Gingerbread Cake

The problem with shopping for ingredients on the way home from work is that I often forget what I have in the cupboard.  The better-safe-than-sorry approach has led me to duplicate a number of items, sometimes even more than once, taking up precious cupboard and fridge space.  I know I should be more organised and check before going shopping, but who can honestly say that they have time to do all of the things they should do? Anyway, such was the case with stem ginger when I bought an unnecessary extra jar for last week’s fig, ginger and spelt cake and yesterday I ended up making a gingerbread cake just to clear some room in the fridge before the Ocado order arrived.  I hope you aren’t rolling your eyes at the prospect of yet another cake recipe – this was never actually meant to become a cake blog but it’s all I seem to write about these days.

I had actually intended to make a batch of Jack o’ Lantern sugar cookies for my colleagues both in an attempt to get into the spirit of Hallowe’en and to get some use out of the pumpkin-shaped cookie cutter I impulse bought in Waitrose last week, before it was relegated to the back of the cupboard for a year.  My plan was scuppered upon discovering that shopping for orange food colouring the night before Hallowe’en is the real Nightmare Before Christmas – completely sold out everywhere.  The suggestions on Twitter to combine red and yellow would have been an inspired idea had everybody else not thought of that too and bought up all of those colours.  Left on the shelves was nothing but a few solitary bottles of pink, purple and almond flavouring; not very useful to anybody.  My Jack o’ Lanterns will have to wait until next year.

In contrast, ginger cake is something that can be enjoyed all year round.  It is both universally loved and, thanks to the McVities Jamaica Ginger Cake we all enjoyed as children, tinged with nostalgia.  As is probably the case with many people, this particular variety was the only ginger cake I had tried until well into adulthood and it is still a treat I find hard to resist when I walk past one on a supermarket shelf.  Every family had their own way of eating it: a friend of mine spreads butter on a slice, whereas in our house we used to pour over hot custard and eat it from a bowl.  As I began to try other ginger cakes, I found myself disappointed as many of them had a real ‘cake’ texture, which just didn’t seem quite right.  I made a few of my own and had the same problem, until somebody suggested that I was looking in the wrong place and should try ‘ginger bread’ recipes instead.  This is not bread in the traditional yeasted form, nor is it the hard kind that you make into people-shaped biscuits – it is, in fact, a cake recipe that gives a different texture of cake.  The difference is similar to that between banana cake and banana bread – something I have never really been able to explain so won’t dwell on.  Needless to say that a ginger cake recipe gives you a proper cake flavoured with ginger, and a ginger bread recipe gives you a beautifully moist and sticky texture, akin to the McVities kind we all know and love.

The Gingerbread Cake as a Loaf Cake with Lemon Water Icing

The Gingerbread Cake as a Loaf Cake with Lemon Water Icing

Although the texture of the original recipe is perfect, I have tweaked the ingredients over the years to try and get the right flavour.  Being a spice fiend, I find the flavour of some ginger products disappointing.  I like my ginger to be potent, but not so that it overwhelms the other flavours.  I have found that the best combination is ground ginger and stem ginger – ground ginger gives the much-needed heat and stem ginger a little sweetness.  I also like to brush a layer of the syrup from the stem ginger jar over the top of the warm cake – it adds a level of concentrated ginger flavour and helps to create a nice sticky top.  The cake mix is versatile and, subject to the adjustment of cooking times, can be used to make any kind of cake.  In the recipe below, I have added preparation and cooking times for four different options:  a loaf cake, a round cake, a layer cake and cupcakes, and a range of icings that work well with each of the options.  Of course, it is always worth experimenting, but in my experience the most complimentary flavours are lemon and chocolate.  Of course, you could just make the cake plain and pour over a load of hot custard.  Just sayin’.

The Gingerbread Cake as Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting for the Stylist Magazine Cupcake Competition, 2013

The Gingerbread Cake as Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting for the Stylist Magazine Cupcake Competition, 2013

Gingerbread Cake

  • 225g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tbsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp mixed spice
  • 115g butter, at room temperature, cut into cubes
  • 125g black treacle
  • 125g golden syrup
  • 115g dark soft brown sugar
  • 250ml buttermilk
  • 100g stem ginger
  • 1egg

Preheat the oven to 170ºc / 340ºf / gas 4.  To make the loaf cake:  grease a 1kg loaf tin and line with greaseproof paper.  To make the round cake:  grease a 8cm round cake tin and line with greaseproof paper.  To make the layer cake:  grease two 9cm sandwich tins and baseline with greaseproof paper.  To make the cupcakes:  line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases.

Using a food processor, pulse together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, ginger, cinnamon, mixed spice and cubed butter until it forms the texture of breadcrumbs.  Transfer to a large bowl.

In a large saucepan over a medium heat, heat together the treacle, golden syrup and sugar until the sugar has dissolved.  Beat in the buttermilk and increase the heat slightly.  Bring to boiling point and quickly remove from the heat – try not to boil the mixture.

While the treacle mixture is cooling slightly, grate the stem ginger pieces into the flour using a microplane grater.  Stir into the mixture.

Pour the treacle mixture over the dry ingredients and stir until fully combined.  Use a silicone spatula to ensure that no flour is sticking to the bottom of the bowl.  Crack the egg into the batter and mix to combine.

Scrape the batter into your prepared tin or cases and bake in the middle shelf of the oven.  For the loaf cake:  bake for around 45-50 minutes.  For the round cake: bake for around 55-60 minutes.  For the layer cake:  bake for around 25-30 minutes.  For the cupcakes:  bake for around 20-25 minutes.  The cake will not rise enormously and will probably have a flat, rather than a peaked top.  When the cake is baked, a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake should come out clean.

Below are some toppings that work well with this cake.  The addition of a little sharp lemon water icing cuts through the richness of the loaf cake and round cake – it is best drizzled across the top.  A little lemon buttercream spread sandwiched between two sandwich cakes can make a very pretty layer cake, and a white chocolate cream cheese frosting makes a very decadent topping for a simple ginger cupcake.

Lemon Water Icing

  • 50g icing sugar, sifted
  • 1-2 tbsp lemon juice

Slowly pour the lemon juice into the sifted icing sugar, constantly stirring, until a smooth icing is formed.  It should be the right consistency to be easily drizzled across a cake – not too firm and not too watery.

Lemon Buttercream

  • 250g icing sugar, sifted
  • 60g unsalted butter, softened
  • 30ml lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp whole milk

In the bowl of a freestanding mixer, with a whisk attachment, beat together the icing sugar, butter and lemon juice until smooth.  Gradually beat in the milk until fully combined.

This recipe makes enough buttercream to spread between two cakes.  If you wish to cover the cake as well or use to pipe on to cupcakes, double the quantities.

White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 50g white chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 225g cream cheese, softened
  • 100g unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 500g icing sugar

In the bowl of a freestanding mixer, with a whisk attachment, beat together the cream cheese and butter until smooth.  Mix in the cooled white chocolate and vanilla extract and mix until combined.  With the motor on a low speed, add the icing sugar a couple of tablespoons at a time, mixing until all of the icing sugar has been used up and the frosting is light and fluffy.


Key Lime Pie

Key Lime Pie

Key Lime Pie

The weekend that the clocks go back to Greenwich Mean Time always feels like the final death knell of summer.  A balmy autumn can keep the spirits up for so long, but once it becomes dark at 6pm, winter is most definitely here.  This weekend, more than any so far this year, was especially turbulent, as we were all preparing for the impending storm of doom.  Of course, none of us knew that it was not going to be the epic storm of 1987 proportions, as we had all feared, and were all fearing the worst.  This may have explained the Mother Flipper queue at Brockley Market on Saturday – if there was a last meal to be had, well….

This weekend was also the birthday of my friend Adrienne, so we braved the blustery streets of East Dulwich to spend the afternoon drinking prosecco at The Bishop.  Every year, for Adrienne’s birthday, I make her either a key lime pie or a lemon meringue pie instead of a birthday cake as she prefers citrus desserts to birthday cake and these pies give her a link to her North American homeland.  I was relieved that this year she chose key lime pie as I have been having some serious issues with meringue pies lately.  Every time I make one, it comes out the oven looking like a piece of cloudy perfection only to collapse completely when I take it out of the tin, haemorrhaging liquid everywhere (where does the liquid come from? the eggs?).  A couple of years ago, Adrienne’s birthday lemon meringue pie was little more than slop, and I don’t think I could face that again.

Apparently if you add a layer of pulverised cake crumbs in between the filling and the meringue, it soaks up the liquid and stops this happening.  I have yet to try and need to practice!

A key lime pie is an American dessert and so named as the variety of limes traditionally used were called ‘key limes’ and originated from Florida.  The pie consists of three individual components, two of which vary greatly according to recipe.  I am told that the traditional base for a key lime pie is shortcrust pastry, although in recent years this has been substituted with the kind of biscuit base that you would find on a cheesecake.  Similarly, traditionalists claim that the original pies were topped with meringue, although many pies are now topped with whipped cream or, often, not topped at all.  The filling is the only consistent component – a thick custard flavoured with lime juice and zest – although some are set in the fridge and some baked in the oven.

My key lime pie has a chocolate shortcrust pastry, which almost recreates the flavour of those chocolate lime sweets we all remember from childhood.  Chocolate and lime are a seriously good combination.  The pie has a baked filling that contains only four ingredients: lime zest, lime juice, condensed milk and egg yolks and is topped with whipped Chantilly cream.  For decoration, there is drizzled dark chocolate and candied lime slices.   I added a little extra lime than I usually would in the hope that the sharpness would cut through the richness of the chocolate, and it worked.  The flavours compliment each other, rather than fighting for pole position.  It takes a long time to make: the pastry has to be chilled twice and the filling chilled in the fridge for several hours, but if you plan your time well, it need not take over your weekend.

Key Lime Pie

For the pastry:

  • 175g plain flour
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • 50g icing sugar
  • 140g cold unsalted butter
  • 2 egg yolks

For the filling:

  • 397g tin of condensed milk
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1½ tbsp lime zest
  • 120ml lime juice

For the topping:

  • 200ml whipping cream
  • 2 tbsp icing sugar
  • 100g dark chocolate
  • 1 lime, sliced horizontally into 5mm slices
  • 250g caster sugar

To make the pastry, sift together the flour, baking powder, cocoa powder and icing sugar and pour into a food processor.  Cut the cold butter into cubes and add to the food processor.  Pulse until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs.  With the motor running, add the egg yolks, one at a time, mixing until the mixture comes together in a firm dough.  Turn out on to a floured surface, and gently knead for a few seconds.  Form the dough into a disc and wrap in clingfilm.  Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

Roll out the pastry on a well-floured surface and use to line a loose-bottom tart tin.  Gently push the pastry into each of the grooves, but do not trim the edges.  Return to the fridge and chill for a further 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200ºc / 400ºf / gas 6.  Line the pastry case with baking parchment and baking beans and bake blind in the oven for 15 minutes.  Reduce the heat of the oven to 150ºc / 300ºf / gas 2, remove the baking parchment and baking beans and bake the pastry case, uncovered, for a further five minutes.  The bottom of the pastry case should be dry and cooked through.  Trim the edges and allow to cool.

To make the filling, combine the condensed milk, egg yolks, lime juice and lime zest in a large bowl.  Beat vigorously with a wooden spoon or balloon whisk until all of the ingredients are fully combined and smooth.  Scrape this mixture into the cooled pastry case – there should be a gap at the top, this is where the cream will sit – and bake at 170ºc / 325ºf / gas 3 for about 15-20 minutes.  The filling should be firm with a slight wobble in the centre.  Allow to cool completely at room temperature and then chill in the fridge for at least four hours, preferably overnight.

For the cream topping, whisk together the whipping cream and icing sugar until thick, but not stiff.  Spread the cream over the cooled filling with a palette knife, filling to the top of the pastry case.  Return to the fridge to chill while you make the toppings.

Heat the chocolate in a glass bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water until melted.  Allow to cool to room temperature and scrape into a plastic piping bag.  Place the cooled pie on top of a large sheet of newspaper, snip a hole in the bottom of the piping bag and drizzled the chocolate back and forth across the pie.  Be sure to start and finish each of the lines on the newspaper, not on the pie, so you don’t end up with any blobs.  Return to the fridge to set the chocolate while you make the candied limes.

Place the lime slices in a saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil.  Drain and repeat four times.  Combine the sugar and 250ml water in a separate saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  Add the lime slices and cook over a low heat for around 40 minutes, until tender.  Use to decorate the pie.

Band of Bakers ‘Autumn Harvest’ Event, 24 October

Last night was our Band of Bakers ‘Autumn Harvest’ event and if, like me, autumnal fruit and veg is your thing, the opportunity to try 30 or so bakes containing them is something akin to Nirvana.  Of course, it is almost impossible to try all of the bakes (although some brave souls have tried), but I did manage quite a wide selection.  We were treated to cakes, biscuits, pies and tarts containing some beautiful autumn fruits: pears, plums, figs, blackberries and quince; and some delicious autumn vegetables, including parsnips, beetroot and squash.  The ratio of savoury to sweet was slightly higher than usual so we could all indulge under the collective pretence that we were eating a balanced meal.  In fact, my two favourite bakes of the night were savouries:  a black pudding scotch egg by Jon and a pulled pork slider with apple sauce by Sym.

It was our first event at the lovely Anderson & Co cafe in Peckham and we were very well looked after by Lisa, who kept us in local beer, great coffee and Sipsmith gin.

The recipe for my fig, ginger and spelt cake can be found here.

Below is a small selection of photographs from the event.

Fig, Ginger and Spelt cake by Gemma Gannon

Fig, Ginger and Spelt Cake by Gemma Gannon

Fig, Ginger and Spelt Cake by Gemma Gannon

Spiced Pumpkin and Walnut Cake by Corinne Svoboda

Courgette, Red Pepper and Brie Muffins by Sioned Jones

Courgette, Red Pepper and Brie Muffins by Sioned Jones

Plum, Almond and Cinnamon Crumble Cake by Naomi Knill

Plum, Almond and Cinnamon Crumble Cake by Naomi Knill

Chocolate and Raspberry ‘Squidgy’ Cakes

Blackberry Tart by Harley Beecroft

Blackberry Tart by Harley Beecroft

Cinnamon and Blackberry Cake

Cinnamon and Blackberry Cake

Chipotle Pumpkin Bread by Lauren Garland

Chipotle Pumpkin Bread by Lauren Garland

Peach and Ginger Crumble Cake by Chloe Edges

Peach and Ginger Crumble Cake by Chloe Edges [photo: Chloe Edges]

Eclairs with Chestnut Cream by Cherry Smart [photo: Cherry Smart]

Eclairs with Chestnut Cream by Cherry Smart [photo: Cherry Smart]

Pear, Ginger and Brown Butter Tartlets by Lucy Parissi [photo: Lucy Parissi]

Pear, Ginger and Brown Butter Tartlets by Lucy Parissi [photo: Lucy Parissi]


Spiced Chocolate and Pear Cake by Heather Jordan [photo: Heather Jordan]

Spiced Chocolate and Pear Cake by Heather Jordan [photo: Heather Jordan]

Fig, Ginger and Spelt Cake

Fig, Ginger and Spelt Cake

Fig, Ginger and Spelt Cake

As soon as the temperatures begin to drop, I seem to develop a bit of an addiction to my kitchen. I’m not sure whether it is the allure of the warmth of the oven, or the subconscious need to insulate myself with a few extra pounds before the cold snap sets in, but I seem to spend far more time there than I do in the summer.  Summer food is beautifully effortless – you can just throw a few vegetables together, or lightly steam a piece of fish.  Anything requiring even the slightest amount of effort is dismissed, meals can be eaten outside and the hot weather makes cold food, and raw food, enticing.  In the winter, this is not so.  When you arrive home from a cold commute with wet hair and feet and disrobe your multiple layers of clothing, you want comfort food: steaming bowls of stew and great hunks of freshly-baked bread with salted butter.  Food you can eat snuggled in front of the television. Food that will warm you up from the inside out.  In order to make this food, time-consuming preparation is required:  slow cooking, baking and roasting.  For six months, at least, the days of effortless cooking are over.

For anybody that enjoys cooking, however, this is not really much of a problem.  In fact, a cold and rainy Sunday is a great excuse to bake up a loaf of bread: something that requires a lot of time, but not a great deal of effort.  Having to ‘keep an eye on the slow cooker’ is a great excuse to spend the day in your pyjamas, catching up on everything you missed on iPlayer during the week.  This time of year produces some wonderful food that is conducive to this kind of cooking:  lots of game to bake into hearty pies, enormous squashes to roast in the oven, shellfish to make into wonderful stews and ripe autumnal fruits that lend themselves to all kinds of cakes, cobblers and crumbles.  This was the inspiration behind the theme for tonight’s Band of Bakers event:  the autumn harvest.  To drag yourself out of the house on a cold, wet, late October evening definitely requires a little incentive.  The idea of 30 or so bakes in the autumn harvest theme is definitely such an incentive – it’s like the pub in Southampton I will gladly walk a mile to (Londoners, don’t tsk, nobody walks in Southampton, it is the land of the car) because they have the best mulled cider for miles around.  Judging by the previous standard of baking at these events, it is well worth leaving the couch for.  For my own bake, I decided to make a spelt and ginger cake topped with figs.

Close-Up Figs

Close-Up Figs

Although you can get British figs at this time of year and they do, in fact, grow locally in London (I am told that the guys behind the street food stand Mike & Ollie source theirs from Brockley), the main majority of the figs  you find in the supermarket will be imported.  By October, we are generally coming towards the end of the fig season, and as they are a nightmare to store, it is definitely worth making the most of them while you can.  The recipe for this cake is adapted from the famous Rhubarb and Ginger cake, introduced to me by Charlie at the very first Band of Bakers event in May 2012.  The cake uses spelt flour which, although not gluten-free, is lower in gluten than wheat flour.  The wholegrain variety also gives the cake quite a coarse and nutty texture.  The cake also contains the one ingredient that always makes me weak at the knees – stem ginger.  And quite a cracking amount of stem ginger, too.  Five pieces chopped into the cake mixture, and then a generous slick of the syrup from the jar brushed on to the top of the cake when it comes out of the oven.  The halved figs are pushed into the cake mixture and during baking they release their juice to mix with the ginger flavour and create an autumnal heaven.

Fig, Ginger and Spelt Cake

  • 140g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 200g soft light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 5 pieces stem ginger in syrup, plus a few tbsp syrup from the jar
  • 200g wholegrain spelt flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 12 medium figs, stalks cut off and halved lengthways
  • Caster sugar, for dredging

Preheat the oven to 180ºc / 350ºf / gas 4.  Grease and line a 20cm square cake tin with greaseproof paper.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a medium heat.  Once melted, stir in the brown sugar until fully combined and leave to cool for a few minutes.  Stir in the eggs, ginger, flour and baking powder until you have a smooth batter.  Scrape this into the prepared tin and level off.

Arrange the halved figs on the top of the cake – try to squeeze in as many as possible.  Bake in the centre of the oven for around 45 minutes until the cake has risen and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.  As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, brush the top with a liberal amount of the ginger syrup from the stem ginger jar and dredge with caster sugar.  Leave to cool in the tin for 20 minutes and then move to a cooling rack.  Serve warm with ice cream as a dessert, or cooled as a cake.

Mr Falafel, Shepherd’s Bush

Falafel Wraps at Mr Falafel

Falafel Wraps at Mr Falafel

“Is Mr Falafel an actual person?”  

“How convenient would it be if your surname was ‘Falafel’ and you grew up to be somebody who makes falafel?”

“I’ve been to Mr Falafel so many times, I am practically Mrs Falafel.”

Obviously, the conversations that take place between my colleagues on the 15-minute walk from our office to Mr Falafel in Shepherd’s Bush Market are not of the intellectual variety, but they are always animated.  A morning email suggesting a trip to Mr Falafel at lunchtime is always met with great excitement in all corners of the office – firstly, because the falafel is excellent, secondly, because we work in White City: Gastronomic Wasteland of London.  It is always a shame when you work in one of the rare corners of London that has no decent lunch options – in my current office, and in my previous office in pre-Dirty Burger Vauxhall, I alternated between sandwich chains, ‘Express’ chains of local supermarkets and terrible cafes:  all disappointing.  When we discovered Mr Falafel in the summer of last year, it was like a light had shone on our lunch break.

Mr Falafel is housed in a unit situated just inside the entrance of Shepherd’s Bush Market, where they have been since 1999, however they have been at the market on various stalls “for a few years before that”.  They are well-known among the locals and it is rare to turn up after 1pm and not find a queue.  Once inside, you are given the choice of 12 falafel wraps, all of which come in the modest ‘medium’ or the gut-busting ‘extra-large’.  The falafel is scooped and cooked fresh to order, then lightly smashed on to a flatbread containing an array of other ingredients.  My favourite is the Supreme Falafel Wrap which contains hummus, tomatoes, aubergines, feta, olives, avocado and pomegranate syrup.  They also make a Supreme Plus wrap which substitutes the feta for halloumi but, be warned: they don’t grill it.  An essential addition to the wrap is a generous slick of their hot chilli sauce, which he (the famous Mr Falafel – who knows?) will add to the mixture with a glint in his eye.  There is also a mild chilli sauce for those with a lower heat tolerance.  The falafel itself is soft and perfectly spiced and the ingredients fresh and it makes for rather a delicious, if large, lunch (I have still yet to manage an XL).  If you find yourself in Shepherd’s Bush one day, be sure to check it out.

Brioche Burger Buns

Home-Made Burger

When burgers hit the big time in London a few years ago, it became clear very quickly that the only bread for burger buns was brioche.  The restaurants all caught on very quickly and brioche was snuggling burgers all over town, but the shops and bakeries were a little slower off the mark.  As the humble burger graduated from late night shame-food to gourmet menu centrepiece, what inevitably followed was a tidal wave of home cooks seeking to create their own at home. Suddenly we were stocking up on mince, bacon, American cheese and gherkins and scouring food blogs for tips on creating the perfect burger.  As summer came around and friends with gardens fired up their barbecues, we had the perfect opportunity for showcasing our concoctions.  There was only one problem: the bread.

When it comes to stocking up for a BBQ, bread is often an afterthought. The meat, obviously, is of paramount importance, the booze also, but the bread is usually chucked in the trolley at the last minute and barely given any attention at all.  Consequently, the bread table at a BBQ would often consist of those dry, anaemic looking multi-pack supermarket baps or finger rolls.  The kind that disintegrate the minute you get any kind of moisture or sauce near them.  The kind that stick to the roof of your mouth.  The kind that have no flavour whatsoever.  When we upped our game with our homemade burgers, this no longer became an option, the bread had to live up to the other components.  The problem was, hardly anywhere sold ready-made brioche buns.  Early in the summer, we used to get ours from Kindred Bakery in Herne Hill.  After the burst water main put them out of action, we found a stall in Brockley Market that sells them, but both are fairly pricey.  In recent months, the supermarkets have woken up to this trend and  you can now buy brioche buns in Marks & Spencer and Tesco, although both look a bit shiny and processed.  It seems that you definitely get what you pay for.

The other option, of course, is baking your own.  Brioche is a bit of a faff but need not be too laborious.  You will need about 12 hours or so to complete the whole process, but the active time you spend is barely more than you would spend ordering and collecting the buns from a local bakery.  My buns are based on a savoury brioche recipe by Paul Hollywood.  I was lucky enough to take part in Paul’s Bread series and got to taste a savoury brioche couronne he made. It was filled with mozzarella, basil and parma ham and was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten.  The bread dough is enriched with milk, eggs and butter and proved in the fridge overnight.  Once firm enough to work with, the dough is then shaped into balls and baked.  The end result is a light, malleable bun that holds together well.  You could add sugar if you prefer your brioche a little sweeter.  The recipe below makes about eight buns.

Brioche Burger Buns

Brioche Burger Buns

Brioche Burger Buns

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 10g salt
  • 10g instant yeast
  • 170ml warm full-fat milk
  • 4 eggs
  • 250g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 egg, beaten, for glazing
  • 1 tbsp sesame seeds

Put the flour, salt, yeast, milk and eggs into the bowl of a free-standing mixer and, using the paddle attachment, mix until the dough becomes smooth and shiny.  Continue to mix for another five minutes, adding the butter a teaspoon at a time until all of the butter incorporated into the dough.  It is important to add the butter gradually.

Tip the dough into an oiled plastic container with a lid.  The volume of the container should be a minimum of one litre so the dough has room to expand.  Leave to prove in the fridge overnight.

Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper.  Remove the dough from the fridge and divide into eight equal portions.  To make the bun shape, flatten out the dough into a disc and bring the edges into the centre and pinch together.  Turn upside down and place on the baking tray.  Place four buns on each tray, ensuring that there is enough space between them to allow them to expand.  Cover the rays with clingfilm or a clean plastic bag and leave to rise in a warm place for 1-2 hours or until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 190ºc / 375ºf / gas 5.  Brush the buns with a little beaten egg and sprinkle with the sesame seeds.  Bake in the oven for 20 minutes until risen and golden.  If you tap the bottom of the buns, they should sound hollow.  Leave to cool on a rack.

The Chocolate Behemoth and Some Cupcakes

The Chocolate Behemoth: a Four-Layer Chocolate Cake with Chocolate,ate Buttercream and Chocolate Ganache

The Chocolate Behemoth: a Four-Layer Chocolate Cake with Chocolate,ate Buttercream and Chocolate Ganache

The french have rather an interesting phrase that may just serve to sum up the way I’m feeling this morning.  Gueule de bois, the french term for a ‘hangover’, literally translates as ‘wooden mouth’.  Two pots of Earl Grey, a can of Diet Coke and a litre of water and I’m still not feeling normal. I think today is going to be a quiet day spent in the kitchen and on the couch – luckily I have very little do to.

Rewind 18 hours or so, and I was sitting at a large table in Donde in Honor Oak Park with friends, celebrating my friend Dan‘s birthday.  We drank wine and sangria and feasted on plates of manchego with quince, cured meats, olives, grilled seafood, chorizo stews and some stunning morcilla that was so good I actually considered walking over this morning and ordering some more to help me through my current booze-soaked malaise.  We then headed back to Dan’s house for birthday cake and more wine. Perhaps a little too much wine, hence my state today.

I have a tradition for making towering layer cakes for Dan’s birthday and yesterday was no exception.  The Chocolate Behemoth, as it has come to be known is a four-layer chocolate cake, sandwiched with a rich chocolate buttercream and covered in a dark chocolate ganache.  It is a migrane-inducing chocoholic’s dream containing over half a kilogram of chocolate.  The sponge itself, although rich, is not too sweet, which prevents the cake from becoming too sickly.  Surprise ingredients such as dates, chilli and coffee give a warmth and richness without relying on too much sugar, and the use of cocoa powder instead of melted chocolate also tones down the sweetness.  We drunkenly got through far more slices than is acceptable and I have a suspicion that the leftovers will be scarfed for breakfast today.

A Late Night Cross-Section of the Chocolate Behemoth

A Late Night Cross-Section of the Chocolate Behemoth

The Chocolate Behemoth

For the chocolate sponge:

  • 220g dates, stoned and roughly chopped
  • 200ml coffee, made with a shot of espresso and topped up with boiling water
  • 100ml full-fat milk
  • 125g plain flour
  • 60g cocoa powder
  • ¼ tsp chilli powder
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 150g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 115g caster sugar
  • 50g dark brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

For the chocolate buttercream:

  • 225g dark chocolate, at least 70% cocoa solids, broken up
  • 750g icing sugar
  • 225g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 90ml full-fat milk
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • Small pinch salt

For the chocolate ganache:

  • 350g dark chocolate, at least 70% cocoa solids, chopped finely
  • 285ml whipping cream
  • 30g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ¼ tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 175ºc / 350ºf / gas 4.  Grease and line a round 8-inch cake tin with greaseproof paper.

Heat the milk in a pan until it reaches boiling point, remove from the heat and stir in the coffee.  Put the dates in a large bowl and pour over the milk and coffee mixture.  Leave to soak for around 20 minutes.  Once soft, puree the mixture in a food processor until smooth.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, chilli powder, cinnamon, bicarbonate of soda and salt and set aside.

In the bowl of a free-standing mixer, beat together the butter, caster sugar and brown sugar on a medium speed until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until well incorporated.  If the mixture looks like it is beginning to curdle, add a tablespoon of the flour mixture and it should bring it back together.  Add the vanilla extract and beat well.

With the mixer on a low speed, add the dry ingredients a little at a time, beating until just incorporated.  Be careful not to overmix.  Gently fold in the date puree until combined.  Scrape into the prepared cake tin and bake in the oven for around 50-60 minutes until risen and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.  Allow to cool in the tin and later on a cooling rack.

To make the buttercream, melt the chocolate in a glass bowl set over boiling water.  As soon as all of the chocolate has melted, remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.  In the bowl of a free-standing mixer, beat together the icing sugar, butter, milk, vanilla and salt until combined.  Beat for a further couple of minutes until the mixture becomes fluffy.  With the mixer on low, gradually add the cooled chocolate.  Beat on a medium speed until a thick and even chocolate buttercream is formed.

Using a serrated knife, slice the cooled cake into four layers.  Reserve the bottom layer to use as the top layer of the cake – the flat bottom will ensure a flat top on the cake.  Scoop some of the buttercream on to a layer of the cake and spread evenly using a palette knife.  Set the next layer on top and repeat the process until you have added the top layer.  Crumb coat the sides of the cake using a thin layer of buttercream and refrigerate for at least two hours – the ganache will be easier to spread on a cold cake.

To make the ganache, put a saucepan of water on to boil and reduce to a simmer – this will be used for a double boiler later, so ensure it is the right size to set a glass bowl on.  Put the chopped chocolate into a glass bowl and set aside.  In a separate saucepan, heat the cream, butter and vanilla until it just reaches boiling point – do not let the mixture boil.  Put the bowl of chocolate over the pan of simmering water and immediately pour the cream mixture over the chocolate.  Whisk together, using a balloon whisk, until all of the chocolate has melted and the mixture is thick and shiny.  Remove from the heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.

Remove the chilled cake from the fridge and set on a cooling rack over a baking sheet.  Pour the ganache, in one go, over the top of the cake and allow to flow down the sides.  The ganache will grip the cold buttercream and cover the sides of the cake.  You can gently use a palette knife to smooth any rough edges or cover any sparse areas.  Return the cake to the fridge for at least half an hour to set the ganache.

Once the ganache is set, you can pipe decorations on to the cake using melted chocolate or add your own decorations.  Serve the cake at room temperature.

Adapted from a recipe by Serious Eats

This recipe produces a mountain of chocolate buttercream – far more than you would ever need to use for the cake even if you are quite generous with your icing, as I am.  You can either polish it off with a spoon before shame leads you to throw the entire lot in the bin, or you can use it for something else.  Below is a recipe for some chocolate chip cupcakes that would benefit very well from a swirl of leftover chocolate buttercream. You may have to go on the word of my colleagues as to their taste, as I cannot bear eating any more chocolate after last night!

Chocolate Chip Cupcakes

Chocolate Chip Cupcakes

Chocolate Chip Cupcakes

  • 150g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 150g soft light brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 115g self-raising flour
  • 35g cocoa powder
  • 100g chocolate chips
  • Chocolate buttercream (see above)

Preheat the oven to 175ºc / 350ºf / gas 4.  Line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases.  This recipe made nine cupcakes, but if you use smaller cases, you may get 12 from the mixture.

In the bowl of a free-standing mixer, combine the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one by one, beating until smooth.  If the mixture looks like it is beginning to curdle, add a tablespoon of the flour mixture and it should bring it back together.  Fold in the flour, cocoa and chocolate chips, beating until just incorporated. Do not overmix.

Divide the mixture between the cupcake cakes and bake for around 25 minutes until risen and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean.  Leave to cool in the tin and later on a baking rack.

Finish with a swirl of chocolate buttercream.

When Nothing Else Will Do

In recent years, food writing has been heavily focused on nostalgia.  It is rare to find a cookbook that does not contain at least one recipe that the writer has found in an old relative’s recipe box or remembers from childhood.  Looking back, in part, gives us some comfort through the association of the food with better times or loved ones no longer with us, but also considering our own history and lives in food provides inspiration for what we may wish to cook in the future.  By understanding our relationship with out past and our relationship with food, we can create in a way that is individual to us and links feelings of family, heritage and continuity with the past with the present day.  Food is a very powerful trigger of memory and, in the same way that the smell of suntan lotion can take you right back to your first holiday or the smell of burnt petrol to your first car, the taste of something nostalgic can also give us a kind of happiness through remembrance.  The old cliché of married men preferring their mother’s cooking to their wife’s is indicative of this – it is not that the mother’s cooking is necessarily better (although she has, inevitably, had considerably more practice!) but it is this that the husband is used to and what he associates with the days of being looked after and of carefree responsibility.

Nan and I, Christmas 2008

Today I feel more nostalgic than usual as it is two years since my grandmother, known to us as Nan, passed away following a long illness.  A mere paragraph in a blog post would be insufficient to cover the many wonderful things about Nan, but I will just say that she was an exceptional person and the loss was felt by everybody that knew her.  Nan, unknowingly at the time, taught me two things that have come to shape my life enormously: how to read and how to bake.  As a young child, I spent most days at her house and we would read for hours on end.  There was a bookshop close to her house that would sell the Key Words with Peter and Jane books and, once I had mastered one, we would go and buy the next one.  Through this, I developed a love of writing that has not diminished after more than two decades.  Nan also taught me how to cook.  Whilst my younger brother would occupy his time with the Nintendo, I would be in the kitchen.  One of my earliest memories is being stood on a chair next to the kitchen worktop, rubbing butter into flour to make pastry.  Perhaps it was just her way to keep me occupied, but we would often make pies, cakes, jam tarts and biscuits.  She had very few gadgets by modern standards, so I learned how to make pastry by hand, cakes without a mixer and how to whip up cream using nothing but a hand whisk and a lot of effort.

When Nan passed away, my kitchen provided a welcome distraction. I had cleared out my diary for a couple of months to allow myself time to recover but the downside of this was that I had a lot of time to think.  Spending a couple of hours baking a cake or a loaf of bread gave me something else to think about.  The concentration and meticulousness of baking took my mind off my grief and gave me time to develop new skills.  When I felt ready, I wanted to start working on recreating one of  Nan’s favourite cakes: a simple fruit tea loaf.  She probably made one of these every week, a sturdy loaf of mixed fruit soaked in tea, and everybody loved them.  A slice, alongside a cup of strong tea, would greet every visitor to her house, and she would often wrap a slice in tin foil for them to take home if she felt she had a surplus.  Despite making this so often, she never wrote down the recipe.  My challenge to recreate this started with making every tea loaf recipe I could find to see which was the closest and, consequently, my boyfriend, friends and colleagues ended up eating a lot of cake.  Eventually, I created my own combination with aspects of each and am now pretty close to the original.  Like Nan, I make this cake a lot – when friends are visiting, to take into work for colleagues and, recently, for my boyfriend to take to France to give the ex-pats he was working with a dose of nostalgia.  Each time it comes out of the oven he remarks, “I think this may be your best one yet.”  To which I respond, “Perhaps, but it’s still not as good as Nan’s.”

Tea Loaf

Tea Loaf

Tea Loaf

Nan’s Tea Loaf

  • 400g mixed fruit
  • 250ml black Earl Grey tea, cooled
  • 75g light soft brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 250g self-raising flour

Put the mixed fruit in a large bowl and cover with the tea.  Cover with clingfilm and leave for a few hours, or preferably overnight.

Preheat the oven to 180ºc / 350 f / gas 4.  Grease and a 1kg loaf tin and line with greaseproof paper.

Add the egg and brown sugar to the fruit and tea mixture and stir until fully combined.  Add the flour, a little at a time, stirring after each addition until just incorporated.  When all the flour has been added you will have quite a thick batter.

Scrape this into the prepared pan and bake for about an hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.  You will be able to smell it when it is cooked!

Pumpkin, Part 3


OK, so the pumpkin thing was never meant to be a trilogy – the roasted pumpkin with tahini was supposed to simply be a savoury sequel to the pumpkin pie (and a way to use up the leftovers) – but then I couldn’t resist these muffins.  So this is now a three-parter, but given the abundance of pumpkin and squash at the moments, more recipes containing them can hardly be a bad thing.  Again, these are rather a good way of using up leftover pumpkin or squash as you only need about 250g (the average butternut weighs about a kilo) and you could easily modify the other ingredients to use up leftover bits you have hanging around the fridge, although we’ll get on to that later.

Savoury muffins, for me, are always the acceptable face of baking.  Yes, they’re technically a cake, but they also contain vegetables.  In fact, screaming “They contain vegetables!” is often a useful tool in deflecting the judgemental stares of a friend / relative / colleague to whom you recently bemoaned your weight gain and who knows you probably shouldn’t be reaching for that second (or third…) treat.  The fact that they contain vegetables means that you can get one of your five-a-day on the move and without resorting to supermarket salad pots to keep up the nutrient levels.  I know that two of my friends and fellow bloggers use savoury muffins as a tool to trick their children into eating more vegetables. Yep, if you are a salad-dodger, these are great.  If you eat them warm from the oven, you can even kid yourself that through the consumption of vegetables, protein (cheese) and carbs (dough) that one or two muffins equals a balanced meal.  Almost.

For me, the only cheese to set off the sweet pumpkin is a salty feta – it also keeps its shape during cooking and does not melt into the dough.  This combination alongside the tang of coriander and slight oiliness from the pine nuts makes for a handful of autumnal deliciousness.  As mentioned before, the individual components of this recipe are fairly small in quantity, so it is a great way to use up leftovers.  You could, of course, make some substitutions:  you could forgo the spinach in favour of other greens, replace the pine nuts with chopped walnuts or sunflower seeds or even use a different root vegetable instead of pumpkin.  I’ve tried this recipe with other cheeses and they do not tend to work as well, although if you are a fan of blue cheese, a crumble of Stilton or Dorset Blue Vinny may be an interesting substitute!

Savoury Pumpkin Muffins

  • 250g pumpkin or squash, cut into small cubes
  • 1 handful spinach
  • Small handful coriander leaves, chopped
  • 40g pine nuts, toasted
  • 40g parmesan
  • 100g feta, cut into small cubes
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tsp mustard powder
  • 175ml whole milk
  • 250g plain flour
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200ºc / 400ºf / gas 6.  Line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases or pleated baking parchment.

Put the squash on a roasting tray and coat with olive oil and salt.  Roast in the oven until tender and crispy at the edges.

Reserve a handful of the squash and tip the rest into a mixing bowl with the spinach, coriander, pine nuts, parmesan and 75g of the feta. and gently fold together.  Add the eggs and milk and beat together.  Sift together the flour, baking powder, mustard powder, salt and pepper and fold into the other ingredients until fully incorporated.  Do not overmix.

Spoon the mixture into the muffin cases, filling each one about ¾ full.  Top the muffins with the remaining pumpkin and feta and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes until risen and golden.

Recipe adapted from one by 101 Cookbooks