Jan’s lemon drizzle cake

If you want a change from rich Christmas bakes, here’s a lighter cake that is quick and easy to make. This recipe was given to me many years ago (2002!) by a publishing friend. I haven’t made it for ages, but it’s really good, moist and lemony. It is also an excuse to buy lemon curd, which is so nice on muffins or toast at tea-time and also makes a fine topping for pavlova, mixed into some whipped cream with some raspberries!

  • 110g butter
  • 100g caster sugar + 2 tbsp for drizzle
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 lemon
  • 100g plain flour
  • 40g ground almonds
  • 1 heaped tsp baking powder
  • 2 dstsps lemon curd
  • 1-2 dstsps natural yoghurt

Grease and line a 1lb baking tin. Heat the oven to 170 C fan, then reduce to 160 C fan when you put the cake into the oven.

Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and grated rind of the lemon. Sieve together the flour and baking powder (the original used 140g self-raising flour instead of the flour/ground almonds/baking powder so you can leave out the almonds if you prefer) and beat in together with the lemon curd. Add enough yoghurt to give a soft, almost dropping consistency.

Put in the lined baking tin and bake for 40-50 minutes until it is risen slightly and springy. Beat together the juice of the lemon and the extra 2 tbsps of sugar. When the cake comes out of the oven, prick a few holes in the cake and pour over the drizzle. Leave to cool before cutting.

This cake will keep for a few days wrapped in greaseproof and then foil or an airtight tin, and it also freezes well.

Christmas Stollen

I used to be a devotee of traditional Christmas Cake, but my Dutch partner introduced me to home-baked Stollen – an entirely different thing from the dense, overly sweet version you can buy in the shops – and that is now our Christmas baking tradition. Although an enriched bread, it is much lighter than Christmas cake, yet still has the seasonal tastes of dried fruit, citrus peel and marzipan.

For many years I have used Delia Smith’s Stollen recipe, but after doing the (highly recommended) Puff pastry course this year I felt emboldened to experiment and see if I could create something even better. I compared the quantities and methods of several recipes, and adjusted the ingredients to our tastes: no glace cherries, lots of peel and dried apricots rather than currants. Feel free to adjust the dried fruit to your preferences, just keeping the overall quantity the same. I used Puff bread guru Nicola Lamb’s brioche method for making the original dough in the mixer, and rested the dough in the fridge, which I think helped to develop the flavour and give a better rise. I also find it convenient to be able to take a break in proceedings, as the long bulk rise and proving times mean that you are otherwise tied to the house for the best part of six hours!

One of the recipes I tried was by Richard Bertinet, which included creme d’amandes, as well as chunks of marzipan. The creme d’amandes filling was delicious – imagine an almond croissant crossed with brioche – but I found encasing the gooey filling in the bread dough was quite a challenge, so rather a lot of it ended up on my baking sheet. I also made the mistake of using chunks of commercial marzipan, which was actively unpleasant. I normally make my own marzipan and was mystified when my sister-in-law said she didn’t like marzipan: now I understand, if she’s only ever had the packaged variety.

So my recipe specifies home-made marzipan, which is hardly any trouble, and makes all the difference to the final stollen. The end result is a light bread, not too heavily fruited, with a delicious soft almond marzipan centre. I have used less butter than Delia suggests but you could increase the butter to 110g using exactly the same method if you prefer something a bit richer. The stollen is delicious unadorned when first baked, and then toasted and buttered a day or two later. It also keeps well in the freezer if you don’t want to eat it all at once (or you can batch bake and have one to eat later).

Do measure out the butter and milk (and take your egg out if you keep them in the fridge) in advance, so that they come to room temperature. Yeasted dough doesn’t like the cold, and trying to incorporate fridge-cold butter into brioche-type dough is asking for trouble.

  • 350g strong white flour
  • 50g sugar
  • 8g salt
  • 7g instant dry yeast
  • 150g milk
  • 1 large egg (75g)
  • 90g softened butter
  • 50g sultanas
  • 70g candied citrus peel
  • 40g soft dried apricots
  • 25g flaked almonds
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 20g melted butter
  • icing sugar to finish
  • For the marzipan:
  • 80g ground almonds
  • 80g caster sugar
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 small egg

Mix the flour, sugar, salt and dried yeast in the bowl of your mixer. Fit the dough hook and add in the room temperature milk (slightly warm yours if it has come straight from the fridge) and beaten egg. Mix the dough on medium speed for 5-7 minutes until it is starting to become stretchy.

Now increase the speed of the mixer and start adding the butter in small pieces (about 1 tbsp each), waiting until each one is absorbed before adding the next. To begin with it may look as if the dough is splitting apart but keep going. Mix at high speed until the dough is shiny and elastic.

If you are doing this by hand, mix all the dry ingredients in the bowl then add the milk, egg and softened butter and mix until the dough starts to come together. Now knead the dough for 5-7 minutes. The dough may be a bit sticky, but don’t be tempted to add flour (wet your hands if it’s sticking too much). You may not get quite the same results as using a mixer, because adding the butter at the beginning can reduce the rise (do the Puff course if you want to learn how to incorporate the butter separately by hand!).

Transfer the dough to a bowl, cover (I use those disposable shower caps which I no longer need now that travelling is not possible) and leave it to rise somewhere warm and draught-free for 1-2 hours. The dough should roughly double in size and the time this takes will be affected by the temperature in your house. Mine took an hour and a half in the airing cupboard.

Now punch down the dough – you should be able to see the air bubbles you are pressing out – and put it in a closed container in the fridge for a few hours or overnight. You can go directly to the next step if you prefer or are short of time, in which case you can put the dough back in the mixer to mix in the dried fruit.

Meanwhile, prepare the ingredients for the filling. Make the marzipan by mixing equal quantities of ground almonds and caster sugar with the zest of half a lemon and enough beaten egg for the mixture to just come together. For 80g of almonds and sugar you will probably only need about two-thirds of the egg. Mould the marzipan into a log (or two if you’re making two half-size loaves, which I prefer) and rest it in the fridge.

Weigh out the dried fruit and cut the peel and apricots into small pieces. If you can get it, the candied peel that comes in big pieces has much more flavour and a better texture than the tubs of ready cut peel. My sultanas and apricots were looking a bit dried out so I soaked them in water (you could of course use a tablespoon or two of brandy or rum if you prefer).

When you are ready to proceed take the dough out of the fridge and let it come to while you mix the filling ingredients together in a bowl. Lightly flour your bench and put your dough smooth side down on the surface. Flatten it out to a rectangle about 25 x 25 cm. Spread half the filling over the bottom half of the dough, and fold the top half of the dough down over it. Now stretch the dough a bit sideways, add a quarter of the mixture and fold the dough in from the left. Now turn the dough over so that what was the right hand edge is on the left, gently press it out sideways and repeat the fold to incorporate the last quarter of the filling. Finally press it back out and repeat the turns, to ensure the fruit is evenly incorporated. Don’t overdo this as the dough will become sticky and the fruit will start popping out. Form the dough into a ball, put it back in its bowl and leave to rest for 30 minutes.

Grease a baking tray (or two) or line with silicone paper and take the marzipan out of the fridge Flatten the dough to a 25 x 20 cm oblong and place the log of marzipan down the centre (or divide in half and shape two separate loaves). The marzipan should be just short of each end so you can completely enclose it in the dough. Fold each side of the dough over to cover the marzipan, pinching the edges to seal. Place the stollen seam side down on the prepared baking tray, cover with a cloth and leave it to prove for around 2 hours until it has doubled in size. About half an hour before it is ready pre-heat the oven to 170 C fan.

Bake the stollen for 30-35 minutes until it is golden brown. Check after 20 minutes as you may need to turn the temperature down to 150 C fan if it is browning too fast. Transfer it to a rack. While it is still warm brush it with the melted butter and sieve icing sugar generously over it.

The stollen will last for four or five days, and a freshly baked loaf (or half of one) keeps well in the freezer if you have made more stollen than your household can (or should) eat in a few days – hence my preference for making two smaller loaves.

Almond Biscuits

This post is for Marlene, who used to make these delicious biscuits for tea when I was visiting. She kindly gave me a folder of recipes she had collected, including this one, which was originally part of a Good Housekeeping menu from 1982 for a September Dinner Party. The biscuits were to accompany a Grand Marnier Bavarois with Raspberry & Blackberry Sauce, which sounds amazing. The rest of the menu featured a starter of Chilled Ratatouille (including leeks & mushrooms – surely inauthentic) and Steak in Whisky served with watercress and Scalloped Potatoes – how tastes have changed!

Being able to give any dinner party seems a distant prospect as we edge back into lockdown, but baking is firmly on the agenda, and these biscuits give a very good effort to return ratio. I made the full quantity, but only shaped and baked half of it, putting the rest of the dough, tightly wrapped, into the butter compartment of the fridge to bake later. The biscuits do keep for a few days in an airtight container, but are particularly nice on the first day. The recipe makes 16 biscuits.

  • 75g soft butter
  • 100g granulated (or caster) sugar
  • 150g self-raising flour
  • 25g ground almonds
  • 1 egg yolk
  • a few drops of almond essence

Heat the oven to 160 C fan/180 C/Gas Mark 4. Beat the butter until soft and gradually beat in the sugar either by hand or in a mixer. Then mix in all the remaining ingredients, and knead lightly until the dough just comes together.

Divide the dough in half and roll each half into eight balls. If you want to keep half for later, wrap it tightly and pop it into the fridge (you could probably put it in the freezer too, though I haven’t tested that). Place well apart on a lined baking sheet and flatten each one with the tines of a fork. I always use a silicone liner as it works out cheaper than greaseproof paper and is wonderfully non-stick.

Bake in the preheated oven for 13-15 minutes until the biscuits are golden brown. Carefully lift off the baking sheet – a cranked spatula is ideal for this – and cool on a wire rack. As you can see mine came out a bit cracked and wonky, but they were delicious to eat!

Sourdough Crackers

Now that the temperature has dropped I am trying to revive my sourdough starter. As this involves regular feeding, I am also revisiting all the recipes I have found for using up the discarded starter!

Aside from making muffins, I have made sourdough crackers, which are incredibly easy and tasty. I started off with a recipe by @_alicepower_ that I found on Martha Delacey‘s Instagram feed, where you just mix 200g discard with 2 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil, salt and seeds of your choice, paint it onto a lined baking tray (silicone mats or liners are ideal) and bake at 170 C fan until well browned, which takes 15-20 minutes.

This produces strongly savoury, yeasty crackers even from smelly old sourdough discard – great for snacks but a bit rustic, as you can see.

Sourdough crackers

I have since used a recipe I found on love and olive oil, which adds fresh flour to the starter. This produces a more elegant cracker, especially if you have a pasta machine. I don’t but am seriously considering acquiring one after seeing the neat, firm crackers that my friend produced with hers.

You can adjust the type of flour you use according to taste or what you have. The original recipe is American and uses all-purpose and whole wheat flour with a bit of rye. I have tended to use half strong flour (either white or wholemeal), though I haven’t done a comparative test, and if lockdown resumes strong flour may once again become a rare commodity. Adding a little rye flour is good for flavour, but you only need a couple of tablespoons, and the total quantity of flour should stay the same. Note that the quantities in this recipe are for a starter which has the same quantity of flour and water (aka 100% hydration), so if yours has less water in it you will need to up with water accordingly. I generally use 65% hydration for my starter, as it keeps better in the fridge, so I add 70ml water to this recipe.

  • 200 grams sourdough starter
  • 70g plain or strong flour
  • 60g wholemeal flour (or wholemeal & rye)
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon dried herbs de Provence
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • maldon salt, for topping

Mix the sourdough starter with the flours, olive oil, herbs and salt in a bowl and knead until the dough comes together in a smooth ball. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 175 C/Gas mark 4 and line two baking trays with parchment or silicone mats. Cut the dough in half and put one half back in the fridge while you roll out the other.

Divide the dough into four and roll out each one into an oblong, either with a rolling pin or with a pasta maker (loveandoliveoil recommend a number 6 setting out of 8). Put two oblongs of dough on each baking sheet. Spray or brush lightly with water and sprinkle with the flakes of Maldon salt.

Bake until lightly golden brown and crisp, which should take 12 to 15 minutes. If the heat in your oven is uneven (true of most ovens), then swap the baking trays from top to bottom and turn then from back to front half way through. Allow the crackers to cool before transferring them to a rack, then repeat with the remaining dough.

I have found that the crackers keep for a week or two in an airtight container.

Mrs Langan’s Chocolate Pudding

I was given this recipe a very long time ago by my brother’s girlfriend, who had made it for a dinner we had together. For years I assumed that her mother was called Mrs Langan, and that it was her recipe, but a chance comment I saw on Instagram revealed that  Mrs Langan’s Chocolate Pudding actually came from the Good Food Guide Dinner Party cookbook.

The Instagram comment mentioned that her mother served it filled with pears, which I think sounds absolutely delicious. Raspberries would probably be good too, but here is the recipe as I was given it – pre-decimal, but I have given approximate metric weight conversions.

I haven’t made this for years, so no photo yet, but hope to add one soon.

  • 6 large eggs
  • ½lb/225g caster sugar
  • 2oz/60g cocoa
  • 12oz/340g dark chocolate
  • ¾ pint/450ml double cream

Grease and line a 13″ x 8″ (33 x 20cm) Swiss roll tin. Preheat the oven to 175°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.

Whip the egg yolks until they thicken. Add the sugar, and beat again until thick but not white. Add the cocoa and mix thoroughly. Whip the egg whites in a separate bowl until stiff but not dry, and fold gently into the yolk and cocoa mixture.

Pour mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 20 minutes or until it is set without being dried out. Allow the sponge to cool on a rack, then turn it out onto a sheet of greaseproof paper lightly dusted with caster sugar.

Melt the chocolate with a little water over a gentle heat. Cool the chocolate but do not allow it to set. Then pour it over the chocolate sponge base.

Whip the double cream until thick, but not stiff. Spread most of the cream evenly over the chocolate. Gently roll up or fold over the cake by moving your fingers underneath the greaseproof paper and tip onto a serving plate. Cover with the remaining cream.

 

Blackcurrant and almond cake

This is a Sarah Raven recipe, which I found in The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, a book given to me by my friend Richard. It took me a while to work out how best to navigate it but once I started dipping into it there was no going back. It is a real source of inspiration, full of new ideas and good recipes, including this one.

I made this cake with some frozen, home-grown (not by me!) blackcurrants, and it showcased them beautifully.  The almond essence gives it a lovely marzipan flavour. I reduced the quantities by a third to fit my tin (the original uses 200g butter/sugar/ ground almonds and blackcurrants and a 25cm tin).

IMG_6302.jpeg

  • 130g butter
  • 130g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 130g ground almonds
  • 1 scant tsp almond essence
  • 130g blackcurrants

Grease and line a 20cm cake tin and pre-heat the oven to 180°C/Gas mark 4.

Cream together the butter and sugar until they are pale. Beat the eggs in one at a time and then fold in the ground almonds and almond essence.

Scrape the cake batter into the prepared tin and scatter over the blackcurrants. Bake for 30 minutes until golden and firm to the touch. Sift icing sugar on top and serve with crème fraîche.

Sourdough muffins

Muffins are one of my favourite tea-time treats, but the ones you buy in the shops are often heavy and disappointing. A friend who, like me, has been baking sourdough bread during lockdown mentioned that they were easy to cook, so this week I tried them out. They are indeed easy to make and you can use the sourdough starter you discard when you’re refreshing it. All the recipes I found online suggested that you needed to add dried yeast too, but yeast has been as rare as hen’s teeth in supermarkets so I thought I would experiment with just relying on my starter.

IMG_6400

The results exceeded my expectations – the muffins (English muffins for anyone reading from across the pond) have an almost fluffy, toothsome crumb and delicious sourdough flavour. They proved exceedingly popular, disappearing even faster than a fresh loaf of sourdough bread. So I’m writing this post primarily to remind myself of what I did so that I can make them again.

My starter is drier than many, following my brother’s formula (probably originally derived from Richard Bertinet) of 50g flour to 35ml water. If your starter is 50/50 flour and water you may need to adjust the amount of water in the recipe accordingly. I make quite small quantities of starter as I only bake bread once a week, but refresh it about twice a week. Each time I put the discarded starter in a separate jar in the fridge, and then use it for baking crackers – and now muffins.

I used strong white flour without thinking and then realised that many recipes specify plain flour, so next time I will try a 50/50 mix and see how that works. PS: I tried this and the texture of the muffins was not nearly as good – there were sort of doughy – so stick with the strong flour!

Most recipes also seem to include milk or milk powder, but I didn’t have any, and the results seem to be just fine without it. I may experiment with the adding milk if I have any in the fridge next time around. This quantity makes a dozen muffins.

  • 120g sourdough starter discard
  • 420g strong white flour
  • 30g butter
  • 1 dstsp sugar
  • 220ml warm water
  • 1.5 tsp salt
  • semolina or polenta for dusting (about 2 tbsps)

I started in the late afternoon by mixing together 120g of the starter discard with 120g flour and 90ml of warm water. I covered the bowl and left it to get going for a few hours. Mine took about 4 hours to start showing signs of activity, but how long it takes will depend on how old your starter is, how warm it is in the room and other variables. If your starter discard is still very active you could probably skip this step and move straight to mixing the dough (using the full quantity of flour and water). Mine was a bit sluggish and I have learnt the hard way that baking with a sluggish starter is a sure route to disappointment.

The next step is to rub the butter into the remaining 300g flour, just as you would for making scones. I did this by hand but in the bowl of my mixer, so that I could knead the dough using the dough hook. You could use the mixer to incorporate the butter, and doing the whole thing by hand would be equally fine. Scoop the starter mixture into the flour and butter. Dissolve the sugar and salt in the remaining 130ml of warm water, add that too and mix everything together well. Now knead it until it comes together into a fairly firm, elastic dough. Put it into a bowl, then into a plastic bag and pop into the fridge overnight.

In the morning, pull the dough out of the fridge as soon as you wake up (I know, baking does weird things to your morning routine). About an hour later the dough should be starting to wake up and look a bit lively. Now you need to shape your muffins. Prepare two baking sheets by sprinkling them with the semolina or polenta.

I couldn’t follow the method of rolling out the dough and cutting out the muffins as you would scones, as I don’t have a plain 7cm/3in cutter, and my attempt to use a suitably sized glass didn’t work. Instead I shaped the muffins by dividing the dough into 12 pieces and briefly kneading each piece into a muffin shape. I read that you get a better rise if you use a cutter to stamp out the dough, and you would certainly get a more uniform shape than my slightly wonky ones. Lay the muffins out on the two trays as you go, sprinkle the tops with semolina/polenta, then cover with a tea towel and leave to prove for around 45 minutes. They should visibly puff up and relax.

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When they’re nearly ready put a heavy frying pan or plain (not ridged) griddle on to heat  up on a medium setting. Once it’s well heated, put the first batch of muffins in (unless you have a big griddle and can do all 12 at once). After about 10 minutes – keep an eye on them, as they may need a little less or more time – they should be ready to turn over. The bottom should become firm and browned, the top will dome a little and therefore be a bit less brown, while the sides stay softer. I found mine needed 10-11 minutes on the bottom and 8 minutes on the top. Put on a cooling rack while you cook the second batch.

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Now use a fork to pull the muffins apart, slather with good butter and eat greedily. My timings mean that the muffins will be coming off the stove in time for morning coffee! I can recommend mature cheddar and apricot jam (separately) as excellent adornments.

You can keep them wrapped in a paper bag for a day or two (if you can stop yourself eating them) or freeze them. They are most delicious eaten while still warm, so if you’re eating them later warm them through in the frying pan or griddle. I warmed the top and bottom for a couple of minutes, then split them and warmed the crumb too.

Dark chocolate & walnut cookies

Dark chocolate and walnut cookies

Instagram discovery number two (see previous post) has been these dangerously addictive cookies, from Ravneet Gill’s new book The Pastry Chef’s Guide, which is now top of my wish-list. She shared this recipe on Instagram live (where she is @ravneeteats) and, aside from enabling you to make these fabulous cookies, the videos show that she will surely have a TV series soon, being  as charismatic as she is talented. I have now signed up for the online pastry school that has just been launched by PUFF the bakery, run by Ravneet with fellow pastry chef Nicola Lamb, who ran very successful  pop-ups before lockdown. So expect more pastry and desserts on the blog – and that I will be two sizes bigger by the time you next see me!

These quantities make about 6 cookies and they are pretty rich so probably not wise to make a larger batch unless you are locked down with the whole family, as they are totally irresistible. However, should you be lucky enough to be with a crowd then its easy to double or triple the quantities. Apparently, this recipe also works with vegan margarine and a flax egg, though I haven’t tested this. I have taken the liberty of dialling down the quantity of sugar a bit, using soft light brown rather than caster sugar, and adding some ground almonds. You can use chopped chocolate instead of the nuts, but in my view that would be too much of a good thing – you need the crunch of the nuts to set off their glorious brownie-like squidginess.

IMG_6285The cookies are very straightforward to make, taking less than 30 minutes of your time (with an hour rest in the middle). So if you need a treat for tea – and who doesn’t at the moment – I heartily recommend them.

  • 110g dark chocolate
  • 15g butter
  • 1 egg
  • 60g soft light brown (or caster) sugar
  • 12g cornflour
  • 1 tbsp ground almonds (optional)
  • 3g (1 tsp) cocoa powder
  • 1g (1/3 tsp) baking powder
  • 35g chopped walnuts (or roasted hazelnuts)
  • pinch of Maldon salt

Bring a small pan of water to a simmer. Break the chocolate into a heatproof bowl, add the butter and set over the simmering water to melt, ensuring that the bowl doesn’t touch the water. You could also melt the chocolate and butter in a microwave, but I never do this, so can’t give advice on it. Once the chocolate is nearly melted, which shouldn’t take more than a few minutes, stir to amalgamate and put on one side.

Break the egg into a mixing bowl and beat with a whisk. Then add the sugar half at a time, whisking to incorporate after each addition. Combine the cornflour, baking powder and cocoa powder, sieving if they are lumpy. Stir in the ground almonds if you’re using.

By now the chocolate and butter should have cooled a little. Whisk them into the eggs and sugar, then whisk in the dry ingredients, at which point the batter will become quite a bit stiffer. Finally, stir in the chopped nuts (don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the salt – that comes later). Tip the mixture into a container which will hold it in a shallow layer so it will cool down quickly and put it to rest in the fridge for an hour. I used quite a large mixing bowl, so I just spread the mixture out in that and popped it in the fridge. You can leave it in the fridge overnight (but no longer than 24 hours or you will inactivate the baking powder).

Pre-heat the oven to 160°C fan/180°C and line a baking tray with a silicone liner or piece of baking paper. Take the mixture out of the fridge and using a teaspoon, an ice cream scoop or your hands (best to use a disposable glove unless you want to end up with a lot of cookie dough on your hands; on second thoughts…) scoop out balls of the mixture, weighing them to ensure that your cookies are evenly sized. Ravneet used 50g per cookie but I made mine with 35g in the vain hope that I would eat a smaller portion. Roll each scoop into a ball then flatten it slightly and put it on the baking sheet. Pop the shaped cookies back in the fridge while the oven finishes heating.

Once the oven is up to temperature put in the cookies, which should be quite firm by now, and bake them for 8-9 minutes. At this point they should have risen and spread a little, the outside will look dry and crackled, but they will still be soft if you touch them. Take them out of the oven and crumble a little Maldon salt over each one. Leave them on the baking tray until they have firmed up, which will take at least 5 minutes. They will keep in a tin for a few days.

Walnut biscuits

Try these light walnut biscuits if you can’t face another mince pie or chunk of Christmas cake but still want something sweet with your coffee or alongside a fruity or creamy dessert. They went down well with clementine salad and clementine semifreddo at a friend’s New Year’s Eve dinner.

This started as a recipe for Hazelnut Crescents given to me many years ago by the Hungarian mother of a Canadian friend. The original hazelnut biscuits are possibly even more delicious than this walnut version, but I had ground walnuts that needed eating and the substitution was a success. I increased the amount of ground nuts and reduced the quantity of flour to make them nuttier, which improves the taste at the expense of making them slightly more fragile. I think this is an acceptable trade off (especially as the cook gets to ‘tidy-up’ any broken ones) but if you prefer a more robust biscuit, then revert to the original ½ cup of nuts to 1 cup of flour (US cups, so 60g and 140g respectively). I’ve dialled down the sugar and vanilla a bit too – use the larger quantity of vanilla if you are fond of it. The original recipe used half-and-half butter and lard as the fat, which makes for a shorter biscuit, but I never have lard in the house these days so have defaulted to using only butter.

These are half the original quantities and, as you can see, still made around 36 biscuits – enough to feed a crowd, especially as I think the biscuits are supposed to be smaller and more crescent shaped, so this could make more: I clearly need to perfect my shaping technique. The biscuits keep well in an airtight tin, though they are very more-ish.

115g butter
85g sugar
½-1 tsp vanilla
110g ground walnuts (or hazelnuts)
90g plain flour
¼ tsp salt
icing sugar to serve

Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper, and heat the oven to 150° F. Cream the butter with the sugar until it is light and fluffy. Making these is quickest in a stand mixer but easy enough with a hand-held mixer or a good old wooden spoon too. Add the ground walnuts (or hazelnuts) and then the flour bit by bit. Finally add the salt and vanilla and mix until it all comes together. Turn out the mixture onto a floured bench and knead into a fat log.

Then divide the biscuit dough, first into four and then cutting each quarter into 9 or even 12 pieces. Shape each little piece into a crescent by rolling it into a thin torpedo shape between your palms and then curving the ends together as you place it on the prepared baking tray. Leave space between the biscuits as they expand in the oven.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until they are golden brown, switching the trays round after ten minutes so that they cook evenly. Leave them to cool a little on their trays before moving them to a cooling rack and dusting with icing sugar.

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.