Pistachio Rose Cake

April 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

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The Kitchen Diaries features a picture of this cake that often drifts into my daydreams. The cake is on a simple plinth, set on a rustic table, surrounded by verdant shrubbery and the weak late afternoon light of springtime London. Elegant glasses of mint tea accompany. It’s a captivating scene, one that makes me believe that it would be possible to live in a London where the sun shines on a secluded garden, and to sip mint tea in the afternoon while reading short stories and wearing white. In other words, it makes you believe the unbelievable.

The cake, though, is real. I made it for Easter Sunday, having already rocked the Simnel cake too recently to repeat. What I wanted, apart from timeless elegance, was a not-too-sweet cake. Something that would stand its own in the inevitable context of too much food and way too much chocolate. I couldn’t have been happier with how it worked out. It’s a cake heavy with pistachios and almonds, fragrant with orange and rosewater, and just sweet enough with its thin layer of lemon icing. To make it yet more celebration-worthy, I added candied rose petals along with a scattering of leftover shelled pistachios to decorate. Raised on a plinth, and through the haze of a boozy lunch with good friends, it fed our own version of an idyllic scene.

Pistachio Rose Cake
Adapted from Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries

250g butter
250g sugar
3 eggs
100g shelled pistachio nuts
100g ground almonds/almond flour
1 orange, zest and juice
1 tsp rosewater (honestly, you could leave this out if you don’t have it and don’t want to invest in a jar although it is a poetic addition)
60g plain (all purpose) flour
candied rose petals and shelled pistachio nuts to decorate (optional)

For the icing:
100g icing/confectioner’s sugar
2 tbsp. lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 325F/160C. Grease a 22cm/9inch round cake tin and line the bottom and sides with parchment paper.

Cream together the butter and sugar using a stand mixer, electric whisk or wooden spoon, until light and creamy. Add the eggs one by one, beating well after each addition and scraping down the side of the bowl. Add the almonds and pistachios, taking care not to overmix. Beat in the orange juice and zest and the rosewater, again mixing only to combine. Fold in the flour using a metal spoon or silicon spatula.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for around 50 minutes to an hour (my cake took the full hour to bake). Cover the top of the cake with foil after 45 minutes. The cake is ready when a metal skewer inserted into the centre come out mostly clean, with no big clumps of cake clinging to it.

Leave the cake to cool in the pan before unmolding. When the cake is completely cool, it is ready for decorating. Mix together the icing sugar and lemon juice to make a paste. Spread evenly over the cake and then top with candied rose petals and shelled whole pistachios, if using.

The cake should keep, well wrapped, for 3 days.

Simnel Cake

April 17, 2014 § 4 Comments

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I am a big marzipan fan. Big. If marzipan was an early 1990s boy band, my walls would be plastered in its posters and I’d be in the front row of all its concerts. But it doesn’t seem to feature in my life very much these days (much like 90s bands and their paraphernalia, thank goodness) – barring an occasional box of marzipan fruits or similar at Christmas. So when my friends requested Simnel Cake for their joint birthday party last weekend, I was more than happy to oblige.

You may be forgiven for never having heard of Simnel Cake, especially if you’re located outside of the UK. To bring you up to speed: it’s a light fruit cake, sandwiched with a layer of marzipan, and then covered in a second layer of the stuff. If you’re being traditional, you include 11 little balls of marzipan on the top too, representing the 12 apostles minus naughty Judas. The cake is commonly associated with Easter and all its sweet treats, but it actually originates from Mothering Sunday, when young girls who had left home to work, often in kitchens or as maids (think Downton…), had the chance to go home to visit family, and took this kind of cake back with them as a treat. So not only is this is a delicious, moist cake, you can pretend you’re in Edwardian England when you’re enjoying it with a cup of tea – from the finest china of course – alongside.

I used a Nigella recipe for my first attempt at this cake, and I can say that I don’t feel any need to try other version, ever. It’s perfectly moist and fragrant, very easy to assemble, and keeps extremely well for a good few days. Make it for this coming weekend as a contrast to all that chocolate, or if you’re in the US, turn history and tradition on its head and make it for Mother’s Day next month while you enjoy a Downton marathon with your mom.

Simnel Cake
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Feast

A note: Nigella’s recipe calls for 1kg marzipan. 1kg! See above all my comments about how much I love marzipan, and less than half of this amount was plenty for my tastes. Your call.

100g glace/candied cherries (NB I used brandied maraschino cherries)
500g mixed dried fruit (my ratio was about 1/2 raisins, 1/4 currants and 1/4 dried cherries)
175g soft unsalted butter
175g sugar
zest of 1 lemon
225g all purpose/plain flour
1tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
25g ground almonds
3 large eggs
2 tbsp. milk

2 tubes/approx. 400g marzipan
confectioners’/icing sugar for rolling
1 tbsp. apricot jam

1. Bring the butter and eggs to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F. Butter and line the bottom and sides of a 20cm / 8 inch springform cake tin with a double layer of brown baking paper. Finely chop the cherries and set them aside mixed with the rest of the fruit.
2. Using a stand mixer or wooden spoon, cream the butter and sugar until very soft and light, and add the lemon zest. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger and ground almonds.
3. Add 1 of the eggs to the creamed butter and sugar with 2 tablespoons of the dry flour-and-spice ingredients, then beat in the remaining eggs in the same way. Beat in the rest of the dry ingredients until just combined, and then the milk – try not to overbeat at this point. Finally fold in the fruit.
4. Dust a surface with a little icing sugar and roll out about 200g of the marzipan. Cut it into a 20cm / 8 inch circle which will fit in the middle of the cake later – keep the trimmings from the circle to one side to use for the little marzipan balls later. Spoon half of the fruit cake mixture into the cake tin, smoothing it down with a rubber spatula, and then lay the marzipan circle on top of it. Spoon the rest of the mixture into the tin on top of the marzipan circle and smooth the top again. Bake for half an hour and then turn the oven down to 150°C/300°F for another 1½ hours or until the cake has risen and is firm on top. Let the cake cool completely on a rack before you spring it open.
5. Unspring the cooled fruit cake, and unwrap the lining from the cake. Roll out another 200g circle of marzipan (again reserving the excess edges), paint the top of the cake with the apricot jam, melted if need be, and then stick it on.
6. Make 11 apostle balls out of the remaining marzipan. Mine stuck onto the cake with no assistance, but if you need you can use beaten egg white to help the balls adhere.

Double Chocolate Cookies

March 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

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For the past 6 and a half years, I’ve worked from home. (I was about to exclude my year of maternity leave but if a year of maternity leave isn’t working from home, then I don’t know what is). Working from home is, of course, brilliant in many ways. Yoga pants all day long. Laundry put on between emails, when in an office you’d use that lull to stand by someone’s desk and distract them. Cooking your own lunch. All of that flexibility, and ability to set your own schedule, and get things done at your own pace. And then after a while you realize that changing into yoga pants from pajama bottoms is a good day, and the pressure to have to set your own schedule and get laundry and dishes done as well as working is maybe driving you just a little bit mad. And that maybe you’d like to have to leave the house and put on makeup and be forced to ignore the dirty dishes.

Last week Henry and I started using a co-working office with a daycare on site. I’m not sure I could have dreamed up a better solution for us. He gets to play with friends, and eat crayons, and chase bubbles all day long. I get to sit in a room with like-minded people, all of whom also don’t want to work from home I assume. I get to get stuff done, while also bumping into adult humans from time to time. The best thing for me – and for you in the longer run – these people like and eat cake. I made cookies yesterday, left them in the kitchen at lunch and I swear they lasted 3 minutes.

To be fair, they were pretty good cookies. I’m not even really sure if cookie is the right word for them: their super soft texture makes them closer to a soufflé bite than a traditional cookie and definitely far from a British biscuit (no dunking here please). No crunch, but a lot of chocolate goodness. I took the recipe from the first volume of the three Tartine cookbooks now available. Although we live a 2 minute walk from this splendid bakery, they are some of my favourite books to browse and, in the case of the first volume, cook from. (At some point I’d like to cook from the two bread books too, but so far my naturally-yeasted starters have ended up resembling science experiments which is a do-not-pass-go for their bread recipes.) Like most things Tartine put out, these chocolate morsels manage to be both rustic and decadent, and deeply rich from a wonderfully large quantity of melted chocolate stirred into the batter along with cocoa powder. A little bit of sea salt finishes them off. I restrained myself and made a half batch but I give here the full recipe. This isn’t the place to hold back, especially if you’re making new friends.

Double Chocolate Cookies
Adapted from Tartine, by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson

Yields: around 36 cookies

8oz/225g bittersweet chocolate (more than 60% cocoa solids – you want to use your best chocolate here as it’s so prominent)
1 cup plus 1 tbsp./155g all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp./50g cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup/115g unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup plus 2 tbsp./225g sugar
2 large eggs, ideally at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt (I used sea salt but I like my chocolate goods on the salty side)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup/75ml whole milk

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl (stainless steel or glass work best) over a pan of simmering water, ensuring that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Once melted set aside to cool slightly.

Sift together the flour, cocoa power and baking powder in a bowl and set aside.

In a mixer with the paddle attachment, or with an electric whisk or wooden spoon, beat the butter on medium speed until light and creamy. Slowly add the sugar and continue to beat until fully incorporated and soft, scraping down the sides of the bowl after the first minute or so. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add in the salt and vanilla extract and beat briefly. Pour in the melted chocolate and beat on low speed until the chocolate is just incorporated. Add the milk and beat again until just combined. At this point add the flour mixture and beat on the lowest speed until the flour mixture is just integrated. At this point switch to your spatula and fold through the mixture a couple of times to make sure any flour at the bottom of the bowl is incorporated.

Drop the dough in “heaping tablespoons” onto the prepared baking sheet, spacing them about an inch apart. You want to bake them until they are just set, which should be around 8-9 minutes depending on your oven (check after 7 minutes if your oven runs especially hot). They will continue to bake a little as they cool on the sheet, but be sure that the tops look just set and matt – my first batch were under-cooked after I was worried about over-baking, so you’re trying to find a happy middle ground here. Leave to cool a little on the baking sheet then transfer to a wire rack to continue cooling completely.

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

February 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

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I started writing this post poolside at Palm Springs, sneaking in a quiet 5 minutes between energetic splashing, leisurely outdoor lunches, and a tiny bit of naptime yoga-time. I’m not sure I ever needed a vacation as much, and it delivered the goods. Even while time was slower and life easier, I knew I had a duty to record the pancakes we ate the day we set out on our holiday.

It was a particularly hectic morning, with clothes strewn around the house, and Henry unpacking just as quickly as we got things into the suitcase. Pre-holiday, it seemed completely reasonable to add a relatively complicated breakfast to the mix: that was the pace on which I was stuck. As with many great things, the pancakes were born of necessity and frugality: simply to clear out what was left in our fridge and fill us up good and ready for a day of travel. A half tub of ricotta was the main target, and it found its purpose finishing off the lightest pancake batter I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of late: Henry and I often have pancakes or waffles to start our day, since he adores perching on a ladder and being official taste tester of the first off the pan. Our favorites of late have been an earthy pear-buckwheat batter and a yoghurt-banana combo. But neither of them come close to the majesty of these lemon zest-flecked ricotta pancakes. This is one of those recipes that requires a painful number of bowls: I do not apologize. They are worth it.

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes
Adapted from Chow

5 tbsp. unsalted butter, plus more for coating the frying pan and serving
1 cup (250ml) whole milk
1 1/4 cups (145g) plain/all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3 eggs, yolks and whites separated
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. packed finely grated lemon zest (from about 2 to 3 medium lemons)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese

Combine butter and milk in a small saucepan and stir over medium-low heat until the butter has just melted. Set aside to cool slightly.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and 1/2 tsp salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Place the egg yolks, 1 tbsp. sugar, lemon zest and vanilla in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Whisk in the milk/butter mixture very gradually to temper the eggs – you want to prevent the warm milk mixture from curdling the eggs. Add a couple of tablespoons to begin, and as you go you can begin to increase the speed at which you add the milk mixture as the two combine.
Add the flour mixture to this and stir with a rubber spatula until just combined. Be careful not to overmix. Set aside.
In a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks (the bowl and whisk need to be clean for the egg whites to whip properly). Halfway through whisking, add the remaining 1 tbsp. sugar and 1/2 tsp salt.
Using the rubber spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the reserved batter until just combined.
Gently fold the ricotta into the batter, again being careful not to overmix.
Heat a large non-stick frying pan, or seasoned case iron skilled over medium heat until hot. Lightly coat the pan’s surface with butter then use a 1/4 cup measure to scoop the batter into the pan (if you don’t have a 1/4 cup measure that’s fine – it just helps with sizing and consistency of the pancakes).
Cook until bubbles form on top of the pancakes, about 4-5 minutes. Flip and cook the other side until golden brown, about another 1-2 minutes. Repeat with the remaining batter. Serve immediately with fruit and syrup.

Baked Custard in the Afternoon

January 14, 2014 § 2 Comments

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The baked custard came out of the oven with a perfect golden wobble, but still I was anxious. And this wasn’t the usual new recipe anxiety either. My audience: one 13.5 month old boy, who was about to get custard instead of boob for his mid afternoon snack. You will understand my trepidation.

So as not to keep you on the edges of your seats: he gobbled it down, tapping his fingertips together for “more” between each spoonful, mouth expectantly tipped up and open like a little bird. I imagine some of you are shrugging: no biggie. Little more than a year ago, I would have been thinking the same. But here I found myself, breath slightly held, proud of my little guy for his burgeoning independence, and slightly sad for it all the same.

I didn’t see myself as writing much about breastfeeding. But as I started weaning Henry I was infused with a renewed sense of how important this relationship had been. Endings so often bring clarity of that kind. Besides, nursing is about food, about comfort, about nurture, which means it belongs here just as much as any old cake recipe.

Breastfeeding is caught in a tricky cultural space. It’s alternately revered and politely ignored. It’s explained and validated in cool scientific terms, yet often remains a mystery even to those of us in the middle of it. It, sadly, comes with the kind of judgments and prejudices that so often inhabit any space touched by a woman’s body – thrown from all sides of the debate, from advocates and skeptics alike. So I chronicle these thoughts merely as a reminder that this is a deeply personal, yet entirely universal journey, and one which cannot be easily simplified into language of good and bad, shoulds and should nots. (While this is a personal reflection, not a manifesto, I can’t help but go on the record: I believe that all women should be generously supported in their desires to breastfeed, not least through proper maternity leave, which is nothing short of appalling in the US, and supported just as generously both emotionally and practically should they choose or be unable to feed their baby this way.)

There were points – at three days, three weeks, three months and more – when I thought I couldn’t do it, despite our relatively easy situation: good milk supply, textbook latch. The books, with their little pictures of cradle holds and nipple shields, can’t convey the immensity of emotion you will likely feel as your child lies and sleepily nurses, utterly dependent. You may vacillate between terror and existential validation: no minor feelings, heightened by the hormone spikes and dips of the early weeks, not to mention the lack of sleep. Some days felt as though every morsel of my being – every drop of energy and each bite of food – were going solely into those mammoth nursing sessions. Days revolved around the rhythms and demands of breastfeeding which in my case included no dairy, lots of oatmeal and fenugreek, underwear with fiddly release clips, tops with easy access, as I spurred my exhausted body into producing more triple cream goodness.

A man accosted me in the street one day, a half block from home, with a screaming 8ish week old Henry in the stroller, on our way home from grocery shopping. He yelled at me that the baby should be on my breast. I was furious, and full of guilt, and without the words in that heated moment to tell him that of course I knew my baby was hungry, that he had woken up two blocks sooner than I had hoped, that how was I supposed to get groceries, and some air, and stay at home nursing without a break? And how dare he tell me what to do with my baby, with my body? In the fact I just told him to fuck off, whisked Henry upstairs and nursed, my tears falling as his wailing abated. My body, and yet so much not my body any more.

There was that crazy awkward period, around 7 or 8 months, when Henry was so busy learning about himself and the world around that he could barely sit still for long enough to eat. His head would spin with curiosity, either yanking me with him which is exactly as much fun as you might imagine, or sending an arc of milk across the room. We stopped nursing in public quite as much at that point. But we got through it otherwise, both intact.

There’s something purely magical about breastfeeding too. In the earlier days, it’s the panacea for all ills, the way to turn a red-faced, confused and angry infant into a sleeping cherub almost instantly. There’s the wonder of seeing a whole being growing and gaining pudgy little rolls of fat from nothing but your milk. And even later on it was nursing that got us through nights of teeth bursting through gums, of 11 hour flights and 3am jet lag. It was the kind of magical power that almost felt addictive.

The move towards weaning came from both sides, gradually and naturally. Still, it was bittersweet. Right in the thick of that transition, I wrote this:
Of course I will miss those hours together. The little games we play – peekaboo with my t-shirt, Henry making this weird squawking noise with twinkling eyes until we both stop and lose ourselves in a belly laugh. The twilight morning feed nestled side by side that somehow takes us both from asleep to awake. But I’m proud that I’ve done my job and that my little guy is ready to go it a bit more alone. It’s part of this crazy journey of motherhood that I am but a gateway, a facilitator, a stable reference point. By relinquishing a role that I and only I can fulfil, I open up his world to sharing those moments with others, and to seeing more of his own powers and capacities. My boy is growing up and I’m ok with it.

I’m glad I took the time to record my feelings during that time: already it’s impossible to imagine Henry nursing. The weaning went very smoothly and on the other side we’re both very happy. We enjoy different games and plenty of cuddles these days, and I had a fun time underwear shopping. We eat baked custard and rice pudding, go out for steamed milk in the late afternoons, stir waffle and pancake batter together in the mornings. I highly recommend stopping whatever you’re doing and enjoying a baked custard one January afternoon. It’s classic nursery food with its silky smooth texture, but there’s an adult elegance to it as well, especially if you bake individual puds in ramekins and infuse whole vanilla beans into the custard. It’s all still about love.

Baked Custard
Adapted from the Leiths Cookery Bible

3 eggs
1 egg yolk
3 drops vanilla extract
55g/2ox sugar
425ml very creamy milk, or milk plus cream (or, in the US, half and half)
freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 150C/300F. Lightly beat the eggs and egg yolk, vanilla extract and sugar together with a wooden spoon – you’re looking to combine them without making them too frothy.

Heat the milk/cream in a small pan just to the point of simmering. Pour the milk very gradually onto the eggs, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon (not a whisk, to avoid creating bubbles). You have to add the milk extremely slowly to ensure that it doesn’t scramble the eggs.

Strain the mixture to remove any egg threads. You can either strain directly into an ovenproof dish if you plan to make one large custard, or into a bowl if you are going to make the custard in individual ramekins. For the latter, pour the strained custard into ramekins (I use 4 of about a 3 inch diameter). Grate nutmeg on top of either the individual or single custards.

Stand the custard dish or ramekins in a roasting pan and pour boiling water around the sides of the dishes until the water comes about 2/3rds of the way up the sides of the dish(es) (this is called a bain-marie). Bake for 40 minutes for a single custard and about 30 for the individual ones (begin checking around 25 mins). The custard is set when there is a definite skin on the top and the centre is no longer liquid (it will still wobble).

Serve hot, warm or chilled.

A Tale of Two Cakes

November 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Well, hello. Since I was last here, I started my day job again, spent 9 hours on a plane with an almost one year old, spent 11 hours on a plane with a newly one year old, hosted two birthday parties for said child, romped around the New Forest a bit, and got not nearly enough sleep. Because my readers are of course the kind who don’t miss a trick, you’ll already have worked out that two birthday parties meant two birthday cakes. (Actually, it meant three, but we’ll focus on the sweet and gooey ones for now, and I will write up the being-a-virtuous-mom child-friendly banana cake another time.)

The tale proper begins in England, in a beautiful country house, stuffed full of friends and family. Our days were spent taking out the kids to see the horses and sheep, picking blackberries from the hawthorns along the way. A ten minute walk yielded one of the best pubs in the area, where dinner was local crab, or a bubbling-hot fish pie, or pork topped with a horn of crackling, and dessert was everything on the menu. The bucolic setting got to us viscerally: the perfect scene of real or imagined childhood walks, where the Famous Five might be building a tree house around the corner at any moment. As Ollie and I took ourselves for a long run one bright morning, it was hard to discuss anything other than that clearly we were crazy for not figuring out how we could instantly transplant ourselves to this rural idyll for good.

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Even though we were far from our actual home, there was no way I was outsourcing Henry’s first birthday cake. So to fete our little guy turning the grand old milestone of a year of age (and our survival thereof), I figured out what was going to be feasible without reliable equipment, tasked my wonderful sister-in-law with bringing a few essentials, and settled on Deb’s Monkey Cake. Can we take a quick aside to shout out loud how brilliant Deb is? I would make any single dish from her site without feeling the need to test in advance, because you know she has done that testing for you, and that her standards are basically much more persnickety than yours in any case. Deb, we salute you. You can find the full recipe and instructions for the cake over on her site. No need for my embellishments other than to say that I beat that cake batter from scratch, with a wooden spoon, and have the calluses to prove it. It still came out light and fluffy, and was gobbled by kids and adults alike. Word.

First cake down, back to our existential crisis. We landed back in San Francisco with a huge poof of relief at being back in our own beds, going out for our coffee ritual, ambling down to the amazing playgrounds on our doorstep. Torn, as ever, by where we are from, and where we make our home. By Henry’s joy at being around family, and joy at being back in his own little kingdom. I was grateful for the birthday party that we had very sensibly arranged only a few days after getting back to pull us out of the paralysis of introspection and into the reality of friends, ballponds, and cake number two.

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What I knew about the second first birthday cake was that it needed to be big, and I wanted it to be a bit of a chocolate overload. I recently acquired Flo Braker’s classic baking book, and couldn’t resist having a go at the devil’s food cake – twice over. I admit that there are more steps than the mother of a one year should have to tackle, and that making the cake uses every damned bowl in your kitchen. But, honestly, the end results live up to the fiddlier aspects of the method, yielding a rich and light cake that withstands a good slather of frosting – not an easy combination to pull off. Going for broke, instead of a single 9×13 cake that you halve and stack as per the original recipe, I made two 9×13 cakes, froze them while we went on our trip in a moment of fore-planning genius, then used the same icing from the monkey cake to help stack them together (before they had defrosted as it’s a pretty delicate cake at that size) and to frost the whole creation.

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In the meantime, my incredibly patient husband had begun to sift bags of M&Ms by colour, ready for us to cover the cake in what I had ambitiously thought of as a pointillistic homage, but really was bit more like the colour-blindness tests they give you at school. Either way, the painstaking process of dotting the candy all over the frosting was weirdly satisfying and the end result was suitably show-stopping for the event at hand. The final result is super-charged with chocolate sweetness, although not at all cloying. It’s the cake I want Henry to beg me to make when he turns 5, and 8, and (with teenage reticence) 14. Whether we’ll be in the city or in the country by then, who knows.

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Devil’s Food Cake with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
Adapted from Flo Braker’s The Simple Art of Perfect Baking and Smitten Kitchen’s Monkey Cake

The recipe here will yield one 9×13 sheet cake. You could halve this and stack into layers for a smaller cake, or do as I did and double it to serve a party-load.

2 cups (200g) cake flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup (50g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup (115ml) lukewarm water
1/2 cup (115ml) buttermilk, room temperature
1/2 cup (115ml) water
2 tsp vanilla
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 stick/115g unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
1 cup (200g) light brown sugar, packed

NOTE: stages 1-5 of this recipe are largely prep. There are odd places you could save on washing up if you really wanted, but my advice is just to embrace your inner pastry chef and surrender to the mise-en-place. Just have a nice clear workspace ready with plenty of bowls to hand.

1. Preheat oven to 350F/175C. Grease and flour a 9×13 pan and line the bottom with parchment or waxed paper. Set aside.
2. Sift or whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt in a separate bowl; set aside.
3. Place the cocoa in a small bowl. Add the 1/2 cup lukewarm water, whisk to combine and set aside to cool.
4. Pour the buttermilk, 1/2 cup water, and the vanilla into a measuring cup; set aside.
5. Crack the eggs into a small bowl, and whisk together to combine the yolks and whites; set aside.
6. Place the butter in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer, preferably fitted with a flat beater (you can use an electric hand whisk too – just be careful to beat well at the next step). Cream the butter on medium speed until the butter is smooth and lighter in color, about 30 to 45 seconds.
7. Reduce the speed to low; add the sugars in a steady stream. Then stop the machine and scrape down the sides. The mixture will appear sandy. Increase the speed to medium again, and cream until the mixture is light in color, fluffy in texture, and appears as one mass, about 5 to 7 minutes.
8. With the mixer still on medium speed, pour the eggs in very slowly. Continue to cream, scraping the sides of the bowl at least once, until the mixture appears fluffy and velvety.
9. Stop the machine and spoon in the cooled cocoa mixture (which will have turned almost to mousse consistency). Turn the mixer back up to medium speed and mix just until incorporated.
10. Using a rubber spatula stir in 1/4 of the flour mixture. And then 1/3 of the buttermilk mixture stirring to blend together. Repeat this procedure, alternating dry and liquid. With each addition, scrape the sides of the bowl, and continue mixing until smooth, never adding liquid if any flour is visible.
11. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread it level. Bake for 22 to 25 minutes, or until the center springs back slightly when touched lightly and the sides contract from the pan.
12. Place the cake pan on a rack to cool completely. Use the parchment paper to help lift the cake from the pan to a rack (an extra pair of hands wouldn’t go amiss for this step). If the cake starts to break up, you might consider placing it in the freezer for 15 minutes first to firm up and trying again. It will be delicate – don’t worry too much as the frosting stage will cover a lot of cracks if they do appear.

At this point, I did this whole process all over again, then froze my two layer cakes until I was ready for the decorating stage:

Chocolate Fudge Frosting

4 1/2 cups (540g) confectioners’ sugar/icing sugar
1 1/2 cups/3 sticks/340g unsalted butter, at room temperature
90 ml whole milk
1 tbsp (15 ml) vanilla extract
140g dark chocolate, minimum 70% cocoa solids, melted and cooled

Blend all of the frosting ingredients except the melted chocolate in a food processor until smooth. Add the cooled chocolate and blend until the frosting is light and smooth.

You can make the frosting in advance of decorating the cake and keep it well covered in the refrigerator. Remove and allow to soften almost to room temperature before using. If your kitchen is especially hot, you may need to place the frosting periodically in the fridge to keep it from becoming too soft and oily to spread well.

When you are ready to decorate the cake:

M&Ms or similar candy (approx. 2x 12oz/350g bags although you may need more to give you enough in one single colour depending on your design)

Sort the candy by colour into small bowls ready for decorating as soon as the cake is frosted. Set to one side.

Place the first layer onto a serving platter or cake board, ideally cold from the fridge or freezer. Cover the edges with strips of foil or wax paper that will catch any frosting drips and that you can pull out to once frosted to keep the decorative plate clean. Cover the whole top surface of the layer with frosting. Carefully position the second layer on top.

Proceed to cover the top and sides of the whole two layer cake with frosting, ideally using an offset spatula. If the room is very warm you may want to place the cake in the fridge for 5-10 minutes before the next steps.

Use a selection of candy to create your desired pattern on top – a number, letter, possibly a name. I chose red as the colour for my number, and outlined with white, before filling in the rest with mixed colours. Once decorated, put the cake in the fridge to firm up before wrapping in foil. Remove from the fridge about 1-2 hours before serving to allow to come back to room temperature.

Green Pancakes

September 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

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I was musing earlier about how much/little I have written about Henry on this blog over the past year. In the late months of pregnancy and even into the delusional early months of parenthood, I envisioned I would write reams about the emotional life and daily minutiae of raising a baby. I had a whole separate blog planned for it in fact. But the little stories and narratives in my head stayed there, writing time trumped by the barer facts of survival. So, in no particular order, some things about Henry.

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He has the best, dirtiest, laugh you’ve ever heard. Actually he has a range of laughs. He laugh-growls, belly laughs, titters to himself. He laughs a lot.

He adores people and provokes smiles all over the place. Most mornings we go out for coffee, one or the other of us wearing Henry in the carrier so he can watch the world go by from adult-height. Of course we make friends with the usual suspects – people with other babies, dogs etc – but the unlikeliest of folks smile as he goes past, grinning or pointing or just chattering away. It makes my morning, every single day.

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He has a ceaseless appetite for details. Buttons, zippers, tags, cables: all undergo systematic prodding, scratching, pulling, biting. Many ladies in our lives now have teeth marks in their necklaces.

His favourite things in the world are, in this order: doggies, trees, his book of kitten pictures, and cheese. That kid can eat a lot of cheese.
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He’s fiercely independent. Won’t be helped to walk, stand, eat. This leads to bumps and oh-so-much mess, but it’s worth it. His independent spirit means he can also entertain himself with a power cable (unplugged!), or a remote control, or a piece of paper, for a really long time.

But yes, going back to the won’t be helped to eat thing. I’m always on the hunt for recipes that make something that he can just go to town on, all by himself, but that also involve some form of veg, since broccoli florets or carrot sticks don’t really do it for him and his 7 teeth. Ravioli have become a firm favorite, as have pancakes and fritters of all kinds. These green pancakes hail from Ottolenghi’s Plenty, which is just about the first place I go to when I want vegetable inspiration. They’re packed with spinach and scallions, but have a soft and spongy quality that makes them perfect both for little hands, and for classy family brunches. I’ve been having mine with smoked trout or salmon on top, and a dollop of Greek yoghurt with a squeeze of lime (inspired by the original lime butter that accompanies the recipe). Henry can often be found with a handful of pancake and an opposite handful of trout, smiling face smeared in yoghurt. They’re the times when I believe with every inch of myself that we’re doing ok.

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Green Pancakes with Lime Butter
Adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

Green Pancakes
250g spinach (preferably baby spinach)
110g self raising flour (or 110g/1 cup all purpose flour, plus an extra 1 1/2 tsp baking powder)
1 tbsp. baking powder (in addition to the baking powder you are adding if you are using APF)
2 eggs
50g/4 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1/2 tsp salt (I omit the salt when cooking for Henry and add some celery seed instead)
1 tsp ground cumin
150ml milk
6 spring onions/scallions
2 green chillies (I omit these when cooking for Henry)
olive oil or ghee for frying

Lime butter
100g/1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
grated zest of a lime
1 1/2 tbsp. lime juice
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp white pepper
1 tbsp. chopped cilantro (coriander)
1/2 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

Start by making the lime butter, if you choose it as an accompaniment. Put the butter in a medium bowl and beat with a wooden spoon until soft and creamy. Stir in the rest of the ingredients. Tip onto a sheet of plastic wrap/cling film, and roll into a sausage shape. Twist the ends of the plastic to seal the butter. Chill until firm.

For the pancakes:
Finely chop the spinach and set aside in a medium bowl. Chop the scallions, and chiles if using, and add to the spinach. Note – the original recipe called for wilting the spinach in a splash of water first and if you can’t find smaller, more tender spinach leaves you may wish to include this step.

Next, make the batter. Put the flour, baking powder, eggs, melted butter, salt, cumin and milk in a large mixing bowl and whisk until well combined and smooth. Add the scallions, chiles and spinach and mix with a fork.

Pour a small amount of olive oil or ghee into a heavy frying pan and place on a medium high heat. For each pancake, spoon about two tablespoons of batter into the pan – you should get quite small pancakes, about 7cm in diameter and 1cm thick. Cook for 2-3 minutes each side, or until they turn a good golden-green colour. Transfer to kitchen paper and keep warm until serving. Continue making pancakes, adding more oil as needed, until the batter is used up (note – you can also keep leftover batter well covered in the fridge overnight and use the next day).

To serve: pile up 3 pancakes per person and serve with the lime butter and any other desired accompaniments like smoked fish or salad.

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