Brigadeiros (GF, dairy-free, vegan)

One of my dear interpreting colleagues at university comes from Brazil. On top of winding each other up in our office, we also talk extensively about each other’s cultures. I am deeply fascinated by her stories about the history and cuisine of her home country, not only because I have never been there, but also because this allows me to understand the reasoning behind some of the more traditional dishes Brazil has to offer (and believe me when I say the cuisine is as diverse in the country as it is in Italy). One such typical concoction are brigadeiros.

Call them truffles, if you wish, they are not made with cream and chocolate (as is the case for the European counterparts), but by mixing boiled down condensed milk with cocoa powder. As a result, however, they tend to be sickly sweet. So much so, in fact, that even some Brazilians find them hardly palatable. In a bid to make this delicacy available to my lactose intolerant students, therefore, I decided to opt for a vegan variety. I used this recipe as a starting point and only slightly amended it. I will be honest: I am becoming more and more fascinated by how creative you have to be when you stop using traditional ingredients. Who would have thought to use pumpkin seeds in this? Not even in my wildest dreams. And yet, let me assure you, it works.

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Ingredients (makes approximately 20)

  • 120g pumpkin seeds, soaked in water overnight, then drained
  • 56g dairy-free butter alternative
  • 3 tbsp honey (or maple syrup)
  • 45g gluten-free cocoa powder
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil, melted
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 70g cocoa nibs

Method

  1. It couldn’t be easier, but do make sure you have soaked the pumpkin seeds overnight. Put all of the ingredients in a food processor fitted with a sharp blade, then process until you get a smooth paste. You may need to scrape down the sides of the bowl from time to time.
  2. Transfer the dark and luscious mixture to a bowl, cover with cling film and place in the fridge for at least 2 hours. This way it will be easier to roll them out.
  3. In the meantime, break up the cocoa nibs a little bit in the food processor (once you have washed and dried the bowl). You don’t want to end up with a cocoa dust, but also ensure the bigger pieces are broken into small ones. Transfer to a shallow plate.
  4. When the mixture has hardened enough, remove from the fridge and get ready to roll. I use a small ice cream scoop for this, but you can decide on the perfect size for your brigadeiros (I would suggest roughly 1/2 tablespoon).
  5. I discovered that, when the mixture is still very cold, the surface tends to harden quite quickly once you have rolled them out. Therefore, the cocoa nibs won’t stick. My solution for this was to portion all of the truffles first, then to roll them in pairs between my hands to make them smooth and, finally, into the cocoa nibs. When you do so, ensure you give them a good coating, then transfer to a serving plate.
  6. I was concerned these would melt once left outside for a prolonged period of time. Don’t worry, they won’t last that long anyway!

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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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Basil and Chocolate Cake

There seem to be plenty of cakes on my blog recently. And yes, that is pretty much a faithful representation of my baking efforts, at least when I am stressed. In my opinion, there is nothing more soothing and relaxing than baking, assembling and eating a moist slice of cake. Few other things even come close and, frankly, very few beat it (pasta and chocolate are very close contenders). Quite recently, I had a very fun baking session with one of my friends, Valentina, who came round to make gluten- and lactose-free pizza. I might have to give that one a second go as the person it was originally intended for was actually ill the following day, so Vale probably had to eat it all. It came out very nice, though!

For one reason or the other, I ended up with a small pot of basil. If you know me, you might remember I had tried to keep one of these small plants a while back, which didn’t end well (for the basil). Therefore, why not make the most of it while it lasted? I decided to remake my basil butter cream. It received mixed reviews last time, but I thought that pairing it up with a dark and moist chocolate cake was probably a better option. And yes, it was. May I present you a 4-tiered chocolate cake with alternating chocolate ganache and basil butter cream, all topped by more of that green pale icing and some aptly positioned basil leaves?

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Ingredients (for the chocolate cake)

  • 227g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 400g caster sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 118g cocoa powder
  • 473ml water, recently boiled from a kettle
  • 344g plain flour
  • 2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt

Ingredients (for the sugar syrup)

  • 236ml water
  • 200g caster sugar

Ingredients (for the basil butter cream)

  • 355ml whole milk
  • 75ml double cream
  • about 100g fresh basil leaves
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 40g plain flour
  • 200g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • green food colouring (optional)

Ingredients (for the chocolate ganache)

  • 150ml double cream
  • 75g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
  • 75g milk chocolate

Ingredients (for the decoration)

  • a few basil leaves

Method

  1. If you can, start with the basil butter cream the day before. Heat the milk and double cream in a saucepan, then bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and tumble in the basil leaves. Decant to a glass bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave to cool completely. Transfer to the fridge and leave to infuse for a few hours (but best overnight).
  2. To make the cake, preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease and line two tall 20cm round cake tins with baking parchment.
  3. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl, then whisk together until fully combined.
  4. Pour the cocoa powder into a jug, then add the water and whisk until fully combined and there are no big cocoa lumps. Set aside to cool slightly.
  5. In the bowl of a freestanding food mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream your butter and sugar until light and creamy, about 10 minutes on medium speed. Scrape the sides of the bowl from time to time. Add your eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition and scraping the sides to ensure the mixture is fully combined.
  6. Now start adding the dry ingredients and the warm cocoa mixture alternatively, making sure not to overbeat the mixture or the cake will be tough. Divide your batter evenly between the two cake tins, then bake in the oven for 40-50 minutes, testing the cakes for doneness with a skewer. If it comes out clean, they are ready.
  7. Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool completely before unmoulding from the tins.
  8. Make the sugar syrup. Pour the sugar and water in a saucepan, then heat and mix until fully dissolved. No need to bring this to the boil. Decant to a jug/tall glass and allow to cool completely before using.
  9. To continue with the butter cream, strain the infused milk and cream into a saucepan, squeezing the basil leaves to extract as much juice as possible. Add the flour and sugar, then mix well to combine. Cook over a medium heat, mixing regularly, until the mixture has thickened to cover the back of a spoon and there are no more lumps. Pour into a shallow dish, cover the surface with clingfilm and allow to cool completely.
  10. Once the ‘basil custard’ has cooled, transfer it to the bowl of a freestanding mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the food colouring, if using, then slowly add the room temperature butter in small pieces, mixing well after each addition to ensure there are no lumps. If the butter cream does not whip up, transfer to the fridge for a few minutes, then carry on beating it. Continue until you have added all of the butter and the butter cream is light and fluffy (and pale green).
  11. To make the chocolate ganache, roughly chop the chocolate in small chunks, then transfer to a heatproof bowl. Heat the cream until it reaches simmering point, then pour onto the chocolate and mix well to combine. Set aside and allow to cool to firm up to a spreading consistency.
  12. Remove the cakes from the tins, then slice them in half using a serrated knife (for a total of 4 sponges). Soak the sponges in the sugar syrup and use a pastry brush to liberally spread it on the surface of the cakes. Set aside to allow the sugar syrup to soak in before you move on to the following stage. You will have some leftover syrup.
  13. Start by placing one chocolate sponge on your cake board/platter, then place half of the chocolate ganache onto it and use an offset spatula to spread it evenly. Top with a second chocolate sponge layer, then place a big dollop of the basil butter cream on top and use a spatula to spread that around in an even layer. Continue with the third and fourth chocolate sponge layer, then use the remaining butter cream to cover the top and the sides of the cake. If you want, you can apply a crumb coat first, have that firm up, then continue with the remaining butter cream. I personally did not deem that necessary. Also, I thought a few chocolate crumbs make the cake look quite rustic, so why not. Use a big spatula to smooth the top and sides of the cake, then create some waves in the butter cream on the top of the cake. Top with the basil leaves, serve and enjoy!

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Celebratory Chocolate, Caramel and Mango Layer Cake

When I think of a showstopper, this is probably the cake I have in mind. With its 4 sponge layers, each with a varying intensity of caramel and chocolate, chocolate ganache coating, choux buns filled with cream and mango custard and meringues on top, you could hardly envisage such a cake for a non-celebratory occasion. The truth is, however, that as difficult, complicated and lengthy as it may look, this cake is in fact pretty easy to make. Ok, maybe not easy, but straightforward is the word here. Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients. As it says on the tin, there are a lot of stages required here. Just make sure you read the whole recipe first and only then start making it. Believe me, you will love it.

The recipe for the cake appeared a while ago on a BBC Good Food magazine. I have saved it and keep on using time and time again, with minor tweaks here and there, as it’s such an easy and delicious one. The sponges are very moist thanks to the addition of natural yoghurt and the dramatic effect is ensured when you cut through the whole cake to reveal sponges of different colours. This time, seeing as I was making this cake for a birthday, I decided to push the boat out and top it with choux buns and meringues. Mango, caramel and chocolate go surprisingly well together, and the subtle acidity of the custard cuts through the richness of the cake beautifully.

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Ingredients (for the vanilla and chocolate sponges)

  • 225g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 225g golden caster sugar
  • 170g plain flour
  • 85g ground almonds
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 150ml natural yoghurt
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 5 tbsp cocoa powder, sifted

Ingredients (for the caramel and chocolate & caramel sponges)

  • 225g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 175g light brown sugar
  • 50g dark muscovado sugar
  • 170g plain flour
  • 85g ground almonds
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 150ml natural yoghurt
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 1 1/2 tbsp cocoa powder, sifted

Ingredients (for the chocolate ganache)

  • 140g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), finely chopped
  • 140g milk chocolate, finely chopped
  • 300ml double cream

Ingredients (for the choux pastry)

  • 100g plain flour
  • 75g unsalted butter, cubed
  • 175ml water
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • pinch of salt

Ingredients (for the mango custard)

  • 500ml whole milk
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 40g cornflour
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 1 whole mango
  • 1/2 lime, juice only
  • 2 gelatine leaves

Ingredients (for the meringues)

  • 4 large egg whites
  • 240g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp cream of tartar
  • orange food colouring (optional)

Ingredients (to assemble the cake)

  • 1 x 397g can of caramel (Carnation is a good brand)
  • 300ml double cream, whipped to soft peaks
  • 60g dark and milk chocolate, melted over a bain marie
  • Chocolate sprinkles, optional

Method

  1. First of all, start with the mango custard as it will need some time to set in the fridge. Peel and stone the mango, then transfer the flesh to a food processor with the lime juice and purée until smooth. In the meantime, heat the milk and the vanilla in a saucepan over a medium heat. Mix the caster sugar with the cornflour to disperse the latter evenly, then transfer to a heatproof bowl, add the egg yolks and whisk until fully combined and slightly paler in colour.
  2. Soak the gelatine leaves in cold water until soft. In the meantime, transfer the mango purée to a small saucepan on gentle heat and bring to the boil, then reduce by approximately half. Set aside to cool slightly.
  3. Once the milk has come to the boil, remove from the heat and, whisking continuously, slowly pour onto the egg yolk and sugar mixture. Make sure to scrape the sides, then gently pour the mixture back into the saucepan and cook over a medium heat. Make sure the heat under the saucepan is not too high or the eggs will scramble and, most importantly, stir the custard constantly until nicely thickened. You will be able to tell because the custard will cover the back of a spoon and small ridges will form when you stir it.
  4. Transfer the reduced mango purée to the saucepan with the custard and mix to combine. Squeeze the gelatine leaves to remove excess water, then add to the hot mixture and stir to dissolve. Transfer the mango custard to a heatproof bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave to cool before putting in the fridge for a good 5 hours.
  5. Now, moving on to the sponges. Start with the vanilla and chocolate one, so as to get the hang of it. Grease the bottom and sides and line the bottom of 2 x 20cm round cake tins with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan).
  6. In the bowl of a freestanding food mixer equipped with the paddle attachment or in a bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until slightly paler in colour and fully combined. Slowly add in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla bean paste too. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, ground almonds and baking powder, then add to the bowl while mixing on low speed. Finally, add the yoghurt and mix well to combine. The mixture should be very creamy and full of volume.
  7. Divide the mixture into two, pouring half into one of the prepared tins (this will be the vanilla sponge). Pour the other half into a bowl, then sprinkle in the cocoa powder and mix well to combine with a rubber spatula, ensuring not to knock all of the air out of the sponge. Transfer the chocolate mixture to the other prepared tin. Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes, but do check them after 20 minutes to ensure they don’t overbake. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool completely before removing from the tin.
  8. To make the caramel and chocolate & caramel sponges, prepare 2 more tins as outlined above. Cream the butter and sugars together, then add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients, then add them, together with the vanilla bean paste, to the remaining mixture. Pour in the natural yoghurt, then mix well to combine. Pour half of the mixture into one of the prepared tins, then add the cocoa powder to the remaining mixture, gently fold it in and transfer to the other cake tin. Bake as above, then set on a wire rack to cool completely.
  9. To make the choux pastry, combine the butter, water and salt into a saucepan set over medium heat. Bring the mixture to the boil, then remove from the heat and tumble in the flour. Use a wooden spoon to combine the pastry – don’t worry, it will look lumpy, but persist and you will be fine. Put the saucepan back on the heat to dry the pastry out. You are ready to go when the lump of pastry easily comes together and stays together, stops sticking to the sides and leaves a coating on the bottom of the saucepan. Transfer the warm lump of pastry to a heatproof bowl, flatten it out slightly with the back of the wooden spoon and leave to cool. Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan). Line 3 baking sheets with baking parchment (or silicone mats).
  10. To make it easier, transfer the eggs to a jug. When the pastry has cooled down (you don’t want to end up with scrambled eggs), start adding a little bit of the eggs, then mix really well with the wooden spoon after each addition. As before, do not be put off by the way the pastry look. Continue adding eggs, a little at a time, and mixing well. You are aiming for a silky yet somewhat solid consistency. There are several ways to test the pastry: when you gather some on the wooden spoon then tilt the latter, the pastry should slowly fall back into the bowl leaving a triangular-shaped trail on the spoon; also, if you trace a line in the bowl, the pastry should divide evenly and keep the trail, not fall back on itself, etc.
  11. Transfer the pastry to a piping bag fitted with a plain round nozzle, then pipe even round mounds on the baking trays. I opted for two different sizes (one slightly bigger than the other) to add a dramatic effect to the cake. Bake for 30 minutes without ever opening the door to check on them, by which time they will be golden and puffed up. Quickly remove from the oven, make a small hole in the base or on the sides to let the steam escape, then put back in the oven to crisp up for another 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
  12. Cool the oven down to 130°C (110°C fan) to bake the meringues. To make them, in the bowl of a freestanding mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk the egg whites until frothy. In a separate bowl, combine the caster sugar and cream of tartar, then increase the speed to high and slowly add the sugar mixture, one tablespoon at a time, until you get a very glossy and stiff mixture.
  13. Prepare the piping bag by adding a star nozzle at the end and using some orange food colouring to drag some lines on the inside of the bag (I used a toothpick, but a small brush is also fine). When ready, transfer the meringue mixture to the piping bag, then pipe small meringues (again, I went for two different sizes) on previously lined baking trays. Bake for 2 hours or until crisp. When done, turn the oven off and leave the meringues to cool inside the oven with the door ajar.
  14. To assemble the cake, start by making the chocolate ganache. Transfer the chopped chocolate to a heatproof bowl, then pour the cream into a saucepan and bring to the boil over a medium heat. Transfer the hot cream to the chocolate, then mix to combine until smooth. Place in the fridge to set, mixing occasionally, while you assemble the sponge layers.
  15. Place a small dollop of caramel on the cake board/base/platter you will use to build the cake on. Gently peel the parchment off the back of the vanilla sponge, then place it upside down on the cake board. Use 1/3 of the caramel to cover the cake and spread it around using an offset spatula. Top with the vanilla & caramel sponge, cover with half of the remaining caramel, then top with the caramel & chocolate sponge, the remaining caramel and, finally, the chocolate sponge.
  16. Once the ganache has more or less set (but is still of a spreadable consistency), use it to cover the top and the sides of the cake and give it a smooth or a rough finish according to preference. Place in the fridge to harden while you get on with the decorations.
  17. In a bowl, combine the whipped cream with some of the mango custard, then fill a piping bag fitted with a small round nozzle and use it to fill the choux buns. For reasons of practicality, I decided to fill the small ones with the mango custard alone, thus leaving me with leftover whipped cream.
  18. When you are ready to proceed, take the cake out of the fridge. Spread some of the melted chocolate on the bottom of each choux bun, then gently pile them up on top of the cake and down the sides. Repeat with the meringues, ensuring there is a good proportion of them all around the cake. I shall leave it the final design up to you.
  19. Use the remaining melted chocolate to drizzle on top of the cake, then decorate, if you so wish, with some of the mango custard (also drizzled over) and chocolate sprinkles. Enjoy!

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Chocolate Raspberry Mousse Cake

When one of my close friends has his/her birthday, I don’t mind trying to push the boat out and make a gorgeous cake. After all, you could argue, it is a celebration and a showstopper cake should be the perfect ending (or complimentary part) to a fun party. In this case, I had been given some instructions, namely that the cake needed to contain raspberries. After scouring on Pinterest, the perfect platform to actually see what the cakes look like, I ended up on this recipe, which looked perfect for the occasion. The cake is made up of mousse layers (chocolate, raspberry and vanilla, respectively), held together by gelatine and resting on a brownie base. Whoa, you could say.

There are some non-negotiable aspects which you should keep in mind when making this cake. As usual, they relate to the quality of ingredients, which needs to be the best you can get. Forget that cheap chocolate you normally find in supermarkets, go for a very good brand. I normally use Green and Black’s organic range. Their white chocolate, in particular, contains real vanilla seeds and is therefore perfect for the job. Please also go for very good raspberries. They clearly play the main role in this cake and the cheap, watery stuff you find in supermarkets would just not do. If you are put off by gelatine, please allow me to say these mousse layers are creamy and moreish, not gloopy and horrible. However, if you don’t want to use gelatine, then I suggest you either increase the amount of chocolate used or freeze the whole cake.

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Ingredients (for the brownie layer)

  • 95g plain flour
  • 80g cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 115g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 220g golden caster sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract

Ingredients (for the chocolate mousse)

  • 200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), finely chopped
  • 415ml double cream
  • 2 leaves of gelatine
  • 2 tbsp water
  • pinch of salt

Ingredients (for the raspberry mousse)

  • 200g fresh raspberries
  • 255g white chocolate, finely chopped
  • 355ml double cream
  • 2 leaves of gelatine
  • 2 tbsp raspberry liqueur
  • pinch of salt

Ingredients (for the vanilla mousse)

  • 255g white chocolate, finely chopped
  • 355ml double cream
  • 2 leaves of gelatine
  • 2 tbsp water
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 tsp vanilla bean paste

Ingredients (to finish)

  • 150g fresh raspberries
  • 115g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
  • 120ml double cream
  • chocolate decorations (optional)

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease a 20cm springform round cake tin and line the base with baking parchment.
  2. Start with the brownie layer: in a bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and cocoa powder until thoroughly combined. Set aside.
  3. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-to-low heat. Add the sugar and stir until it melts. Don’t allow the mixture to come to a boil. Set aside to cool slightly. Once the mixture is at room temperature, add the eggs, one at a time, whisking well between each addition. Pour in the vanilla extract and fold in the dry ingredients, then scrape the brownie batter into the prepared tin and bake it for 20-25 minutes. Check the cake is cooked by inserting a toothpick in the middle – if it comes out clean or with just a few moist crumbs attached, the brownie is ready. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.
  4. Once the brownie is stone cold, gently open the sides of the springform tin and line the sides with acetate – baking parchment is also OK, although acetate doesn’t tend to stick to the food and leaves a smoother finish. Ensure the acetate layer around the cake ring is at least 6-7cm, as the layers will be quite thick.
  5. Now move on to the mousse layers, starting with the chocolate one. The procedure will be very similar for each one of them, but I will repeat the instructions just to be safe. Soak the gelatine leaves in a small bowl filled with cold water and leave there for a good 15 minutes. Pour the chocolate shards/chunks and the salt into a heatproof bowl, then bring about 180ml of the double cream to the boil in a saucepan. Remove from the heat and pour over the chocolate, stirring to ensure all of the dark chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Let it cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.
  6. Add the water to a small saucepan and place it over medium heat, then squeeze out as much water as you can from the gelatine leaves and add them to the saucepan. Ensure the gelatine melts, then pour it into the cooled chocolate mixture and mix well to combine. Whip the remaining double cream to soft peaks, then gently fold it into the chocolate mixture until smooth. Pour this mousse onto the brownie base and spread out to the sides in an even layer. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes until completely set.
  7. To make the raspberry mousse layer, make a quick puree by blending about 100g raspberries in a food processor. Pour them through a strainer to remove the seeds. Add this to the finely chopped white chocolate and the salt and transfer to a heatproof bowl.
  8. Soak the gelatine leaves in a small bowl filled with cold water and leave there for a good 15 minutes. Bring about 180ml of the double cream to the boil in a saucepan. Remove from the heat and pour over the chocolate mixture, stirring to ensure all of the white chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Let it cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.
  9. Add the raspberry liqueur to a small saucepan and place it over medium heat, then squeeze out as much water as you can from the gelatine leaves and add them to the saucepan. Ensure the gelatine melts, then pour it into the cooled chocolate mixture and mix well to combine. Whip the remaining double cream to soft peaks, then gently fold it into the chocolate mixture until smooth. Scatter the remaining raspberries onto the chocolate mousse, making sure to leave about 1cm around the egde of the cake. Pour this mousse onto the chocolate mousse layer and spread out to the sides in an even layer, ensuring all of the raspberries are evenly covered. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes until completely set.
  10. Finally, on to the vanilla mousse layer. Soak the gelatine leaves in a small bowl filled with cold water and leave there for a good 15 minutes. Transfer the white chocolate and vanilla bean paste to an heatproof bowl. Bring about 180ml of the double cream to the boil in a saucepan. Remove from the heat and pour over the chocolate mixture, stirring to ensure all of the white chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Let it cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.
  11. Add the water to a small saucepan and place it over medium heat, then squeeze out as much water as you can from the gelatine leaves and add them to the saucepan. Ensure the gelatine melts, then pour it into the cooled chocolate mixture and mix well to combine. Whip the remaining double cream to soft peaks, then gently fold it into the chocolate mixture until smooth. Pour this mousse onto the raspberry mousse layer and spread out to the sides in an even layer. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes until completely set.
  12. To decorate the cake, proceed as before to make a chocolate ganache. Unmould the cake and remove the acetate, then pour the cooled ganache on top of the cake and use an offset spatula to push it to the edge and let it drop down the sides. Arrange the raspberries on top and decorate with the chocolate curls, balls, etc. If you want, dust with icing sugar and use some berry jam to make the raspberry shine. Best kept refrigerated until it’s time to serve it, but remove it from the fridge at least 10 minutes before slicing it. Enjoy!

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Semi Tropeziennes with Orange Custard and Strawberries

Today please allow me to take you to France, as French is the inspiration behind this dessert – at least on paper. This recipe comes from Amuse Bouche, a wonderful French baking blog I regularly follow and turn to for new ideas. In all frankness, if her recipe already couldn’t be called a ‘Tropezienne’, I’m guessing my even less canonical version is something purists would turn up their noses to. By definition, a ‘Tarte Tropezienne’ is a soft and indulgent brioche bun topped with sugar crystals and encasing a mixture of two creams (crème patissière and French butter cream). As is usually the case, the French are very proud of the origin of this dessert. You can read all about it on the Tarte Tropezienne’s official website.

I decided to tweak the original recipe a little bit: I changed the amount of flour used in the brioche dough and added some orange zest to it, modified the custard recipe by using some citrus zest and changed the fruit to strawberries. Also, somewhat unorthodoxly, I opted for custard powder in the custard as opposed to plain cornflour. You see, I think custard powder lends a golden yellow hue to the finished product which I really love and, despite trying more than once, I am still to achieve the same intense colour by using just cornflour. As for the strawberries, use small ones. I was lucky enough to find them in one of my local shops. However, any small berry would do, really, although maybe opt for a red one wherever possible to keep the dramatic contrast with the golden brioche and filling.

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Ingredients (for 6 small brioche buns)

  • 125ml whole milk
  • 50g golden caster sugar
  • 1 medium egg
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 150g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 375g strong bread flour
  • 1 x 7g sachet instant dried yeast
  • zest of 1 1/2 oranges
  • demerara sugar, to sprinkle on top (optional)
  • milk, to brush on top

Ingredients (for the custard)

  • 300ml whole milk
  • 150g golden caster sugar
  • 4 medium egg yolks
  • 2 1/2 tbsp custard powder
  • 100g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • zest of 1/2 orange
  • zest of 1 lemon

Ingredients (for the decoration)

  • 250g mini strawberries, washed and hulled
  • icing sugar (optional)

Method

  1. To make the brioche dough, scald the milk in a saucepan over a medium heat, but don’t let it come to the boil. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. In a glass/small bowl, combine the yeast with a teaspoon of the golden caster sugar. Transfer the flour, salt, egg, remaining sugar, zest and butter in the bowl of a freestanding food mixer.
  2. Add 4 tbsp of the warm milk to the yeast and sugar mixture, then allow to stand for 10-15 minutes until the mixture is frothy. Add this and the remaining milk to the rest of the ingredients, then use the hook attachment to combine them until they form a soft and pliable dough which comes away from the sides of the bowl. Shape the dough to a ball, then transfer it to a large oiled/buttered bowl, cover with clingfilm and allow to prove in a warm environment for at least 1 hour or until doubled in size.
  3. In the meantime, make the custard. Add the lemon and orange zest to the milk, then pour into a saucepan and bring to a simmer on a medium heat. In a large bowl, combine the egg yolks, custard powder and sugar. It will be a fairly stiff mixture, but don’t worry. Add some of the warmed milk to loosen it up, then slowly pour in the remaining hot milk over the egg mixture, whisking constantly to ensure there are no lumps. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and put it back on the hob, whisking constantly. Don’t be tempted to increase the heat or it might scramble the eggs. The custard powder will stabilize the mixture but it will also thicken it quite quickly, so ensure you keep on whisking or you will end up with large lumps.
  4. Once the mixture has thickened enough to easily cover the back of a spoon, remove from the heat and add the butter (cubed), whisking constantly to melt it. Transfer the custard to a shallow bowl, cover with clingfilm to avoid creating a skin on top and allow to cool before transferring to the fridge to set completely.
  5. Once the brioche dough has proven, remove from the bowl and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Shape into a long log, then cut into 6 equal pieces (8 is also possible, but they’ll end up being very small). To shape each brioche bun, use your hands as if they were small cages, gently press them on the brioche buns and roll them around to ensure they are perfectly smooth and have no bumps. Gently transfer to 2 lined trays (3 each), ensuring the brioches have enough room to expand during proving and baking. Cover with oiled clingfilm and allow to prove for another hour.
  6. Preheat the oven to 180C. Lightly brush the risen buns with some milk, sprinkle with the demerara sugar (optional), then bake the brioche for 20 minutes or until hollow to the sound when tapped underneath. Allow to cool completely before you proceed with the next step.
  7. To assemble the semi Tropeziennes, use a serrated knife to cut each bun in half horizontally, then arrange the mini straberries on the cut side so that they are equally spaced and there is some room in between them. Transfer the custard to a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle, then pipe some custard in the gaps between the mini strawberries and put a large dollop in the middle. Arrange the remaining brioche half on top, dust liberally with icing sugar and serve. Enjoy!

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Green Store Cupboard Pasta

Picture the scene. You had a terrible day at work, your boss has probably shouted at you a couple of times and you clearly couldn’t see eye to eye with that client you were trying to help. It happens to all of us. I was stuck in a dead-end job for 2 years before embarking on a more exciting career and believe me, I had plenty of these days. Rather than coming home, pouring yourself a large glass of wine and ordering a take-away to drown your sorrow, I will ask you to cook. ‘Not a chance,’ I hear you say. Think again. Cooking has a therapeutic effect, it helps to make you relaxed and you get to feel like a child again while pottering away and turning the kitchen into a battlefield.

In addition, this pasta dish requires no more than simply blanching the vegetables and cooking the pasta. Surely that isn’t asking too much? I have made this dish with whatever I had in my frozen garden (a Nigella-esque way of referring to the freezer) and in tins stashed away in my store cupboard. It couldn’t get any simpler. The goal here was to show you that with minimal effort, no real recipe and a lot of love, even comfort food can aspire to be a jaw-dropping beauty. I certainly hope I have succeeded.

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Ingredients

  • 500g pasta (tortiglioni or maccheroni would do)
  • 250g king prawns, shelled and deveined
  • 1 x 340g tin of sweetcorn (frozen is also good)
  • 300g frozen peas
  • 100g ricotta (creme fraiche/cream cheese/mascarpone also good)
  • 250g green beans
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • bunch of parsley, chopped

Method

  1. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil, tumble in the pasta and cook according to packet instructions. 5 minutes before draining, add the green beans, so that they can cook with the pasta but still retain their crunch.
  2. Meanwhile, heat some olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat, then tumble in the frozen peas. Cook for 2 minutes, then add the minced garlic and a splash of water. Leave to simmer for 3 minutes, then add the frozen prawns and cook until pink. Don’t overcook or they will be too rubbery.
  3. Take the peas and prawns off the heat and add the ricotta and lemon juice, mixing well to combine. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Drain the pasta and green beans, then transfer to a large bowl. Add the prawn mixture and tumble in the sweetcorn, then mix to combine. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if needed.Arrange on a serving platter and decorate with the chopped parsley and the lemon zest. Enjoy!

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German Fried Egg Cake (Spiegeleierkuchen)

The last few weeks have been massively busy. This is the last week of teaching at university, which means students are extremely stressed about their final exams and trainers are on their feet too, trying to coordinate everything. Intense but very rewarding. I have also recently been on a mini-break to Wales, Port Talbot to be precise. Although the coastal town didn’t correspond to my idea of a good time, I have to say I was amazed by Cardiff and the hip and modern vibe which pervades the city. I particularly loved the various arcades with their little cafes and weird shops tucked in. A true gem.

Now, on to something completely different. I will be going to Germany for a birthday party in June, so what best way to get in the right frame of mind than to make this, a German fried egg cake? I have a penchant for weird cakes and this makes no exception. The recipe comes from Sprinkle Bakes (quantities slightly modified), a new baking blog I started to follow quite recently. Highly recommended if you, like me, want to push the boundaries of traditional baking. Use white sugar in the custard layer – I prefer golden caster sugar for the sponge, but an unrefined sugar would not give you the white end result you need here. As for gelatine, you can leave it out and glaze the top with apricot jam – although that would spoil the overall appearance – or a simple sugar syrup (sugar and water boiled together).

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Ingredients (for the sponge)

  • 344g plain flour
  • 325g golden caster sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 170g unsalted butter, softened
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 1 large egg
  • 245ml Greek yogurt (creme fraiche or sour cream also good)
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract

Ingredients (for the vanilla custard)

  • 1L whole milk
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 130g cornflour
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Ingredients (for the topping)

  • 1 x 400g tin of apricot halves in juice, drained and pat-tried
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 4 tbsp recently boiled water
  • 1 leaf of gelatine
  • sugar crystals and poppy seeds (optional)

Method

  1. Grease and line a 10x10cm square cake tin with greaseproof paper, ensuring the sides are fully covered and that the paper is overhanging – this will make it easier to remove the cake once assembled. Preheat the oven to 180C.
  2. To make the sponge, use a freestanding mixer to cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the egg whites and the whole egg one at a time, mixing well after each addition. In a separate bowl, combine the remaining dry ingredients (flour, salt and raising agent). In a jug, combine the Greek yogurt and the vanilla extract.
  3. If you see that the mixture is curdling, start adding the flour one tablespoon at a time. Pour in the rest of the dry ingredients and give that a quick mix, then add the yogurt mixture and combine until smooth (but don’t overmix or the cake will be tough!).
  4. Transfer the cake batter to the greased and lined tin, then use a spatula to spread it in the corners. Try and create a small indentation in the centre of the cake tin so that, once risen and baked, the cake will be somewhat even. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the thickest part of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.
  5. If your cake is not even on the top, use a serrated knife to cut the extra bits off.
  6. To make the vanilla custard, combine the cornflour and the sugar in a bowl, then add 1/4 of the milk and mix very thoroughly until completely lump-free. Pour the remaining milk into a saucepan and heat over a gentle heat until it reaches simmering point, then add the cornflour mixture and the vanilla and start mixing. Keep on mixing until the custard thickens and coats the back of a spoon. You want a slightly thicker than average custard so that the cake will hold its shape once assembled, so do keep on cooking it over a medium heat and mixing constantly until very thickened.
  7. Once ready, pour over the cooled cake in the cake tin and spread evenly. Arrange the pat-dried apricot halves on the cake (cut side down), then gently press them into the vanilla custard. Transfer the cake to the fridge for at least one hour or until fully cold and set.
  8. To make the gelatine glaze, soak the gelatine leaf in cold water for 10 minutes. In a separate bowl, combine the water and the sugar, and mix until the sugar has fully dissolved. Squeeze the excess water out of the gelatine leaf, then add to the water mixture and dissolve it completely. Use a pastry brush to apply a thin gelatine coating onto the set cake (you might not need all of it), then place back into the fridge until set.
  9. To serve it, I decided to use poppy seeds to mimick ground black pepper and crushed sugar crystals to replicate salt, but you could also decide to go plain. Enjoy!

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Spicy Chicken and Green Quinoa Salad

On a recent business trip to Vienna, I stayed with one of my former classmates from my MA in interpreting at the University of Leeds, Aimee, who now works as a freelance interpreter for the OSCE (and is a genius). She introduced me to the concept of food cooperative, something which is all the rage in Austria but is almost unheard of in Italy. In a nutshell, a bunch of people group up to order directly from farmers and producers so as to cut out the middlemen. This also means you get to choose what kind of food you want (organic, for instance) and can also check whether the farmers you order from are respecting certain standards and looking after their livestock. You then arrange weekly deliveries and stock the supplies in a common place where all of the members of the cooperative can go and get it from.

It’s an amazingly easy yet effective agreement, but it relies on the goodwill of some of the cooperative’s members to go get the deliveries, print out the distribution lists, etc. Not for me, then, at least not now I have a pretty hectic lifestyle. I have, however, decided to start ordering food from an organic farm which delivers nationwide and I have to say I am very satisfied both with the quality and the service (it’s Abel & Cole, in case you’re wondering). This recipe was put together before my organic epiphany, but I like to think it’s a bit of a precursor. What better way to celebrate the start of spring than to use brightly coloured food and arrange it artistically on a plate? Original recipe credit goes to the BBC Good Food magazine, albeit with minor changes.

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Ingredients

  • 2 organic chicken breasts
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp chilli powder
  • 160g quinoa
  • 1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
  • 2 spring onions, sliced
  • 150g baby spinach leaves
  • a bunch each of coriander and mint, chopped
  • 1/2 pomegranate, seeds only
  • 30g peppadew peppers
  • 200g cooked beetroot (not in vinegar), sliced
  • 100g feta, crumbled
  • 1 mango, peeled and flesh cut into chunks
  • lemon and lime juice, to taste
  • vegetable oil
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Method

  1. Heat the oven to 180C. Lightly brush the chicken breasts with some oil, then rub with the paprika, chilli powder, salt and pepper. Heat a non-stick frying pan over high heat, then sear the breasts on each side for about 2 minutes. Arrange on a lined baking tray and roast for 20-25 minutes or until cooked.
  2. Meanwhile, bring a saucepan of water to the boil. Rinse the quinoa under cold running water, then put in the pan with some sea salt. Cook for 15 minutes (or follow packet instructions) until the quinoa is translucent and transparent. Drain in a sieve and set aside to cool slightly.
  3. In a food processor, add the spring onions, coriander, mint, chilli, spinach and blend. Add some lemon/lime juice and some seasoning to taste, then whiz to a smooth puree.
  4. Remove the chicken from the oven and allow to rest for at least 10 minutes. Cut into slices.
  5. Add the vibrant green puree to the cooked quinoa and mix well to tinge the latter a bright green. Arrange on a plate, then start adding the other ingredients, including the mango, beetroot pieces, feta and chicken pieces, then sprinkled with some extra spring onions and sliced chilli (optional), then serve and enjoy!

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Spotted Nutellionaire’s Shortbread

Polka dotted. I was extremely puzzled the first time I heard this word. Why? In Italy, the Polka is a traditional type of dance which is usually danced by the older generations, therefore I hope you can see my confusion when I was trying to link fluffy dresses and a ballroom environment to a spotty pattern. Etymology aside, I think the juxtaposition of pearly white chocolate buttons and the dark chocolate couverture on top strongly gives this bake a real ’60s look and yet manages to keep it quite modern and upbeat. The recipe comes from the spring issue of the Feel Good Food magazine, although I modified it to have a firmer caramel layer in the middle.

You don’t need to use Nutella if you don’t want to. I know this hazelnut spreadable paste is the subject of controversy, namely the fact that the hazelnut content is indeed very limited (only 13% for a 400g jar). You can make your own hazelnut/chocolate spread if you want to, the Internet is full of recipes to obtain a more or less spreadable paste. However, despite all of the brouhaha, I find myself going back to Nutella all the time. It’s so convenient and, for someone who grew up in Italy, quite iconic – Ferrero is an Italian brand, after all. Don’t be scared by the list of ingredients, this traybake requires very little baking. The cake mostly needs assembling and resting in the fridge overnight with very little input needed on your part.

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Ingredients (for the shortbread base)

  • 140g unsalted butter, softened
  • 80g light soft brown sugar
  • 200g plain flour
  • 40g chopped roasted hazelnuts

Ingredients (for the Nutella layer)

  • 250g Nutella
  • 2 large eggs
  • 50g ground almonds

Ingredients (for the caramel layer)

  • 75g light soft brown sugar
  • 75g unsalted butter
  • 200ml condensed milk

Ingredients (for the decoration)

  • 100ml double cream
  • 200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
  • white chocolate buttons

Method

  1. Heat the oven to 180C. Butter and line a 30x20cm Swiss roll tin (or a 22x22cm square cake tin with a removable base).
  2. For the shortbread base, in the bowl of a freestanding mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until pale and creamy. Add the flour and cocoa powder, then fold in the chopped hazelnuts with a rubber spatula. Pour in the tin and use your hands and/or the back of a spoon to press the mixture in the corners and smooth the top. Prick liberally with a fork, then bake for 25 minutes until firm to the touch.
  3. To make the Nutella layer, whisk together the Nutella with the eggs and ground almonds, then spread onto the shortbread and smooth. Return to the oven for 10 minutes until just set. Remove the tin from the oven and allow to cool completely.
  4. To make the caramel layer, gently heat the sugar and butter in a saucepan, stirring until melted. Add the condensed milk and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5-8 minutes, stirring constantly, until the filling has thickened slightly. Pour the caramel onto the (now stone cold) Nutella layer and give the tin a gentle tap onto the work surface to remove any air bubbles. Place in the fridge to harden for at least 30 minutes.
  5. To make the chocolate ganache for the topping, finely chop the chocolate and transfer to a heatproof bowl. Heat the cream in a saucepan until almost boiling, then pour onto the finely chopped chocolate and mix until fully melted and combined. Allow to cool slightly, then spread onto the caramel layer. Distribute the white chocolate buttons on top as you wish (I went for a very symmetrical design). Place back in the fridge to harden completely, then cut into squares and serve. Enjoy!

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