Spain isn’t a country renowned for its desserts. On a recent trip to Barcelona, the majority of our sweet consumption was split between flaky treats from the local pastelerías at breakfast time and a requisite daily ice cream; justified as compulsory thermostat control on the sweltering beach or busy streets. Maybe the rest of the food and drink on offer is just too good; after wedges of tortilla, melting plates of jamón, rich, creamy croquetas and raisin scented sherry, dessert might well be the last thing on your mind.
James Ramsden is a high achiever. Trained at Ballymaloe cookery school in Ireland, he started blogging back in 2008 and has since carved himself a career as a respected food writer for The Guardian, The Times, Sainsbury’s magazine and more. Not content with writing for broadsheets, magazines and maintaining a successful blog, he also runs a popular supper club from his home in North London and has just published his first book. All at the tender age of 24. That’s two years younger than me. By rights I should be green with envy.
But I’m not. There’s something extremely likeable about James and his attitude to food. He wants cooking to be simple and he wants it to be enjoyable. He appreciates the fact that, for most people, eating isn’t necessarily an endless succession of dinner-party-standard meals – that in any given week we’ll fluctuate between feeding large groups of friends and throwing together a solitary supper. His attitude reminds me of a cross between a younger Jamie Oliver (minus the cheeky chappy vocab) and my own boyfriend (like James, Carniverous Boyfriend is a Yorkshire boy). Maybe it’s an age thing. Maybe it’s a boy thing. But I definitely feel like there’s a lot I can learn from his enthusiastic, experimental, laid-back approach to cooking. Food should be fun.
Do you have a best ever brownie? Most people I know either have, or are looking for, the ultimate recipe. There’s a lot of debate as to what constitutes this holy grail of tea-time treats, with opinion generally split between the crumbly cakey camp and fans of a dense, more fudgey fix. I side with the latter – I like my brownies rich and dark with a gooey chocolate centre and slightly crispy crust.
When I was a child our go-to brownie recipe was a Jocelyn Dimbleby classic that ticked all the boxes. Copied onto a piece of paper long before the internet became a household staple, it lived (and probably still does) folded, dog-eared and smeared with sticky chocolate fingerprints inside an ancient Mrs Beeton cookery book on our kitchen bookshelf. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve made that recipe, and it’s been passed on to people we know around the country, feeding family, friends and multiple generations (ok, that sounds a bit epic but it is a bloody good recipe…)
It’s my friend’s birthday this week and I wanted to make something suitably delicious and gifty to mark the occasion. Celebrations would be taking place in a bar after work which slightly dictated the format my baking could take; I wanted something fairly dainty so people could stand and chat without having to manage too many stray sticky crumbs, but also something with strong enough flavours to still pack a punch several vodkas into the evening.
A couple of weeks ago a certain young couple tied the knot amidst a media frenzy. As they prepared for the big day (I imgine thanking a higher being for their respective soon-to-be enlarged bank account and expanded gene pool), the nation (and beyond) became obsessed with every detail of the wedding; who would be attending, what they’d be wearing, the flowers, the food, the drink and, of course, that dress.
The hot topic closest to my little loaf heart, however, was who would be making the cake. This honour fell to the fabulous Fiona Cairns, who produced a suitably stunning creation, but, not being a huge fruit cake fan, what really caught my eye was Prince William’s chocolate biscuit groom’s cake. Apparently this simple slab of unbaked chocolate, butter and biscuits is a childhood favourite of William’s. Not hugely regal or royal – I love the thought of dignitaries from around the world munching on what is essentially a glorified Rice Krispie cake – but totally delicious and a funny insight into a slightly more human side of the Windsor family.
Chocolate biscuit, or refrigerator, cake is a firm favourite in my family, and has been since childhood (nope, I’m not secretly a member of the royal family, although we clearly share a similarly sophisticated palate when it comes to cake. . .). My mum used to make it for birthdays in a bunny-shaped mould, presenting the giant chocolate rabbit shape on a bed of green jelly grass. The height of six year old sophistication. Over the years our biscuit cake has matured and we now serve it in thin, rich slices, laced with dried fruit and booze as an alternative to Christmas cake. But at heart it’s still a birthday treat, so when my aunt asked me to bake a cake for my cousin’s 21st, we knew it had to be chocolate biscuit.
Making a cake for fifty people is no mean feat. This concoction required a kilo of chocolate, a tin of golden syrup, enough slabs of butter to block your arteries just by looking at them, a vast packet of digestives (McVities take note, apparently Will’s cake was made with Rich Tea biscuits. Schoolboy error.) and a whole box of eggs. Chocolate biscuit cake, while incredible to eat, is hardly very elegant, so I also whizzed up butter, sugar and cocoa to create a thick buttercream frosting to mask the lumpy bumpy bits – totally unnecessary but actually rather delicious to have that contrast between the cool, crunchy cake and soft, creamy icing. I topped the whole thing off with some beautiful homemade chocolate roses (actually really easy, read my earlier post for instructions here) and was pretty happy with the final result. It certainly got polished off pretty quick by the hungry crowds.
A cake fit for a King? Who knows, it might just make the grade.
Chocolate biscuit cake for 50
(For a more manageable recipe simply divide each quantity by 5)
375g golden syrup
1kg dark chocolate, minimum 60% cocoa solids, broken into pieces
500g digestive biscuits
Grease and line two large cake tins (I used one 20″ and one 22″ square) and set aside.
Melt together the butter and golden syrup in a large pan. Melt the chocolate in a bain marie, then mix throughly with the butter and syrup mixture. Pasteurise the eggs by beating slowly and continuously into the hot chocolate mixture.
Put the biscuits in a large plastic bag and beat with a rolling pin until broken into a mixture of powder and larger chunks. Do the same with the walnuts then add to the chocolate mixture and stir until fully incorporated. You could also add raisins or other dried fruit at this stage if you wish, along with a splash of rum or other alcohol.
Press the mixture into the prepared tins and chill in the fridge for a minimum of 5 hours.
500g icing sugar
200g butter, softened
2 tsp vanilla extract
Dash of milk
4 tbsp cocoa powder
Blitz the sugar and butter in a blender. Add vanilla extract and enough milk until a thick, creamy frosting is formed. Transfer approximately 1/4 of the mixture into a small bowl and pop in the fridge (this is for the paler piping you can see in the pic). Add the cocoa powder to the remaining mixture and blitz until fully incorporated.
Remove the cakes from the fridge. Transfer the larger cake onto a plate or cake board and layer the next one on top, securing together with a small amount of icing. Cover the cakes in a smooth layer of chocolate buttercream, then pipe the plain vanilla frosting round the edges. Decorate with chocolate roses, then return to the fridge and chill. Remove from the fridge around 40 mins before you want to serve to allow the flavours to really come through.
Did you know? When googling Will’s groom’s cake I read that while a classic wedding cake is served to the guests at the wedding reception, the groom’s cake is meant to be sliced up, placed into packages and given to them as favours when they leave. Single women at the wedding would take their pieces of cake home and sleep with it under their pillows in hopes of dreaming of their future husbands… (!) Bizarre advice and not something I’d recommend. Chocolate biscuit cake is meant for eating and will likely result in a hugely sticky mess if left under your pillow (although on reflection it would provide a pretty good midnight feast…)
Watching an episode of River Cottage on TV the other day, I was momentarily transported by Hugh and his crew into the romantic rural idyll that is their world. A place where bread is always freshly baked, beautiful ripe fruit drips from the trees, butter is churned before the cow can even bat an eyelid, and spring lambs and rosie-cheeked children skip side-by-side across verdant pastures . . . A little far-fetched perhaps, but I think you get my drift. It’s a pretty far cry from the scraggy bush of rosemary cowering between two giant weeds that constitutes my little London garden anyway.
That’s not to say a girl can’t dream. Or indeed cook her way through a whole array of culinary highlights by way of some gorgeous recipe books (and let’s be honest, it’s mostly the food I’m after; stick me in a pair of muddy wellies in deepest Devon and I’d probably be howling for the bright lights and my local Waitrose after a shamefully short period of time). I’ve already sung the praises of The River Cottage Bread Handbook in a previous post, and River Cottage Every Day, a more recent purchase, is even better, packed with beautiful photos and gorgeous, simple recipes that really work first time.
This carrot cake is one of those recipes. We went to a leaving party this weekend for a friend who’s jetting off to a new job abroad and I wanted to bake a surprise cake to mark the occasion. After a bit of devious digging I discovered that carrot cake was the thing that would really hit the spot.
There’s a lot of hype around vegetables in cakes at the moment from the likes of low-fat champion Harry Eastwood (I’m yet to try one of her Petit Pois cupcakes but they look intriguing); the replacement of butter with nutritious vegetables adds moisture and reduces fat meaning you really can have your cake and eat it. However while our constant need to innovate means that courgette, beetroot and pumpkin have briefly replaced the humble carrot at the top of the pile, this recipe reminds you that the original sometimes is still simply the best.
The recipe below will serve at least twelve comfortably, more if you do as I did and stuff and smother it with a rich cream cheese frosting (totally unnecessary as Hugh points out but utterly indulgent and delicious). It’s light on spice so you could throw in a little cinammon if you like. I think it would also be wonderful with a handful of walnuts thrown in, or some syrupy sultanas if you’re feeling fruity.
Honey-soaked carrot cake with cream cheese frosting (from River Cottage Every Day)
- 4 medium free range
- 150g caster sugar (use golden for a slightly caramel flavour)
- 150ml each rapeseed and sunflower oil (I used a mixture of ground nut and sunflower which worked perfectly)
- 350g carrots, peeled and finely grated
- 300g wholemeal self-raising flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 100g runny honey
Cream cheese frosting:
- 125g unsalted butter, softened
- 200g icing sugar, sieved
- 250g cream cheese
- Finely grated zest of 2 limes
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Grease and line a 23cm cake pan.
Put the eggs and sugar in a large mixing bowl and beat together with a hand held electric mixture for about 10 minutes, until pale, foamy and slightly thickened. Yes, your hand will feel like it’s going to fall off with all the vibrations, but the mixture does need this time to get nice and aerated. Add the oil and beat for a couple of minutes more.
Sift together the flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda into the mixture. Tip any bran left in the sieve into the mixture too. Fold in gently. Finally, fold in the grated carrot. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 45-50 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Put the honey in a saucepan over a low heat and heat gently until the honey is liquid. Pierce the hot cake all over with a skewer then slowly pour on the hot honey so it soaks into the cake. Leave in the tin to cool completely before turning out.
As Hugh says in the book, this cake is completely lovely as it is – soft, syrupy and incredibly moist. However for all carrot cake traditionalists out there, smothering it in a tart cream cheese frosting is the ultimate indulgence. Simply sling the soft butter and icing sugar into a magimix and whizz til smooth and fluffy. Add the cream cheese and lime zest and whizz again until smooth. Once cold, slice the cake in half, stuff it with icing then sandwich the two halves together and smother with the remaining frosting. De-lish.
Over the last few days I’ve seen quite a few blog posts cropping up with recipes recommending what to do with leftover Easter chocolate. Rocky road, tiffin, brownies, rice crispy cakes, chocolate cake, chocolate sauce and more; these are all suitably worthy resting places for those sad little eggs and shells that didn’t quite make it into the Easter morning binge. But to be honest, I’ve never really had this issue of ‘egg-cess’ (sorry), having subscribed to more of an ‘all or nothing’ approach to anything sweet from a young age. Consuming my own body weight in chocolate before Easter breakfast has now become pretty much standard practice.
Having said that, yesterday a little bit of Easter egg chocolate did manage to sneak its way into the mixing bowl as I was making my favourite banana loaf recipe. I’d returned home after Easter to a pile of soft, slightly blackened bananas and needed a recipe to salvage them pretty quickly, This sticky, moist banana loaf was the perfect answer- in fact, it simply doesn’t taste the same if the bananas you use aren’t blackened, squidgy and sickly sweet. And the addition of a few nuggets of deliciously dark chocolate prevents the richness of the banana from becoming overpowering.
I mentioned a few weeks ago my discovery of a delicious banana, chocolate and walnut loaf recipe on Gourmet Traveller ‘s blog. I’ve made it a few times since, tweaking the ingredients here and there, and the result is always spot on – dense, moist and nutty inside, crusty and golden on the top, with a richly intense banana flavour and little hits of chocolate. This loaf is delicious as a dessert with natural Greek yoghurt or vanilla ice cream, the perfect tea-time snack served straight up, or an incredible indulgence toasted and smothered in butter. It’s really more of a cake than a loaf though, so arteries take heed if you do decide to go for this final option.
Banana, Chocolate and Walnut Loaf
(adapted from a Gourmet Traveller recipe)
4 large ripe bananas
100g unsalted butter, slightly soft
140g soft brown sugar
2 large free range eggs
50g walnuts, chopped
50g dark chocolate (70% cocoa minimum), chopped
150ml semi-skimmed milk
140g plain flour
140g wholemeal flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 level tbsp demerara sugar
Preheat the oven to 160°C. Grease a 900g (2lb) loaf tin with butter and line the base with baking parchment.
Peel and roughly mash the bananas with a fork. In a separate large mixing bowl, whisk the butter and sugar together until pale and creamy. Crack in the eggs and whisk further to combine, then stir in the mashed banana, walnuts, chocolate and milk. Stir thoroughly to incorporate all the ingredients – the banana means there may be a few lumps.
Sift the flours and bicarbonate of soda into the bowl and gently fold into the wet mixture until just combined. The key here is to work carefully to preserve the lightness of the cake batter. Pour the batter into your prepared loaf tin and sprinkle with the demerara sugar.
Bake in the oven for 1 hour – you’ll know it’s done when a metal skewer inserted in the middle comes out mostly clean. If it’s still wet with batter, pop your loaf back in the oven for another 15 minutes, covering with foil if the top is browning too much. When cooked, remove from oven and leave to sit for 5 minutes before transferring the loaf out onto a wire ack to cool completely.