It’s Hip to be Squarecake!

The sun is shining, the bees are buzzing & Summer is definitely making her presence felt, especially in the garden!  We might have had a few soggy moments (although the grass is still a bit straw-like), but that hasn’t stopped the bees from busily working their magic & the plants from producing a beautiful bounty of fruits & berries.  Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, redcurrants & blackcurrants, are all gracing shop shelves in their punnetfuls!  When I was a little girl, gooseberries (or “goosegogs” as they were known) were more readily available too, but seem to have become a bit rare these days.  These crunchy pale, zesty-green oval berries would turn your mouth inside out & make your ears flap with their tart tang if you ate them raw, but they also made lovely preserves & pies.  Recently, a lovely friend gave me a huge bowlful of these gorgeous green berries after she had been fruit picking with family.  We shared them with my Mum & simply ate them by the handful the next day!  Whatever your berry preference, the temptation to just eat them as they are is rather difficult to ignore, but they will give any dessert a deliciously luscious lift!

One of my best memories as a child is picking & eating strawberries.  There is nothing quite so fabulous as the heavenly scent of softly sun-ripened strawberries & it takes me right back to garden picnics, with a bowlful of berries & dipping them in sugar (it was the same with rhubarb & blackberries too).  We didn’t need fancy desserts as kids & would just pop down to the garden & pick whatever your Mum asked you to get in for dinner.  Obviously, a few things kind of evaporated on the way back from garden to kitchen (especially peas & their pods, which would be munched by the handful, fresh from the vine).  My freshly washed strawberry swag would be daintily dipped in a little bowl of sugar (I’m talking a couple of teaspoons here, not a kilo!).  It was bliss!  Now when I’m buying strawberries, I always smell them before putting them in my basket for an instant trip back in time.

As a result of a rather impromptu dinner party on a warm Summer evening (where I had to quickly improvise with what was in the fridge at the time), the simple yet spectacular Strawberry Sponge Square Cake was created!  Family, friends & neighbours have all indulged in a slice of this sweet strawberry delight & it has become a firm favourite!  Another lovely friend gave me a bowl of beautiful ripe strawberries the other day & obviously, I thought of making this cake.  This lighter than air sponge cake is one of the swiftest I’ve made, plus the sponge itself can be made the day before & kept in an airtight container with greaseproof paper between the slices, then all you need to do is assemble it!  Aprons on, hands washed & here we go!

What you need:

2 large Eggs
3oz Self-Raising Flour
3oz Vanilla Caster Sugar (or give normal sugar a whizz in a coffee grinder like I do)
A little melted Butter for preparing your tin
1 heaped tablespoon extra Vanilla Sugar (for laying your sponge on)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C.  Get a shallow baking tray or Swiss Roll tin & brush the melted butter all over the inside, or just get your fingers in it & rub it all around.

Line the tray with a sheet of greaseproof paper that is slightly bigger than the tin, leaving half an inch of paper out of the tin all the way around – you will need this to lift your sponge out at the end.  Push the paper into the corners, smoothing it down in the tin & making sure it is completely covered with the butter.

Take the greaseproof paper out, turn it over & repeat, leaving it in the tin, with the edge sticking up all the way around.  The paper will turn translucent, so you can see through it.

Crack the eggs carefully into a mixing bowl & give them a whisk to break them up.  A little tip to test if your eggs are fresh:  half fill a jug with cold water, gently plop the egg in & if it sinks, it’s fresh.  If it floats, probably best not to use it.

Add the sugar & give it a good firm whisking.  I usually use the electric whisk for this (even I have my limits!) & whisk for about 4 minutes, until you have a fluffy, pale & cream coloured cloud-like mixture.

Next, you need to fold in the flour.  Folding is easy, just take your time – you don’t want to undo all that whisking by knocking out the bubbles you’ve just put in.  Sift the flour into the bowl, then using a large metal spoon, make a figure of eight & tip the flour over into the liquid.  Repeat until all the flour has been incorporated into a lovely, thick foamy mixture.

Using a spatula, scrape the mixture into your prepared tin.  Make sure you get it into all the corners & level it out with the spatula if necessary.  Then pick up the tin about six inches off the worktop & drop it – this will knock out any large bubbles.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 6 – 8 minutes, until it is lightly golden & slightly risen.  Give it a gentle pat with a finger & it should spring back – that’s when it’s ready.

Sprinkle the other sugar onto another sheet of greaseproof laid on top of a wire cooling rack.

Remove your sponge from the oven & carefully, but swiftly, flip the whole thing over onto the sugared greaseproof paper, using the edge of the cake paper to help you if need be.

Pull off the greaseproof paper from the sponge cake & discard.  It should come away easily (& the smell of baked butter is just beautiful!).  Leave to cool for a few minutes.

Once completely cooled, take a large knife with a smooth blade (like a French cook’s knife) & trim the edges of your sponge (you can eat these or feed them to the birds).

Cut the sponge into three equal sized rectangular pieces & set aside while you make the filling.  The filling can be prepared the day before too, just keep it covered in the fridge.

For the filling:

600ml fresh Double Cream (the real stuff)
1oz Icing Sugar, plus extra for dusting
1 large punnet of Strawberries

What to do:

Wash, trim & hull your strawberries – that’s the tough bit under the leaves in the top of the strawberry.  Just run a little paring knife under the leaves, all the way around & it should come out.  The more ripe the strawberries, the easier it is.

Stand them pointy end up & using the paring knife, slice thinly – keep the trimmed edges to one side for decorating (or munching).  Put to one side in a bowl or large cup.

Get the electric whisk out again & whisk the double cream in a large mixing bowl, adding the icing sugar as you do so, until it is in soft peaks – the icing sugar gives the cream body & will hold it’s shape when piped.   You can whisk it by hand if you need to release some stress, but it’s really important that you don’t over-whip the cream, otherwise you’ll end up with butter (yes, really – I’ll cover that in another blog when we’ve all got more time).

Now you’re ready to assemble your sponge cake!  Take your first layer of sponge & lay it on a serving plate.

Scoop the cream into a piping bag – if you want to use a nozzle, that’s fine, or just use the smooth end of a piping bag.  Pipe a layer of cream in a decorative pattern around the edge to start, then fill in the centre.  Take your time over this, there’s no rush & you can do whatever pattern you like, whether it’s swirls with a star nozzle or plain plump splodges!

Place a single layer of strawberry slices all over the cream, leaving the pointy tips over the edge slightly & using the end slices to fill any gaps in the centre area.

Take the next layer of sponge & squeeze a few little splodges of cream on the underneath side, then carefully lay it on top of the strawberries.  Press gently to make sure everything is sandwiched together.

Repeat with the next layer in exactly the same way, leaving a layer of sponge cake on the top.

When you’ve finished, you should have a beautiful strawberry sponge square cake (yes, I’m aware it’s more of a rectangle, but just go with it).  Dust lightly with icing sugar all over the top (use a tea strainer for this & you only need a couple of teaspoonfuls of icing sugar to do the whole thing) & serve immediately.

Use any remaining strawberries & cream to decorate each person’s plate, maybe dusting with a bit more icing sugar if you like.  Or you could just hide the rest in the fridge for nibbling on later (I think you’ve earned it!).  If you don’t like strawberries, maybe use raspberries, blackberries, cherries, blueberries or even your favourite jam!  I’ve used all kinds of different fruits for this & it always turns out beautifully!

One of my favourite treats for afternoon tea is to cut the sponge into individual fingers, pipe with dark ruby-red cherry jam & whipped double cream, then sandwich together.  These fruity, fluffy pillows are then generously dusted with icing sugar, before being topped with a whole Amareno cherry & fresh mint leaf.

Another way I like to serve them is to create bite-sized sponge circles using a cookie cutter, then pipe a swirl of sumptuous strawberry conserve on the base, followed by whipped cream & make mini-sponge sandwich cakes, before sifting with a light layer of icing sugar.

For a truly scrumptious Summer treat, why not have a go at making my strawberry sponge square cake, or maybe try one of my other versions for your next afternoon tea!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

Kick Start Your Tarts!

Here we are in the middle of a perfect July & let’s face it, Summer has been a long time coming!  Due to the magnificent mini-heatwave we’re having, all the pretty pots of plants are sprouting with lots of lovely flowers & fruit.  Sitting on the patio having coffee early in the morning is one of the best feelings, just relaxing & starting the day with a little sunshine.

Although I love rich, comforting food as much as anyone, it’s time to lighten up & let loose with the luscious array of amazing produce available to us right now.  One of the best things about Summertime is that we have a rainbow of fabulous fruits & vegetables coming into season, all ready to inspire us into cooking something fresh & exciting.  Bright berries & vivid vegetables to fill you with inner sunshine, giving you a well-deserved boost after being wrapped in woolly pullys for so long (that’s sweaters if you don’t know).

Food shopping is part of the anticipation of cooking & I shop like a butterfly, flitting from shelf to shelf, selecting colourful choices & deciding what to transform them into as I go (most people have a list, I have a recipe agenda in my head).  Thanks to the temptation of my local shops, I recently stocked up on some beautifully fragrant fruits & vegetables, perfect for pairing with pastry!  Forget those overloaded, soggy-bottomed, smudgy layered mouthfuls of the past (that’s where they should stay).  Savoury or sweet, tarts should be sumptuously satisfying & stuffed with just enough filling to keep you happy.

Now just to clarify, a fruit tart should be a fruit tart & not a hidden layer of custard or crème patissière under a pile of fruit!  I’m not a fan of custard & especially surprise custard!  As a child, I remember excitedly biting into a sweet, strawberry laden pastry, only to get a mouthful of cold custard (it didn’t end well).  An attentive boyfriend in my early 20s used to bring me a strawberry tart for our mid-morning coffee breaks & would always ensure they were custard-free, so I didn’t have to relive the horror.  Obviously, I make sure my own home-baked versions are definitely free of custard too.

This particular recipe is for a delectable apricot tart called Crostata di Albecocche, which is bursting with plump, peachy-blush tinted apricots.  Tinned apricots are beautiful too, but there’s something spectacular about the flavour of fresh ones!  They taste of Summer for me, all golden glorious sunshine wrapped in a soft velvet skin, delicately perched on a pastry blanket.  This tart is great as a tea-time treat or as a relaxed dinner party dessert, just add great company.    Ready to get baking?  Aprons on, hands washed!

What you need:

For the filling:
1 punnet of fresh Apricots
1 jar of Apricot Conserve or Jam (use a nice thick jam for this recipe)

For the pastry:
12oz Self-Raising Flour, plus extra for rolling out
4oz Vanilla Sugar (stick a vanilla pod in a jar of sugar & leave for a couple of hours or overnight, then you’ve got vanilla sugar)
4oz Salted Butter (plus a little extra melted for lining your tin)
2 large Eggs
Zest of an Unwaxed Orange & Lemon (optional, but very nice)
2 teaspoons of Ground Almonds
2 tablespoons Milk (for brushing pastry with)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.

Prepare your tin.  You don’t need a fancy pie tin for this – I use a pizza tin, but you can use a loose bottomed one if you like.  Brush the inside & outer lip of the tin with melted butter (you can use your fingers for this too, whatever you find easiest).  Sprinkle with a little flour & shake it all around the tin, tipping out the excess onto your worktop.

At this point, you can always add a disc of greaseproof paper in the bottom (or criss-cross a couple of long strips of greaseproof paper & hang over the edges by a couple of inches).  I’ve baked this tart so many times over the years, both with & without greaseproof, so it’s up to you if you want to add this extra lining.

Sprinkle with the ground almonds & ensure the bottom of the tin is completely covered.

Now to make the pastry!  Into a large mixing bowl, add all the pastry ingredients together – the flour, eggs, sugar, butter & some zest.  Get your hands in & squish everything together to form a silky soft ball of pastry.

Dust the worktop & your rolling pin with a little flour (dust, not drench!), cut off two thirds of the pastry & roll out carefully, gently lifting & turning it then rolling again, until about half a centimetre thick & slightly bigger than your tin.  Dust more flour underneath as you go, so that it doesn’t stick.  If it’s too moist, roll it up & reshape, then start again.  Because the weather is warm, you might experience this – don’t worry, it will be fine (just go steady with the flour dusting, as you don’t want to use too much or it will alter the recipe & not in a good way!).

Lay the pastry carefully over your rolling pin & slide the tin underneath the pastry, laying it loosely onto the tin.  Push gently into the edges of the tin, being careful not to poke your fingers through.  Trim the edges off the pastry base & put back in the bowl (you’ll need these for decoration later).

Wash the apricots in cold water & gently pat dry.  Run a paring knife along the natural line around the middle of each fruit, then twist as you pull them apart (the riper the fruit, the easier this is).  The stone/pit will stick in one side, so just prise it out with your fingers & discard.  Continue until you have stoned all your fruit.

Cut each half apricot into half again, so you have apricot quarters & leave to one side.

Spread the jam gently all over the pastry case & then start adding your apricots in a pretty pattern, until the base is completely covered.

Now to decorate the top.  Take the leftover pastry & roll out into about half a centimetre thick.

Cut into strips about the same size – if you’ve got a pizza or ravioli cutter, use this & make life easier for yourself.

Take a pastry strip & pinch or twist it carefully, so you don’t break it, then lay it across the middle of the tart.  Brush the ends with a little milk & attach to the edge of the pastry base.

Do the rest of the strips in the same way, then do the same with more strips going over the top.

Gently brush a little milk on all the pastry edges & place on a baking tray in the centre of the oven for about 25 minutes, turning halfway through cooking.

Once the pastry has turned lightly golden & puffed up, the tart should be ready.

Remove from the oven & place the tin on a cooling rack to rest until thoroughly cooled (you don’t want to eat it hot, it will be like lava).

 

Once cooled, serve generous slices with a splodge of silky smooth cream – whether clotted, whipped, poured or iced, they all work well with this dessert (although clotted is my fave).

If there is any left, wrap in greaseproof paper & take it to work for a little treat the next day (probably best not to tell anyone at the office though, or it might evaporate).

This fabulous fruit-filled pastry can be made a few hours in advance & stored in the fridge on a serving plate until dinner (slide a pallet knife under & gently lift it out of the tin).  I can’t tell you if it freezes or not, because none has ever lasted that long, but I have frozen the pastry before & it always comes out perfectly.

So next time you see a punnet of peachy petite apricots, turn them into something special & kick start your tastebuds with this tasty apricot tart!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flip Your Stack!

Mornings can be a bit difficult at this time of year, especially if you work different shifts or random hours.  There are those days when the alarm goes off (several times, because you hit snooze like you’re playing a drum solo) & you lurch more than launch your body from it’s snuggly, fluffy duvet.  We’ve all been there – you really can’t be bothered with much more than a cup of coffee & a slice of toast for breakfast, the cat is curled up in your spot on the sofa & you’d rather watch Spongebob than the news (actually, I always watch cartoons in the morning – the news can be rather depressing, so it’s much better to start the day with a smile!).

You don’t need me to tell you that breakfasts are important – they kick-start your day & give you an energy boost before you boot up your laptop.  Most days, I’m up at 5.30am (fyi, it’s dark) & sometimes I don’t feel like eating much or cooking anything (especially when it’s cold & soggy outside!).  As I’m a huge fan of preparing in advance, there are usually a few of my apricot oat bars in a tub or my Husband’s homemade croissants in the freezer (they warm up lovely in the oven), so I don’t have to do much apart from put them on a plate.  Then there are perfectly plump pancakes.  I’m not talking about the delicately thin, elegant crêpes we usually eat on Pancake Day though.  Breakfast pancakes are duvet-like delicacies – substantially thick, warming & with a fluffy filling.  What they shouldn’t be is fiddly, time-consuming & boring!  Now I’m not saying you need to be standing around the stove, flipping fluffy pancakes for all you’re worth at stupid o’clock (as if I would suggest such a thing!).  The best way to get your pancake fix without the faff is to make a batch in advance & keep some ready made in the fridge (or freezer if you really want to be organised).

These plump little pillows take minutes to prepare & seconds to cook.  You can make some at the weekend & stash them in the fridge (they last for a few days in an airtight container), then warm them through in the toaster when you need one or three.  Here’s how to get your fluffy fix – aprons on & whisks at the ready!

What you need:

8oz Self-Raising Flour (or use Plain Flour with 4 teaspoons Baking Powder if you don’t have Self-Raising)
1oz Vanilla Sugar (just stick a vanilla pod in a jar of sugar overnight)
Quarter of a pint of Semi-Skimmed Milk
2 large Eggs
1oz Salted Butter, melted

What to do:

Tip the flour into a large mixing bowl (no need to sieve it).  Add the baking powder if you’re using plain flour & give it a stir.

Add the sugar, eggs & milk, giving everything a brisk whisk to combine your mixture completely – whisk it by hand, you don’t need to get the electric one out.

Add the melted butter slowly & whisk in as you do so (the butter stops the pancakes from sticking to the pan without the need for additional fat).  It should be the consistency of double cream or natural yoghurt, so if it’s a bit too thick just add a little more milk & give it a whisk again until it leaves a trail when you lift the whisk out.

Before you start cooking, get yourself a large plate & rip up some  greaseproof paper into six inch long thin strips.  Lay one on the plate & leave the rest to one side.

Heat up a large skillet or frying pan on a medium heat – your pan needs to be nice & hot before you start cooking your pancakes.

Using a large spoon or a ladle, pour a little pancake batter slowly into the pan to make small discs, about four inches across.  Do this about three or four times, depending on the size of your pan & leave about an inch gap between them as they will grow in all directions.

After about 30 seconds or so, you will see little bubbles appearing on the surface, so carefully slide a spatula under each pancake & quickly flip it over.  Give it another 30 seconds & flip it back – it should be lightly golden & have a popped bubble sort of texture all over, which means they’re ready.

Remove each pancake, one at a time & lay on the plate with a strip of greaseproof paper in between each one to separate them.

Repeat the above steps until you have cooked all the mixture.  You should have enough for about twelve pancakes in all.

If you’re serving them immediately, cover the plate with an upside-down mixing bowl to keep them warm & transfer to the table.  If not, leave them to cool & wrap a couple at a time in clingfilm, then put them in the fridge or freezer.  You can put them in an airtight container too, just keep them separated with the greaseproof paper strips, then serve when you want some.  To reheat your pancakes, simply pop a couple in the toaster for about 30 seconds to warm through & that’s breakfast prepared!

These fabulous fluffed up pancakes don’t have to be dull either!  They are perfect with an array of fresh fruit, beautiful berries or just a squeeze of fresh lemon juice & a drizzle of golden syrup.  If I have a couple of punnets of fresh berries going spare, I’ll put them in a saucepan with some golden syrup & simmer gently until they become soft & squishy, making a warm fruit sauce to pour on top.  These soft little flatcakes also taste scrumptious with scrambled eggs – great if you fancy something a bit more exciting than cereal (which is obviously for midnight snacks).

If you’re having an impromptu dinner party, they also make a delightfully light dessert.  Use a cookie cutter to cut out shapes or circles, then build them with up however you like – try layering with rich, dark black cherry jam & a spoonful of whipped cream, dusting a little grated chocolate on the top to finish.  One of my favourite ways to serve them is to splodge spoonfuls of apricot jam in between the layers with whipped cream, top with a couple of fresh raspberries, then drizzle with pureed peaches – open a tin of peaches, chuck them in the blender, whizz up with a squeeze of lemon juice & pour into a serving jug!  If you don’t want to use cream, maybe use strawberry or raspberry ice cream instead.  These sumptuous stacks of sweetness look impressive & are really quick to assemble (especially if you have a few pancakes already made).  There would have been pictures, but they never last long enough!

Next time you fancy a fluffy breakfast without the faff, flip a stack of these fabulously plump pillows onto a plate & enjoy a little indulgence.  Stay hungry 😉 A x

 

 

 

Far From the Pudding Crowd

The Christmas countdown has commenced & everything has gathered momentum.  Shops are bulging with baubles & tinsel, snow dredged streets have transformed into Las Vegas-style light displays & peace has been replaced by panic, as everyone realises they have two weeks to get organised, including the food!  As you’ll probably be racing around like a crazy Christmas shopping ninja, jacked up on Java & sugary snacks, desserts for Christmas Day are probably the furthest from your mind, which is why my third Christmas blog is full of sweetness.

Every Christmas it’s always the same – boring boxes of mince pies (or the homemade ones that Queen Thistle* would be proud of), Christmas pudding (flambéed eyebrows anyone?) & fruitcake so boozy, your breath can melt glass!  We’ve all been there & said our polite thank-yous, while discreetly disposing of half-eaten mouthfuls in a napkin. [*Queen Thistle is in Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom – ask any five year old who made the bricks for Mrs Fig’s school!].

Because I don’t do anything remotely traditional about Christmas desserts, we like to create a few traditions of our own.  Before Christmas arrives, I discuss desserts with my Husband & Son, then we all pick a different one & make them.  It’s that simple & everyone gets what they wanted, because they picked it.  Usually, the guys like a tiramisu or my refreshing lemon cheesecake, scattered with a selection of fresh berries.  If I can get some good lemons, I’ll make a luscious lemon drizzle cake too – splashed with Limoncello, this makes an excellent trifle base (without custard obviously, because that’s just wrong!).

When I was a little girl, my Mum & Grandma would bake all kinds of delicious creations, including beautifully light, crisp choux pastry (pâte à choux).  Mum vigorously beat the paste with such effortless ease, until it was silky smooth (although simple to make, profiteroles need strong arms & plenty of stamina).  Once baked & filled, these piled up plump little pastries would be generously glazed with glossy, rich chocolate sauce & adorned with sparkly spun sugar.  I would watch in amazement as my Mum swiftly whipped a sugar-dipped fork through the air & glittery, golden sugar strands would appear as if by magic!  Although I don’t tend to make spun sugar very often, I do still make proper profiteroles & once you have tried them, you’ll be hooked too.  So, aprons at the ready!

What you need:

4oz Plain Flour
2oz Salted Butter (plus extra for greasing trays)
A quarter of a pint of cold Water
3 large Eggs
600ml fresh Double Cream (for filling)

What to do:

Place the butter in a medium sized saucepan & add the water.  Gently heat until the butter is completely melted, then bring to the boil.

Remove the pan from the heat & add the flour, stirring well.

Put the pan back on the heat, stirring continuously until the mixture comes together into a ball in the pan, then leave to cool.

Beat the eggs in a separate bowl.

Once the mixture has cooled, this is where you need your muscles!  Grab a wooden spoon & gradually add the eggs a bit at a time, while beating them vigorously into the mixture, until everything is combined.  Then you’re ready to pipe!

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & prepare a couple of baking trays – grease with butter, then run them under cold water & tip off the excess (you need a film of moisture to create steam in the oven to help raise them).

Tip your choux paste into a piping bag with round nozzle attachment (usually about 1cm sized), although I like to use a star nozzle because it gives extra texture.  If you stand your piping bag over a tall mug or jug, folding the edges over the top to hold it in place, you can do this with ease & avoid losing your choux paste.  Once filled, get rid of any excess air from the bag & twist the top to close it (after all that hard work, you don’t want your bag bursting!).

Pipe the mixture into round little dollops about an inch big, leaving an inch or two gap between each of them so they can grow.

Bake for 20 minutes until risen & slightly golden.  Tip onto a wire rack & while they’re still warm, make a little hole in the side of each (gently poke the end of a knife in).  Leave to cool.

Once cooled, your profiteroles are ready!  If you are preparing them in advance, you can freeze them a few at a time in a single layer – they crisp up beautifully after a few minutes in a warm oven.  They can be filled with either savoury or sweet fillings – try filling with a fluffy cream cheese mousse to make a starter, drizzled with a little pesto on top.

Fill your piping bag with whipped cream & pipe into the tiny hole you made in each profiterole, until just full.  Stack them up on your plate or put them in the fridge in a covered dish, but don’t leave them too long as they will go soggy.

Generously drizzle warm, chocolate sauce over them & serve!  You want the recipe for chocolate sauce, don’t you?  It’s really easy to make & one of my favourite “chuck it all in a pan” recipes.  I make jars of this & store it in the fridge or the cold pantry, then warm it up to make it runny enough to pour over cupcakes (it tastes fabulous spread on hot toast too).   Here it is!

What you need:

4oz Butter, cut into small chunks
8oz Plain Chocolate, chopped into chunks (use the food processor)
14oz tin of sweetened Condensed Milk

What to do:

Pour the milk into a dry small saucepan, add the butter & chocolate chunks.

Heat gently on low, slowly stirring with a whisk & making sure everything is combined, for about four or five minutes.  It should be glossy, smooth & silky.

That’s it!  Your sauce is ready, so pour it into a nice serving jug or sauce boat just before the dessert is plated up.  This also makes a fabulous fondue with chunks of pineapple, whole strawberries or fluffy marshmallows dipped in (elasticated waistbands are advisable though).

Ready for more?  Thought so!  As most Christmas food is heavy & starchy (especially fruit-laden puddings), we tend to go for light, fresh or fluffy desserts instead & this one is all three: Strawberry Sponge Square Cake.  It was the result of an impromptu dinner party, where I had to quickly improvise with what was in the fridge at the time & it has become a firm favourite! The sponge cake can be made the day before & kept in an airtight container with greaseproof paper between the slices, then all you need to do is assemble it!

What you need:

2 large Eggs
3oz Self-Raising Flour
3oz Vanilla Caster Sugar (or give normal sugar a whizz in a coffee grinder like I do)
A little melted Butter for preparing your tin
1 heaped tablespoon extra Vanilla Sugar (for laying your sponge on)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C.  Get a shallow baking tray or Swiss Roll tin & brush the melted butter all over the inside.

Line the tray with a sheet of greaseproof paper that is slightly bigger than the tin, leaving half an inch of paper out of the tin all the way around – you will need this to lift your sponge out at the end.  Push the paper into the corners & making sure it is completely covered with the butter.

Take the greaseproof paper out, turn it over & repeat, leaving it in the tin, with the edge sticking up all the way around.

Crack the eggs carefully into a mixing bowl & give them a whisk to break them up.

Add the sugar & give it a good firm whisking until pale & cream coloured.  I usually use the electric whisk for this (even I have my limits!) & whisk for three minutes on full.

Next, you need to fold in the flour.  Folding is easy, just take your time.  Sift the flour into the bowl, then using a large metal spoon, make a figure of eight & tip the flour over into the liquid.  Repeat until all the flour has been incorporated into a lovely, thick foamy mixture.

Using a spatula, scrape the mixture into your prepared tin.  Make sure you get it into all the corners & level it out with the spatula if necessary.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 4 minutes, until it is golden & slightly risen.  Give it a gentle pat with a finger & it should spring back – that’s when it’s ready.

Sprinkle the other sugar onto another sheet of greaseproof laid on top of a wire cooling rack.

Remove your sponge from the oven & carefully tip the whole thing over onto the sugared greaseproof paper, using the edge of the cake paper to help you if need be.

Pull off the greaseproof paper from the sponge cake & discard.  It should come away easily (& the smell of baked butter is just heavenly!).  Leave to cool for a few minutes.

Once cooled, take a large knife with a smooth blade (like a French cook’s knife) & trim the edges of your sponge (you can eat these or feed them to the birds).

Cut the sponge into three equal strips & set aside while you make the filling.  The filling can be prepared the day before too, just keep it covered in the fridge.

For the filling:

600ml fresh Double Cream (the real stuff please, it’s Christmas)
1oz Icing Sugar, plus extra for dusting
1 large punnet of Strawberries

What to do:

Wash, trim & hull your strawberries – that’s the tough bit under the leaves in the top of the strawberry.  Just run a little paring knife under the leaves, all the way around & it should come out.  The more ripe the strawberries, the easier it is.

Stand them pointy end up & using the paring knife, slice thinly – keep the trimmed edges to one side for decorating (or munching).  Put to one side in a bowl or large cup.

Get the electric whisk out again & whisk the double cream in a large mixing bowl, adding the icing sugar as you do so, until it is in soft peaks – the icing sugar gives the cream body & will hold it’s shape when piped.   You can whisk it by hand if you need to release some stress, but it’s really important that you don’t over-whip the cream, otherwise you’ll end up with butter (yes, really – I’ll cover that in another blog when we’ve all got more time).

Now you’re ready to assemble your sponge cake!  Take your first layer of sponge & lay it on a serving plate.

Scoop the cream into a piping bag with a star nozzle (or a smooth round one).  Pipe a layer of cream in a decorative swirly pattern around the edge.  Take your time over this, there’s no rush.

Lay strawberry slices all over the cream, leaving the pointy tips over the edge slightly.

Take the next layer of sponge & squeeze a little splodge of cream on the underneath side, then lay it gently on top of the strawberries.

Repeat with the next layer in exactly the same way, leaving a layer of sponge cake on the top.

When you’ve finished, you should have a beautiful strawberry sponge square cake (yes, I’m aware it’s not square, just go with it).  Dust lightly with icing sugar all over the top (use a tea strainer for this & you only need about a teaspoonful of icing sugar to do the whole thing) & serve immediately.

Use any remaining strawberries & cream to decorate each person’s plate, maybe dusting with a bit more icing sugar if you like.  Or you could just hide the rest in the fridge for nibbling on later (I think you’ve earned it!).  If you don’t like strawberries, use blueberries or even your favourite jam.  One of my favourite variations is to make a tiramisu filling instead of using cream, then mix some Sherry or Brandy with an equal amount of espresso coffee to drizzle over the sponge & replace the icing sugar on top with finely grated dark chocolate.  Decorate with a few coffee beans & a sprig of fresh mint.

So that’s dessert done & dusted (with icing sugar)!  Hopefully, I’ve given you some ideas for lighter & brighter alternatives to the usual stodgy puds, something to bring a little freshness to your Christmas table.  Now you know the drill – get yourself a lovely cuppa, put your feet up for a bit & relax, we’ve got this covered.  Stay hungry 😉 x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gentlemen Prefer (Chocolate Chip) Blondies!

Even in Summertime, soggy mornings make me think of massive mugs of heavenly hot chocolate, teeming with a mountain of mini marshmallows on a cloud of whipped cream, dusted with chocolate shavings.  It’s guaranteed to put a smile on even the sourest of faces, especially if there’s a chunky chocolate chip cookie to dunk in it. I must admit, I like my hot chocolate made the old-fashioned way – boiled milk, slowly poured over flakes of grated chocolate & whisked up until silky smooth with a delicate foamy froth.  After one of these & a cookie, I can take on the world (albeit slowly!).

Over the weekend, I was invited to a beautiful ladies’ afternoon tea at one of my lovely friend’s homes & took some of these naughty chocolate chip delights as a little gift for her (fresh flowers are nice, but you can’t really eat them!).   These are based on a blondie recipe & are really rich & indulgent, because they are full to the brim with so much chocolate, then swirled & drizzled with more chocolate (just to make sure there’s enough in them!).  The chocolate chip & peanut butter version was a kind of happy mishap – I was experimenting with the recipe & added a splodge of smooth peanut butter into each scoop, encasing that nutty, buttery centre in the cookie dough.  As they bake in the oven, the peanut butter starts to melt & infuse the cookies (& kitchen) with that nutty flavour & sweet scent.  Of course, they are drizzled with melted chocolate too & a few chopped, salted peanuts sprinkled generously on top – the slight saltiness complements the chocolate so well!  These are not for the faint-hearted, nor are they for everyday munching really – they should be a treat, or for those days when you’re just feeling a bit pants & want a “pick me up”.   If I’m feeling particularly decadent, I’ll make some with plain chocolate chunks & shards of stem ginger (my favourite), or chopped dried apricots with white chocolate pieces.  The choices are as endless as your imagination!  The best bit?  They are really easy & take minutes to make.

What you need:

100g vanilla or caster sugar (I make my own vanilla sugar, so it’s naturally flavoured)
125g light Muscovado sugar
150g melted butter
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
300g plain flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (the proper stuff, not “essence”)
Half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
200g milk chocolate & 100g plain chocolate, chopped into chunks (I chuck mine in the fridge for an hour, then whizz them up in the food processor)
200g milk chocolate (for melting)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 170*C.  Prepare a couple of baking sheets by lining them with greaseproof paper (no washing up tins later!).

Gently melt the butter & set aside to cool slightly.

In one bowl, sift the flour & bicarb.

In another bowl, mix the Muscovado & the vanilla sugars.  Muscovado is a bit moist, almost like damp sand in texture, so break up any lumps with a whisk or fork.

Pour the melted butter, egg & egg yolk into the sugars, along with the vanilla extract.  Whisk together until just combined & you get a creamy, caramel coloured liquid.

Slowly add the sifted flour & bicarb to the caramel liquid, stirring well until it is all incorporated & turns into a lovely firm cookie dough.

Add the chocolate chips to the cookie dough, distributing evenly.

Get yourself a medium sized metal ice-cream scoop (one with a spring loaded handle is best), then scoop dollops of cookie dough up & drop them onto the greaseproof lined baking tray.  Leave a good couple of inches between them all – they will grow!   If you want to save some for another day, you can always freeze a few scoops at this stage &  just defrost them when you fancy a treat.

Bake in the centre of the oven for between 16-18 minutes, then gently transfer the cookies onto a cooling rack.  If you put the tin next to the cooling rack, you can actually pull the greaseproof paper onto the rack & then move the cookies directly onto the rack after.  They will be soft until they cool, so be careful as they are more delicate than they look.

Once cooled, put another sheet (or the same one) of greaseproof paper underneath the cooling rack.  Then melt the chocolate & drizzle over the cookies, making whatever pretty patterns you like & even adding more chocolate chips or chopped nuts on top.   That’s it!  

You might want to leave them to set before indulging, or you’ll get into a chocolately gooey mess!   Diamonds may be nice but chocolate is everyone’s best friend (especially when you share).  A x

 

 

 

Preekend Profiteroles

It’s fabulous Friday, the weekend is almost here (we call it the Preekend because it’s pre-weekend), so I like to make something special.

When I was a young girl, my Mum & Grandma would bake all kinds of wonderful delicious treats, including the most beautifully light, crisp choux pastry (pâte à choux).  I remember sitting in the kitchen, watching in amazement as my Mum vigorously beat the dough with such ease, making it seem so effortless.  Of course, I learned later on when I made my own that there is a lot of effort that goes into them & appreciate them so much more.   They might be simple to make, but you need strong arms!

Once cooled, the dough would be piped onto a prepared baking tray (this was my job – buttering the trays & sprinkling with a little cold water), before being transformed in the oven from little balls (or thin strips if she made éclairs) into lightly puffed crispiness.  Then they would be plumped up with whipped cream & generously drizzled with Mum’s homemade silky, glossy chocolate sauce.

They even freeze well (unfilled), so you can have a stash ready for unexpected guests or just as a treat when you fancy them.

Those plump little pastries would melt in a crisp, gooey cream & chocolatey mouthful within seconds, although lingering much longer in my memory.  A x