Venetian carrot cake

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Having succumbed to a big bag of less-than-perfect carrots on the grounds that they were such good value (and who needs straight carrots anyway) I thought I would make carrot cake. However, I’m not a fan of the traditional American variety with cream cheese frosting, so I was very taken with this Nigella carrot cake recipe which is apparently from the Venetian ghetto. It uses ground almonds rather than flour (so is gluten-free), is studded with sultanas soaked in rum and topped with toasted pine nuts.

Nigella suggests serving it with rum-flavoured mascarpone, which sounded a bit much for tea-time, so I opted for a mixture of ricotta and greek yoghurt beaten together with a grating of nutmeg – and that was a good idea. I reduced the quantities a little to make a 20cm cake. I might try using a bit less sugar next time, as the sultanas are quite sweet, but this is a fine cake as it is – perfect with morning coffee or afternoon tea and, I hope, for providing sustenance for the last leg of our walk to the source of the Thames!

2 rounded tbsp pine nuts
2 carrots (approx 200g)
60g sultanas
50ml rum
120g caster sugar
100ml olive oil
scant tsp vanilla extract
3 small eggs (weight 180g)
200g ground almonds
freshly grated nutmeg
juice & zest of ½ lemon

Heat the oven to 165 C fan/180 C/Gas 4. Prepare the cake tin by lining the base with greaseproof paper and lightly oiling the sides. Toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan over a medium-high heat – watching them like a hawk – and put them on one side as soon as they are golden.

Grate the carrots on the coarse side of a box grater (Nigella says that it is easier to use the food processor, but in my view this is only the case if someone else is doing the washing up and putting away for you).  Tip onto a double layer of kitchen roll and wrap them up to extract any excess liquid. Put the sultanas in a small saucepan with the rum, bring to the boil and simmer for 3 minutes.

Measure the oil and sugar into a mixing bowl and whisk together until creamy. Then whisk in the vanilla extract and eggs, which I did one at a time to make sure they were well mixed in. Fold in the ground almonds, grated carrots, sultanas with their rum, and the lemon zest and juice. Finally grate a generous amount of nutmeg over the bowl and give it a last stir.

Scoop the mixture into the prepared tin, and smooth the top – it will look quite thin. Sprinkle the pine nuts over the top and bake for 30-40 mins until it has risen, the top is golden and a wooden skewer comes out fairly clean.

Leave it to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before unmoulding, and transfer it to a rack to cool. If you wrap it in cling film it will keep for up to 5 days in an airtight container (should you accidentally make the cake the day before you go on a strict diet – otherwise I don’t think it will last that long).

If you fancy the ricotta alongside, just mix equal quantities of ricotta and greek yoghurt until smooth and stir in a little grated nutmeg. Nigella’s more decadent accompaniment calls for 250g mascarpone mixed with 2 tsp icing sugar and 2 tbsp rum.

Mushrooms with polenta

This is my favourite stand-by lunch or supper at the moment – it takes about 20 minutes, is easy, satisfying and really tasty. I found the recipe in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Veg Everyday!, when I needed to eat up some mushrooms and didn’t fancy my usual options: risotto, mushrooms on toast or mushroom tart (a puff pastry turnover, filled with creamy mushrooms – a delicious recipe given to me by my mother’s friend Sarah). The mushrooms are dark and winy and the parmesan-flavoured polenta soaks up the juices (use a substitute for the parmesan if you are cooking for a strict vegetarian).

I used chestnut mushrooms the first time – as that is what I had – but next time I got a mixture of chestnut and portabella, which was even nicer. I think the recipe would work fine with most kinds of mushroom, especially the dark flat-cap ones. Delicate varieties might not stand up to the robust wine and herb flavourings. You can stir some chopped rosemary into the polenta at the end, if you want to. These quantities are for one, as I cooked it.

Polenta:
100ml milk
100ml water
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
1 spring onion, trimmed
40g quick-cook polenta
a knob of butter
a good grating of Parmesan

Mushrooms:
small slug of olive oil
small knob of butter
175g mushrooms (see above)
1 clove garlic, minced
leaves from a sprig of thyme
40ml red wine topped up to 80ml with water
salt & black pepper

Put the milk and water in a pan with the bay leaf, thyme, spring onion and a good grind of pepper and heat to a simmer. Then put aside to infuse while you prepare the mushrooms.

Trim the mushrooms and slice them thickly. Put the oil and butter in a frying pan and put over a medium-high heat. When melted, add the mushrooms, turn the heat up and cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms have released their juices, and are starting to get drier again and caramelise. Add the garlic and thyme and cook for another minute.

Now add the wine and water (you could use stock instead of water if you have it to hand, or indeed just use 80ml of a good vegetable or mushroom stock if you prefer). I have recently acquired some little 90ml Duralex glasses and find them really useful for approximately measuring small quantities of liquid like this. Bring up to a simmer, turn down the heat and leave to cook until about half the liquid has evaporated (say 7-10 minutes). While this is happening, I prepare a green salad to eat with it. When the mushrooms are about ready check the seasoning and turn the heat right down while you make the polenta.

Fish out the bay leaf and thyme from the milk and bring back up to a simmer. Pour in the polenta, stirring all the while to get a smooth mixture. I use a silicone spatula for this, as it is useful for getting all the polenta out of the pan afterwards. Keep stirring over medium heat for one minute – no more, as the polenta thickens quickly. Then pull off the heat, stir in the butter and parmesan and scoop onto your plate. Top with the mushrooms, add a drizzle of olive oil and/or a few shavings of parmesan if you wish, and devour with the salad.

Hazelnut cake

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On Friday we cooked an early birthday lunch for Irene’s niece, so a cake seemed the right choice for dessert. Finding big packets of ‘kosher for passover’ ground hazelnuts in the supermarket made me think about trying a hazelnut version of my favourite almond and orange cake (which, I now discover, is unaccountably not yet on the blog). I couldn’t resist looking at other recipes and adapting it, ending up with this cake: nutty, light but moist – just what I had hoped for. You could probably make it using only hazelnuts, but I think ground almonds help the texture and stop the cake being dry.

As ever with hazelnut desserts, this cake is particularly good served with raspberries and softly whipped cream (or crème fraÎche if you prefer), and I had some caramelised hazelnuts which I chopped and sprinkled over for contrasting crunch. I could, of course, have resorted to the traditional family birthday cake, but it was nice to try something new. As it was so well received, I expect to be making it again soon.

The quantities here are for a 15cm cake tin, serving four – double them to fill a 20cm cake tin, and give it another 10 minutes in the oven.

100g butter at room temperature
75g caster sugar
2 large eggs, separated
60g ground hazelnuts
40g ground almonds
25g plain flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1-2 tbsp orange juice

Heat the oven to 160ºC fan/180ºC/Gas 4. Grease the cake tin and line the bottom with greaseproof paper. If you can’t find ground hazelnuts, toast hazelnuts for 5 minutes or so (watch them closely so they don’t burn) in the warming oven, rub them in a tea towel to get rid of (most of) the skins and grind them to crumbs.

Cream the butter and sugar until pale and light – I made this cake in my mixer, but a hand-held beater, or a wooden spoon and elbow grease, would do the job equally well. Beat in the egg yolks with a spoonful of flour. Add the rest of the flour, baking powder and ground nuts. Mix in, adding the orange juice a bit at a time depending on how stiff the mixture is.

In a spotless bowl whisk the egg whites until stiff.  You could do this using the whisk attachment of the mixer, though I can never be bothered to transfer the cake mixture and wash and dry the mixer bowl in the middle of baking a cake to do this – and besides it is satisfying whisking egg whites with a balloon whisk in my beautiful copper bowl. Gently mix a large dollop of the egg whites into the cake mixture with a large spoon, then fold in the rest of the egg whites gently but thoroughly, keeping as much air in the mix as you can.

Turn into the prepared tin and bake for 30-35 minutes until it is firm, starting to brown and a wooden skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Leave in the tin on a rack for 10 minutes, then un-mould and leave to cool.

I prefer my cakes plain, but this would probably be delicious filled with a chocolate and hazelnut butter cream, or perhaps served with Travel Gourmet’s luscious-sounding Vanilla Ice Cream with Gianduioso, if you wanted a more indulgent dessert.

Rhubarb, almond and polenta cake

IMG_2529In future, do you think historians will be able to use the number of cakes baked as a measure of how happy and secure people were feeling? Cake is a reassuring treat in times of anxiety, not just for celebrations. If so, Bake Off, cupcake mania and the explosion of cake recipes in the blogosphere carry a clear message about a nation in need of comfort. On the upside, we are getting to eat a lot of cake!

Today’s contribution to cheering us up is a variant on Nigella’s Rhubarb Cornmeal Cake from How to be a Domestic Goddess. I had a small amount of rhubarb that needed eating, and thought that this cake might be even nicer if I replaced the flour in the original with ground almonds (which also makes the cake gluten-free – use GF bicarb if necessary) – so this baby Rhubarb, almond and polenta cake was born. And it gave us an excuse to use Irene’s dinky cake forks, which come from Cecil, the restaurant her grandparents used to run in The Hague.

I had around a third of the quantity of rhubarb specified in the original recipe, so divided the original quantities roughly by three: Nigella uses 500g rhubarb and 2 large eggs for a 23cm cake tin. These quantities were just right for a 15cm tin.

160g rhubarb
100g caster sugar (I used 50.50 sugar and xylitol)
50g ground almonds
scant ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
pinch of salt
55g fine polenta
scant ½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 medium egg
scant ½ tsp vanilla essence
40g soft unsalted butter
80g natural yoghurt

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/165ºC Fan/Gas 4. Butter and line the base of the cake tin.

Wash and trim the rhubarb, pulling off any strings as you cut off the ends. Slice into 0.5cm pieces, put into a dish and sprinkle over a couple of spoons of the sugar, and let it macerate while you continue with the recipe.

Mix the ground almonds, bicarb, salt, polenta and cinnamon together. Beat the egg and vanilla essence in a small bowl. Cream the butter with the remaining sugar. I did this by hand but, in retrospect, wished I had gone to the trouble of hauling the mixer onto the bench – it makes such quick work of the job.

Add the beaten egg and vanilla bit by bit, beating each addition in with a small spoonful of the almond/polenta mixture. Then lightly mix in the rest of the almonds and polenta alternately with the yoghurt. Finally, fold in the rhubarb with its juices, and pour into the prepared tin.

IMG_2531Bake for around 50 minutes (a larger cake will need a little longer) until the cake springs back when pressed and is starting to come away from the edge of the tin. Check after 40 minutes and cover the tin with foil if the cake is getting very brown. Leave to cool a bit in the tin before taking it out.

Serve still warm with cream, with custard as a dessert, or just with a cup of tea.

Escalivada or Catalan roasted vegetables

Eating Escalivada reminds me of long holiday lunches while staying with my friend who has a flat by the beach in Llançà in Catalonia. It is so simple to make, yet the combination of roasted vegetables is just right, making a delicious starter, light lunch or a side dish that seems to go with everything.

Yesterday we had it with a dish of warm lentils, rocket salad and an oozingly ripe goat’s cheese. The only thing it demands is a bit of advance planning, as the vegetables need to cook quite slowly in the oven. This quantity serves 4 as a starter or part of a main course. It keeps well in the fridge, so it’s worth doing more than you need,  providing an instant hit of sunshine for supper later in the week.

1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
1 medium onion
1 aubergine
olive oil
2 tsp sherry vinegar

Heat the oven to 190ºC/Gas mark 5 – though if you were cooking something else at 180ºC/Gas mark 4 that would be fine too; they would just take a bit longer to cook. Wash the peppers and aubergine. Cut out the stems of the peppers and pull out the fibrous inside and seeds. Slice off the top of the aubergine, and pierce it a few times with a knife (to avoid explosions in the oven). Cut the onion into two (or four if it is fat) – no need to peel it.

Put all the vegetables into an oven dish and rub them with olive oil (except for the onion skin). Sprinkle with a little salt and cover tightly with foil. If you prefer you can wrap the vegetables individually in foil, but this strikes me as more trouble than is necessary. Roast for an hour, then check how they are doing – you need to roast them until they are really soft and starting to collapse. They will probably need another 30 minutes, and I took the foil off for the last 15 minutes to speed things up.

When the vegetables are all really soft take them out of the oven and leave until they are cool enough to handle. Then peel the skin off the peppers and aubergine – it should just pull away really easily. Extract any remaining seeds or fibres from the peppers – the only remotely fiddly part of the recipe. Slice the vegetables into long pieces about 2-3 cm wide and arrange on a platter. Pull the pieces of onion out of their skin, cutting them away from the root, and slicing them in half lengthways if they are too large to fit on a fork. Add them to the platter. Drizzle with olive oil and sherry vinegar, and season to taste. Serve at room temperature.

Escalivada is a great accompaniment to fish or lamb or chicken, or you can simply eat it with some good bread and a glass of wine. And pretend you are by the sea in Catalonia…

Pistachio and Almond Cake

When Irene came home with a dinky little cake tin she had found in Hema (a shop that is a bit of a Dutch institution, now opening in the UK), I obviously had to bake a new cake to christen it. The tin is 15cm in diameter and 3.5cm deep, producing a little sponge that cuts into 4 or 6 elegant servings.

This pistachio and almond cake follows the classic French quatre quarts recipe (known as pound cake in the US), being made with the weight of eggs in butter, sugar and flour – or in this case ground nuts. Weighing the eggs makes it really easy to get the proportions right, especially if you buy eggs of mixed size as I do. You can, of course, multiply the quantities if you have a larger tin – double quantities would be about right for a 22cm tin. For a quatre quarts cake you normally separate the eggs and fold in the stiffly beaten whites at the end, giving a light cake, but I wanted it to be dense and moist so just added the beaten eggs as you would for a Victoria sponge.  I put some rosewater in, but it didn’t add much here (maybe overpowered by the amaretto – or maybe I need to get some new rosewater…) so I have omitted it from the recipe.

We had it first neat with morning coffee, and then with poached rhubarb and crème fraîche, which was particularly good. The cake improves with a day’s keeping (wrapped in foil or greaseproof paper) – useful if you want to bake ahead when entertaining.

2 medium eggs, total weight 70g
70g butter
70g caster sugar
35g blanched (or ground) almonds
35g shelled pistachios
2 tbsps plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
1 tbsp amaretto

Heat the oven to Fan 150° C/170° C. Grind the almonds and pistachios together until they are fairly fine crumbs. I used the small chopper attachment on my mixer for this. You can of course use ground almonds if you prefer – ground pistachios are harder to come by, and grinding them yourself gives a more interesting texture. Grease your cake tin and line the base.

Beat the butter and sugar together in the mixer until pale and creamy. Beat the eggs and add to the mixture in two or three batches, with a little flour each time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the remaining flour, baking powder and ground nuts. Finally, add the amaretto. You could substitute orange juice if you don’t have amaretto. If you wanted to try it with rosewater than you would only need ½ to 1 tsp for this quantity of mixture.

Bake for 25-30 minutes until the cake is golden, springy to touch and coming away from the sides of the tin. Allow to cool on the rack and when cool, if you can resist eating it, wrap in foil until the following day.

 

Eve’s pudding

img_2448I have always loved this traditional apple sponge pudding. The tangy, soft apples combine with the light sponge to form a delicious creamy layer where the two meet. It is a classic English pudding, comforting to eat but easier and quicker than many steamed puddings – and lighter too.

The first recipe I used was from the Revo Recipes cookbook  that came with the electric cooker my parents bought when they moved in to their first house (below, and see my post on rice pudding). Revo CookbookHowever, I have long used the recipe in Arabella Boxer’s recipe Sunday Times Cookbook (published in 1983), which has a lighter sponge and specifies butter rather than ‘fat’! Boxer suggested it as a pudding to follow Saddle of Lamb for an English lunch to serve to foreign visitors, since hot puddings like this are such a distinctive feature of British cooking (it is hard to type this without wincing in the current political climate).

I used to cook Eve’s pudding regularly when we had apple trees producing abundant crops of Bramley and (even better) Lane’s Prince Albert apples. Yesterday I cooked it for a dinner with friends and was surprised that some of them hadn’t come across it before, so thought it would be worth posting. It is a also a timely addition to one’s arsenal of comfort food to combat political angst – and remains an excellent choice when entertaining visitors of any nationality.

450g cooking apples
40g (1½ oz)sugar
85g (3oz) caster sugar
85g (3oz) butter at room temperature
115g (4oz) self-raising flour
2 eggs

Heat the oven to 175º C/Gas Mark 4 (I notice this is a bit lower than the 375º F specified in the Revo recipe and may experiment next time). Lightly butter an oven-dish that holds about a litre. Peel, core and slice the apples and put them in a pan with a little water and the 40g sugar (or to taste). Cook gently for about 15 minutes or until the apples are soft – this is important: having not made this in a while, I forgot and didn’t cook them quite long enough last night.

To prepare the sponge, cream the butter and sugar until soft and pale. Beat the eggs and add them to the mixture bit by bit alternately with the sifted flour – you can do this in a food processor or mixer, but it is perfectly easy to do by hand. Add a little milk if the mixture seems too firm.

If you’re entertaining, you can cook the apples, prepare the dish and cream the butter and sugar together in advance, then finish the sponge and pop it into the oven before you sit down to the main course (or the cheese if you are serving a cheese course before the pudding).

When the apples are ready turn them into the prepared dish, and spoon the sponge over to completely cover them. Bake for 30 minutes until well risen and golden brown. Serve hot with cream. And any left-overs are delicious eaten cold from the fridge in true Nigella style.