13-15 minutes (10-12 minutes for smaller scones), until risen and golden. Cool slightly on a wire rack and serve warm with plenty of butter.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Beware of Crocheters Bearing Gifts…


I attempt to master a double crochet stitch.

There was a great, whispered scandal in my family when Auntie Dolly’s granddaughter rejected the wedding dress she’d crocheted for her as a surprise. It wasn’t a scaled-up version of something which might primly cover up a loo roll, rather a two-ply marvel of gossamer beauty and intricacy. At least it was to my seven-year-old eyes.

All of those Blair girls had good hands. Each one of them could make pretty much anything, but they all had their specialist areas. My grandmother Barbara was the compulsive knitter. Auntie Louie was a marvellous baker. There was always something sweetly delicious in a tin at her house. But Dolly was the crochet queen. She could, with a certain amount of accuracy, have been called Auntie Doily. She once crocheted my mother a highly-unseaworthy bikini in shimmering white and gold, sort of Ursula Andress meets the Women’s Institute.

To be fair, a surprise wedding dress isn’t high on any sane person’s wish list. Nonetheless there was much Cissie-and-Ada-esque bosom heaving and lip pursing over the tea cups when The Ungrateful Granddaughter rejected it in favour of some synthetic lace number bought from a shop. The Blair sisters’ outrage was assuaged only slightly when The Unwanted Wedding Dress won first place in the craft section of the village’s flower and vegetable show.


The tempting, colourful shelves of Knit With Attitude.

I thought of Dolly when Erika Knight’s new book, Crochet Workshop: Learn How to Crochet with 20 Inspiring Projects dropped through my door. Though I’m a keen knitter (thank you, Barbara), I’ve never mastered crochet. Along with the usual blankets, cushions and mittens, Erika’s projects include more unusual things such as bejewelled brooches, a laptop cover, a rag rug and a dog bed. It’s a very pretty book. I would say that. It’s shot by the wonderful Yuki Sugiura, who took the pictures for Gifts from the Garden and is also one of the most elegant people I’ve ever met.

The book has clear, detailed instructions for a novice like me, but I like to learn things in company if I can. My friend May Linn Bang, a fiendish Norwegian knitter, recently opened a gorgeous wool shop in Stoke Newington called Knit With Attitude. On her beautiful shelves you will find yarns of every imaginable shade and substance: lambs’ wool of course, but also alpaca, llama, bamboo, silk, hemp and milk fibre, and all carefully sourced to be eco-friendly and sustainable (this is Stoke Newington, after all).



Every month, Maya hosts Stoke Knittington in the shop, an evening to get together with fellow knitters and crocheters to make things over a glass or two of wine, bowls of crisps and lots of local gossip. I won’t be crocheting a surprise wedding dress anytime soon, but by the end of the evening I’d just about mastered a double crochet stich without bursting into tears or flames. I think Auntie Doily would have approved.


Maya knits.


Stoke Knittington nights.

Stoke Knittington meets on the second Thursday of the month, 6pm. Suggested donation, £3. 10% off yarns bought on the evening. Yarns also available mail order.

Knit With Attitude shares its space with Of Cabbages and Kings, a great source of British arts, crafts and gifts.

127 Stoke Newington High Street
London N16 0PH


Tuesday 19 February 2013

Baking for a Sweeter Tomorrow



This cake is my insurance policy for a sweeter tomorrow. When you have a selection of cakes covered in icing, fruit and chocolate as we did for Séan’s birthday, a humble brown cake doesn’t exactly steal the limelight. When all else is but crumbs, there’s every chance you will have a slice or two of apple cake left the next day to enjoy in blissful isolation with a cup of coffee.


Just the right amount of leftovers.

I based this cake on a recipe I found here. I adjusted it to work in a two-litre bundt tin as I don’t have a three-litre one, and added maple syrup to the glaze. I also sprinkled over some praline, as I think it’s often good to have a little sweet, nutty crunch with your cake, but you can leave it out if you like.

Spiced Apple Bundt Cake with Maple Syrup Glaze


For the optional praline:

125g shelled hazelnuts
200g caster sugar

For the cake:

200g plain flour, plus a little more for dusting the tin
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp freshly-grated nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cardamom
Good pinch of ground cloves
½ tsp salt
400g apples
225g unsalted butter, softened, plus a little more for dusting the tin
250g caster sugar
80g light muscovado sugar
Finely grated zest of a lemon
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon juice
3-4 tbsp milk

For the glaze:

70g light muscovado sugar
50ml whipping cream or double cream
2 tbsp maple syrup
30g unsalted butter
1 tsp lemon juice
½ tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt

If you’re using the praline, make it first. Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4. Scatter the hazelnuts in a roasting tin and place them in the oven. If the hazelnuts still have their skins, roast for 7-8 minutes until the skins are just blackened. Tip them into a clean tea towel, cover and leave for a minute before rubbing vigorously to remove the skins – don’t worry too much about getting every speck off. If they’re already skinned, simply roast them for 5 minutes or until lightly toasted.

Line a baking sheet with Silpat or lightly buttered baking parchment. Warm a heavy-bottomed frying pan over a medium heat – it’s best to use one with a shiny interior rather than a dark, non-stick one as it will make it easier to see when the caramel is the right colour. Tip the sugar into the pan in a thin, even layer. When the sugar starts to melt, stir it gently to encourage it to melt evenly. When it has dissolved, stop stirring and watch it carefully. When it has turned a rich, golden amber, tip in the nuts and quickly stir with a fork before tipping out onto the prepared baking sheet. Cool completely then either chop roughly with a knife or pulse in a blender. You’ll have more than you need for this cake, but it keeps well in an airtight jar and you can use the leftovers to decorate other cakes and puddings.

Lower the oven temperature to 160°C/325°F/Gas 3. Thoroughly grease a two-litre bundt tin with butter. Scatter in some flour and cover the tin with cling film. Give everything a very good shake, remove the cling film and tap the tin to remove excess flour. This will show up any spots you’ve missed with the butter, so give them a little touch up.

Sift together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, spices and salt. I sift them twice so that everything is well combined but I’m sure this isn’t strictly necessary.

Peel and core the apples and grate them coarsely. Pat them with some kitchen paper to remove excess liquid. You should have about 225g apples.

In a stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugars until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla, lemon zest and juice. Fold in the flour mixture with a metal spoon and then gently fold in the apples. Mix in enough milk to make a smooth batter. Spoon into the prepared tin and gently smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Bake for about 45-50 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the tin for 15 minutes then turn out onto a rack set over a plate.

While the cake is cooking, make the glaze. Stir together all of the ingredients in a small, non-stick pan over a low heat until all of the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat slightly and whisk until the mixture comes together into a smooth, glossy sauce.

While the cake is still warm, pierce the top all over with a skewer and pour over the glaze, allowing it to soak into the cake before pouring over more. Use a spatula to scrape the glaze which has dripped from the cake onto the plate back into the pan. Warm it through and pour it over the cake. Sprinkle on some praline and cool for a further 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Saturday 16 February 2013

There’s Only So Much Toast


Every year I make marmalade. I love the restful, rhythmic chopping and the smell of it simmering in the pan. I love the look of a pleasing stash of gleaming, amber jars of it on the shelf. I love it on toast.
But let’s be honest, there’s a limit to how much toast a girl can eat in a year. I’m always looking for ways to include it in things as well as on things. I use marmalade to glaze hams, in a sticky glaze for chicken drumsticks, in steamed puddings and in cakes.
For Séan’s birthday, I wanted to make a marmalade cake based on this favourite Nigel Slater recipe for a loaf cake. In honour of the boy’s birthday, I gussied it up with a bit of booze, a thick layer of chocolate ganache and some sparkling, crystallised orange slices so in the end it was rather like a huge, posh Jaffa Cake.
Planet cake.

Marmalade and Chocolate Cake


For the crystallised oranges:
1 small orange, thinly sliced and ends discarded 200g caster sugar 750ml water 1-2 cardamom pods, bashed, optional

For the cake:

175g unsalted butter, softened, plus a little more for buttering the tin
100g marmalade Finely-grated zest and juice of a large orange 1 tbsp Cointreau, optional 175g caster sugar 3 eggs, lightly beaten 175g self-raising flour, sifted Pinch of salt

For the syrup: Juice of 1 large orange Juice of 1 lemon 100g icing sugar 1 tbsp Cointreau, optional

For the ganache: 200g dark chocolate 200ml double cream

Start by making the crystallised oranges the day before you want to make the cake. Put the sugar in a pan with the water and cardamom pods if using and stir over a low heat until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat, add the orange slices and simmer gently for a couple of hours until the oranges are completely soft and have lost all trace of bitterness. Leave overnight to cool in the syrup. Remove the slices with a slotted spoon and pat dry on kitchen paper. Reserve the syrup. It will keep in a jar in the fridge for several weeks. Use it to glaze cakes, poach rhubarb, trickle over Greek yoghurt or to use as a base in cocktails.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas mark 4. Lightly butter a 23cm springform cake tin. Line the bottom and sides with baking parchment and butter the parchment.
In a small bowl, whisk together the marmalade with the juice and finely-grated zest of the orange, and the Cointreau if using.
In a stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until pale, light and fluffy. Pour in the beaten egg a little at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the marmalade mixture. Remove the bowl from the stand and gently but thoroughly fold in the flour and salt with a metal spoon. Spoon into the prepared cake tin and smooth the top. Bake for 25-30 minutes until a cocktail stick inserted into the middle comes out clean.
While the cake is baking, make the syrup. Place the orange juice, lemon juice, Cointreau if using and icing sugar into a small pan. Warm over a low heat until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat.
As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, pierce it all over the top with a skewer. Pour on a little of the syrup, let it soak in and then pour on a little more until you’ve used it all up, making sure the cake is evenly soaked. Cool completely in the tin then remove it carefully from the tin (the syrup will make it a bit fragile). Remove the baking parchment and invert onto a plate.
To make the ganache, break up all of the chocolate into small pieces and place them in a bowl. Heat the cream in a pan just until bubbles appear around the sides, then pour it over the chocolate. Leave it for 30 seconds then stir it until the chocolate is completely melted. Spread the chocolate over the cake and top with the orange slices.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Sunshine in Winter



My friend Laetitia came to lunch last week. On a cold and blustery day, she brought the sunshine with her in the form of a huge bunch of orange tulips. I’m afraid we call them tooolips, in recognition of our shared devotion to Ina Garten. Ina often uses them to adorn the table when entertaining her fabulous coterie of East Hampton decorators, cooks and party planners. They add a jolt of colour without requiring Constance-Spry-level flower arranging skills. As Ina would say, ‘How easy is that?’.

Laetitia and I spent a happy few hours laughing and chatting and talking about books and gardens, over a lunch of soup, salad and cake. In the middle of the week it felt indulgent, like playing truant from a life ruled by deadlines. It brought a bit of the weekend into the weekday, which is always a good thing.



Cos, red amaranth, feta and toasted pumpkin salad.

If you love your garden, or would like to learn to love your garden, you should really have a bit of Laetitia in your life too. Her books, The Virgin Gardener and Sweetpeas for Summer are full of simple and beautiful ideas for transforming your outside space, and for bringing some of the outdoors indoors too. She’s that precious combination of practical and funny, honest and inspiring. She brings the sunshine with her, and in February we could all do with a little bit of that.

Ham Hock and Cannellini Bean Soup


I love a ham hock. It’s one of the cheapest pieces of meat you can buy and is enormously versatile. Boil it, roast it, toss it in salads or sandwiches, use it in pasta dishes or pies, or shred it and add it to soups like this one.

Serves 6

For the ham hock:

1 ham hock
A bouquet garni of 2 parsley stalks, a couple of sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf tied together with kitchen string
¼ tsp black peppercorns

For the soup:

A generous knob of butter or couple of tablespoons of olive oil
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
A sprig of thyme
2 medium-sized carrots, diced
1 medium-sized leek, halved lengthways, rinsed well and finely sliced
1 celery stick, finely diced
A few mushrooms, thinly sliced, optional
2 garlic cloves, minced
1x400g tin cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
About 1.3l ham cooking liquid
About 250g cooked ham
A small bunch of parsley, tough stalks removed and roughly chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve:

Extra virgin olive oil
Shavings of Parmesan

Place the ham hock in a large pan of cold water and leave to soak overnight. Drain and rinse. Place the hock in a pan with enough cold water to cover, the bouquet garni and peppercorns. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 1 ½ hours until the meat is tender and pulling away from the bone, skimming off the scum from time to time. Strain, reserving the stock, and when it’s cool enough to handle, shred about 250g of the hock into large-ish chunks.

Melt the butter or warm the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over a medium-low heat and gently cook the onions with the bay leaf and thyme until the onions are soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. They shouldn’t take on any colour. Add the carrots, leek, celery and mushrooms if using and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the garlic, beans and ham and stir for a further minute. Pour in about 1.3 litres of the ham stock, bring to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, taste and add some grinds of black pepper. You probably won’t need to add salt as the ham itself is quite salty. Stir in the parsley. Serve in warmed bowls with a trickle of olive oil and some Parmesan shavings over the top.

Monday 11 February 2013

Happy Birthday, Sweetness


It was Séan’s birthday last week. He insisted on making his own cake to take into the office. I’m fairly certain this is the first cake he’s baked in the 15 years we’ve been married. I did not help. It turned out brilliantly. I was slightly irked. I threatened to install the new router on the computer, fix the dodgy loo cistern and put a new blade on the lawnmower.
2013-02-05 09.34.05
The cake Séan made.
Of course, I did none of these things. They don’t sound much fun to be honest. Instead, for his birthday party yesterday, I made three cakes. That’ll teach him. Eighteen of us went to The Russett, a great café along the road from our house, for roast chicken and then piled back into our kitchen for crisps, cakes and prosecco.
I’ll blog the rest of the recipes over the next week or so, but I’m starting with the red velvet cake because this is the one the birthday boy requested. As it’s his birthday, I bent my usual house rules about using only seasonal fruit and veg. Don’t judge me (yeah, Nick).
Marmalade and chocolate cake, red velvet cake and apple and cinnamon bundt cake.

Red Velvet Cake
I’ve made this cake loads of times, for birthday parties, engagement parties, bridal showers and just for the plain old love of the light sponge combined with the tangy cream cheese icing and mountain of fruit. It’s very easy, very pretty and is always a big hit. I was once stopped in the street by a woman I didn’t know who’d had a slice at a friend’s party to say it was the best cake she’d ever tasted. Sweet.
Leo, being patient.
For the cake:
300g plain flour, sifted 2tbsp cocoa, plus a bit more for dusting the tins 1 tsp baking powder 1tsp bicarbonate of soda ½ tsp salt 250ml buttermilk 1 tbsp red food colouring 1 tsp cider vinegar 1 tsp vanilla extract 320g caster sugar 120g unsalted butter, softened, plus a bit more for greasing the tins 2 large eggs

For the icing:
110g unsalted butter, softened 500g full-fat cream cheese, room temperature 1 tsp vanilla extract 300g icing sugar, sifted A couple of punnets of raspberries A couple of punnets of blueberries

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas mark 4. Lightly butter two 23cm springform cake tins and dust them with cocoa powder.
Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a medium-sized bowl. I like to sift everything twice so all the ingredients are well blended.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, food colouring, vinegar and vanilla. It will be the most beautiful colour.
Using a stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar. Don’t expect it to become light and fluffy, but it should be well blended. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in a quarter of the dry ingredients followed by a third of the buttermilk mixture. Repeat until all of the ingredients are incorporated, ending with the final quarter of the dry ingredients (dry, wet, dry, wet, dry, wet, dry).
Divide the batter between the prepared cake tins and bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cakes comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool in the tins, on a rack, for 10 minutes. Turn out of the tins and cool completely.
To make the icing, beat the butter in a stand mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in the cream cheese a little at a time until everything is very well blended. Beat in the vanilla. Beat in the icing sugar until everything is smooth.
When the cakes are completely cool, place one cake on a plate, spread some of the icing on top and arrange a generous layer of raspberries and blueberries over it, pressing lightly so they stick to the icing. Place the second cake on top and cover the whole thing with the remaining icing. Top the cake with the rest of the fruit.
A slice of red velvet.

Not much left …

Wednesday 6 February 2013

It’s For The Birds

I remember my grandmother making four things: delicious cottage pies, terrible, watery scrambled eggs, fudge and, every winter, fat balls for the birds.

Barbara wasn’t a cosy granny. She liked watching snooker and football on her tiny black and white television, Embassy Regal, ferocious, improvisational knitting, railing against Arthur Scargill, reciting Shakespeare and reading at least three Mills & Boon library books every week. (‘Get me the juicy ones, love.’)

Her favourite phrase, on observing in her grandchildren any signs of vanity was, ‘She needs a good floor to scrub’. So this small act of kindness towards the sparrows and tits which visited her little garden was made all the more tender in her strong, impatient hands.

It’s supposed to get cold again, possibly snow. This morning I refilled the birdfeeders and made some fat balls. Barbara packed hers into old Ski yoghurt pots. I made mine in old teacups. I can only imagine what she would think about that. I should probably go and scrub a floor.


Getting the ingredients together. To the seeds, add other things which you may already have in your cupboards, such as nuts, oats and dried fruit.


I used twigs to make the perches, but small lengths of dowel work just as well.


The finished feeders. They took about 10 minutes to put together. It’s an easy project to do with children and a finished one would make a nice present for a bird-loving friend.

How To Make Teacup Bird Feeders


I saw this idea when I was trawling the internet late one night and I’m afraid I can’t remember its source, so many apologies to the person whose idea it is for not crediting them.

If you don’t want to use teacups, you can make the bird feeders in empty coconut shells, plastic cups or small yoghurt cartons. Or simply turn them out onto the bird feeder when they’re set. I can’t do that because of our cats, so I hang them as far up as I can reach in the cherry tree, far enough so the cats can’t get near them. No doubt this is how I will die.

You will need:

A mixture of birdy treats: nuts, seeds, dry porridge oats, dried fruit
Twigs or bits of dowel

Weigh the dried food and put it in a bowl. You need about half that weight in lard. I used 400g dried food to 200g lard, which was enough for three teacups.

Melt the lard and pour most of it into the bowl – reserve about a tablespoon’s worth per cup you want to fill. Give it a good stir so that everything’s well coated and spoon the mixture into the cups. Make a perch by poking a twig or bit of dowel into the middle of each teacup while the mixture is still warm and gently press down with the back of a teaspoon to ensure it’s all nicely packed in. Pour a little more lard over the top of each cup, like sealing a nice rillettes. Place them in the fridge until they’re set.

Tie some string around the handles and hang from trees, fences, anywhere that’s out of the reach of cats.



Other diners also appreciate high tea en plein air.

Monday 4 February 2013

Marmalade and Sunshine



When I began slicing the Seville orange peel into pretty slivers, the sky was dark and the treetops were doing a dance in the wind, whipping violently from one side to the other in a maniacal tango. By the time I’d finished, the sky was blue and golden light tumbled across the garden. It’s official. Marmalade makes the sun come out.

I’ve been mainlining citrus recently. It is one of winter’s greatest compensations, along with crocuses, porridge with cream and log fires. Each morning, as I walk back from the park with Barney, I drop in at my favourite greengrocer. At this time of year I often pick up some blood oranges, sherbet-y Sicilian lemons or juicy little limes. And when the Seville oranges appear in all of their bumpy-skinned loveliness, I know it’s time to drag out the preserving pan.


So good with simit rolls for breakfast.

I used Dan Lepard’s recipe. It’s delicious as it is, or if you like you can add 50ml of whisky at the end of cooking to give your breakfast toast an extra kick.

This year my marmalade making was made a little easier by my new eBay bargain, a citrus press. I bought it because I’ve been making a glass of blood orange juice for breakfast (Tip: add a splash of rosewater. So good.) each morning and I wanted to shorten the distance between my half-awake state and good humour. But it certainly made quick work of juicing all those sevilles and left smooth, clean orange halves all ready to chop up. I’d say that was a tenner well spent.


Seville oranges, ready to go.



Putting my ebay bargain through its paces.



Chopping the peel.



Soaking the peel.



Already well into the first jar.


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