Chocolate Fruit Cake

This gorgeously rich and dark Christmas cake could only be the result of Nigella’s mind. And so it is! This is that time of year when they are showing her Nigella’s Christmas Kitchen show on TV and all of the lights, the friends, the food and the festive atmosphere make you want to start pottering about in the kitchen. This cake, in particular, described as dark, moist and squidgy (it’s the prunes, says Nigella), caught my attention because you can (and have) to decorate the top yourself. So why not indulge in some chocolate-cum-glitter fun?

I have to say, the addition of cocoa powder to an otherwise fairly standard fruit cake is new on my table too, but it really works. Rather than steeping the dried fruit in brandy, sherry or other festive liqueurs, this recipe calls for slow and relaxing stirring over the hob. The heat will infuse the fruit with the coffee liqueur – graciously counteracted by the dark treacly sugar and the honey – to do in 10 minutes what normally would take months. Genius, pure genius. A little word of warning, if I may. Please line the tin as instructed, making sure there the baking parchment is twice as high as the cake tin itself. This will help protect the cake and avoid any possible burning. Also, keep an eye on this one. I baked it for 2 hours exactly, but the top was already starting to look a bit scorched…

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Ingredients (for the cake)

  • 350g soft dried prunes, chopped
  • 250g raisins
  • 125g currants
  • 175g unsalted butter
  • 175g dark muscovado sugar
  • 175g honey
  • 125ml coffee liqueur (I used Kahlua)
  • 2 oranges, zest and juice
  • 1/4 tsp ground clove
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp allspice
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 3 medium eggs, lightly beaten
  • 150g plain flour
  • 75g ground almonds
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/s tsp bicarbonate of soda

Ingredients (for the decoration – my version)

  • 3 tbsp of apricot jam, warmed through with 1 tsp water and sieved
  • chocolate stars (MilkyWay)
  • soft gold pearls
  • white shimmer pearls
  • Cadbury minstrels
  • gold and silver glitter
  • white chocolate chips

Method

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 150C. Grease and line a 20cm deep cake tin with baking parchment, making sure to line the sides too.
  2. Place the dried fruit, orange zest and juice, sugar, honey, coffee liqueur, spices, butter and cocoa into a wide saucepan. Melt over a low heat until fully combined, then bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool for at least 30 minutes.
  3. Once cooled slightly, add the eggs. It’s important to cool the mixture before adding the eggs or you will end up with scrambled eggs in the mixture. Not nice.
  4. Mix those in, then fold in the flour, ground almonds, baking powder and bicarb. Combine all of the ingredients together to obtain a light brown mixture. Tip that into the cake tin and bake on the lower shelf of the oven for about 2 hours.
  5. Check the cake is cooked all the way through with a skewer. This should come out clean.
  6. Place the cake on a cooling rack and leave to cool completely in its tin.
  7. Once cooled, remove from the tin, unwrap the baking parchment and sit on a cake platter/dish.
  8. Brush the whole cake with the sieved apricot jam. Decorate with the sweets and the glitter the way you want. I opted for chocolate stars and white chocolate chips on the outer edge, chocolate minstrels in the middle, pearls all around and a final scattering of silver and gold glitter. You need to be your own artist here!

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Marmalade Butterflies

What’s more delicate than puff pastry? All those layers carefully folded one on top of the other and baked in the space of a second to create complicated and frail structures of pastry… The same as butterflies – beautiful, gorgeously coloured winged insects whose lifespan rarely reaches a full week and whose delicacy and frailty has inspired so many writers. So what better combination than to create butterflies made of puff pastry?

The idea behind this recipe comes from the same book I quoted in my last post, Bollería by Xavier Barriga. He makes them plain and suggests to dunk them in chocolate when cooled. Why, may I ask, not fill them with something sweet? These are, with all due respect, palmiers sliced in half and, as such, desperately need to be filled. I opted for homemade marmalade that my grandma gave me last time I was home. The orange jam was the last one of the small pots of homemade sweetness I had, so now I am back to square one… Anyway, to offset the slight tartness of marmalade I opted for some white chocolate on top, complemented by some orange and lemon zest, just to add a tad of colour and to give you a quick reminder of what’s inside. You can fill them with whatever you want, mine is just a suggestion.

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Ingredients

  • 500g plain flour
  • 10g salt
  • 275g icy cold water
  • 375g unsalted butter, chilled
  • golden caster sugar, to sprinkle
  • 100g marmalade
  • 25g white chocolate, melted
  • 1/2 orange, zest of
  • 1 lemon, zest of

Method

  1. Make your puff pastry by combining the flour, salt and water together until you get a soft dough, then wrap it in clingfilm and chill it for at least 1 hour.
  2. Beat the butter into submission as indicated in the previous recipe, then shape it into a square roughly 15cm per side. Keep it chilled. Ideally, you want your butter and your dough to be at the same temperature.
  3. Once your dough has been thoroughly chilled, take it out from the fridge and put it on a floured surface. Now you have two ways of doing this. Personally, I cut a cross on top and stretch the wedges outwards to create ear-like shapes. I then use a rolling pin to stretch these but leave the dough a bit higher – that is, non rolled out – where the bases of the ‘ears’ meet. I then put the cold butter slab on top of this small bulge and fold the dough ears on top. Then, I flip the dough the other way round and start rolling. Alternatively, you can roll your dough into a rectangle and do it as indicated in the previous post. The end result is the same, so it’s really up to you.
  4. Roll and fold your pastry for a total of 4 times, allowing plenty of chilling times after each 2.
  5. Once your pastry has been properly chilled, dust your working surface with plenty of golden caster sugar, then roll it out to a rectangle roughly 30 by 60cm. Trim the edges with a sharp knife, then spread the marmalade in an even layer on top of the pastry rectangle, leaving approximately 1 cm from all of the edges.
  6. Start rolling your palmier. Roll each side equally towards the centre, then when you get to the point where the two rolls meet, fold one on top of the other. Warp it in clingfilm and chill your ‘roll’ for one hour.
  7. Closer to the end of the chilling time, pre-heat your oven to 220C and line three baking trays with parchment.
  8. Take your pithivier out of the fridge, then use a very sharp knife to cut even 1cm slices. Cut each slice into halves but ensuring the cut doesn’t go all the way through and leaves a ‘joint’ on the closed side of the slice. To be clearer, keep the two ridges facing you while you cut the slice.
  9. Arrange the butterflies-to-be on the trays leaving plenty of space in between them as they will increase in volume. Bake for approximately 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 180C and bake for a further 13 minutes, until a golden colour and thoroughly baked.
  10. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely, then use a piping bag to drizzle with the melted white chocolate and arrange the orange and lemon zest on top.

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Strawberry, Chocolate & Pistachio Pinwheels

Ever heard of schnecken? Neither had I, but it turns out these are the German version of the Chelsea buns. The pastries, whose name literally means ‘snails’ and clearly refers to their pinwheel shape, are made from a dough enriched with sour cream and are usually topped with a sticky cinnamon glaze. Now, the pastries below only have the shape of a schnecke, but are in fact pinwheels – sweet ones, to be precise. The recipe comes from a very interesting book I bought on my last trip to Spain: Bollería, by Xavier Barriga. This Basque pastry chef, who I understand is a bit of a celebrity, has some really fresh takes on some pastry classics, such as roulades, brioches and, obviously, pinwheels.

The yeasted and laminated dough is the same as you would use for croissants, except faster, no fuss and a lot tastier. In fact, you could use the same dough to make croissants or pains au chocolat! The filling here is gorgeous: fresh strawberry jam dotted with dark chocolate chips and sprinkled with pistachios. The chips tend to melt slightly in the hot jam, while the pistachios retain their crunch, thus providing for a feast for the senses both in terms of flavour and texture. I have made my own cheat’s strawberry jam here, but feel free to use a shop-bought one if you prefer.

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Ingredients (for the pastry)

  • 500g strong bread flour
  • 10g salt
  • 40g caster sugar
  • 25g unsalted butter, melted
  • 250ml icy cold water
  • 1 x 7g sachet of fast action yeast
  • 280g unsalted butter, fridge-cold

Ingredients (for the strawberry jam)

  • 300g strawberries
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp plum jam
  • 1 tsp corn flour
  • 1 tbsp water

Ingredients (for the filling & decoration)

  • 50g dark chocolate chips
  • 70g pistachios, roughly ground
  • 1 medium egg, slightly beaten

Method

  1. Start with the pastry, so then you have plenty of time to chill it. The rising is left to the very last phase and the dough should be kept as cold as possible to avoid proving.
  2. If you have a freestanding mixer, put all of the ingredients in there and mix with the hook attachment until a soft dough forms. You might have to add some extra water or keep some back from the quantity above, this depends on the weather conditions and, most importantly, on your flour. Turn out the dough onto a work surface (don’t flour it!) and knead until smooth and pliable. Roll the dough to a ball and place it in a bowl, then cover with cling film and put it in the fridge to rest for at least 1 hour.
  3. In the meantime, you can make your strawberry jam. Wash, hull and halve the strawberries and put them in a saucepan over a medium heat with the sugar. Stir occasionally, until the sugar has melted and mixed with some of the strawberry juices. Leave to cook for about 15 minutes, until the strawberries have lost their shape and you are left with a slightly mushy purée. Now add the plum jam and mix that in. In a small bowl, mix the corn flour with the water, then pour that in. This will help to thicken the jam. Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring frequently, then once you have reached a spreadable consistency tumble the jam into a small bowl, cover with cling film and leave to cool down completely.
  4. Once your dough has rested enough, take it out of the fridge and punch down it. Turn it out onto a slightly floured surface, then roll it out to a large rectangle. Place the cold butter between two sheets of baking parchment, then use a rolling pin to bash it down and make it both pliable and slimmer. You are aiming for 1cm thick and the width of half of your pastry rectangle. Once your butter has been beaten into submission, place it on one half of the pastry and pull the rest of the pastry on top to cover it. Press it down to seal the pastry around the butter, then turn the rectangle around so that the shorter edge is facing you and start rolling the pastry up and down. You want to distribute the butter evenly and stretch the pastry to a long thinnish rectangle. Once you have doubled the length of the pastry, fold the top third back on itself and the bottom third on top of this one, then give the dough a 90 degree turn and repeat.
  5. Repeat this procedure for a total of 4 times, then wrap the pastry in cling film and leave it to rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours. You will notice that towards the end of the last turn the pastry will not roll out as much as before: this is due to the gluten in the pastry, so it needs to rest to allow the gluten to relax.
  6. Once you pastry has had plenty of chilling time, take it out of the fridge and roll it out to a big rectangle, approximately 25x50cm. Use a sharp knife to trim the edges.
  7. Spread an even layer of jam on top, leaving about 2 cm alongside one of the longer edges (this will help when rolling it up). Sprinkle the chocolate chips and about 2/3 of the ground pistachios on top, then get rolling! Starting from the long edge (the one without the big border), start rolling the pastry on itself and try to make it into a tight roll. Once you have created your sausauge-like roll, wrap it in clingfilm and chill it for another 30 minutes.
  8. In the meantime, line two baking trays with parchment.
  9. Take your sausage-like roll out of the fridge, unwrap it and use a very sharp knife to cut even slices, approximately 1cm thick. Don’t worry if they look a bit squashed when you put them on your tray, they will turn out beautifully in the oven. Put the slices evenly spaced on the tray and leave to prove for 1 hour in a warm environment. Towards the end of the proving time, pre-heat your oven to 210C.
  10. Bake for 15 minutes, until golden on top, then turn the oven down to 180C and bake for a further 7 minutes to ensure the centre is cooked too. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on wire racks, then enjoy!

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Piernik – a Polish Christmas Cake

Piernik means ‘gingerbread’ in Polish. Traditionally, this Christmas sweet is made not in the form of a cake but, rather, as a very dense and spicy bread. This is then layered with plum jam and left to ferment for a few weeks, so that the flavours have time to develop. Not wanting to wait weeks before trying it (and considering I already have a boozy British Christmas cake slowly maturing away in the spare room), I decided to opt for Edd Kimber’s cake adaptation of this recipe, which is just as good. I hope Polish traditionalists won’t hate me!

This cake is made with the melting method, which involves melting the fat and the sugar over a low heat in a pan and then, once cooled, combining them with the other ingredients. Usually, cakes made this way result in a moister, darker and softer crumb, much in the same way as my Guinness Cake. Another word of advice: do let the ganache set a little before trying to pour it over the cake. You do want to end up with a nicely thick chocolate layer on top, so the ganache needs to be firm enough to adhere to the cake surface when poured over. Also, you can try and experiment with different flavours of honey. Personally, I combined standard clear honey with a darker and woodier brown honey.

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Ingredients (for the cake)

  • 140g unsalted butter
  • 300g honey
  • 100g light brown sugar
  • 365g plain flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 3 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground pepper
  • 3 large eggs

Ingredients (for the filling and the ganache)

  • 250g plum jam
  • 225ml double cream
  • 140g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
  • 3 tbsp clear honey

Method

  1. Grease and line the base of a deep 20cm cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. In a saucepan, put the butter, honey and sugars, then cook over a medium heat until fully melted. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
  3. Pre-heat the oven to 140C.
  4. Sieve all of the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix them together.
  5. Once the butter mixture has cooled, whisk in the eggs, then pour that into the flour and spice mixture and mix until fully combine. Careful not to overmix the mixture of you will end up with a dry cake. Pour into the cake tin and cook for about 1 hour. Check whether the cake is done with a skewer, then remove from the oven and let it cool completely.
  6. In the meantime, prepare your ganache by putting the chocolate, honey and cream into a saucepan and melting over medium heat, mixing to combine the ingredients together. Remove from the heat and let it cool and slightly thicken. Mix it from time to time.
  7. Once the sponges have cooled, use a serrated knife to slice the cake into three equal layers. Position the bottom layer on your a wire rack, then spread half of the jam on. Top with the second layer and cover that with the rest of the jam, then position the remaining layer on top.
  8. Put a sheet of baking parchment/foil under the wire rack, so that it collects any extra ganache which will drop off the cake. Once the chocolate ganache has reached a slightly denser consistency, pour that over the cake and let it completely drip down the sides, so that the whole cake is covered. Leave to cool and harden.
  9. When ready, use a palette knife to transfer the cake onto a serving dish/platter.

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Custard Tarts

In my attempt to try and give a go to all desserts and bake-related goods, I decided to go for a very traditional British recipe: the custard tart. Very few of you might know, indeed, that custard tarts

have a long history in Britain, and were served at the Medieval table where they were know as doucets or darioles. Henry IV had a doucet at his coronation banquet in 1399. Doucets could include meat ingredients such as pork mince or beef marrow, but they were always filled with a sweet custard. The Medieval cook may have used almond milk instead of cow’s milk. Almond milk was a rather expensive alternative, but suited the wealthy whom consumed it on ‘fast’ days, when rich dairy products were not permitted. Almond milk was an infusion of blanched, ground almonds and either syrup, water, or water and wine. (from Baking for Britain)

The recipe below is Paul Hollywood’s and was given to the GBBO bakers this year as a technical challenge. I found the pastry too wet to work with, so I strongly advise you to check whether it is dry enough and, in case, add a tad bit more of flour. This will save you having to heavily dust your work surface with flour to roll it out.

Also, please make this by hand. It’s not a huge quantity, but sweet pastries should be made by hand and not in a food processor (or in a freestanding mixer) in order not to develop the gluten in the flour. If you want to, you could mix the flour and the butter in the food processor, but please make sure the following steps are done by hand.

Last note. I have halved the quantities indicated for the custard. Using a normal 12-hole muffin tin I had more than half of the custard leftover…

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Ingredients (for the pastry)

  • 165g plain flour
  • 25g ground almonds
  • 120g unsalted butter, chilled and diced
  • 55g caster sugar
  • 1 medium egg

Ingredients (for the custard)

  • 350ml full-fat milk
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 45g caster sugar
  • ground nutmeg

Method

  1. To make the pastry, stir the flour and ground almonds together in a large bowl, then add the butter and rub in with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar. Break in the egg and work it into the mixture with your fingers, bringing it together to form a soft dough.
  2. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and shape it into a ball. Flatten with your fingers to a disc and wrap in cling film. Leave to chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
  3. Preheat the oven to 200C.
  4. Roll out the sweet pastry on a lightly floured work surface. Using an 11cm fluted cutter, cut out twelve discs and line the muffin tray moulds with the pastry circle.
  5. For the custard filling, warm the milk in a saucepan, and beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a separate bowl until pale and creamy. Pour the milk onto the egg yolk mixture and stir well, creating little bubbles. Transfer the custard mixture into a pouring jug with a lip, then fill each of the tart cases. Sprinkle a small pinch of ground nutmeg into the middle of each tart.
  6. Bake the tarts in the oven for about 25 minutes – turn the temperature down to 180C for the final 10 minutes. You are looking for a very slight dome on the custard, indicating that it is baked. If the custard domes too much this indicates that you have over-cooked the custard, it will have boiled, and will sink back down leaving a big dip. If this does happen you can help rescue it by removing the tarts from the oven immediately and placing the tin in cold water on a cold surface. Cool in the tin for 30 minutes and then carefully remove from the moulds. The base of the tarts should be perfectly baked through, without having over-cooked the custard filling.

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Sunflower Bread (Pain Tournesol/Pan Girasol)

I originally found the recipe for this stunning bread on a French food blog called Paprikas, but, as it turns out, in order to trace the original recipe I had to go through 3 French, 2 Spanish and 3 Romanian baking blogs only to end up in a cul-de-sac. Despite my Indiana Jones-like Internet adventure, it’s amazing how recipes travel throughout the world and are shared by people who love baking. It’s also interesting to see that the recipe I followed (by Sylvie here) is different from the one published on Paprikas as it contains eggs. The result is a more brioche-like texture, richer in taste and which lends itself to brunch and breakfast alike.

Contrary to what you might think, this bread is quite easy to make. As it was my first attempt, I did not take pictures to make a step by step guide, but you can find plenty of instructions on the two blogs I posted a link for, not to mention on all of the other ones the recipe was taken from! I will attempt to describe the procedure in words, but please do refer to the photo guides as they are immensely helpful. Last thing: as I said, I chose the version with eggs. If you don’t want to use them in your bread, feel free to swap them for an equal amount of lukewarm milk and water – or water for a plainer dough.

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Ingredients

  • 760g strong bread flour
  • 250ml whole milk, at room temperature
  • 2 medium eggs, slightly beaten
  • 125ml olive or rapeseed oil
  • 1 tsp caster sugar
  • 3 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 x 7g sachet of instant yeast
  • 50g butter, melted, to assemble the layers
  • poppy, pumpkin and sesame seeds, to decorate
  • about 15ml whole milk, to brush on top

Method

  1. Start by making the dough. Please be aware you will be working with a lot of flour and the complete dough will weigh approximately 1.2 kg. I used the big glass bowl of my KitchenAid to mix the ingredients together and then kneaded the dough by hand. If you are planning to do this by hand, then have plenty of room available.
  2. In the bowl of a freestanding fitted with the hook attachment add the flour, sugar, salt and yeast (remember to put the salt and the yeast in two opposite corners). In a jug, combine the oil and milk. Start the mixer and slowly begin to add the wet ingredients to the dry ones, starting with the eggs. Depending on the type of flour you are using, you might find you won’t need all of the milk & oil mixture or, conversely, you might find the dough is too dry and needs more moisture (that was my case). Should that be the case, please feel free to either add some lukewarm water or not to use the whole milk & oil mixture.
  3. Once the ingredients are thoroughly combined, turn out the mixture on a working surface (don’t flour it!) and knead until the dough is silky smooth, elastic and pliable. Transfer to a big bowl (no need to oil it as it contains oil already), cover with clingfilm and let it prove for about 1.5 hours or until doubled in size.
  4. In the meantime, line a big square/round tin (I used a pizza one) and melt your butter.
  5. First phase of the assembling: Once the dough has proved, weigh it and divide it in two equal parts. Set aside one and shape the other one in a long sausage (this will make it easier to portion it). Divide the dough into five equal pieces, then roll out 4 of them to rounds approximately 20cm wide and keep the 5th one aside. Start creating the big flower by placing one of the 20cm rounds in the middle of the tin. Brush it with butter, then top with the second one. Repeat until you have used all 4 of them, then brush the last one with butter.
  6. Now take the 5th piece of dough and roll that out to a slightly bigger round, approximately 22cm wide. You want this to cover the other ones once placed on top. When ready, place it on top of the small pile but don’t brush it with butter.
  7. Now take a sharp knife and cut a star-shaped cross on top of the dough all the way through the pile of rounds. Be careful not to reach out to the edges as you want to keep about half a cm all around. Now take the triangular pieces of dough and turn them inside out, pushing them slightly away from the center. There you go, this is the outer layer of your sunflower.
  8. Second phase of the assembling: Remember the big piece of dough we set aside at the beginning? Take that and divide it into 6 equal parts. Set two aside and work with 4. Repeat as before, this time rolling the pieces out to 16cm rounds. Again, stack them one on top of the other inside the outer ring and glue them together with the melted butter. Roll out the fifth piece of dough to a slightly bigger round and place it on top of the smaller pile. Don’t brush it with butter.
  9. Using the knife, cut the same star shaped pattern on top of the smaller pile and turn the triangular ‘petals’ inside out.
  10. Now take the 6th piece of dough and shape it into a ball, then place it in the middle of the flower composition to complete it. Cover the whole flower in clingfilm and leave to prove for at least 1 hour or until there are no more gaps between the layers and it has increased in size by about 1/3.
  11. Brush the proved flower with milk, which will give it a nice shine and deep brown colour. Sprinkle the middle with pumpkin seeds and the outer layer with poppy seeds – but you can also opt for a more personal decoration!
  12. Pre-heat your oven to 200C, then bake the flower for about 10 minutes before turning the temperature down to 180C and baking for a further 30 minutes. If you notice your flower is browning too much or too fast, cover it with some foil.
  13. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack before serving it.

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Coconut & Chocolate Layer Cake

When I am feeling upset or annoyed, I bake a cake. Some people punch things, watch TV or go for a walk, but I prefer the much more gratifying art of baking. That said, it does need to be a cake. Possibly a big and bulky one too. It just wouldn’t be the same if I tried to make a tart or a loaf of bread. A sweet and indulgent cake evokes childhood and happy memories, so I’m more than happy to seek solace in them. Oh and for your information, yesterday’s annoyance was kindly provided by East Coast railway services, who miserably failed to get a train to London because the engines broke twice, on two different trains. How professional of them.

Anyway, this cake is gloriously rich and comforting. Four coconut and chocolate sponges soaked in coconut liqueur and sandwiched together with a chocolate frosting, then covered with more snowy white butter icing. What more could you ask for? The original recipe is from Lucy Parissi and comes from The Clandestine Cake Club book, but I slightly amended the recipe for the cake batter (coconut oil, really??) and opted for a different icing as the frosting she suggested did not work at all. It could have been me doing it wrong, but half a kilo of ricotta seems to be a tad exaggerate… Anyway, here we go!

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Ingredients (for the cake)

  • 3 medium eggs, separated
  • 215g plain flour
  • 75g cocoa powder
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 50g ground almonds
  • 50g desiccated coconut
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 225ml buttermilk
  • 2 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 100ml vegetable oil (or any other flavourless oil)
  • 225ml strong coffee, cooled

Ingredients (for the syrup)

  • 5 tbsp coconut liqueur
  • 50g caster sugar

Ingredients (for the filling)

  • 250g full fat cream cheese
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 175g unsalted butter,softened
  • 500g icing sugar, sifted
  • 50g milk powder
  • 100g dark chocolate, melted

Ingredients (for the butter icing)

  • 125g unsalted butter, softened
  • 400g icing sugar, sifted
  • 3-4 tbsp milk
  • 1 1/2 tsp coconut liqueur

Method

  1. First of all, start by greasing and lining 4 x 20cm sandwich cake tins. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
  2. In a bowl, whisk the egg whites on their own until they form a stiff meringue. Set aside.
  3. In another big bowl, combine the dry cake ingredients (sugar, flour, cocoa powder, salt, bicarb, baking powder, ground almonds and coconut). Put the wet ingredients (buttermilk, egg yolks, vanilla bean paste, coffee and oil) in a jug and whisk lightly. Slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry ones and mix well to incorporate them.
  4. Using a rubber spatula, mix about a quarter of the meringue in the batter to loosen it up, then add the rest of the meringue and combine making sure not to knock any air out of the mixture. Divide the mixture evenly between the 4 tins (I weighed the empty bowl where I mixed it all and then worked out how much of the mixture to pour in each tin), level it out and bake for 25 minutes. Check the sponges with a skewer to see if they are cooked, then remove from the oven and leave to cool completely.
  5. To make the soaking syrup, bring the coconut liqueur and the sugar to the boil in a small saucepan, then simmer until reduced. Once cooled, brush over the cakes.
  6. To make the filling, beat the softened butter and the cream cheese with an electric mixer until fully combined, then add the vanilla bean paste. Slowly add the icing sugar and milk powder and increase the speed of the freestanding mixer (or electric whisks) to obtain a smooth and creamy pale mixture. Mix in the melted chocolate and combine to obtain a rich chocolate frosting.
  7. Similarly, make the butter icing by creaming the butter first, then adding the coconut liqueur and the icing sugar. Slowly adding the milk, increase the speed of the beaters until light and fluffy, then set aside.
  8. To assemble the cake, place one of the sponges onto a cake platter or serving dish, then top with about half of the chocolate frosting. Top with a second sponge and spread that one with about a quarter of the butter icing. Place the third sponge on top, cover with the rest of the chocolate frosting and finally arrange the last sponge on top of the stacked cake.
  9. Using a spatula, apply about half of the butter icing onto the cake, spreading it evenly to create a crumb coat. Put in the fridge to set and harden for about 30 minutes, then cover the cake with a final layer of butter icing and smooth on top.
  10. Sprinkle the cake with some chocolate shavings and ground coconut, if you want, or serve plain.

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Paella

Ah paella. The mere sound of it takes me straight to Spain. And not, God forbid, pronounced in the British way but, rather, with its original clicking sound. The recipe below is not mine (I wish) as I do not know Spanish cuisine that good as to conjure up such an exquisite dish. It is Simon Hopkinson’s, the food writer and TV chef. It also passed the test of a real Spanish food lover’s taste, so it must be good.

There’s something deeply satisfactory about paella. Be it the rice, the abundance of ingredients or the mixture of shellfish and chicken (an authentic one calls for both indiscriminately), it makes such a perfect autumn/winter dish, not to mention how good it is when tasted during the warmer season. Be generous with portions too! The quantities indicated below serve 4, but believe me it would be enough for 3 greedy and hungry people. I have slightly adapted the ingredients and their quantities because the marketplace is a wonderful place to shop at, but does not unfortunately respond nicely to the tiny quantities of fish required below. Therefore, I went a bit commando with it.

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Ingredients

  • 150g chorizo sausage, cut into small coins and then halved
  • 1 squid, cleaned and cut into rings
  • 350g chicken thigh fillet, cut into small pieces
  • 100ml dry sherry
  • 200g cherry tomatoes
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 150g green beans, sliced
  • 150g sweet red peppers from a jar, thickly sliced
  • 1 tsp saffron threads
  • 600ml hot chicken stock
  • 300g paella rice
  • 750g mussels, debearded and well washed (or already shelled, like in my case)
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper

Ingredients (for the decoration)

  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 5 tbsp olive oil

Method

  1. Use a large pan (I rely on my flat and very versatile Le Creuset pan) to heat some olive oil and then fry the chorizo slices until crisped up and the orange fat runs. Lift them out of the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside on a plate. Now introduce the squid and very briefly sliced until coloured. Remove with the slotted spoon and add to the chorizo.
  2. Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper, then tumble in the pan and cook until golden brown for about 5 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, put the sherry, cherry tomatoes, garlic and paprika in a food processor and whiz until smooth. Push the mixture through a fine sieve, then add to the pan once the chicken is nicely coloured. Bring up to a simmer.
  4. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomato mixture has thickened.
  5. Now add the beans, peppers and saffron, then carefully pour in the chicken stock. Stir all together and bring to the simmer once again. Sprinkle the rice into the liquid and stir well, making sure it is evenly distributed among the chicken and the vegetables.
  6. Once you have done this, try not to stir the paella again and cook over a moderate heat for 20 minutes. Truth is I did stir to avoid catching at the bottom. I suggest that if your pan is not entirely non-stick you do that too. Cook until you can see the rice puffing up.
  7. Remove the paella from the heat and clamp the lid on. Leave to stand for about 5 minutes, then remove the lid and return to the heat. Add the mussels, chorizo and squid to the pan and cook, stirring, for another 2-3 minutes, then remove from the heat for the final time and steam with the lid on for another 5 minutes. This not only ensure the fish is completely cooked, but also keeps the rice very moist.
  8. To decorate, mix the ingredients together and trickle over the paella. Serve at once and enjoy.

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Plum & Cream Millefeuille

The idea for this impressive dessert came to me last week, when I found a very intriguing recipe for a Chestnut, Pear & Caramel Millefeuille online. As always, I set out looking for all the ingredients in my local supermarket and, as always, I found out the fundamental one needed to complete the recipe (the chestnut puree) wasn’t there. Nor were chestnuts, either fresh or vacuumed. Therefore, considering I had already started making puff pastry (a process which I like as it is very comforting), I decided to tweak (revolutionise, more like it) the recipe and include seasonal produce, e.g. plums.

The plums are gently simmered with some additional flavours to produce a punchy and tangy puree. I love how plums tinge the puree of a dark glossy ruby red colour. I used Marsala, the Italian fortified wine, as I believe its depth contributed perfectly to the mixture, but feel free to use any other liqueur or sweet wines you might prefer. The (whipped) cream is also enriched with a pistachio praline, very easy to make. The quantities indicated here make plenty, but you can re-use it in biscuits or dust it on cakes. Finally, the decoration: I melted some dark chocolate to make hearts and used some fresh plums, sliced, to complete the decoration. However, feel free to give room to your creativity and come up with new and exciting decorations.

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Ingredients

  • 750g puff pastry

Ingredients (for the plum puree)

  • 400g fresh plums, stoned and halved
  • 50g golden caster sugar
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 1 tbsp Marsala
  • 4 tbsp water
  • 2 x sheets of gelatine

Ingredients (for the praline)

  • 100g golden caster sugar
  • 100g blanched and shelled pistachios, whole

Ingredients (for the whipped cream)

  • 300ml double cream
  • 2 tbsp icing sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Ingredients (for the decoration)

  • 50g dark chocolate, melted and piped into heart shapes
  • icing sugar
  • 1 plum, stoned and finely sliced
  • some plum puree

Method

  1. First of all, make the puree. Place the plums, water and sugar in a saucepan over a medium heat, then let it come to a gentle simmer. Cook the plums, stirring occasionally, until they have started to break a little. Add the Marsala and honey and keep on simmering until the mixture is somewhat smooth and the plums have completely disintegrated in the compote. Transfer the mixture to a blender and whiz until smooth, then return to the saucepan and keep on cooking.
  2. In a bowl, soak the gelatine leaves in some cold water for about 10 minutes. Remove them from the water and squeeze out the excess water, then drop them in the hot plum puree and melt them in. Once completely melted, transfer the puree to a small bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave to cool at room temperature before transferring to the fridge to chill for at least 3 hours.
  3. Now, on to the different layers of the millefeuille. The quantities indicated here make enough for 4 complete slices, each made up of 3 layers. Line 4 identical baking sheets/trays with baking parchment. It is important that the trays are of the same size as you will use them in pairs to weigh on the puff pastry and control the rise in the oven.
  4. Roll out your pastry to the thickness of a pound coin or about 3mm, then trim the edges. Cut 7x13cm rectangles and lay on the baking sheets. You should aim for a total of 12. Cover each baking sheet with some clingfilm and put in the fridge to rest for at least 30 minutes. This ensure the gluten in the pastry has time to relax and avoids the pastry shrinking while in the oven.
  5. Pre-heat your oven to 240C, then press one of the empty trays on a filled one and put in the oven for exactly 15 minutes. Remember to put some baking parchment between the top tray and the layer of puff pastry rectangles or they will stick. Once baked, remove from the oven, remove the top tray and lay the puff pastry rectangles on a wire rack to cool completely. As you can see, these will have not puffed up as gloriously as you normally would expect from this type of pastry, but that is desirable to build up the millefeuille later.
  6. To make the pistachio praline, put the nuts and the sugar in a heavy bottomed saucepan over a medium heat, then let the sugar slowly melt and turn a dark brown colour. Stir occasionally and cook until the sugar has completely melted. Gently oil a sturdy baking tray, then pour the mixture over and let it cool.
  7. Once cooled, transfer to a food processor and whiz until you get fine crumbs. This is your praline.
  8. To prepare the cream, whisk all of the ingredients to soft peaks, then transfer to a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle.
  9. Now start assembling your slice. Place one puff pastry rectangle on a plate and top with some of the plum puree. Use a spoon to spread it or transfer to a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle. Here it’s up to you whether you want to alternate blobs of plum puree with whipped cream or whether you would like to pipe some cream alongside the edges and fill them with the compote. Once you have covered the first layer, sprinkle some of the pistachio praline on top and top with another puff pastry rectangle. repeat as before. You will need 3 x puff pastry rectangles per each millefeuille.
  10. To decorate the top, pipe some whipped cream on the corners, then drizzle them with some of the plum puree. Arrange two plum slices on the cream in one corner and the chocolate shapes on the decoration in the other corner. Dust liberally with icing sugar and sprinkle with some more pistachio praline.

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