Venetian carrot cake

IMG_2603

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.

Hazelnut cake

IMG_2573

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.

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.

 

Orange blossom macarons

Orange blossom macaronsBe warned, these macarons are addictive and far too easy to make! I have looked at recipes for neat, piped, filled macarons before and decided that they were too much trouble, even though they look delicious. So, I was curious about this more straightforward recipe by Thomasina Miers, which I clipped from The Guardian magazine last year and finally got round to making last weekend. Why did I wait so long? The macarons were so good that I immediately made another batch. They are a great way of using up egg whites, which you will have in abundance if you make ice cream to eat with them (see below).

The macarons are crunchy on the outside and soft inside, perfumed with orange rind and orange blossom water. I served them first with orange salad and sherry ice cream (based on this excellent brandy ice cream, using a medium sweet sherry instead of the marsala). They are equally delicious with a cup of coffee, with poached rhubarb, as a sweet canapé at a drinks party…you get the picture.

a little oil to grease the trays
100g egg whites (from 2 large or 3 small eggs)
250g unrefined icing sugar
200g ground almonds
1½ tbsp orange blossom water
zest of ½ orange
salt

Mixture for Orange blossom macaronsHeat the oven to 200ºC/Gas 6. I cooked one batch in the fan oven at 180ºC, but I think you get a bit more crunch and colour if you bake them at 200ºC without the fan (if your oven gives you the option). Line two or three large baking trays with greaseproof paper and oil them lightly, or use silicone liners if you have them. Measure half of the egg whites into a large bowl and mix in the icing sugar, almonds, orange blossom water, orange zest and a pinch of salt, until you have a thick paste. I found a silicone spatula the best implement for this. At first, it looks as if there isn’t enough egg white, but persevere and it will come right.

Put the remainder of the egg whites into a clean bowl and whisk to stiff peaks, then fold them a little at a time into the paste using a spatula or metal spoon, trying not to knock out all the air you’ve just beaten into them.

Orange Blossom Macarons ready for the ovenUsing two teaspoons – one to scoop up the mixture and the other to push it onto the tray – put heaped teaspoons of the mixture onto the prepared trays, spacing them well apart, as they spread. I find I could only get 8 macarons onto one of my baking trays – any more and they joined together (not fatal, but you don’t get such a regular shape).

Bake for 15-17 minutes, swapping the trays around after 10 minutes so that they brown evenly. They should be golden and feel solid to the touch. Take out of the oven, gently pull them off the paper and leave them to cool, either on the tray or on a rack (if, like me, you need to re-use one of the trays). Miers says that the recipe makes 20, but I must have smaller teaspoons as I found I got 24 macarons.

Tarte au citron

Tarte au Citron, Lemon Tart
Weekend dinner menu

Celeri Remoulade
Shin of beef stew, parsnip mash & spring greens
Cheese: Pont l’Eveque & Neufchâtel
Tarte au Citron

This was the menu for a relaxed pre-Christmas dinner with friends. I had brought back some cheese from a trip to Le Havre (of which more later), and Irene made a stew, so a sharp, crunchy starter and something light but a bit luxurious to finish seemed in order, hence this lemon tart.

I have been using this lemon tart recipe for over 30 years (as you will see from the Imperial measurements!). I was taught it by a friend who was a chef, and it has always received compliments. I now tend to use pastry made with an egg yolk, based on Delia’s sweet pastry recipe, but for many years I used a plain shortcrust, and actually I think it was just as good. To my mind the pastry shouldn’t be too rich or sweet – it’s there as a foil to the sharp, creamy filling.

Rowley Leigh had a very similar recipe in his FT column a couple of years ago – his filling is made in the same way, though with an additional egg yolk, and he uses a sweet pastry made with 2/3 butter to flour (180g butter/270g flour/75g caster sugar/3 egg yolks/2 tbsps cold water for the pastry and doubled quantities of the filling for a 3cm deep 24cm wide tart tin – though these quantities sound generous to me). Serves 8.

Pastry:
160g/6 oz flour
80g/3oz unsalted butter
1 egg yolk (keep the egg white)
1 tbsp cold water
Pinch salt

Filling:
2 lemons
4 large eggs
170g/6oz sugar
200ml/7oz double cream
Icing sugar to decorate (optional)

To make the pastry put all the ingredients into the food processor and process on the lowest speed until it starts to clump together. Turn out and knead briefly into a ball, then wrap in cling film and put in the fridge for at least 30 mins to chill.

Roll out the pastry and line a lightly-greased tart tin with a removable base (mine is 25cm diameter and 2.5cm deep). Lightly whip the egg white until it is frothy, then brush it over the inside of the pastry case. Bake the pastry case blind at 200ºC/Gas 6 for about 15 mins until the surface is firm and light gold. Turn the oven down to 150ºC/Gas 2.

Wash the lemons, grate their zest and squeeze the juice. Break the eggs into a mixing bowl, add the sugar and beat lightly with a wire whisk until the mixture is smooth and well blended. Pour in the cream and mix lightly. Stir in the lemon juice and zest and pour into the pastry case.

Bake for 40 mins until just set in the centre, but not coloured. (Rowley Leigh cooks the filling for 1 hour and 10 mins at 110ºC – I haven’t tried this yet). Dust the surface with icing sugar if you want to make it look pretty. Serve chilled with some raspberries and a spoonful of crème fraîche alongside if you’re feeling indulgent.

Rachel Cooke’s Parmesan Biscuits

image.jpg

…or to give them their full title: Rachel Cooke’s wonderful Parmesan biscuits, bestowed by the equally wonderful Simon Hopkinson, who is one of my culinary heroes (not only is he both an excellent cook and writer but also, like me, he comes from Lancashire). This recipe is from Hopkinson’s The Vegetarian Option, a book which should be thrown at any restaurant that inflicts unimaginative, second-class food on its vegetarian customers.

I first made these biscuits for my reading group when we were reading Rachel Cooke’s fascinating book Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties. It seemed appropriate to be eating something linked to the book; I also cooked moussaka from a recipe from Plats du Jour by Patience Gray, one of the ten extraordinary woman that she writes about. I thoroughly recommend the book – and these very more-ish biscuits. Makes about 25-30 biscuits

100g cold, unsalted butter, cut into chunks
100g plain flour
Pinch of salt
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 heaped tsp mustard powder
50g mature cheddar, finely grated
50g Parmesan, finely grated, plus a little extra to finish
1 large egg, beaten

Preheat the oven to 180 C/Gas Mark 4. Put the butter and flour into the food processor, together with the salt, cayenne pepper, mustard powder and cheeses. Briefly process together to begin with, and then pulse the mixture as you notice it coming together, a bit like pastry. Finally, once it is starting to clump together, tip it onto a lightly floured surface and briefly knead it together until smooth.Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. I prepared this several hours in advance and it seemed to come to no harm.

Gently roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to about a 2mm thickness. Using a 3-5cm pastry cutter, depending of the size you want (small is good, I think), cut out biscuits and lay them on a greased baking tray about 2cm apart. Bake in two batches if necessary.

Carefully brush the top of each biscuit with beaten egg and sprinkle over a little extra grated Parmesan. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes, or until they are a gorgeous, pale golden colour, and the whole house is smelling delicious. Carefully lift off the tray with a palette knife and cool on a rack. Best served while still just warm.