A simnel cake for Easter

April 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

I baked myself a traditional simnel cake last weekend just in time for Mothering Sunday. I was pleased with the end result and felt moved, albeit prematurely, to dig out the easter eggs I’d previously painstakingly blown and painted to complete the decoration of our Sunday lunch table.

Simnel cake was traditionally made for Mothering Sunday but has now become more usually associated with easter. It struck me as I gathered together the copious quantities of marzipan, butter, sugar, eggs and dried fruit needed for the cake that these ingredients seemed very much at odds with the spirit of the Lent fasting season. After all if we can’t even eat the humble pancake comprising just milk, flour and eggs after Shrove Tuesday how on earth would a cake like this be permitted?

I did a bit of research into the subject. One commentator suggests that the simnel cake was given as a gift on Mothering Sunday but put aside and not eaten until easter . This sounds unlikely and peculiarly ungenerous. I found a more likely explanation on a website devoted to the rites of Catholicism. Mothering Sunday coincides with Laetare “Rejoicing” Sunday close to the midpoint of Lent and on this day worshippers are permitted a bit of a breather from the strictures of the Lenten fast and may have a bit of a blow-out before resuming the fast the following day. This sounds much more plausible to me.

A properly made simnel cake is a lovely thing with the buried marzipan layer a delightful and finely flavoured surprise in its centre. I’m sorry but you really should make your own marzipan as the bought stuff is much sweeter than homemade and always has far too much almond flavouring added for my taste imparting a harsh chemical flavour to your otherwise lovely mellow cake

The Four Seasons Cookbook recipe on which I based my version of a simnel cake has perfect proportions for the specified 8 inch/20cm cake tin. The completed cake is golden in colour with a distinct citrus flavour from the combination of zest and candied peel. I found some rather pleasing golden sultanas (see pic) to heighten the golden colour of the cake.

Baking the cake presents something of a technical challenge as the usual test for doneness, sticking a skewer into the cake and seeing if it comes out clean, doesn’t work. The buried marzipan layer clings to the skewer come what may so the baker has to draw on other knowhow – checking for a slight shrinkage from the side and gently pressing the cake surface feeling for just the right degree of resistance. As always with rich fruit cakes, a long slow bake works best.

Simnel cake

Adapted from a recipe in Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book.

Ingredients

750g prepared weight of marzipan (homemade is best) divided into two pieces one slightly larger than the other plus a little sifted icing sugar for rolling out

175g unsalted butter
175g Demerara butter
3 eggs
1 tablespoon golden syrup
grated zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
225g plain flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon each of freshly grated nutmeg, ground cinnamon and ground allspice
450g currants
225g sultanas
115g chopped mixed candied peel
up to 150ml milk

To finish the cake

The second piece of marzipan plus a little sifted icing sugar (see above)

2 tablespoons sieved apricot jam or marmalade (or light coloured fruit jelly if you have some to hand)
a few Cadbury’s mini eggs or similar
an easter chick or two
pretty ribbon to tie around the cake

Roll out the smaller piece of marzipan into a round the exact size of the cake tin. No need to trim as it won’t be visible but will form a layer baked inside the cake, just press this disc into shape with your hands. Do this before lining the tin so you can use the base as a template.

Preheat the oven to 140 degrees C fan and fully line with double thickness of baking parchment a deep 20cm/ 8 inch loose-bottomed round cake tin.

Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat in first the tablespoon of golden syrup and grated orange and lemon zests then the eggs one at a time adding a tablespoon of flour after each addition of egg to help the mixture emulsify.

Stir the salt and spices into the remaining flour and fold into the mixture with the dried fruit. Finally stir in just enough milk to make the mixture a not too soft dropping consistency like a Christmas cake batter. If it’s too soft it won’t support the weight of all that dried fruit and the internal marzipan layer.

Spoon half the cake mixture into the prepared tin and level off. Carefully place the preshaped marzipan round onto the cake mixture and top with the remaining cake mixture. Level off and place into the preheated oven and bake until done, up to 3 and a half hours but could well be less depending on how your oven behaves at lower temperatures.

The usual technique of inserting a skewer into the cake and seeing if it comes out clean won’t work as even when the cake is baked into oblivion the marzipan layer leaves a false trace on the skewer. Instead, press the cake top gently to make sure it resists and look to see if the cake has shrunk just a little from the sides of the lined tin.

Leave the cake to cool in its tin for several hours or overnight until it is quite cold. This gives you time to gather together the bits and pieces needed to decorate and finish the cake.

Remove the cake from the tin and peel off and discard the layers of baking parchment. Knead and roll out the reserved marzipan to a thickness of no more than 1cm.

Brush the top of the cake with warmed sieved apricot jam, marmalade, apple jelly or similar – something with a suitably golden colour.

Invert the cake onto the rolled out marzipan and trim to a neat circle, reserving the trimmings for the traditional marzipan ball decoration.

Turn the cake the right way up and gently mark the top into large squares or, prettier still, into lozenges using a large cook’s knive. Try not to cut right through the marzipan.

To mark the top into lozenges first mark horizontal lines across the cake at a distance of c.2.5cm from each other. Then rotate the cake and mark another set of lines not at a 90 degree angle but offset so that the intersecting lines form lozenge or diamond shapes.

Slip the cake under a heated grill to lightly toast the surface to give an attractive finish to the cake. Be sure to watch it carefully at this stage so that it doesn’t catch and burn.

Make 11 small marzipan balls (the traditional number representing the apostles minus Judas) with the reserved marzipan trimmings and set these evenly around the cake, sticking them into place with a little more warmed jam if you like.

Complete the decoration by adding a few pastel coloured mini eggs and an Easter chick or two to the top of the cake and tying a decorative ribbon around its sides.

Central African Republic breakfast

January 30, 2014 § 2 Comments

The latest in our Breakfasts of the World Project series.

I’ve been well and truly caught out by events. When I began investigating the Central African Republic (“CAR”), it seemed to me to be one of the world’s most anonymous nations but has since been catapulted into the headlines following the outbreak of civil war.

The country’s population is estimated to be some 4.5 million in a country comparable in size to France, coincidentally the former colonial power. Much of the country is taken up by the Ubangi and Chari river basins. The capital city, Bangui, is on the banks of the mighty Ubangi river that flows south to Congo and defines the border between the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for much of its length.

Since gaining independence in 1960 the CAR seems to have suffered more of its fair share of misfortunes. The notorious Jean-Bédel Bokassa 1 was crowned “emperor” 1977 in a lavish ceremony watched by the world’s media. Since then, coup has followed coup more or less to the present day. Michel Djotodia, leader of the Séléka rebel alliance seized power March 2013 deposing President François Bozizé. The country has since descended into anarchy with the Christian anti-balaka militia (balaka means machete) retaliating against the mainly Muslim Séléka rebel group. Djotodia has now stepped down leaving a peacekeeping force of 1,600 French and 4,600 African troops vainly trying to control the violence. One can only hope that the new interim civilian government can deliver on its pledges to halt the violence and to organise elections by February 2015.

From this country of diamonds, timber, virgin rainforest and fertile river basins comes a recipe for the freshwater fish Nile Perch cooked in banana leaves. It seems somewhat frivolous to say so but is nevertheless true that this is a very attractive way of cooking and presenting any white fish fillets (I give the recipe below).

Given the circumstances, this was a somewhat sombre breakfast.

Somewhat to my surprise, I was able to source authentic Nile perch from online specialist retailer The Fish Society and found banana leaves in one of the specialist food shops in Manchester’s Chinatown.

Steamed Nile Perch in banana leaves

Serves 4. Recipe adapted from various internet sources.

Ingredients

4 fillets of Nile perch (capitaine in French)
4 banana leaves, halved
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
handful flatleaf parsley, roughly chopped
1 chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
3 small tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and sliced
salt and pepper to taste

Mix thoroughly together in a small bowl the chopped onion, garlic, parsley and chilli.

Arrange four pairs of halved banana leaves into rough cross shapes.

Put a quarter of the onion mixture in the centre of each pair of leaves then sit a fish fillet on top, followed by another spoonful of the onion mixture. Top with the tomato slices then wrap the banana leaves over the top to form a parcel and tie each one securely with string.

Place the banana leaf parcels on a rack set over a deep roasting dish half-filled with water.

Carefully transfer to an oven pre-heated to 200°C and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the fish is tender. Serve directly from the parcels and accompanied with fried plantains and/or boiled rice.

Filipino Pop-Up Restaurant: Typhoon Haiyan Fundraiser

November 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

It’s just over a week ago that my friend Gwyneth and I joined forces with our lovely cleaning lady Fe Silva and her formidable team drawn from our local Filipino community to put on a very special fundraising event to raise money for the UK Disaster Emergency Committees Philippines Typhoon Appeal.
Last Friday, 22 November, St Luke’s Church, Bowdon Vale in Cheshire was transformed from an austere place of worship into a lively restaurant packed with well-wishers and supporters:

It was Gwyneth’s young son Bill who came up with the idea. Moved by the plight of the Filipino people filling our television screens after the onslaught of Typhoon Haiyan and wanting to help Fe with whom he has a special bond, he came up with the idea of a cake stall outside his house to raise money. Within 48 hours, this seed of an idea quickly germinated and grew into a plan for a full-scale Pop-Up restaurant catering for up to 50 people, offering authentic Filipino food prepared and served by a team comprising Gwyneth and myself and members of the local Filipino community – Fe, Kai, her husband Russell, their daughter Maru, Vicky, Jane, her daughter Jasmine, Helen, Mira and Meridel.

Another 24 hours later, our local church – St Mary’s and St Luke’s had offered a venue free of charge, an initial donation to the appeal of £1,000 and just as importantly, encouragement and help with publicity.

Next step was to decide on the menu. This is what we came up with:

MENU

Empanadas – miniature pasties
(contain chicken and pork)

Asian salad (V)

Pan de Sal – Filipino bread rolls with crunchy breadcrumb topping

Chicken Adobo

Picadillo (minced beef and vegetables in spicy but not hot tomato sauce)

Vegetable chop suey (V)

Steamed rice

Filipino Cream Puffs

Tropical fruit platter

Mango ice-cream

Filipino coconut macaroons

Coffee, tea, mint tea

Gwyneth took on the empanadas, salad and chop suey; I opted for the Pan de Sal, Picadillo, ice cream, and shopping for the tropical fruit platetrs. Kai volunteered to make an authentic Chicken Adobo and Fe co-ordinated a battery of rice cookers and sack of imported Filipino rice. Further help came from the locally-based MD of Bakkavor Laurens Patisseries who offered several stacks of profiteroles aka Filipino cream puffs, an offer we gratefully accepted.

The next few days were focused on shopping for and preparing the various dishes and of course publicising the event and co-ordinating all the guests.

Here are Gwyneth’s beautiful-looking empanadas and chop suey vegetables (thanks to Jenny Peachey too for helping with the veg prep). It’s a shame we don’t have more pictures but to be honest we were focused on getting the event up and running:

Here are some of the mango ice-cream and tropical fruit platters. I discovered that canned mango makes an absolutely superb ice-cream with no need to search out the ripest mangoes and laboriously purée and sieve them. My knowledge of tropical fruit has been expanded too after a trip to the specialist Asian groceries of Chinatown, Levenshulme and Chorlton to track down papaya, custard apple, persimmons and the unusually flavoured guava as well as the more familiar mango, pineapple and grapes.

The Picadillo was quick and easy to make, incorporates loads of veggies so no need for a separate side dish. Served with rice, it’s going to become part of our family mealtime repertoire:

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Greatest fun for me was making the Pan de Sal rolls – delicious soft and puffy brioche-like rolls made with the secret Filipino ingredient, evaporated milk, and with an intriguing breadcrumb topping:

Sorry there are no pictures of the coconut macaroons – they disappeared in a flash!

All bar two of the evening’s recipes are given below in case you’d like to try them yourselves at home. Kai has yet to divulge the secret of an authentic Adobo, and similarly Gwyneth’s husband Graeme is keeping his crunchy and vibrant Asian salad recipe close to his chest.

We’re so grateful for all the help and support we received and absolutely delighted to have raised the sum of £7,467.50 for such a worthwhile cause.

Pan de Sal – Filipino bread rolls

Adapted from a recipe on Allrecipes.com. Makes 20.

Ingredients

6g fast action instant dried yeast (the kind that can be mixed directly with the flour)
5g salt
500g strong plain flour
50g golden caster sugar
50g butter
2 eggs
240g canned evaporated milk
1-2 tablespoons milk sufficient to form a soft pliable dough
50g fine dried breadcrumbs
additional evaporated milk for dipping

Mix the yeast, flour, sugar and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Rub in the butter then pour in the eggs and evaporated milk and mix well together adding a little additional milk to the mixture to form into a soft dough. Knead for 12 minutes. A mixer with a dough hook makes this job easy but you will need to scrape down the sides of the bowl several times during the process. Form the dough into a ball, oil lightly, cover and leave to prove for 2 hours until the dough has increased in bulk noticeably. It probably won’t have doubled in size.

Divide the dough into quarters using scales, then divide each quarter into 5 small balls. Each ball will weigh 48-49g.

Form the mixture into small balls (weigh each one) and shape into rolls with a smooth top. Dip each ball in more evaporated milk then in dry crumbs. Place the rolls on a baking sheet crumb side up. Cover and prove for up to a further hour until noticeably enlarged (again they won’t quite double in size).

Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C. Slip the rolls into the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 180 degrees C. Bake for 8 minutes then reduce the heat again to 170 degrees C and bake for 5 more minutes until the rolls are golden-brown top and bottom and are completely baked. Cool on a wire rack.

Filipino Empanadas

A hybrid recipe: the filling comes from Charmaine Solomon’s “The Complete Asian Cookbook” paired with an empanada pastry recipe suitable for baking rather than deep frying. Makes about 20.

Ingredients

Pastry

300g unsalted butter
600g plain flour
teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
6-8 tablespoons water
more beaten egg to glaze

Filling

3 rashers bacon
1 tbsp lard or oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium onion
250g pork and veal mince or Spanish sausage, finely chopped
125g finely chopped raw chicken
¾ tsp salt
¼ tsp ground black pepper
2 tbsp tomato sauce
3 hardboiled eggs, chopped
2 tbsp chopped pickled gherkins

Begin by making the pastry. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and set aside to cool a little. Sift flour and salt into a bowl and mix well. Add the melted butter and beaten egg to the flour and salt and mix to incorporate, adding a little water as you do so to make a soft, pliable dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and need for about 2 minutes until smooth. Return the dough to the bowl, cover and set aside while you prepare the filling.

Remove any rind then chop the bacon into small pieces and fry until the fat runs. Remove the bacon from pan, add lard or oil and fry garlic and onion over a low heat until soft and golden. Increase the heat, add the meats and fry, stirring, until they change colour. Add salt, pepper and tomato sauce, stir well. Lower the heat, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Stir in hardboiled eggs and pickled gherkins and allow to cool before using the filling. Taste and add more seasoning if necessary.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C and line 2 large baking trays with parchment.
Divide the dough in half and roll out the first piece to 3mm thickness. Stamp out as many discs as you can using a 12cm cutter. You can of course make smaller empanadas by using a smaller diameter cutter and less filling. Put a dessertspoon of filling onto the centre of each disc, brush the edges with water and fold in half to make a semicircle. Press the edges together firmly and either mark with the tines of a fork or crimp to seal decoratively. Place on a baking tray. Repeat with the second piece of dough then reroll the trimmings and repeat once more. You can of course make smaller empanadas by using a smaller diameter cutter and less filling

Brush the empanadas on the tray with beaten egg and bake in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Best served warm.

Filipino Style Picadillo

A recipe collated from various sources. Kai says that to be authentic, this should be runny, almost a soup. To make serving easier, we cooked the mixture down until it was thick and reduced, more like a chili.

Ingredients

2-3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
500g lean minced beef
1 beef stock cube
240ml water
1 can chopped tomatoes (14oz)
2 tbsp tomato ketchup
1 tbsp fish sauce
150g (approx) waxy potatoes (eg Charlotte variety) unpeeled, scrubbed and diced
gnerous handful of frozen peas
1-2 peeled diced carrots
1 small diced red pepper
salt and pepper to taste

Fry the onions and garlic in the vegetable oil until soft and golden(about 10 minutes). Add the minced beef and cook until brown. Add the tomato sauce, fish sauce, ketchup, stock cube and water Add potatoes and bring to the boil. Cook, uncovered over a medium heat for about 20 minutes. Add the vegetables and a little salt and pepper and bring back to the boil then simmer for 5 minutes to cook the vegetables. Taste and add more salt, pepper, ketchup and/or fish sauce if required.

Filipino Vegetable Chop Suey

A recipe compiled from various sources. We made our version suitable for vegetarians but non-vegetarians can use chicken rather than vegetable stock and fish sauce rather than soy sauce to boost the flavour.

Ingredients

1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 onion, sliced
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into batons
1 small head cauliflower, separated into small florets
7-8oz baby corn, trimmed and halved lengthwise
1 small head broccoli, head cut into small florets, stalk peeled and cut into batons
1 stalk celery, cut into batons
1 green or red pepper, halved, deseeded and cut into strips
8-9 oz green beans, trimmed
1 small chayote, cut into batons (courgette suggested as substitute or make up with more of the other vegetables)
4 oz mangetout, trimmed
half head cabbage, outer leaved removed, quartered and thick stalks removed then shredded
2 teaspoons vegetable stock powder
1 tablespoon cornflour
235 ml milk
235 ml water
salt, pepper, soy sauce to season

In a wok or large pan heat the oil then fry the garlic and onion until golden brown.

Add the vegetables except the cabbage in the order listed above (firmest first) to the pan stir fry each for a few minutes before adding the next. This process should take 15-20 minutes in total.

Meanwhile slake the cornflour with some of the water.

Sprinkle the stock powder over the vegetables then add the water, milk and slaked cornflour to the pan and bring to the boil, stirring as the cornflour thickens the mixture.

Season with salt, pepper and soy sauce, stir, then throw in the shredded cabbage, cover with a lid and allow the cabbage to steam until just done, about 3 minutes. Stir and it’s ready to serve.

Mango ice-cream

Charmaine Solomon recipe from Philippines chapter of Asian Cookbook modified by me. She says it serves 6 – I think this quantity will serve 12 or more.

Ingredients

2 large egg yolks (70g)
1 teaspoon cornflour
50g golden caster sugar
470g milk, whole or semi-skimmed
further 33g golden caster sugar
2.5 sheets leaf gelatine soaked in a little cold water for 5 minutes
450-500g mango pulp (I used approx. 3 cans Sainsbury’s canned mango in light syrup drained, pureed and sieved to remove fibrous bits)
2.5 sheets leaf gelatine
200g whipping or double cream

Whisk the egg yolks with 50g sugar and the teaspoon of cornflour in a bowl until thick and light. Heat the milk with the remaining 33g sugar in a small saucepan until nearly boiling. Be sure to stir to dissolve the sugar while the milk heats. Pour the hot milk onto the yolks whisking constantly then return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over a very low heat until it coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat, allow to cool for a minute or two then add the softened gelatine and stir to dissolve.

Now stir in the mango pulp followed by the cream. Chill then pour the mixture into an ice-cream machine. Churn until frozen then pack into a freezer box and freeze until firm. Transfer the ice-cream from the freezer to the refrigerator approx. 40 minutes before serving to soften.

Filipino Coconut Macaroons

Adapted from various internet recipes hence the US cup measures. Unlike a traditional coconut macaroon that can be a touch dry, these macaroons are soft, chewy and tooth-achingly sweet and we think they’re best enjoyed petit-four sized to serve with coffee. Makes 40-50 petit four sized macaroons.

Ingredients

1/3 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup golden caster sugar
2 eggs
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup flour
2 cups desiccated coconut
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at time, then add condensed milk and vanilla extract and continue to beat until blended. A hand blender makes short work of this task.

In a medium bowl, combine flour and desiccated coconut. Add to egg mixture and beat until combined.

Spoon or pipe the mixture into petit four cases and bake in a 170 degrees C oven for about 15 to 20 minutes or until golden. Cool on a wire rack.

Bat cakes for a Night at the Opera

September 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

The opera in question was Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Clonter Opera Cheshire’s summer production. We’ve been going to Clonter for a number of years now and theming the dessert course of our opera picnic seems to have become my speciality.

Die Fledermaus is a light-hearted operetta composed by Johann Strauss the younger in 1874. It’s location is Vienna and the plot revolves around a ball set-piece scene, lots of disguises (including the bat costume) and all the silliness ends happily with forgiveness and reconciliation.

The combination of the bat image combined with the Viennese setting led me to the idea of a chocolate-bat decorated individual Sachertorte, Vienna’s iconic cake, as the centrepiece of my dessert. The Hotel Sacher has updated its chocolate cake offering by selling indvidual ganache-enrobed cubes of chocolate cake each topped with a chocolate seal. I loved the idea of these and thought they would look great topped with a discreet dark chocolate bat rather than the corporate Sacher logo.

Where on earth would I find bat-shaped confectionery in summer? There were various Halloween-themed bits and pieces available online but nothing the right size. Then I thought of Slattery’s, North Manchester’s own chocolatier. A quick phone call to John Slattery himself and two dozen bats were lined up ready for collection in two days’ time. I was even offered a choice of sizes. What service!

A single piece of chocolate cake was not going to be a show-stopper on its own so I decided that the Sachertorte would be one component within a dessert Bento-style box.

Our local cake shop supplied me (for a price!) with 12 cupcake boxes, one per guest, in a clean white card and cellophane window design that were perfect for my requirements. Sturdy enough for stacking and transport and flat-pack disposable for an easy clean-up at the end of the evening.

Now with box dimensions to work with I could visualise more easily what else I needed to complete the box. Vienna is famous for its cakes, in particular luscious layered tortes. After researching classic Viennese cakes I chose to construct a miniaturised version of the Esterházy Torte, a multilayered construction sandwiching nut sponge layers with a vanilla and nut flavoured cream, topped with a traditional feather-iced pattern.

That was two corners of the box taken care of. Now for the other two. I needed something to offset the sweet and dense cakes. A simple fruit compôte would be perfect and I chose apricot as both the Sacher and Esterházy Tortes use lots of sieved apricot jam in their construction so the flavours should be harmonious. Also, the best reason of all, apricots were in season and in peak condition.

Next I needed cream to set off both the tortes and the compôte. Sachertorte is traditionally served with a cloud of whipped cream but I like to combine Greek yoghurt and softly whipped cream 50:50, flavour it with real vanilla extract and lightly sweeten with icing sugar for a lighter, fresher result.

The apricot compôte and whipped cream could be served in transparent deli-style sealed cartons stacked one on top of each other. That left the final corner of the box to fill. What could I do here? I thought of chocolate-dipped Viennese fingers or sandwiched Viennese whirls, but these seemed to owe more to Mr Kipling than any true Viennese heritage. I then frantically thought of mini Kugelhopfs, perhaps marbled chocolate and vanilla, then had a memory flash back to my childhood when elaborate pink decorated tins of Viennese coffee flavoured with dried fig seasoning (can that really taste good?) used to be on sale. Maybe I could come up with a mini coffee meringue topped with fresh figs?

Finally I told myself to STOP and follow my own mantra of Less is More. I need not rush round the kitchen becoming frazzled before an evening at the opera. I filled the last corner of the box with a napkin, some disposable wooden cutlery (so much nicer than plastic) and the most elegant disposable plastic wine glass I could find. I then packed some half bottles of Hungary’s famous dessert wine Tokaji to serve alongside. Perfect.

Here’s the end result first with the box open:

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and then closed ready for packing and transport to Clonter:

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OK so that’s the overview, now for detail on the construction of the individual elements.

The Hotel Sacher recipe for Sachertorte is a closely guarded secret but fortunately it’s Mary Berry to the rescue. I used her Great British Bake Off recipe featured on the BBC Food website as the base for my Sachertorte cubes. Interestingly this is similar but not identical to the Sachertorte recipe featured in her Baking Bible. I doubled the recipe quantity given below and baked it in two 23cm (9 inch) square tins.

I then sandwiched the cakes together a generous quantity with sieved apricot jam flavoured with a little Amaretto liqueur (perfect as it is itself made from the bitter almond flavoured apricot kernels) and sharpened up with a spritz of lemon juice.

I trimmed the cakes, cut them neatly into 16 cubes and brushed each cube generously with more of that sieved apricot jam.

It was shaping up to be a warm, humid day so rather than a classic cream and chocolate ganache icing I chose to make the chocolate and butter ganache I’ve used before on the Ottolenghi golden clementine cake. You can find the recipe here. This worked a treat setting to a glossy sheen thanks to the honey and butter in the recipe. I needed to make a double quantity of the icing to coat all of the cubes but could probably have got away with 1 and a half times the recipe.

Finally, each individual cube was topped with one of those chocolate bats carefully transported home from Slattery’s and they were left in the cool cellar until being packed up in double white fluted cake cases later in the afternoon.

Moving on the Esterházy Torte. A classic version of this cake comprises a majestic 5 layers of nut flavoured cake sandwiched with nut and vanilla flavoured cream. The nuts might be toasted almonds or hazelnuts depending on your preferred version of the cake. There seem to be countless subtly different versions of this recipe out there so I combined features of several recipes and scaled the quantities down in order to come up with the recipe I give below for mini Esterházy tortes comprising just 2 cake layers sandwiching a layer of vanilla nut cream.

These were straightforward enough to make being similar to a macaroon batter but much easier to handle thanks to the differing proportions of egg whites, nuts and sugar.

For the filling, I reached for my failsafe Lenôtre vanilla buttercream recipe which I learned when making macarons a couple of years ago. To complete the vanilla cream I folded in some more of the toasted ground hazelnuts.

The next step before assembling the tortes was to ice the tops with the distinctive feathered icing which is an essential feature of the Esterházy torte. Despite my many years of baking this was to be a first for me and the result was going to be on show to 12 opera guests so no pressure… I decided to ice a few extra tops to make sure that at least 12 of the lids would make the grade. This proved to be a wise decision as there are plenty of pitfalls for the unwary…

The cake tops were first brushed with sieved apricot jam to create a barrier preventing the icing from being absorbed into the cake surface. I’d made my water icing using a newly available product on my local supermarket shelves, fondant icing sugar. I’d hoped this would give me the smooth glossy effect of true fondant icing but this stuff is a bit of a cheat as it’s merely regular icing sugar with a little added powdered glucose. This does give a nice sheen to the finished product but produces a slow-setting permanently soft icing which frankly is a pain to work with. Next time I will use ordinary icing sugar.

The contrasting colour in the feathered icing comes from melted dark chocolate. The addition of a little vegetable oil to the chocolate produces a softer slower-setting result giving you time to work the feathered pattern. I forgot the oil which made life difficult as by the time I had piped lines of dark chocolate onto a row of lids, the chocolate had set rock-solid before I had chance to try out my feathering skills.

I changed tack and piped a single lid with 3 neat parallel lines of chocolate and immediately ran the wooden skewer through in a perpendicular direction. This worked fine except that I set the lids down to dry at a slight angle and 5 minutes later the slow-setting fondant icing (see my comments above) had slid off onto the kitchen work surface. Very frustrating.

I managed to turn out 12 acceptable lids and left the rejects for home consumption later. Once the icing had dried for a couple of hours, it was time for final assembly. I chose to transport the Esterházy tortes in clear plastic clamshells designed for cupcakes and these proved to be perfect for protecting the delicate tortes. I place a torte base in the bottom of the clamshell, piped a disc of buttercream on top and gently placed the iced top-layer in position, applying just a little pressure to hold everything together.

On to the apricot compôte. This was relatively straightforward to make after the two complex mini-cakes, but with its sharp refreshing sweetness a very welcome element in the dessert box. I didn’t want a babyfood-smooth purée, nor did I want something resembling a can of apricot halves in syrup. What was required was something nice and thick but with a bit of chunky texture. I thought I could achieve the texture I wanted by gently poaching the peeled apricot slices in vanilla-scented sugar syrup, carefully draining the fruit then puréeing half of it before combining it with the remainder of the fruit cut into pieces. This worked a treat. The compôte was thoroughly chilled in the fridge before spooning neatly into small clear plastic deli-style containers.

The final step was to pipe my Greek yoghurt and vanilla cream into similar deli-style pots in a relaxed swirl – more elegant than just dolloping it in to the pots.

After 2 days’ work I was finally all done and packed up. The boxes and their contents travelled brilliantly and, sigh, were consumed in the interval in a matter of minutes.

Recipe for Sachertorte

Adapted from a Mary Berry Great British Bake Off recipe on bbc.co.uk/food. This quantity of cake batter makes a single layer cake. A double quantity is required to make 16 cake cubes.

Ingredients

140g plain chocolate broken into small pieces (or use professional baking drops or buttons)
140g unsalted butter, softened
115g golden caster sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
5 eggs, separated
85g ground almonds
55g sifted plain flour

1. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C (fan). Grease and line with silicone paper your chosen cake tin. This quantity of cake batter will make a slim single layer cake if baked in a 23cm round tin, or a chunky layer for a two layer cake if baked in a 23cm square tin.
2. Melt the chocolate over a pan of simmering water. Remove and cool slightly.
3. Cream the butter and sugar together very well until really light. There is no raising agent in this cake so the only lift comes from air incorporated at this stage and when the beaten egg whites are incorporated.
4. Add the cooled melted chocolate and vanilla extract and beat again. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time then fold in the ground almonds and sifted flour.
5. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they are stiff but not dry. Add about one third of the whisked egg whites to the chocolate mixture and stir will to mix in. This will lighten the mixture and make it easier to incorporate the remaining whisked egg white without beating all the air out.
6. Gently fold in the remaining egg whites.
7. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and level the surface with a palette knife.
8. Bake for 40-50 minutes until well risen and the top springs back when gently pressed with your forefinger. The shallower 23cm square cake will cook more quickly whereas the deeper 23cm round cake will need a little longer in the oven.
9. Leave the cake to cool in the tin for 15-20 minutes then turn out onto a wire rack to complete cooling.
10. Glaze, ice, fill and decorate according to your chosen recipe and desired finish. A sieved apricot jam glaze topped with chocolate ganache icing is traditional.

Recipe for mini Esterházy Tortes

Makes 16-18 sandwich cakes (32-36 individual cake discs).

Ingredients

For the cake layers

210g egg white (whites of approx. 6 eggs)
250g golden caster sugar
125g ground hazelnuts, lightly toasted
2 and a half tablespoons flour

To complete

1 quantity vanilla buttercream
85g ground hazelnuts, lightly toasted
Sieved apricot jam
1 quantity thick water icing made with 200g icing sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice, a tablespoon of schnapps and water to mix
50g dark chocolate melted with a teaspoon of flavourless oil

Begin by making the mini cake layers. Preheat the oven to 150 degrees C (fan). Whisk the egg whites until foamy then add the sugar a couple of tablespoons at a time whisking after each addition. Continue whisking until the meringue mixture is stiff. Fold in the flour and toasted ground hazelnuts. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag fitted with a 1cm nozzle and pipe small discs 4-5cm in diameter onto baking sheets lined with silicone paper or a non-stick liner. Leave about 2cm space between each disc to allow air to circulate to achieve an even bake. They don’t spread as they bake. Bake for about 15 minutes until the discs are a light golden colour. Allow to cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes or so before carefully transferring to a rack with a palette knife to complete cooling.

Prepare the vanilla buttercream using the recipe given in the link above. Stir in the ground almonds. Set aside.

Divide the cake discs into two halves, one group will be the tops and the other the bottoms. Brush the smooth side of the tops with sieved apricot jam and leave to set for a few minutes. Feather-ice the tops by piping 3 parallel evenly spaced lines of dark chocolate across the freshly applied thick water icing layer and immediately drawing a wooden skewer through the chocolate lines at right angles. The chocolate is easily piped from a small piping bag made from a folded triangle of greaseproof paper with a tiny hole snipped off at the pointed end. Each draw of the skewer should be evenly spaced and parallel to form the feathered pattern. Three or four draws of the skewer should be about right for these small cakes. The feathering technique is more easily explained with diagrams and pictures so I’d suggest looking first at a detailed cake decorating book or at some of the videos available online (search terms marbled or feathered icing) if you’re trying this for the first time.

Leave the iced tops to set for a couple of hours before final assembly.

Assemble the cakes by piping a disc of buttercream onto the cake base. Use a disposable piping bag fitted with a 1cm nozzle. Set the iced layer on top and press gently to adhere.

Recipe for stone fruit compôte

Ingredients

800g-1kg ripe but not overripe stone fruit (eg apricots, peaches, nectarines or plums) peeled, stones removed and sliced
750 ml water
375g golden granulated or caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, split in half
2-3 strips lemon peel
juice of a lemon

Make a syrup by bringing to the boil the sugar and water. Add the vanilla pod, lemon peel strips and lemon juice.

Poach the prepared fruit for 5-10 minutes until tender but not too pulpy. You may need to do this in batches.

Remove the poached fruit from the syrup with a slotted spoon. Purée about half of the poached fruit in a food processor or liquidiser. Cut the remaining poached fruit into bite sized chunks. Combine the fruit purée and chunks adding a little more poaching syrup if needed.

Chill until ready to serve. Don’t throw the deliciously scented poaching syrup away – keep it in the fridge and use as the base for a soft drink or cocktail.

Easy summer recipes: slow-roast beet salad

August 23, 2013 § 2 Comments

I used to think of beetroot as an autumn or winter vegetable until, rather taking me unawares, the deep red globes ready for harvest bulged through the soil of our first year vegetable plot earlier this month.

Here’s an idea to make the most of summer beets – it makes a light lunch for two or would stretch to 3 or 4 if served with other salads.

My photo is nothing to write home about – truth be told I added the watercress to the bowl before the beets had cooled sufficiently which made it wilt rather unattractively. It tasted really good though and I’m looking forward to making it again as soon as the next batch of beetroot is ready.

L1060173

Recipe for slow roast beet salad with watercress, blue cheese and walnuts

Ingredients

2 medium beetroot, washed with taproot trimmed and leaves removed but leaving an inch or two of stalk
scant handful of walnut pieces
half a bunch watercress
scant handful of crumbled blue cheese – I used Cashel Blue made in Ireland and stocked by Marks & Spencer as well as specialist cheese shops

For the dressing

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper
Squeeze of clear honey (approx 1 dessertspoon)
1 dessertspoon balsamic vinegar
grated zest and juice of half a large orange
1 small clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon snipped chives

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees C (fan).

Wrap the beets together in a foil parcel, place the parcel on a baking tray to catch any leaking beet juices. Bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours until tender. Test by piercing the beets with a sharp knife which should slide in easily when they are ready.

Meanwhile make the dressing by whisking together all the dressing ingredients in the medium bowl in which you plan to serve the salad. Taste and correct seasoning.

Once the roast beets are cool enough to handle but are still quite warm, peel them with the help of a sharp knife if necessary, slice them into wedges and add to the bowl containing the salad dressing. Stir to combine and leave for 15 minutes or so to allow the beets to absorb some of the dressing.

Add the watercress to the bowl and toss gently to combine. Finally scatter over the walnut pieces and crumbled blue cheese and you’re ready to serve.

Cape Verdean breakfast

August 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Imagine unspoilt castaway islands. With bone-white beaches that you can bag all to yourself. And a unique blend of African, Portuguese and Brazilian cultures. No wonder summer holidays to Cape Verde are the hottest buzzword in travel right now. Marooned off the west coast of Africa, they sit serenely and modestly – almost as if they’re hoping to shirk the limelight.”

So says the blurb on the Thomson holidays website which is a pretty good introduction to the Cape Verde archipelago. This group of 10 main islands and 5 smaller islets, most of which are mountainous but with some fertile land, was uninhabited until its discovery by Portuguese explorers in 1456. Just for the record, the largest island is Santiago, the capital city is Praia and the islands gained independence from Portugal in 1975.

The strategic location of the islands lying in the Atlantic off the coast of West Africa meant that they became an important staging post in both the slave and whaling trades. Interestingly, there are more Cape Verdeans and their descendants living abroad than there are on the islands themselves having left the islands during various waves of emigration. Music and football are clearly important elements of the Cape Verdean culture. Famous musicians of Cape Verdean descent include Lena Horne and the Tavares Brothers – Ralph, Pooch, Chubby, Butch and Tiny – perhaps most famous for their rendition of “More Than A Woman” on the seminal Saturday Night Fever soundtrack from the seventies. Well known footballers of Cape Verdean descent include Nani, Henrik Larsson, Gelson Fernandes and Patrice Evra.

The food of the islands is very much a reflection of its history and geography – a fusion of Portuguese, South American and African ingredients. Nowhere is this more true than in Cachupa, the islands’ national dish, a hearty stew of hominy corn, red kidney beans, spicy linguiça sausage, salt pork, sweet potato, potato, tomatoes, onion and cabbage. Fortunately for me, Cachupa refogada, left over cachupa reheated and fried with plenty of softened onion is a typical breakfast dish so it had to go on the menu.

The recipe I used for Cachupa is adapted from this one http://www.mistress-of-spices.com/2011/03/cachupa-national-dish-of-cape-verde.html

I decided to add another typical Cape Verdean dish, cuscus, to round off my breakfast menu. I found a video recipe here presented by the charming but oddly named Ideally Ilca on her Island Cuisine channel. White cornmeal is mixed with water to form little pellets. The resulting cuscus is steamed in a cake shape then served as a breakfast cereal flavoured with sugar and powdered cinnamon and eaten with cold milk. I followed Ms Ilca’s instructions to the letter and ended up with a successful plateful of Cape Verdean comfort food, agreeably soothing after the spicy Cachupa refogada:

Finding the recipes was the easy part: somewhat more of a challenge was tracking down authentic ingredients. Let’s start with hominy corn. I didn’t even know precisely what it was until I consulted Harold McGee. His encyclopaedic “On Food and Cooking” explains succinctly that “hominy consists of whole corn kernels…cooked for 20-40 minutes in a solution of lime or lye then washed of their hulls and excess alkaline solution.” The process is known as nixtamalization from an Aztec word and though it sounds a bit yucky and chemical-infused in fact produces a tasty, chewy and nutritious end result.

I tracked my hominy corn plus white cornmeal for my Cape Verdean cuscus down from ever-reliable Mexican food specialists The Cool Chile company. I sourced my linguiça sausage, plus a few extra Portuguese goodies, from the straightforwardly named www.portuguesefood.co.uk.

I packed up my specialist ingredients and headed for the coast to prepare and cook my Cape Verdean breakfast – nowhere exotic, just the good old British seaside. We were joined for a long weekend by friends Mike, Theo and Christopher who tucked in manfully (though I suspect they were hoping for a full English…)

Pass the piri piri sauce please. Did someone say it’s just like Nando’s?

Recipe for Cachupa Rica

Adapted from a recipe on “Mistress of Spices” blog.

Serves 8-12 depending on appetite.

500g dried hominy corn
250g dried red kidney beans
8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 litre water
1 litre vegetable or chicken stock
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
250g linguiça (or chorizo) cut into 1cm dice
500g thick piece of unsmoked bacon into 1cm dice
1 tablespoon chilli powder
4 small waxy potatoes scrubbed and quartered
1 sweet potato, peeled and quartered
1/4 white cabbage, sliced
2 carrots, chopped
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped

Rinse the corn and the beans. Drain and set aside.

Heat 4 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large lidded saucepan or stockpot. Add half of the chopped onion and one bay leaf. Sauté until the onions are translucent. Add the corn and the beans. Stir well and add the water. Bring to the boil, then cover, reduce the heat and simmer for 2 hours. Add the stock and continue simmering until the corn and beans are soft and cooked through (this may take a further 2 hours ie 4 hours in total).

In a second large lidded pot, heat the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the remaining chopped onion, garlic and one bay leaf. Stir well and sauté until the onions are translucent.

Add the linguiça, bacon and chili powder. Stir gently over a low heat until cooked through, about 15-20 minutes.

Add the cooked corn and beans and their cooking liquid to the meat mixture. Then add the potatoes and cabbage, mix well, add tomatoes and cook until the vegetables are tender and the liquid reduced, about 15-20 minutes.

Taste and correct seasoning. Cachupa tastes even better the next day sautéed with some chopped onion for breakfast, called Cachupa refogada.

Recipe for Cape Verdean Cuscus

From the Island Cuisine channel on Youtube.

3 cups finely ground white cornmeal
Sugar to taste
Cinnamon
1 cup water

Add the water to the cornmeal very slowly. Mix with your hands to form a clumpy mix. Put in double boiler (I used a steamer set over a pan of boiling water). Sprinkle with plenty of powdered cinnamon.

Steam for 25 mins. It will form a sliceable cake. Serve with cold milk, honey, butter and coffee.

Supplier details

http://www.coolchile.co.uk/ Supplier of hominy corn and authentic Mexican ingredients

www.portuguesefood.co.uk Supplier of Portuguese sausages, hams, wine and other goodies.

Cod from the Suffolk coast

June 6, 2013 § 2 Comments

We’re just back from our family holiday to Southwold on the Suffolk coast. I went with intentions of cooking lots of the wonderful fresh fish you can buy there straight from the fishermens’ boats. We did indeed eat plenty of fresh fish – crab salad with new potatoes, skate wing with black butter and capers, crispy battered fish and chips, flavourful fish stew with French bread – but embarrassingly this was all eaten in Southwold’s many pubs and restaurants.

Shamed, as we prepared to drive home on Saturday morning, we called in at Samantha K’s fish shack on Southwold’s Blackshore harbour, to pick up whatever looked most tempting. That turned out to be a lovely piece of cod, from a fish caught on the tiny fishing boat Laura K and landed the evening before, its grey-green mottled skin a thing of beauty.

Back home that evening, I cooked one of my favourite fish recipes, Cod with Cabbage, Bacon and Peas from Gary Rhodes’ 1994 cookbook “Rhodes around Britain”. The cod is skinned (on reflection this isn’t necessary) and briefly seared in a hot pan before being finished in a hot oven. It’s served with mashed potato and a butter-enriched broth containing pieces of smoked bacon, onion, shredded green cabbage and peas. It’s a perfect dish for late spring combining all that’s good about fish pie with the lightness of a flavoursome broth and new season green vegetables.

I still haven’t found an entirely satisfactory fish cookery book – I get a little bored as they descend into encylopaedic lists of uncommon fish species (am I really likely to come across a walleye, pompano or porgy on my local market stall?) or obscure definitions (pelagic, epipelagic, demersal and the like…). My favourite fish recipes are dotted about here and there in different books, clippings and folders.

When deciding what to do with my lovely piece of cod it was a close run thing between the Gary Rhodes recipe and one from Simon Hopkinson’s best book, coincidentally also from 1994 “Roast Chicken and Other Stories”. This recipe requires the cod to be poached and served with braised Puy lentils and a punchy salsa verde. I’ve included it as a second recipe here as it sounds so good and I don’t want to forget about it.

Recipe for cod with cabbage, bacon and peas

Adapted from a recipe in Gary Rhodes’ “Rhodes around Britain”.

Ingredients

4 smoked back bacon rashers, rinded and cut into strips
2 onions, finely chopped
25g unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
600ml chicken stock (homemade or a good quality bought fresh stock rather than from a cube)
½ green cabbage, finely shredded
100g fresh podded or frozen peas
25-50g soft unsalted butter
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 thick pieces cod fillet, skin on, each one 175-225g
a little vegetable oil
knob of unsalted butter

To serve

1 quantity mashed potatoes made with 900g floury potatoes (Maris Piper or Vivaldi); plenty of unsalted butter, salt, pepper and a little grated nutmeg

Make sure you have all the recipe ingredients, pans and utensils prepped and ready before you begin cooking as the vegetables and fish each take only a few minutes to cook. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C fan.

Prepare the mashed potatoes and keep warm.

Gently fry the bacon and onions in 25g of the butter and the tablespoon of olive oil until soft (about 10 minutes). Add the chicken stock and bring to the boil. Cover, turn off the heat and set aside for a moment while you start the cooking of the fish.

Heat a little vegetable oil and a knob of unsalted butter in a large frying pan with a heatproof handle. When hot, put in the pieces of cod fillet skin-side down and fry for 2 minutes. Place the frying pan into the preheated oven for 3-4 minutes (170 degrees C fan), depending on the thickness of your fish.

While the fish is in the oven, bring the stock back to the boil and add the shredded cabbabge and peas and cook at a brisk boil until tender but retaining a little bite and vibrant green colour.This will take only a few minutes.

The fish will now be ready. Remove it from the oven but keep it warm while you finish the bacon and vegetable broth by whisking in 25-50g unsalted butter in pieces (the amount you choose to whisk in is up to you).

Divide the hot mashed potato between 4 shallow bowls. Sit the fish on top of the mashed potato skin side up and spoon the broth and vegetables around.

Recipe for poached cod with lentils and salsa verde

From Simon Hopkinson’s 1994 book “Roast Chicken and Other Stories”. Serves 4.

Ingredients

700g cod, descaled, filleted and cut into 4 pieces (leave the skin on)
water for poaching
juice of a lemon
enough salt to season the cooking water lightly (a teaspoon)

For the lentils

225g Puy lentils, washed and drained
450ml water
½ chicken stock cube
1 clove
1 bay leaf
1 small onion, peeled
salt and pepper

For the salsa verde

Bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only
10 basil leaves
15 mint leaves
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
6 anchovy fillets
1 tablespoon capers, drained
150ml extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

To serve

1 lemon, cut into wedges
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt
pepper
a few sprigs of flat-leaf parsley

First cook the lentils. Place them in a saucepan and cover with the water. Push the clove through the bayleaf and into the onion. Add the onion to the pan. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Now add the stock cube (I don’t add this at the outset as salt in the cube can toughen the lentils and prevent them from softening) and simmer for 10 to 20 minutes more until the liquid has been absorbed and the lentils are tender. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm.

While the lentils are cooking, make the salsa verde. Put the herbs, garlic, mustard, anchovies and capers into the food processor with a few tablespoons of the olive oil. Process for a few minutes, stopping and scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula from time to time. Once the mixture is smooth, with the motor running add the remaining olive oil to the mixture in a thin stream through the processor bowl lid’s funnel. The process is akin to making mayonnaise. Season with salt and pepper once the oil has all been incorporated. Transfer to a serving bowl.

Once the lentils and salsa verde are ready, it’s time to poach the fish. Bring a large pan of water with some salt and the juice of a lemon added to it to the boil. Slide in the fish fillets carefully, bring the pan back to the boil, cover and switch off the heat. After 5 minutes, carefully lift the fish out onto a hot plate

To serve, place a portion of fish onto each individual plate with a wedge of lemon. Drizzle a little olive oil and sprinkle a little sea salt and a grinding of black pepper over each piece of fish and scatter over a sprig or so of parsley. Pass the lentils and salsa verde separately.

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