A perfect chocolate cake

In my book, this is a perfect chocolate cake: dense, moist, made with good dark chocolate and delectable eaten with a spoonful of whipped or clotted cream. As a child I would have preferred Felicity Cloake’s perfect chocolate cake, with its fluffier crumb and chocolate buttercream filling; no doubt my nieces and nephews would agree.  However, these days I find buttercream too sweet and sickly, preferring my cake unadorned, not too sweet and tasting of dark chocolate rather than cocoa.

I have been making this chocolate cake since 1983 when I acquired Arabella Boxer’s The Sunday Times Complete Cook Book. It became my bible, back before Nigel Slater, Nigella and Ottolenghi had started publishing, let alone entered my kitchen bookshelves. I have found Boxer’s recipes to be reliable and in impeccable taste, though somewhat more formal and classically English or French than much of the food I cook now. It is structured as a cookery course, with sections on different techniques such as braising or grilling. The section on menus for different occasions – with contributions from other cooks such as Antonio Carluccio and Claudio Roden (though Boxer’s own suggestions are generally more practical) – is particularly useful for a cook still learning to entertain. The book is now available very cheaply online, so treat yourself.

IMG_4549The simplicity of the method mean that this chocolate cake can be produced within an hour or so and uses ingredients that are probably in your cupboard (or definitely available in the corner store). You do not need beaters to cream the mixture, nor to remember a complicated list of ingredients. I have adapted the quantities to fit my tin and slightly reduce the proportion of eggs, also making it a very easy recipe to remember. It will work in any shape tin, or foil container, of the right size and I have made it successfully with all sorts of dark chocolate from corner-shop Bournville to posh 85% chocolate. It will keep for a couple of days in the tin wrapped in foil, if you have that sort of willpower, and will survive being transported like that for a picnic. So it’s a very handy recipe to have up your sleeve for cooking on holiday or when you have unexpected guests for tea.

Enough chat: here’s how to make 8 portions of chocolate happiness.

100g dark chocolate
100g unsalted butter
2 eggs
150g caster sugar
pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
100g plain flour (or 70/30 flour and ground almonds)
whipped cream to serve

Break up the chocolate and put in a heatproof bowl over a pan of just simmering water, with the unsalted butter cut into cubes. Allow them to melt together then stir and take off the heat as soon as the mixture is smooth. Leave to cool – Boxer says for an hour, but I’ve never been organised enough to leave it for that long, and it has always worked fine.

Set the oven to heat to 175 C/Gas Mark 4. Grease and line the base of an 18cm cake tin or similar. Beat the eggs in a bowl and beat in the sugar, salt and vanilla extract (if using – Boxer doesn’t). Stir in the melted chocolate mixture, then fold in the flour lightly but thoroughly. If you want to gild the lily, and you have some ground almonds, then you can use a mixture of flour and almonds, which makes it a little more dense and moist.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and spread evenly. Bake for about 35 minutes, until the cake springs back when pressed, and is starting to come away from the sides. If you test it, the centre should still be moist.

Leave to cool in the tin. Serve in slices or squares with whipped cream, and berries if you wish. If you want to serve a chocolate cake for dessert, I think Lucy Boyd’s Chocolate and Almond Cake is a better candidate, whereas this is the perfect chocolate cake for morning coffee or afternoon tea.

 

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Greengage and Almond Cake

This cake was inspired by some lovely greengages we found in a greengrocer in Totnes, near where we are staying on holiday. There weren’t quite enough to simply poach them, and I didn’t have a tart tin or any plain flour, so a greengage frangipane tart was out.  What I made instead was a Victoria sponge with half the flour replaced with ground almonds, flavoured with the grated zest of an orange and the greengages arranged on top as if it were a tart.

The result was a moist light sponge crowned with juicy greengages – it was delicious served for dessert with whipped cream, and I am looking forward to another slice with our coffee tomorrow morning.

I used a tip I saw in a recipe for the French quartre quarts cake, which is to put a pan of boiling water in the bottom of the oven. The resulting steamy atmosphere is said to make the cake particularly light – and on the evidence of this cake I will be doing it again. Sometimes the constraints of a holiday home kitchen, without all one’s usual ingredients and equipment, can lead to happy discoveries!

100g butter
100g caster sugar
2 large eggs
70g ground almonds
70g self-raising flour
Grated zest of an orange
8 greengages

Take the butter and eggs out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before you start cooking so they can come to room temperature. My eggs weighed 70g each – if yours are a different size simply adjust the other quantities accordingly.

Grease and line the base of a 18 cm sponge tin. Preheat the oven to 170ºC Fan/190ºC, with a baking tin half full of hot water in it (this is not advisable, or necessary, in a gas oven). Wash the greengages, take out the stones and cut them into quarters.

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Greengage and almond cake ready to go in the oven

Cream the butter with a wooden spoon, add the sugar and beat until light and pale. Beat in the eggs one at a time, with a good scoop of flour, until well blended. Fold in the remaining flour, the ground almonds and orange zest. You can of course do all of this in the mixer if you are at home – or in a particularly well-equipped holiday cottage. Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and arrange the greengages in a circular pattern on top.

Greengage and almond cake
Bake for 25 minutes until golden brown, and the sponge springs back when lightly pressed. Leave to cool in the tin. Serve just warm with whipped cream. A glass of orange muscat dessert wine would go very well, too.

 

Nibbles, snippets or canapés

What do you call the small savouries served with drinks before dinner or at a cocktail party? Nibbles seems to be the most common description on menus for things like olives and nuts these days, but I first knew them as canapés or appetizers. In Spain they are, of course, tapas or pinchos, in Venice chicchetti. Then last week, when I was looking for ideas for celery and cheese canapés in a Katy Stewart cookbook of 1983, I found them described as cocktail snippets, a name I had never come across before. When I looked online to see whether the term had wider currency, I found a wonderful extract from The Reluctant Hostess. This priceless 1950s guide to entertaining etiquette by Ethelind Fearon was reissued a few years ago. Although I wasn’t tempted by many of the recipes, it is very amusing and full of down-to-earth advice on giving a cocktail party. So henceforth canapés will be referred to as snippets!

After all that, what snippets did I make? My dinner guests included one vegetarian and one pescatarian, so meat was out. The idea that led to my discovery of snippets was to have celery sticks stuffed with cream cheese and walnuts. After reading several recipes, this was what I made:

100g cream cheese
2 tbsps cream
pinch cayenne pepper
100g walnuts
handful flat-leaf parsley

Combine about 100g of cream cheese with 2 tablespoons of cream, then add a good pinch of cayenne pepper, salt and a grind of black pepper. Set aside 8 nice walnut halves, and finely chop the remainder (but see below). Finely chop the parsley and mix into the cream cheese with the chopped walnuts.

Wash 3 or 4 celery sticks and use a knife to peel off any tough strings, then slice a very thin bit off the outside of the stick so that its sits flat (thank Katy Stewart for that tip). Fill the  pieces of celery with the cream cheese mixture, cut into 5cm sections and top each one with half a walnut. The chopped walnuts made it tricky to fill smaller celery sticks, so next time I might opt for a 50/50 mixture of  cream cheese and blue cheese, or just well-flavoured cream cheese with a walnut on top.

I made a batch of Rachel Cooke’s wonderful Parmesan biscuits, as they are always popular (I always think I’ve made enough to have leftovers but there are rarely any left).

When I was in Manchester I had bought a packet of fabulous white anchovies, boquerones, from the excellent Catalonian delicatessen Lunya in Deansgate (there is also one in Liverpool). Boquerones are milder than the usual dark, salty anchovies, and have a lemony taste. Several recipes for making boquerones included parsley so, after carefully separating the fillets and blotting some of their oil on kitchen paper I covered the skin side with finely chopped parsley, wrapped them in pinwheels and secured with a cocktail stick.

Finally, we had a dish of lovely crisp French breakfast radishes, and some smoked salmon on thinly sliced sourdough. This selection of snippets went very well with a chilled bottle of champagne and some crisp rosé, with enough choice for vegetarian and pescatarian alike, and they were not too much work to prepare. As you can see, most of them got eaten before I got round to taking a photograph!

While I’m on the subject, my other tried and tested snippet recipes are:

Basil, mozzarella and tomato on cocktail sticks

Devils on horseback

Butter bean dip with dukkah and crudités

Not forgetting olives, marcona almonds and cheese straws.

Bon appetit!

 

Roast vegetable salad with quinoa

This recipe evolved from Roasted Vegetable Couscous Salad in Delia Smith’s Summer Collection, a book which was a sensation when it was published in 1993. Full of vibrant colours and flavours, the recipes seemed fresher than the rather traditional dishes of Delia’s previous books. Recipes like Piedmont Roasted Peppers, Salmon with Avocado and Crème Fraîche sauce and Oven-roast Ratatouille instantly became part of my regular repertoire.

IMG_4444As you can see from the state of the page, I have made this recipe a lot! Although the harissa-style dressing is nice, I have more often used a mustard or basalmic dressing instead, both of which work well. These days I am not so fond of couscous, so I thought I’d try it with quinoa instead, and added chick peas instead of goat’s cheese, to make a satisfying vegan salad. As tahini goes so well with chick peas, I thought I’d try a tahini dressing, and it went really well with both the vegetables and the chick peas. Feel free to revet to using couscous and goats cheese if you prefer, but however you make it, it is a perfect dish for this lovely summer weather. If it’s really hot, you can roast the vegetables in the cool of the evening or early morning and then quickly assemble it for a lazy lunch. And it looks so summery served in a large bowl, for everyone to serve themselves.

1 aubergine
2 courgettes
2 red or yellow peppers
1 large or 2 small red onions
4 large tomatoes (or equivalent in cherry tomatoes)
4 cloves garlic
Olive oil
120g quinoa
1 can chick peas
1 lemon (optional)
mixed salad leaves
2 tbsp tahini
2 tbsp warm water
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbsp olive oil
handful of flat-leaf parsley

Start by heating the oven to 200 C Fan/Gas 7. Peel the onion(s), cut in half and the. Each piece into 4-6 wedges. Put into a roasting tin large enough to take all the vegetables.  Trim the top and bottom of the courgettes, slice them in half lengthwise (unless they are small, in which case you may need a couple more) and then slice diagonally into chunks. Add to the tin. Cut the stem off the aubergine, cut it in half lengthwise, each half into three wedges and then across into chunks. Add to the pan, season and drizzle the whole lot with some olive oil.

IMG_4445By now the oven should be up to temperature, so put the tray into the oven and set the pinger for 10 minutes while you prepare the peppers and tomatoes. Core and desired the peppers and cut into small chunks. Delia skins the tomatoes, which is an improvement, though I often don’t get round to it. Her recipe has the instructions. If using large tomatoes cut each into 6 or 8 pieces. Squash the garlic cloves with the side of the knife.

When the timer goes add the peppers and garlic to the roasting tin, giving everything a good stir. Set the timer for a further 10 minutes. Wash the salad if necessary. Measure the quinoa and rinse it under running water. Tip it into a pan, add 360ml of cold water, bring to a simmer and cook for 12-15 minutes until each little seed has unfurled like a comma. When the 10 minutes is up, stir the vegetables again and add the tomatoes for a final 10 minutes. I do this because I prefer the tomatoes to be soft and juicy – you can of course add them earlier if you prefer them more roasted.

IMG_4448Take the vegetables out of the oven and allow to cool a little – I think this salad tastes best when the grain and vegetables are still lukewarm (definitely not fridge cold, so if you are cooking this ahead, do get the vegetables out of the fridge an hour ahead so they can come up to room temperature).

When the quinoa is cooked I usually turn off the heat and let it sit to dry in the pan on the warm hot plate for a few minutes, before tipping it into a sieve to cool.

IMG_4447Drain and rinse the chick peas and mix with the quinoa in a large serving dish. I added some pieces of lemon to the quinoa, following a favourite Ottolenghi recipe. It does make the salad quite sharp, which I like. If you want to do likewise, cut off the top and bottom of the lemon, then stand it on a board and carefully cut away the peel and white pith using a sharp knife (preferably serrated). Then cut between the membranes to release the individual segments of lemon, discarding any pips as you go. Chop the parsley and mix it in.

Drizzle over a little of the dressing, then spoon over the still warm vegetables. Top with the salad leaves, drizzle over more of the dressing and serve with the rest of the desssing on the side.

IMG_4450

Spinach and ricotta filo pie

Otherwise known as Spanakopita, this is a variant of a dish that I have known since I was a teenager. I went to Greece for the first time in the 1970s and still vividly remember the food: huge Greek salads of intensely-flavoured tomatoes and olives, yoghurt in earthenware bowls with a delicious creamy layer on top, Kolokithakia (light, crispy fried courgette slices) served with tzatziki, moussaka rich with aubergines (then hard to find in the UK), and spanakopita: spinach and feta encased in golden filo pastry.

I used to make it according to Claudia Roden’s recipe in Middle Eastern Food: spinach cooked in butter and crumbled feta for the filling (no egg), and 8-10 sheets of filo pastry each brushed with melted butter. It is delicious, but feta can be very salty and with around 125g of butter it makes rich eating and is not so good for eating cold. So my recipe has gradually drifted (recalling Mae West’s “I used to be Snow White but I drifted”) away from authenticity to something lighter yet equally delicious.

Fresh, milky ricotta replaces over half the feta, an egg gives a gentle set to the filling and olive oil turns the sheets of filo into the same golden shards in a more artery-friendly way. A Greek shop is the best place to buy good feta, olives and filo but I don’t have one nearby. Luckily, filo pastry and olives are now widely available, and I have discovered that some supermarkets stock barrel-aged feta, which is sweeter and creamier than the young cheese, if you can stomach the higher price. You can use an onion or half a dozen spring onions instead of the leek if you wish – the latter will obviously only need to be softened very quickly. Last night I also went completely off-piste and added a layer of roasted butternut squash, which we decided was A Good Thing – I give instructions for both variants below.

I love the light freshness of the ricotta combined with the soft, mineral taste of spinach and the sweet saltiness of the feta, all contrasting with the crisp filo. Including the squash makes it a slightly more substantial meal, adding another texture, and the chilli flakes add a hint of heat.

This is an excellent dish for a crowd, as I think it is best served warm or at room temperature (as it is in Greece), rather than hot. It can easily be assembled and baked ahead of time, and it looks splendid as you cut generous squares of it from in a big dish. All you need to serve alongside it is, of course, a Greek salad – tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives, green or red pepper and red onion (if you like it), liberally dressed with green Greek extra-virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar – with extra feta if you wish.

The dish I used for these quantities is 25 x 18 x 5 cm and made enough for 4 portions. It remains good eating for a day or two, so you may want to consider scaling up so that you have leftovers for packed lunches or an easy supper the next day.

450g spinach or 260g spinach and 200g butternut squash
2 leeks
olive oil
120g ricotta
80g feta
1 or 2 eggs
5 sheets filo pastry
a good pinch of chilli flakes (optional)
nutmeg
1 tbsp sesame seeds

If you are using the butternut squash heat the oven to 200º C/Gas Mark 6. Peel and deseed the squash and cut into small cubes. If you’re in a hurry you could use one of those bags of ready-prepared squash (often on special offer in the supermarket chiller at the end of the day). Put on an oven tray, drizzle with olive oil (keep your fancy Extra Virgin oil for the salad – you don’t need it for any of the oven cooking), season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the chilli flakes. Roast for 15-20 minutes until the squash is just tender to the point of a knife, while you get on with the rest of the recipe using the smaller quantity of spinach.

Otherwise, heat the oven to 180º C/Gas Mark 4. Wash the spinach thoroughly, discarding any tough stems, and drain in a colander. Trim and clean the leek and cut into 1cm slices. Put a large frying pan or wok over a medium heat and add about a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the leek and cook, stirring regularly until it softens and turning the heat down if it shows any signs of browning – a matter of about 5 minutes. Put the ricotta into a sieve to drain (I don’t always do this, but it is worth it if the ricotta looks wet).

When the leeks are soft, add the spinach, with the little water clinging to its leaves, in batches if necessary, stirring it around as it collapses. When all the spinach has been added and is soft, take the pan off the heat and either press the mixture with a spatula and pour off the excess liquid or tip everything into a colander and press the liquid out.

Everything can be prepared up to this point in advance. When you’re ready, beat the egg(s) in a mixing bowl – using 2 eggs if you are using the larger quantity of spinach – and stir in the spinach mixture, ricotta and crumbled feta. Season with a good grating of fresh nutmeg and black pepper (you don’t need salt because of the feta). If not using squash, you can add a pinch of chilli flakes at this point if you wish. By now the squash should be ready and you can take it out and turn the oven down to 180º C/Gas Mark 4.

To assemble the pie, oil your tin and open your stack of filo pastry (ideally under a damp tea-towel to keep it soft).  Using a pastry brush and a small dish of olive oil, oil the top sheet of filo and lay it across the tin with the edges hanging out. Then oil the next sheet and carefully lay it in the opposite direction. Continue adding two more layers of oiled filo in alternate directions, making sure that you arrange them so that you have enough extra to fold over the top at the end (I kept back one sheet to make sure there was enough to cover the pie).

Now fill with the spinach and cheese mixture – and add the butternut squash in a layer if you are using it. Fold in each layer of the pastry in turn, brushing on a little more oil as you go, until it is all securely enclosed. Sprinkle sesame seeds across the top if you wish.  I don’t really recommend the black sesame seeds but couldn’t find any regular sesame seeds in my over-stuffed spice drawer.  Put into the pre-heated oven and bake for 35 minutes, giving it a peek after 20 minutes to check that it is not browning too fast – if so, loosely cover it with some foil or turn the oven down a bit (say 170º C/Gas Mark 3).

Spinach and ricotta filo pieAllow to cool a little before serving with a Greek salad (or, as here, the totally improvised salad we had with the leftovers!).

Trout with broad beans & watercress

Trout with broad beans and watercress

Looking for something to make for lunch or supper on this lovely summer day? This deceptively sophisticated meal is actually really quick and easy to prepare. When I made it yesterday, it was on the table in 25 minutes – and that included having a speedy shower while the potatoes were cooking! The rainbow trout has a delicate yet earthy flavour that goes perfectly with new potatoes, broad beans and watercress. If you want to be classy, you can make the cream and watercress into a sauce, though I would still garnish the dish with a little watercress too.

At a talk about the artist Edward Bawden the other day, a review of his early exhibitions by the art critic of The Times was quoted as saying his work had the ‘tang of watercress’, which is a wonderfully vivid description of the distinctive, strong and appealing flavour of Bawden’s work – and immediately made me want to eat watercress!

I find trout more interesting than all but the best salmon and like its lighter taste and texture. Pan-frying it without any oil also keeps it low in calories and you could easily replace the cream with 0%-fat greek yoghurt if you wished. That would, I think, work best if you used it to make the watercress sauce.

Purists would also peel the broad beans to reveal the shiny emerald beans inside, but I was hungry and impatient to sit and eat on my sunny terrace, after a morning of gardening, so my beans remained unpeeled. I had bought some broad beans in the pod – podding them always reminds me of sitting on the back step of my grandmother’s house podding peas – but frozen are really just as good unless you grow your own. If you are making this for guests, one packet of watercress should be enough for four people.

Trout with broad beans and watercressThe pale pink and greens looked so pretty on the plate and the combination of flavours was delicious – with a glass of chilled rosé this is a perfect summer meal.

For each person you will need:

1 fillet rainbow trout
3 (or more to taste) small new potatoes
2 sprigs mint (optional)
2 tbsps crème fraîche or soured cream
80g podded broad beans (250g if in the pod)
1 good handful of watercress
¼ lemon

Put a small pan of water on for the potatoes. Wash the potatoes if earthy and as soon as the water boils add them to the pan, drop in one sprig of mint, and set the timer for 15 minutes. If you are making the watercress sauce, take off any coarse stems from the watercress, wash it if necessary, put a few sprigs aside for garnish and put the rest in the goblet of a stick blender (or small bowl of a food processor), add the cream and blitz to a green-flecked sauce. Check for taste and add salt and lemon juice as necessary. It shouldn’t need pepper as the watercress is already quite peppery. If you are using broad beans in the pod, now is the time to pod them. Otherwise, go for a quick shower, set the table, water the plants, or pour yourself a glass of rosé.

When the timer goes, put a heavy frying pan over a medium heat and leave for a couple of minutes to heat up. Check the potatoes, which will probably need another few minutes. Chop the leaves of the remaining sprig of mint. When the frying pan is hot put the trout fillet(s) in flesh side down and set the timer for 2 minutes. If the pan isn’t hot when you add the fish it will stick. As soon as the potatoes are ready, scoop them out and add the broad beans to the simmering water. When the timer goes, carefully ease a fish slice under the fish, turn it onto the skin side and cook for a further 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the potatoes on the plate and scatter with the mint (and a knob of butter if you wish). When the timer goes, drain the beans and add the plate. Check that the trout is cooked through – a thick fillet may need a couple more minutes – and serve with a good squeeze of lemon, a spoonful of cream or watercress sauce, and the watercress.

Mushrooms with Taleggio and Tomato Sauce

My friend Jane made this for our Reading Group recently and it was so delicious that I immediately asked for the recipe. It is gloriously quick and easy to put together yet tastes rich and complex. It really does take 10 minutes to assemble and only 15 minutes in the oven, so it’s on the table in under 30 minutes. Make a green salad while it’s in the oven and you have the perfect mid-week vegetarian supper, lunch or, with a starter and dessert, dinner.

The recipe originally came from the Waitrose magazine, and there is a more complicated version in Ottolenghi’s Plenty, as well as a number of other variants online. I made it with sage, as I didn’t have any thyme, and can report that thyme tastes better. If you had some home-made tomato sauce to hand then that would be good here. The only problem with using passata is what you do with the rest of the carton, as I never seem to think of another suitable recipe to make before it starts going mouldy – any ideas?

Quantities here are for two but can easily be multiplied as required.

150g passata
2 large portabella or field mushrooms
100g Taleggio
a few sprigs of thyme
2 small slices of sourdough (or ciabatta)
1 tbsp olive oil

Heat the oven to 200ºC Fan/220º C/Gas mark 7. Pour the passata into an ovenproof dish. Trim the stalks of the mushrooms and wipe the caps (you can peel them if they are damaged, but I rarely find this is necessary). Place them on the passata, stalk side up.

Slice the Taleggio and divide between the two mushrooms. Strip the thyme leaves from the stems and scatter the leaves over.

Tear the bread into small pieces into a bowl and toss with the olive oil. Scatter over the dish and bake in the oven for 15 minutes until the cheese has melted, oozing into the sauce, and the bread is golden.

There, I told you it was easy!