Spiced Caramel Cake with Rosewater Cream (and Pears!)

To me, nothing says celebration like a great cake. Not every cake will do, it needs to have that wow factor to it. Therefore, when I have guests visiting, one of the first few things I do is to look online – and in the many baking books I have – for inspiration. Colours, textures, flavours and presentation all come into play. For this one, the proverbial cherry on the cake has been replaced by pears (excuse the pun). By slowly simmering them in red wine and spices, they acquire an almost caramel-like and deep flavour, which perfectly marries the creamy and not so sweet butter cream.

You could argue this is a festive cake, if only for the pairings of pears, wine and Christmas spices. However, to my mind, this cake mainly speaks to me of Arabian nights. The rosewater (stick to the measurements given here) lends a specific Middle Eastern aroma to the cake, further enhanced by the juxtaposition of chopped pistachios. Rose petals would have also been perfect (as in the original, see here). Finally, as Nigella Lawson says, there can’t be too much pink and green. In this instance, I feel I have to agree.

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Ingredients (for the cake)

  • 250g unsalted butter, cubed
  • 200g white chocolate, roughly chopped
  • 200g dark brown sugar
  • 250ml hot water
  • 2 tbsp golden syrup
  • 2 tsp vanilla bean paste (or extract)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 145g plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom
  • 225g ground almonds

Ingredients (for the poached pears)

  • 4 medium pears
  • 380ml red wine
  • 60g golden caster sugar
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste

Ingredients (for the rosewater cream)

  • 500g cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 250g mascarpone, at room temperature
  • 100g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 250g icing sugar
  • 1 tsp rosewater
  • pink food colouring (optional)

Ingredients (for the decoration)

  • chopped pistachios (optional)
  • edible rose petals (optional)

Method

  1. Start with the cake. Grease the base and sides and line the base of a 20cm round cake tin with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 170°C.
  2. Place the butter, white chocolate, dark brown sugar, vanilla bean paste, water and golden syrup in a heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat, then gently melt together. Once melted, set aside to cool slightly. In a bowl, combine the flour, raising agents, spices and ground almonds.
  3. Once the melted mixture is at room temperature, add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the dry ingredients and use a rubber spatula or a balloon whisk to incorporate all the ingredients and remove lumps.
  4. Pour the cake batter into the prepared tin and bake in the middle shelf of the oven for about 50 minutes. Start checking the cake for doneness after 40 minutes by inserting a skewer in the middle. If it comes out clean, then it’s ready. Otherwise, give it another 7-10 minutes. Remove the cake tin from the oven and allow to cool completely before attempting to unmould.
  5. To make the poached pears, place all of the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Leave to simmer gently for about 30-35 minutes, depending on how ripe your pears are. Turn the pears occasionally, so they colour evenly. When done, use a slotted spoon to remove the pears from the liquid and place them in a heatproof container, then increase the heat under the saucepan and let the mixture bubble and reduce to a thick syrup. Discard the star anise and cinnamon stick. Pour the mixture on the pears, then cover the container with clingfilm, allow to cool to room temperature before transferring to the fridge for at least 2 hours.
  6. To make the rosewater cream, do ensure you are working with room temperature ingredients. In the bowl of a freestanding food mixer, combine the cream cheese, mascarpone, butter and icing sugar and beat with the whisk attachment until fully combined. Scrape the sides of the bowl and beat well again. If the mixture looks very liquid, do beat it on high speed for a couple of minutes, otherwise place it in the fridge for about 15 minutes. Add the rosewater and enough pink food colouring to tinge the cream a subtle/pastel pink hue. Transfer the cream to a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle and set aside.
  7. To assemble the cake, use a serrated knife to cut it into three even layers. Place the first layer on your cake stand/board, then pipe small roses of the rosewater cream on the surface, making sure the ones on the rim are visible. Top with the second cake layer and repeat, until you have created three layers all topped with the rosewater cream. You can pipe some extra cream on the top layer as it will help to hold the pears in place.
  8. Remove the pears from the fridge, then use a knife to cut them in slices/halves, depending on preference, and arrange on top of the cake. Dust liberally with the chopped pistachios and rose petals, if using.
  9. This cake is best served at room temperature, although you may wish to keep it in the fridge and only take it out about 20-30 minutes before bringing it to the table. Enjoy!

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Potato Pierogies (Ruskie)

My friends know very well I love cooking and baking, and that I particularly enjoy trying out different cuisines. What with having lived in Russia, I am particularly fond of Eastern European and Russian food. You don’t necessarily find a great deal of Polish or Russian restaurants in the North of the UK. When you do, moreover, they tend to be hit and miss (or tourist traps). Therefore, I would much rather cook my own food than venture outside to try and find someone who could do it to a decent standard. Some good friends of mine recently gave me a book on Polish food called, quite tellingly, Authentic Polish Cooking (by Marianna Dworak). Broadly speaking, I think the book starts on a very good basis, but unfortunately misses a few details here and there.

There are some great recipes, but the details provided tend to be too vague at times (e.g. ‘use a cake tin’ – what size?). Also, I am not a massive fan of very meaty dishes, which probably goes against everything I have said earlier. Pierogies (or dumplings), however, are a classic I never tire to make. First of all, the dough (and filling) is very easy to make. And secondly, you can tailor the filling to your own liking. Here I have gone for a fairly traditional take, although I have heavily amended the recipe for the dough.

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Ingredients (for the dough)

  • 450g plain flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 250ml warm water

Ingredients (for the filling)

  • 900g potatoes
  • 1 onion
  • 250g soft goat’s cheese
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1-2 tsp nutmeg
  • salt and black pepper

Ingredients (for the sauce)

  • 150g pancetta cubes (or diced bacon)
  • black pepper (to taste)

Method

  1. Start by making the filling. Peel the potatoes and cut into chunks. Add to a large pan of salted boiling water, then cook until soft (but not falling apart). Drain in a colander and set aside to cool slightly.
  2. In the meantime, peel and finely chop the onion. Melt the butter in a frying pan over low-medium heat, then add the onion and cook for at least 15 minutes, until nicely browned and caramelised.
  3. In a bowl, mash the potatoes to obtain a slightly coarse texture. Add the gently fried onions and crumble in the cheese, then add the nutmeg, season well and mix to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Set aside.
  4. To make the dough, combine the flour with the salt in a bowl, then make a well in the middle. Gently pour in the warm water and either use a wooden spoon or your hands to combine the dough, drawing all of the flour in as you mix. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth.
  5. Roll the dough out with a rolling pin into a thin sheet (slightly thinner than a pound coin). Use a cookie cutter (or a glass) about 6cm in diameter to stamp out as many circles as you can. Put about 1 tablespoon of filling in one half of the circle, then fold over the other half to make a crescent shape. If the dough is not sticking well, moisten the edges with water before you seal them.
  6. As you roll and fold, place the prepared pierogies on a floured cloth or a tray lined with baking parchment. Bring a big saucepan of salted water to the boil.
  7. Reduce to medium heat, then drop in the pierogies making sure not to overcrowd the saucepan. Stir once or twice so as to ensure they do not stick to the bottom. When they come up to the surface, wait one more minute, then fish them out with a slotted spoon.
  8. To make the sauce, fry the pancetta cubes in a frying pan with no oil/butter (the pancetta is fat enough) until nice and crispy. Remove the cubes with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Add the boiled pierogies to the pan and pan fry over a medium heat on both sides until slightly golden. Serve with the pancetta cubes and some black pepper. Enjoy!

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