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.

 

Advertisements

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.

9A8040B1-78B8-47AC-B638-E1B26C6337EE
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.

 

Stem Ginger Cake

IMG_4357With a long walk on Friday and a trip to Compton Verney yesterday, I had two picnics to cater for this week, so my thoughts turned to cake. Picnics are one of my favourite things – I still have a vivid memory of an idyllic picnic many summers ago in a field full of buttercups by a stream, with my brothers and some family friends. My favourite alfresco meals include something other than sandwiches (good though these can be): yesterday we had boxes of lightly dressed lentil salad, a bag of lettuce washed and kept fresh in a little cooler bag, crisp radishes, hard-boiled (but only just – 8 minutes) eggs and a couple of pink satin slices of prosciutto, cheese, apples – and of course ginger cake!

Ginger cake (or gingerbread) is a traditional picnic staple: it keeps well – indeed improves with keeping for a day or two – travels well and is delicious eaten with an apple and some crumbly Lancashire or Cheshire cheese in the fresh air with an appetite sharpened by walking. Mind you, it is equally welcome with a mug of tea by the fire on a cold winter’s day.

I spent an enjoyable half-hour reading ginger cake recipes – from Constance Spry’s Belvoir Ginger Cake and everyday gingerbread (‘suitable for nursery tea’) to Delia Smith’s more genteel stem ginger cake. In the end I went back to Nigel Slater’s Double Ginger Cake from his first Kitchen Diaries, albeit with some alterations: I replaced some of the golden syrup with treacle to give that distinctive gingerbread taste and used spelt flour and baking powder as I didn’t have any self-raising flour. The method is easy, as it doesn’t require creaming the butter and sugar, and I particularly like his inclusion of stem ginger in syrup, which some traditional recipes omit. The result was entirely satisfactory – the three of us on our walk managed to polish off a large chunk without any trouble, and I was very happy to eat it again with Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire and an apple at the end of yesterday’s picnic.

This recipe makes a large cake, which filled a 21 cm square by 5 cm high baking tin. Nigel Slater says the recipe is enough for eight, but I cut it into 20 generous square pieces, so even if some people can manage two I reckon it feeds 10-12 comfortably.

250g spelt flour
3 tsps baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tsps ground ginger
half tsp ground cinnamon
a pinch of salt
120g golden syrup
80g treacle
2 tbsps of the ginger syrup
125g butter
3 large lumps of stem ginger
2 heaped tbsps sultanas
125g muscovado sugar
2 eggs
240 ml milk

Line the tin with baking parchment and put the oven on to warm at 180ºC/Gas 4. Start by sifting the flour and other dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl, making sure they are well combined. Measure the two syrups, treacle and butter into a small pan and warm over a low heat. Dice the ginger and add it too, followed by the sultanas and sugar. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring it until all is incorporated, then take off the heat.

Measure out the milk in a measuring jug, then break in the eggs and beat gently to mix together.  Pour the contents of the saucepan into the flour and stir with a large silicone spatula. Add the milk and eggs and stir the sloppy mixture until you can’t see any flour.

Pour the mixture into the lined tin and bake for 35 minutes , when a wooden skewer poked into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Put the tin on a rack and leave to cool. If you can resist trying some straight away, wrap in clean greaseproof, waxed paper or foil and leave it to improve for a day or two – or just wrap the whole tin and take it to your picnic.

May the sun shine on all your picnics!

 

Hazelnut Cake

Jeremy Lee’s king of puddings column in the Guardian’s cook supplement had become a highlight of my Saturday, much mourned since its disappearance when the supplement metamorphosed into Feast recently. I haven’t actually cooked his recipes that often (lest I lose all semblance of a waistline), just salivated over how delicious and comforting they sounded. However this cake sounded just too tempting to be savoured only in the mind.

I made a smaller cake than the original (which used 5 eggs rather than 3 – just scale up if you have more cake-lovers to feed). I used a big bag of excellent toasted and ground hazelnuts, found in the kosher section of my supermarket (alas they only have them around passover, but I stock up), rather than roasting and grinding them myself. This only takes a little longer, though, and the taste will be even better, so don’t worry if you can’t find ground hazelnuts.  As suggested, I served it with cream; raspberries or some lightly stewed plums would be great alongside it too if you want to serve it for pudding.

This cake is simpler to make than our much loved hazelnut and raspberry birthday cake, or this hazelnut cake, making it suitable for less momentous celebrations: small triumphs or a weekend treat.

210g hazelnuts, whole or ground
3 eggs, separated
120g caster sugar, plus 1 dstsp
60g butter
zest of 1/2 lemon

Heat the oven to 170° C. If you are using whole hazelnuts, put them on a baking tray and toast in the oven for 5-10 minutes (keep a close eye on them) until they are brown and the skins are coming off. Tip into a clean tea towel and rub off as much of the skins as possible, then grind to a coarse meal in a food processor.

Line an 18cm cake tin (or similar) with baking parchment. Melt the butter in a small pan.

Separate the eggs and beat the 120g sugar into the yolk using a wire whisk, until they are pale and foamy, stopping when you can write your initial with the trail from the whisk. Using a clean whisk, beat the egg whites until they are stiff, then add the extra dessertspoon of sugar and beat again.

Fold one third of the egg whites into the yolk mixture, then add half the hazelnuts, amalgamating them lightly and swiftly. I use a large silicone spatula for this, which makes easy work of incorporating all the mixture. Follow this with another third of egg whites, and the rest of the hazelnuts. Finally fold in the last of the egg whites, the melted butter and lemon zest until all is amalgamated.

Pour into the prepared tin and bake in the pre-heated oven for around 30 minutes. Use a wooden skewer to check that it is done before turning out onto a wire rack to cool. Allegedly, it will keep for a couple of days in a tin…

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.