Passion Fruit and Chocolate Layer Cake

This Easter has literally flown by. In fact, this whole year has been like that so far. At some point last year I decided I would make hot cross buns this year for Easter, a resolution I did not stick to for lack of time. I indulged in different types of Easter cupcakes, including some with coconut and white chocolate which I took to our favourite café, where we usually spend Sunday mornings slowly waking up to the sight of a salmon and cream cheese omelette (for me) and a full English breakfast (for my partner). It might sound odd to some of you to bring food to a restaurant, but I did because most of the time I end up with more food (read: cake) than we can eat and the girls there are so nice it was a pleasure to give something back. By the way, the place is called Moments, check it out on TripAdvisor!

The recipe for this cake comes from Jo Wheatley, the winner of the second edition of the GGBO. The chocolate sponge is a fail-proof recipe as it’s very easy and can be used as a base for thousands of desserts. The icing, with the addition of passion fruit juice, gains a certain tangy and fruity note which marries the sweet indulgence of the cake. The pulp and seeds of the passion fruits are not wasted either, as they get drizzled on top (maybe more than I did). Top with some chocolate eggs for a more Easter treat, if you wish. Otherwise, plain is just fine. Serve with a strong cup of tea and enjoy!

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Ingredients (for the cake)

  • 175g unsalted butter, softened
  • 300g golden caster sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 270g plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 75g cocoa powder
  • 200ml soured cream, at room temperature
  • 50g cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp chocolate extract

Ingredients (for the butter icing)

  • 250g unsalted butter, softened
  • 500g icing sugar
  • 150g cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 3 very ripe passion fruits
  • about 10 coloured chocolate eggs (optional)

Method

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 180C. Line and grease a 20cm springform tin with high sides.
  2. In the bowl of a freestanding mixer, beat the butter and caster sugar together until pale and fluffy. Gradually add the eggs, beating well after each addition.
  3. In a bowl, mix the flour, raising agents and cocoa powder. Add half the dry mixture to the the egg mixture and fold in using a large metal spoon or a rubber spatula.
  4. In another bowl, mix the soured cream with the cream cheese and the chocolate extract, then add half to the cake and fold that in. Repeat the process with the remaining flour and sour cream mixtures, then mix until smooth.
  5. Pour into the cake tin. Bake for 45-50 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly before removing from the tin and inverting onto a wire rack to cool completely.
  6. To make the icing, beat the butter and the cream cheese until softly whipped using a freestanding mixer, then slowly add the icing sugar and mix until fully combined. Halve the passion fruits, then sieve the juice, reserving the pulp and seeds. Add the juice to the icing and mix until smooth.
  7. To assemble the cake, slice it in three layers using a serrated knife. Place the first cake layer onto your serving dish or cake stand, then transfer the icing to a piping bag fitted with a big plain nozzle and start piping small drops onto each cake layer. You can do it in rings starting from the outside or in lines, totally up to you. Top with the second one and repeat, until you have covered the top layer too. If you’re running out of icing, just spread some in the middle of the top layer – you will cover this with the chocolate eggs, so it doesn’t matter if it isn’t perfect.
  8. Place the chocolate eggs in the middle of the top layer, then drizzle the reserved passion fruit pulp and seeds on top of the cake. Enjoy!

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Paris Brest version Conticini

Philippe Conticini is an award-winning French master of patisserie. A creative genius, the New York times once wrote that “Every time you feel you’ve figured out what he’s thinking, he is way ahead of you.” In the 80s, he revolutionized patisserie by using salt and spices, but other inventions include the pastries in glasses (the so-called verrines) and the de-contextualization of desserts from horizontal to vertical (think millefeuilles, to give you a for instance). A constant innovator, he is always on the lookout to recreate traditional French dessert with a modern and own twist, such as this Paris Brest. This pastry dessert was created in 1981 to commemorate the Paris-Brest bicycle race. It comprises a wheel-shaped ring made of choux pastry which is usually filled with cream and praliné, a hazelnut paste.

Conticini’s revolutionary idea was to keep the choux and the praliné components of the dessert, but to turn a wheel into a chain of choux buns, which get extra crunch and texture from the addition of craquelin, a sugary and buttery paste added on top of the choux buns before they are baked to create an even layer of crunchy goodness. The craquelin, in addition to adding texture to the pastry, also ensures an even rise. This recipe was also featured in the finale of the French edition of the GBBO (Le meilleur patissier). I suppose you can buy good quality praliné either online or from specialist shops, but I decided to make my own. Alternatively, you can use any hazelnut paste/spread (Nutella, to name one), but remember those also contain cocoa powder and plenty of other fats – not that this ever scared me. Making your own praliné is extremely easy and only requires the help of a sturdy food processor. The sugar and the natural oils contained in the nuts will do the rest. Last but not least, if you understand French, you can have a look at the tutorial for this recipe here. Hope you enjoy it!

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HOW TO MAKE HOME-MADE PRALINÉ

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Ingredients

  • 125g hazelnuts
  • 125g almonds with the skin on
  • 165g caster sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 45g water

Method

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 165C. Spread the nuts on a baking tray and roast for 20 minutes. Roasting the nuts ensures a deeper flavour and allows to remove their papery skins.
  2. Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly. Take the hazelnuts only and place them inside a towel, then wrap it around them and gently rub them together for a good 2 minutes. This will allow you to remove and detach their skins, which will be left in the towel. Alternatively, take the hazelnuts in your hands and rub them or do it one by one. Either way, discard the skins and put the now peeled hazelnuts together with the almonds.
  3. Pour the sugar, vanilla bean paste and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat over medium heat until the mixture boils. Boil it until it reach 120C (use a sugar thermometer).
  4. Remove from the heat and add the nuts, then use a wooden spoon to mix them in. The sugar syrup will seize and crystallize – don’t worry, this is normal. Put the pan back on the heat over a very low heat and leave the sugar to melt again until it turns a dark amber colour.
  5. Remove from the heat and pour the caramel and nuts onto a baking tray lined with oiled baking parchment or a silicon mat. Leave to cool for 30 minutes.
  6. Transfer the mixture to a food processor equipped with the blade attachment, then process it until it first turns into a sugary powder and then, little by little, it starts to clump together. Keep on processing until you obtain a fairly smooth paste, then remove from the food processor and transfer to a bowl. If the mixture looks too brittle and powdery at first, keep on processing. The nuts will start to yield their natural oil which will turn the powder into a paste.

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HOW TO MAKE THE PARIS BREST VERSION CONTICINI

First of all, we start with the craquelin.

Ingredients

  • 40g unsalted butter, softened
  • 50g light brown sugar
  • 50g plain flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Method

  1. In the bowl of a freestanding mixer (or even by hand in a normal bowl), mix the unsalted butter with the rest of the ingredients to obtain a smooth dough-like consistency, then remove from the bowl and place between two sheets of baking parchment.
  2. Using a rolling pin, roll it out to 3mm thick. Remove the top baking parchment sheet and use a 3-4cm round cutter to impress round shapes on top of the craquelin, then cover with the second sheet of baking parchment and put in the freezer for at least 10 minutes.

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Then, we move on to the crème mousseline au praliné

Ingredients

  • 250ml whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 150g unsalted butter, softened
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 10g plain flour
  • 10g corn flour
  • 2 medium egg yolks
  • 75g praliné

Method

  1. Sift the flour and the cornstarch together.
  2. In a bowl, lightly whisk the egg yolks with the sugar, then add the flour mixture and mix that in too.
  3. In a saucepan, combine the milk and the vanilla bean paste, then bring the milk to the boil. While still mixing, trickle the milk into the egg yolk mixture, then combine and transfer back on to the heat.
  4. Mix with a balloon whisk for about one minute, by which point the mixture will have thickened nicely. Remove from the heat and transfer the mixture to a shallow tray, then cover tightly with clingfilm and leave to cool completely.
  5. Once your custard has completely cooled, cream the butter with a whisk or in the bowl of a freestanding mixer equipped with the paddle attachment, then add the praliné and, tablespoon by tablespoon, the custard. Mix over medium speed until the mixture is combined and fluffy.
  6. Transfer to a piping bag with a plain round nozzle.

Last, but not least, let’s make the choux buns.

Ingredients

  • 125g water
  • 80g plain flour
  • 60g unsalted butter
  • 2g salt
  • 2g caster sugar
  • 125g whole eggs, lightly beaten (measure without the shells!)

Method

  1. In a saucepan, combine the water, salt, sugar and butter, then bring the mixture to the boil but ensure the butter has completely melted.
  2. Take the pan off the heat, then add the flour all at once. Use a wooden spoon to combine the mixture, which will look like a messy lump. That is normal. Put back over medium heat and dry the mixture by beating it with the wooden spoon until the mixture come well together into a big ball and it leaves a slight layer of dough at the bottom. Remove from the heat and transfer to the bowl of a freestanding mixer equipped with a paddle attachment.
  3. Leave the mixture to cool slightly, then start beating it on medium speed. Slowly start adding the eggs two tablespoons at the time and wait until the mixture is fully combined before adding the next lot. Once you have used all of the eggs, the mixture should be thoroughly combined and it should create a trail once you lift the beater. Also, if you were to draw a line in the middle, the mixture should keep the line and not close on itself very quickly.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag with a plain nozzle.
  5. Pre-heat your oven to 180C and line a big baking tray with parchment.
  6. Use the piping bag to pipe 4 blobs of choux pastry on the parchment where the 4 corners of a 20cm square should be. Turn the baking parchment 90 degrees and repeat the process, piping in the middle of the already piped blobs. Use the rest of the mixture to fill the buns if they look small, they should be approximately 4cm in diameter, all equal and touching.
  7. Remove the craquelin sheet from the freezer and detach the rounds you had pre-cut. Arrange on the piped choux buns, then transfer to the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

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To assemble and fill the Paris Brest

Use a serrated knife to cut the crown-shaped choux buns in halves, making sure not to damage the circular structure. Remove the top and set aside.

In a bowl, combine 100g praliné with 50g double cream. I also added 1 tbsp Nutella, but that was a personal choice more than anything else. Transfer this mixture to a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle.

Now, pipe a good dollop of the crème mousseline inside each choux bun, then top with one eighth of the praliné and top with more crème mousseline. Cover the crown with the top, then dust in icing sugar and serve. Best eaten on the same day.

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Onion & Cheese T&S Loaves

Don’t be fooled, T&S is only an abbreviation for ‘tear and share’ and not some mystical spices or mysterious ingredient I used to make this stunning bread. The idea behind it (nor mine, but hey) is to create a big loaf you can tear in pieces and enjoy in small quantities, rather than having to cut yourself a slice every time. The recipe had been looking at me for a while, begging to be tried out, from the first GBBO book. I remember one of the wannabe bakers making it on the show and Paul Hollywood convinced it wouldn’t work right until the end, when he finally tasted it. In your face, Paul.

Choose a very strong cheddar for this one. The more mature, the better. The reason being the bread here is pretty much flavourless and the real kick comes from the onion and the cheddar in the small buns. The pattern, moreover, very honeycomb-like, is totally non compulsory. If you wish, you could also make bigger buns and arrange them differently. These will also last for a while in a sealed container, so that if you don’t manage to eat them all while warm and fresh from the oven (a temptation hard to resist, let me tell you), you can also enjoy them later in the week as a perfect accompaniment to soups and other big and bold dishes.

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Ingredients

  • 450g strong bread flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp caster sugar
  • 1 x 7g sachet fast-action yeast
  • 300ml lukewarm water
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • 120g mature cheddar, grated

Method

  1. Start by putting the flour, sugar, salt and yeast in a big bowl or in the bowl of a freestanding mixer equipped with the hook attachment. Make sure to put the salt and the yeast well away one from the other.
  2. Start the engine of the mixer or make a well in the centre (if you’re making this completely by hand) and pour in the oil and the water. Mix this in to form a soft but not sticky dough. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave to rest for 10 minutes.
  3. Turn out the dough onto a working surface and knead by hand for about 5 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Shape into a ball and put into a big oiled bowl. Cover with clingfilm and leave to prove for a good hour or until doubled in size.
  4. Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Put some olive oil in a saucepan over a medium to low heat and add the onions. Cook for at least 15 minutes or until soft but not coloured. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
  5. Once your dough has proven enough, punch it down, turn it out onto a working surface and knead until smooth. Divide into 19 even pieces (I used scales to measure) and roll each one into a small ball. Once you have rolled them all, use the palm of your hand and your fingers to spread each ball into a small disc, then divide the onion and about 75g of the cheese among the discs.
  6. Wrap the dough around the mixture and pinch at the top to seal, then roll out again to a ball and arrange on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Ensure the seam is down and arrange in a honeycomb structure (3, 4, 5, 4 then 3 balls respectively). Leave about 1cm between each balls but try to squeeze together as much as possible. Cover loosely with clingfilm and leave to rise for about 40 minutes until doubled in size. Close to the end of the rising time, pre-heat your oven to 190C.
  7. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top of the buns, then bake for 25-30 minutes. or until risen and evenly golden brown. Leave to cool slightly on a wire rack and serve warm or cool completely.

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Chelsea Buns

There’s something about yeasted doughs which puts me off them. I don’t know whether it’s the fact they need time to rise or whether it’s simply that sometimes they seem not be working quite right. I am also terribly scared they might not cook in the middle, something I don’t fear when baking a cake. I also think I don’t make enough of them, so I started this week by making these and a loaf of yummy bread. I need to start facing my (unfounded) fears, so better be practicing. Needless to say, it’s important to knead these breads by hand as much as possible. Therefore, I usually start the mixture in a freestanding mixer, but tip it out once it’s combined and knead it by hand. I also don’t flour the surface when possible, neither I drench it in olive oil. Rather, I leave it plain. I read in a really good book that by doing so you increase the friction of the dough on the work surface, which in turn means it kneads better.

Chelsea Buns, which date back to the 18th century, are a great example of British baking. A sweet dough is rolled out and then filled with dried fruits (usually currants). Then you roll it all up (much in the way as a Swiss roll), cut it into portions and bake it. This recipe is Paul Hollywood’s, although I ended up tweaking it slightly because 1) I didn’t have all of the ingredients and 2) I forgot to add the egg. Personally, I think it makes the whole thing lighter. I incorporated the missing apricots with dried prunes and I have to say it worked really well. I gave them to my partner to take to work and they went down a storm (he says). Also, rather than drowning the baked buns in jam and icing, I decided to simply drizzle some on top, thus making it look a lot nicer than the mess Mr Hollywood makes on TV and, probably, slightly less sweet.

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Ingredients (for the dough)

  • 500g strong bread flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 x 7g fast-action dried yeast
  • 300ml milk
  • 40g unsalted butter, at room temperature

Ingredients (for the filling and to finish)

  • 25g unsalted butter, melted
  • grated zest of 2 oranges
  • 75g soft light brown sugar
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 100g dried cranberries
  • 100g sultanas
  • 50g dried apricots, chopped
  • 50g dried prunes, chopped
  • 75g icing sugar
  • 1 tbsp apricot jam

Method

  1. Put the flour into the bowl of a freestanding mixer (equipped with the hook attachment). Add the salt and the yest, taking care to put them in opposite corners.
  2. In a small saucepan, heat the milk and the butter until the latter melts and the mixture is lukewarm. If you heat the milk too much, don’t worry! Fill your sink with about 2cm of cold water, then plunge the base of your saucepan (taking care not to let the water get into the saucepan) and leave to cool slightly.
  3. Add the liquid to the flour mixture and start the engine of the mixer on low. Leave it to knead until it forms a soft dough, then tip out onto a non floured surface and knead by hand for a good 5 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic.
  4. Shape the dough into a ball, then tip into a lightly oiled bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave to prove for a good hour at room temperature or until doubled in size.
  5. Punch down the dough to its original size, then turn out onto a working surface. Roll out the dough to a rectangle about 40cm long and 5mm thick. Place it horizontally in front of you, that is with the longest side horizontal and facing you.
  6. Brush the dough with the melted butter, then sprinkle the orange zest from 1 orange over it, followed by the cinnamon, brown sugar and fruits.
  7. Tack down the long side of the rectangle nearest to you (that is, press it onto the working surface with your fingers so it sticks to it) and begin rolling from the opposite side towards you. Try and keep it as tight as possible. Once completely rolled, use a scraper or a knife to untack the pieces attached to the work surface.
  8. Line a rectangular baking tray with some baking parchment, then cut the log into 10 pieces, about 4cm wide (you’ll see only 9 in the picture!).
  9. Place the pieces cut side up and leave a little space in between them as they will expand. Cover with clingfilm and leave to prove for another 30 minutes at room temperature.
  10. Pre-heat the oven to 190C, then bake the buns for 30 minutes, until nice and golden on top. If you see them turning too brown during baking, cover the tin with some foil and keep on baking.
  11. Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly. Melt the jam with a splash of water in a small saucepan, then brush liberally over the top with a pastry brush.
  12. In a bowl, combine the icing sugar with 1 tbsp cold water and the remaining orange zest (add more water if you see the mixture is too thick), then use a spoon to drizzle the icing on the buns. Leave to cool completely (if you can resist!).

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Melting Moments

In the past, I have always steered clear of very buttery biscuits. I didn’t like the taste and the crumb you get when you first take a bite: too much butter, not enough chocolate. Even now, I have breakfast the exact same way I used to when home in Italy, with milk and (chocolate) biscuits. However, little by little, I have come to appreciate a good buttery shortbread, as long as I can find someone willing to eat them all if I ever make some! These are delicious, crumbly and, to be technical, very ‘short’. The recipe uses the same amount of flour and butter and makes up the difference with icing sugar and cornflour. They also have a very strong vanilla scent, which I found perfectly marries the filling.

On that note, this recipe comes from the first GBBO book and was made on the show in 2011 by Mary-Anne Boermans. She called the unusual filling a ‘Depression Era buttercream’, thus referring to the fact it is mostly made of milk and flour cooked on a stove and a little bit of butter and sugar added retrospectively. The recipe comes from a time when butter was in shortage and you really needed to make the little you had go further. You can read further insights directly on Mary-Anne’s blog. Mary’s decorative idea, that is painting the inside of the piping bag with gel food colouring, is a very creative one. I have seen it done to meringues and this way the piping provides some lightly coloured shells which are more original and enticing.

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Ingredients (for the biscuits)

  • 250g unsalted butter, softened
  • 60g icing sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 250g plain flour
  • 60g cornflour
  • gel food colouring

Ingredients (for the buttercream)

  • 125ml full-fat milk
  • 2 tbsp plain flour
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 125g unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp redcurrant jelly (the original recipe stated raspberry jam)

Method

  1. In the bowl of a freestanding mixer, combine the butter and the icing sugar, then beat until pale and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract, then beat for a few seconds. In a bowl, combine the flour and the cornflour, then sieve the mixture into the bowl and mix until smooth.
  2. Using gel food colouring, paint a straight line on the inside of your piping bag, then insert a star shaped nozzle at the end. Spoon the biscuit mixture inside the bag.
  3. Pipe the mixture into approximately 32 swirls on baking trays lined with parchment, then chill in the fridge or the freezer for at least 30 minutes.
  4. In the meantime, prepare the filling. Heat the milk and flour in a pan, whisking constantly to avoid lumps, until the mixture boils and thickens. In my experience, this happens quite suddenly, so make sure you are whisking the mixture. Transfer to a shallow plate, cover tightly with clingfilm and leave to cool completely.
  5. Beat the butter and the sugar together in a freestanding mixer until pale and fluffy, then add the vanilla extract and the flour and milk mixture and beat on high speed  for a good 5 minutes, until light, creamy and almost white. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a star-shaped nozzle.
  6. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
  7. Bake the biscuits for 12 minutes, until they are slightly golden on the top, then set aside to cool completely.
  8. Once cold, pipe a circle of buttercream on half of them, then fill the circle with the jam and sandwich with another biscuit to seal the filling inside.
  9. If you want to, you can serve them lightly dusted in icing sugar.

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