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Damsons: not just for gin…

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I don’t believe in doing a dry January. It’s a long bleak month, made grey by the weather and the removal of those lovely twinkly Christmas lights and decorations. The rest of the world withdraws from society, exhausted after the festive season and starts detailing every morsel they do or don’t eat with a side helping of shame and the Special K diet. So frankly I need a drink just to deal with them.

I don’t mean going out and drinking every bar in the borough dry, but I do enjoy a winter time tipple, usually just before bed to warm the cockles properly. And luckily my family always comes up trumps with just the ticket over Christmas in the shape of homemade fruit gins. Mister North tends to specialise in damson gin and our mum tends to go for sloe gin, which is a family tradition dating back to my childhood. However the weather in 2012 was not good for sloes, so both of them went for damson gin this year.

Warm and jewel coloured, this plum rich sweet liquor warms you better than an electric blanket and with much more style. Sipped slowly in front of fire, it softens and soothes you to sleep well when you get to bed. Served long, tall and cool over ice with tonic to cut it, it reinvents the gin and tonic in a way that’s not just for Christmas. You can even, oddly enough, douse fish in it to make a sultry salmon gravlaks.

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Chocolate Liquorice Cake or how to perk up a prune…

The last few weeks have been a bit of a blur of new tastes and food experiences and travel and general activity. I’ve had great company and great meals, but I’ve been yearning to get back in the kitchen and play with my new finds. Mister North had very kindly shared some of his Lakrids Liquorice Powder from a Harvey Nicks bloggers’ lunch and I was intrigued as to what on earth to do with it since the package gives no clues and the site is entirely in Danish and my Sarah Lund fixation really only gives me rudimentary Danish vocab for the world of crime, not cooking.

I’d been eyeing up this David Lebovitz chocolate and prune cake for a while. Luscious with dark chocolate and butter, it’s a flour free number with a squidgy mousse-like consistency and having never made a cake like this before, I couldn’t wait to give it ago. I decided to give it an extra edge by adding some of the liquorice powder to the cake as liquorice is many times sweeter than sugar and I liked the idea of using it to smooth out the sharpness of the dark chocolate and give the prunes an extra earthiness.

 

I’ve linked to David’s orginal recipe so you can just follow that or you can do what I did and misread it and thus go about it slightly differently and awkwardly. Your call, but be aware my version gives you an excuse to drink some rum as you go…

Chocolate and Prune cake (from David Lebovitz, tweaked by me)

  • 170g pitted prunes
  • 80ml dark rum (or other dark spirit of choice)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 340g dark chocolate, chopped
  • 6 large eggs, separated
  • 170g butter
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons raw liquorice powder

First prep your prunes. I cut mine into quarters and then soaked them overnight in the rum and sugar because I obviously thought I was making a tealoaf instead of reading the recipe properly. However, if I’d done it properly, I wouldn’t have discovered how good rum soaked prunes on my morning porridge…

Then butter a 9 inch cake tin (preferably springform). I also used cocoa powder on it and the cake stuck more than usually happens in my tin so I’m not sure I’d do that again.

I melted the chocolate and butter over hot water, stirring well to make sure it was well melted and glossy. I took it off the heat and added in the prunes and remaining rum which cooled the mixture slightly which meant I could add the egg yolks without fear of scrambling them. Pop the liquorice powder in at this point.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff and firm, adding the sugar gradually and then fold them into the chocolate mix a third at a time, making sure you don’t overbeat and knock all the air out of the batter. Pour it into the tin and bake at 170℃ for 40-45 minutes. You can’t use the old skewer trick as the cake rises massively and the centre should be slightly soft, but the edges are pulling away from the tin. Cool well and you’ll notice the cake settles back down again in size.

David Lebovitz says the cake can be made up to three days in advance. I made mine two days in advance and kept it in a tin and felt that actually it was a touch dry round the edges, so I’d say wrap it well in a tea towel to be sure.

The cake was worth waiting for, very grown up with the bitter edge of dark chocolate,  sticky and squidgy with nuggets of prunes and completely and utterly lacking in any hint of liquorice at all. I couldn’t taste it and I’m presuming the others who ate it couldn’t either as no one asked what the other flavour was or if there was a magic ingredient. It didn’t even sweeten the cake particularly as the one question that was asked was if there was any sugar in the cake at all. I actually really enjoyed the lack of sweetness, which is unlike me and my common milk chocolate eating ways, but was disappointed by the Lakrids.

This is the second dish I’ve used it in. Once sweet and once savoury, and I couldn’t taste it either time. I’ve bookmarked this recipe as my go to quick chocolate cake, especially for gluten free folk, but I’m not inclined to persevere with the Lakrids, unless someone can give me a really good idea for it or takes me quietly to one side and explains that I’ve been doing it wrong…

Parkin

I don’t have much of a history with Bonfire Night. Not celebrated in Northern Ireland for a variety of reasons, Halloween was our festival instead. Talked of in Enid Blyton books and Blue Peter, I was vaguely aware of bonfires, Guy Fawkes and pennies for the guy as a child, but never celebrated it until I was about 15. Mister North had moved to the north west to attend university and seeking teenage independence, I travelled over to visit him at half term. My long boat and train trip was rewarded by a trip to the hills outside Rochdale with his flatmate to experience Bonfire Night properly.

Around the huge bonfire, there was treacle toffee, sausages, black peas and parkin. Memories are slightly hazy from the lashings of Boddingtons also available, but the peas were just the thing to thaw you on a freezing cold night, but it was the parkin that warmed my heart completely. All sticky with treacle and chewy and delicious with spice, it almost converted me to standing in fields in November.

Sadly, they don’t go in for parkin in the south and thus I’ve still never really embraced Bonfire Night even though I’ve lived in England for years. So imagine my glee when listening to Woman’s Hour this week, I discovered parkin was super easy to make and that I just had time to let it mature in time for the big night.

In the end, I used this recipe from Waitrose to make my parkin as I couldn’t be bothered adjusting the imperial measurements from the Radio 4 one and it didn’t call for self raising flour as I could neither be bothered to mix my own or get dressed to go and buy some. I subbed golden syrup for the honey and left out the sugar as all that treacle and syrup is sweet enough for me. I used lard instead of butter and upped the spicing with twice as much ginger and a pinch of mace. The whole thing barely took longer than setting out all the ingredients it’s so simple. Do use a pan to heat the milk on the stove as you add the bicarb to it and it expands quite a bit. It’ll be volcanic in a jug.

Other than that, it’s simple, straightfoward and perfect for kids to do. Don’t overmix the batter, it can afford to be a little bit lumpy like muffin batter. Then pour into a deep square tray you’ve lined as parkin is traditionally served in squares. Recipes vary regionally and this one sounds more like the darker Yorkshire version. Pop in the oven for 50 minutes and get very hungry as a delicious oaty flavour heats up the kitchen.

You’ll need good willpower with parkin. It’s essential that you allow it to rest and don’t eat it straightaway. A week is about the length of time recommended to let it mature into proper sticky heaven. I cooled mine in the tin, cut into squares and stashed it away in a tin on a high shelf out of mind and managed to forget about it for about a week.

And it tasted amazing. Dark with treacle, spiky with ginger and smoky with mace. But it was drier than I expected. Mind you I was expecting it to stick to the roof of my mouth and melt on my tongue which might be slightly over the top. I’ve only got a 15 year old memory to compare it to after all. And I did manage to consume two large pieces with pleasure and a large cup of Yorkshire Gold in front of the Corrie omnibus which still made for a fairly perfect morning. I’d stick a bit more syrup in future, cook it slightly less and maybe only leave it for two or three days next time. But now I’ve rediscovered parkin, I’ll be putting Bonfire Night in the diary…

Brixton Ginger Cake

Ginger cake

One of the few branded foods that I have a soft spot for is McVities Jamaican Ginger Cake. Squishy, sticky and so good smeared with butter, I occasionally sneak one into my trolley on the odd occasion I’m in a supermarket. But since I live in a area with a big Jamaican population I feel a bit guilty buying something that is probably highly inauthentic and mass produced. I decided it was time to try making my own version.

But how to get that almost difficult to eat super sticky feeling in a cake without the use of commercial levels of oil and played about with sorts of sugars? I always find that adding vegetables to a cake really up the moisture levels and adds a depth that sugar and fat alone cannot achieve. But what you achieve in moisture can often be overwhelmed by a vegetal taste that jars somewhat with me. Even the sweeter veg like beetroot and carrot can be cloying.

Independently of this cake dilemma, I kept seeing strange kermit-green items that looked like a pear crossed with a sock puppet’s mouth on the stalls in Brixton Market, but never known what they were. Having had my head bitten off once or twice for asking questions at the market, I’m now reluctant to buy unknown items. So when I flicked through a beautiful Caribbean cookbook and finally realised they were Christophenes or cho chos, I picked a couple up immediately and following a recipe, blanched and fried them with chilli and garlic. As a side dish they were odd. Incredibly crisp and fresh like a Chinese Pear but fried, they were incredibly succulent but didn’t taste of much.

Instead of being disappointed, I realised I had found the perfect vegetable to add to a cake. Especially a ginger cake where one can’t risk a clash of flavours without a risk of your baked goods coming up more like a curry when in fact you want a dark, sticky and grown up cake. I looked around for a recipe to fit the bill and couldn’t find one, so for the first time I decided to bake fairly freehand.

I did take some tips from this Ginger Cake at The Caked Crusader, but completely omitted the evaporated milk, fresh ginger and the icing and added in the cho cho to give some serious squish. I boiled it until tender, mashed it and left to drain with a weight on top to get rid of excess water and got on with winging the rest of it. One whole cho cho is about 200 grammes raw.

To make this cake you need:

225g plain flour
1 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons ground ginger
180g unsalted butter
100g light brown sugar
half a jar of stem ginger in syrup
a cooked and mashed cho cho or christophene
125g black treacle (or molasses)
2 eggs

100g plain flour
100g cold butter
50g sugar
cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 180°C and prep a loaf tin (preferably a 2lb or 900g one. But if like me you’ve forgotten what size it is, prep it anyway.)

Boil and mash the christophene (also known as chayote or mirlitons) and drain well. If you can’t get a cho cho, use some mashed courgette instead.

Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, allspice, nutmeg and the ground ginger into a bowl and mix together. I would use half the amount of baking powder as the original. Mine exploded like a my hair on a drizzly day with double.

Blitz the stem ginger, the entire jar’s worth of syrup and the treacle together to make a heavenly smelling puree. If you’ve not got any syrup left in the jar, make your own with dark sugar, water and double the ground ginger or add some freshly grated ginger root.

Beat the butter into the dry ingredient until well combined. Beat in the sugar. Pour in the elixir of ginger and treacle and beat in the eggs with a folding motion. It’s actually much easier than the usual all in one sponge method, saves on washing up and creates an amazing light fluffy puffy batter that smells divine. I didn’t find mine runny at all, quite robust in fact, but The Caked Crusader warns that ginger cake can be a thinner batter.

Mix the remaining cold butter, plain flour and sugar to make a crumble crumb and line the base of the loaf tin with it. I decided I didn’t want an icing or I feared the cake would be teeth itchingly sweet, but this would hopefully make it look more exciting than a bit lump of loaf.

Pour the batter into the tin and bake for approximately 45-50 minutes or until a skewer comes out cleanly. But bear in mind that this cake is so moist, even when it’s perfectly cooked the skewer might still be sticky. I turned the oven off and left it for 5 minutes more to be sure.

Leave to cool in the tin for 30 minutes or until you can be bothered to take it out of the tin. i was so overcome with having baked off the cuff for once (I am usually rigid on anything involving flour) that I couldn’t face the fear it wouldn’t come out and left it for any hour. I inverted it and it slid out beautifully. I’m glad I’d been warned it might dip in the middle or I’d have panicked. I let it cool completely and then wrapped tightly in a tea towel overnight.

It was so moist, it crumbled a bit when I unwrapped it and it was a slightly bedraggled looking loaf cake. But this one is all about the taste not the looks. But I could forgive its shabby exterior when I tasted the spicy ginger flavour and enjoyed the sponge pudding like texture. It was as sticky and moreish as I had hoped and went down well with others who tried it. I felt the crumb added nothing to it in the end except a vaguely greasy aftertaste so I’d skip that again.

But for a great sticky treat that would go with any cup of tea (and keep well) you can’t beat this cake. Perfect to bake on a Sunday. It means you can bring back the much missed tradition of elevenses this week!

Marmalade Cake

I haven’t thought much about marmalade for years, despite a fondness for Paddington himself, but I was given some for Christmas last year and have been pondering what to do with it since I don’t like oranges. Inspired by Oliver Thring’s recent piece on this traditional preserve in The Guardian I decided to try baking with it in place of using lemon.

A marmalade loving little bird told me that Nigel Slater had the ultimate recipe for marmalade cake and thanks to the power of online archives, I soon had my little hands on it. It had a simple list of ingredients and was part of an article about easy straightforward baking. What could go wrong? Read more