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

Pasta Parcels

The first pasta I ever made was a very soupy looking lasagne when I was a teenager & it didn’t improve much until my twenties – it tasted very nice, but you needed a spoon to eat it (although my boyfriend at the time was far too polite to mention this).  My pasta skills have progressed a bit since then & I am happy to say, you don’t need a spoon to eat my lasagne anymore (although I do recommend wearing an elasticated waistband).

Some people may think of pasta making as a bit fiddly or time consuming (it’s like the bread making scenario all over again).  I appreciate this, because I too had a few issues in the beginning (actually, I still do on occasion) & that’s OK, because your kitchen isn’t a Michelin starred restaurant – you’re making it for family & friends, not paying customers!  It just takes a little practice, that’s all.  The best thing is pasta takes very little time to make from scratch, plus it’s fun to make when the weather is a bit pants & the kids are “bored” – get them making pasta!

What you need:

The recipe I use is 100g of strong ’00’ flour (or strong bread flour) & one large egg, per person (so if you’re cooking for three people, that’s three eggs & 300g of flour).  However, I like to mix half flour with half fine semolina, which gives it that gorgeous golden, sunshine yellow colour (& everyone likes a little sunshine).

Also, I recommend buying good quality free-range eggs – trust me, it makes all the difference.  Here’s a little test to see if your eggs are really fresh.  Half fill a jug with cold water & gently plop the eggs into the jug, one at a time.  If they sink, they’re fine & fresh; if they float, it means they are not that fresh & probably shouldn’t be used.

What to do:

Measure your flour into a bowl & tip onto a clean work surface.  Make a well in the middle, crack your eggs in carefully & combine them a little before using clean, cool fingertips to bring the flour in from the sides & gently combine into a lovely golden dough (it’s messy, but that’s half the fun).

Knead for about five minutes until flexible, then wrap in cling film & leave to rest in the fridge for half an hour.  After that, you can roll it out, stuff it with some fabulous fillings, or cut into ribbons (such as tagliatelle) & even hang some up to dry for another day (if you don’t have a rack, use a clean clothes horse).  It’s that simple!

To make ravioli, roll the dough out until it’s almost thin enough to see through.  Lay it down on a flour dusted surface (sprinkle some semolina too – this will stop it sticking).  Then simply add small splodges of your filling (about a teaspoonful), roughly an inch apart, down one side of the pasta sheet – sometimes I use a piping bag to do this (less mess & a bit quicker).  Dip your finger in a cup of cold water, run it along the edge & between the fillings, before folding the other side of the pasta over the top.  Press the edges down firmly, using a cupping action with the side of your hand to separate the fillings into individual bumps & remove any air.  Cut them into little parcels using a ravioli or pizza cutter & set aside on a plate or board, again dusted with flour or semolina (or both).

Bring a pan of water to a rolling boil, chuck in a couple of generous pinches of sea salt, then gently add your pasta to the water.  It should cook in about 2-3 minutes, so pick one out & have a taste to check – obviously, if you’re cooking ravioli or similar stuffed pasta, use your judgement on this & make sure the filling is piping hot.  Then drain (saving a cup of the water) & serve as you like it- spoon on some sauce, or just add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil & a sprinkle of black pepper.   If your sauce is a bit too thick, add some of the cooking water to loosen it up a bit & make it silky smooth (you really don’t need much).  All you need to do then is eat it!

One of the best tips I can give is to treat yourself to a robust pasta machine – forget brand names here, go for the one that you feel most comfortable with.  When I first began making pasta, I would roll out the dough by hand with a rolling pin (several times until it was thin enough & my arms ached), so my pasta machine is one of the best purchases I’ve made.  With the turn of a handle you can have perfectly precise spaghetti (they are also really good for rolling out fondant icing – bonus!).

So next time it’s a bit dull outside, create some indoor sunshine & make your own pasta parcels!  A x

 

Love of Lasagne

There is something quite therapeutic about making a lasagne.   It’s not something to be rushed or raced, it is to be lovingly created over a couple of hours on a lazy afternoon.  Whenever I make lasagne (which is quite often if I’m honest), the whole experience is something I savour – from slowly simmering the ravishing ragu to whisking up a creamy cheese sauce to complement it.

Personally, I find the whole “chuck a jar of readymade” anything into a dish a bit wrong, unless I made it of course (there’s always a couple of jars of my tomato sauce in the fridge).  It takes minutes to whip up a white sauce from roux to ready – all you need is a chunk of butter, a pint of milk & a scoop of flour!  Plus jars tend to be laced with lots of other things like additional salt, sugar & unpronounceable ingredients (if you can’t say it, don’t eat it!).

Pasta on the other hand is personal, whether you buy it or make your own, no-one should judge you – it’s down to individual choice.  I love making my own pasta, it’s something I’m truly passionate about, but I also use dried. There is a huge array of dried pasta in my pantry – a whole shelf is dedicated to it & I even have a stash of random shapes in another cupboard, because I keep any unused leftovers for other recipes (my husband will be calling Pasta Addicts Anonymous for me now).

The best bit is sandwiching all the fabulous fillings between layers of pasta, then drenching the top with grated cheese & a sprinkling of dried Oregano (gently rub it between your fingertips as you scatter it to release it’s pungent perfume).  Once finished, I like to leave it to rest in a cold oven for at least an hour, sometimes longer & on occasion in the fridge overnight, just to let everything settle & the flavours develop.  It’s definitely worth the wait!  Then it’s baked slowly for an hour – the oozy, melting cheese creating a crispy topping, as the lasagne fills the house with it’s luscious scent.

Because it’s crammed full of rich flavours, all it needs is a green salad splashed with a bit of balsamic vinegar, a squeeze of lemon & a good glass of red wine.

Share the love (of lasagne)!  A x