Monthly Archives: March 2014

Apricot, amaretto and almond cake

It’s Monday morning as I write this. I was promised sunshine and warm weather and yet, as I sit here in my Uniqlo padded jacket and thermal socks, it is grey outside and I feel depressed.

This is why I am writing about cake. Cake is a happy, safe word, with its promises of tea, friends, chat and warmth.

I made this at the weekend, for a birthday treat for a loved one. It’s a recipe I’ve had for many years (from Waitrose magazine). Most unprepossessing, and even a little bit gauche to look at maybe, but what drew me in was the introduction (I love an introduction in a recipe) which said, briefly but fulsomely:

“This is one of the best cakes in my repertoire, it has a very intense apricot flavour”

(I don’t know who wrote it so apologies.)

That confident appraisal, “one of the best cakes in my repertoire”? Well it rather throws down the cakey gauntlet, doesn’t it?

This is a magnificent cake. Not, of course, if you don’t like almonds or apricots. And each time I make it, it’s slightly different. One time it was so moist at to be barely sliceable – but still delicious – yesterday when I made it, it rose more than ever before, and didn’t sink in the middle (it usually does, a dip which acts as a useful pool for the yoghurty, creamy topping) and was definitely a spongey cake. Anyway, try it and see. It really does have a wonderful flavour, and on a depressing, grey, Monday when the weekend is all behind you still, that’s what you need.

You’ll need, for the cake:

115g unsalted butter, softened

325g caster sugar

50g marzipan, cut into little pieces

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

50ml amaretto, plus an extra as a sip as it’s delicious

3 eggs

165g plain flour

25g raising flour

a quarter of a teaspoon of salt

a quarter of a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

75g ground almonds

125ml sour cream

125g read to eat dried apricots, chopped

 

You’ll need, for the topping:

225g thick Greek yoghurt

4 tablespoons of whipped up double cream

125g soft set apricot jam

50g toasted almond flakes

a little icing sugar for dusting.

 

This is what you do:

Preheat the oven to 170C. I use this time to toast the flaked almonds for 5 minutes or so. Watch them carefully so they don’t burn. I use a spring-form 23cm cake tin which I parchment line the bottom of.

Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy, either by hand or in a mixer. Then add the marzipan bits and blend well. Now add the eggs, beating well with each addition. Now add the vanilla and amaretto. MIx together the flours, salt and bicarb and the ground almonds. Now add these dry ingredients to the mixture, alternating with the sour cream. Finally, fold in the chopped apricots and bake in the oven for 1hour to 1 hour 20 minutes. A cake tester should come out clean, but the cake shouldn’t be too cooked, if you follow.

Let it cool completely, then run a knife around the edge and take out.

Now mix the topping ingredients together: the yoghurt and the sour cream first, then marble through the apricot jam. Spoon on top of the cake. Some times, if the cake hasn’t sunk much, then I feel like I’m left with too much topping. In such cases, it’s best not to put all the topping on, but reserve it for spooning it up when you slice up and serve the cake.

Sprinkle the flaked almonds on top, dust with icing sugar and slice and eat.

Store in the fridge when not being eaten.

The Suffolk Flower Farm

Yesterday I went to the Lavenham Farmer’s Market and had a completely wonderful time, as usual. I swear they must pipe oxytocin through the hall there.

As I walked in, I saw a woman walk out with a small posy of really lovely flowers. And I clocked them and thought “wow”. And as soon as I walked in I saw this amazing stand of flowers saying “grown not flown” with the most beautiful garden flowers in bunches, in pots. And, after I’d stared at them all for a while,  I bought a small posy of flowers for £5 (see pic above).

They are lovely and if you live in Newmarket, Sudbury, Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds or Haverhill you can have lovely locally-grown flowers delivered. The company – the Suffolk Flower Farm – also does special occasions and farmer’s markets where you can pick up smaller bunches.

Chocolate banana cupcakes with a chocolate cream frosting

My friend Vicky made this chocolate banana loaf the other day with her ducks’ eggs. I’m not usually a fan of banana bread. I want to like it, ever since I read that Nigella says making banana bread fills your house with domestic fug, or some such. But I just don’t really like it. I’m not a fan of an overly banana taste in anything other than in a, you know, banana. But this looked different, thanks to the abundance of chocolate and cocoa in it and on it. And then I had a child off sick the other day and so we decided to make it together; but into cupcakes not a loaf. And it worked brilliantly.

As you will see in the comments below the actual recipe in BBC Good Food magazine, lots of people have modified the recipe to make it even healthier with less sugar, more bananas, honey etc. I am obedient so, as it was the first time I made it, I followed the recipe.

I used Isigny Creme Fraiche instead of ‘sour cream’ (it’s the same thing anyway isn’t it?) and I used Tesco’s Finest Cooking Milk Chocolate with 40% cocoa content which is fantastic, even if you do have to go to Tesco to buy it (stock up). I hate hate hate buttercream icing so this is great for me.

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My youngest didn’t like the topping so I left some clear for her which was convenient as, making it into cupcakes rather than one loaf, I didn’t really have enough frosting (if you want to cover all of them, make double of the topping).

You can top with a banana chip if you want. I make my own, using my dehydrator, but obviously you can just BUY THEM.

Update: I have since made these again using coconut oil instead of sunflower oil (v nice, you don’t really taste the coconut) and also half wholemeal flour plus half a teaspoon of baking powder. Just to make it more healthy. If anything, I think the cupcakes tasted better..and because I’m lazy, I’m reproducing the recipe, as I now use it (i.e. adapted) here for my reference..

for the cupcakes

100g coconut oil

110g caster sugar

90g white self raising flour

85g wholemeal, plain flour

half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

half a teaspoon of baking powder

4 tablespoons of cocoa

100g chocolate chips – I use plain

175 very ripe banana (about two) – I weigh them with the skin on

3 medium eggs, two separated

50ml milk

For the topping (double this quantity if making cupcakes and you aim to ice the whole batch)

100g high cocoa content milk chocolate

100g creme fraiche/sour cream

a pinch of sea salt for real wowness

banana chips if desired

Line each cupcake mould with a case – this makes about 16 so you may need to cook in two batches.

Heat oven to 160C. Mix the sugar, flour, bicarb, cocoa and chocolate in a big bowl. Mash the bananas in another bowl and mix in two egg yolks plus one whole egg. To this, add coconut oil and milk.

Beat the egg whites until stiff.

Add the banana mixture to the dry flour etc mixture, mixing well but not overmixing (I never understand why, what happens if you over mix it??). Stir in a bit of the egg white mixture to loosen it all up, then fold in the rest to keep the air in as much as possible.

Spoon into cupcake cases and bake for about 25 minutes – 30 mins. A skewer should come out clean, unless of course you hit a bit of melted chocolate chip.

Let them cool completely. In the meantime, melt the creme fraiche and chocolate together, in a bowl over simmering water, with the pinch of sea salt if desired. Then spread over cupcakes (if it’s really gloopy let it firm up a bit in the fridge first, but not too much). Top with a banana chip if you like.

 

 

 

The usefulness of a foam roller

Fourteen years ago, after receiving some money for Christmas, I decided to put it to Really Good Use and hired myself a personal trainer.

Up til then, I thought PTs were for rich or famous people and, being neither, I thought it was a deeply selfish thing. But, it was some of the best use I’d ever put money to. I majorly lucked out with my first trainer, Donovan. He was brilliant. I got into the best shape of my life and he introduced me to exercises and pieces of equipment I’d never heard of but which were brilliant. Then the selfish bastard left to live in Australia.

He’s back now and over the border in Essex, but, sadly, a bit too far for me to travel to otherwise, believe me, I would.

But Donovan introduced me to the benefits of exercising on a  Swiss ball (until it was banned in the gym, he’d get me standing – yes standing – on it doing my weights), the Bosu, he’d have me lifting weights I never thought a girl could lift. And he introduced me to the foam roller.

Just Google ‘foam roller’. They are sold everywhere. Spend between about £10 and £20. You don’t need to spend more but do make sure you don’t buy them too cheap or else the foam won’t be dense enough and what you’ll be paying for is less foam, more air. You can also Google ‘exercises using a foam roller’.

I use mine for a few things – you can lie on it and roll up and down (with the foam roller across your body, like in the crucifix position) and massage your back. This hurts.

You can also lie across it and roll it up and down the outside of your thighs. This hurts a lot. I do lots of my pilates exercises lying with it down the length of my back in what I call the lamp-post position. This makes things like doing toe-taps that bit more difficult as you are in an unstable position.

But. Even if you don’t do any of those, a foam roller is great because you can keep it in the corner of your office and every hour or so, you can take three minutes away from your hunched-over the keyboard position and lie yourself on it – in the lamp-post position – down the length of your back and with your head resting on it.

And do nothing. Just lie there staring at the ceiling and let your shoulders unfurl and if you lift your hands up so that your hands are by your ears and your elbows poking out and just let the weight of your arms drop them down, you get an amazing stretch over the front of your chest.

Postscript: My friend and editor Kate wrote this piece in the Guardian last month, about foam rollers, which is really useful and has pictures. Although be prepared to be slightly depressed looking at pictures of Kate – mother of two – looking really gorgeous (very probably with no make up) and her super trim figure. I must go into the office more often with trays of doughnuts for her.

Lavenham Farmer’s Market

When I lived in London, we used to go to the Islington Farmer’s Market, which was great. There was a man there who sold baby lettuce leaves by the bag, and his leaves were so tasty. They had real bite and flavour to them and were far removed from supermarket lettuce which melts on the tongue and tastes of not very much, so as to appeal to as many people as possible. You couldn’t move for Bugaboos (including our own) and it was all very north London, but it was fun and there was raw milk sold (something I really miss) and great bread (something I no longer have to miss now I make my own).

When we moved to Suffolk, it took us a while to find the Lavenham Farmer’s Market which is now my favourite farmer’s market of all time. It’s held once a month (the next one is this Sunday, 23rd, it’s held on the fourth Sunday of every month), not once a week like our London one. There is usually plenty of parking and there is always something unusual to find. It’s not huge, but it’s not small either. Each time I go I find something amazing and different and have the best chats with people, from those who grow their own heritage apples, to the honey man from The Beehouse Honey Co in Great Yeldham who told me all about his bees and how different ones had different personalities and we had a honey tasting, as sophisticated as any wine tasting.

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One month we were walking round when my eldest got a really itchy neck (she suffers from mild eczema) and I looked round and there was this stand selling natural products, called Honey bee Natural Beauty, which uses honey and beeswax from their own hives. It was very Neals Yard-esque and the products smelled amazing (you know how sometimes you find these natural products and they smell just like what they are, made up in someone’s kitchen? Well these aren’t like that. There’s an orange body lotion that smells well posh and proper and I am going to buy it next time). And I said to the man “Do you have anything for eczema?” and lo and behold, he produced something called “Vitamin A Cream for Eczema Prone Skin” which cost £9 and really helps (it doesn’t cure of course since no one knows what causes eczema, but in our battery of creams and lotions, this earns its place).

And I’ve met people there, from Slamseys Drinks, who sell amazing gin  with fantastic labels, like nothing you’d find anywhere else.

I always stock up on Edward’s Cordials (strawberry and mint is great for the summer and there’s a new flavour coming soon but I forgot what it is…).

If you’ve never been to Lavenham it’s well worth a look around. It’s bonkers. I think it has the highest number of listed buildings of anywhere in England, but I may have made that statistic up (oh the glorious freedom of blog posts, no need to check facts like in newspapers). Lavenham has some great art galleries and I go in there with my children and no-one gets sniffy (my children are amazingly appropriately behaved though, as I’ve taken them everywhere with me from a very young age). Although there is one shop that says “breakages must be paid for” so that shop doesn’t get my custom because who needs that shit?

Afterwards we sometimes go to Clare, which is another amazing little Suffolk village that has proper shops. We go to Cafe Clare there, (1 Well Lane) which is tiny and quaint and we always have great service and lovely food there. It’s not the Wolseley but a great place to get a cup of coffee and a sausage sandwich and they are always accommodating to our children (I’ve seen them let dogs in too if that is relevant to you).

You can then go for a walk at Clare County Park. If you go during the week, do check out the hardware store – Hudgies.

The Phoenix Comic

My friend John-Paul Flintoff, who is married to one of my fabulous editors Harriet, (I’m not saying this to show off who I know, but because I think it’s so important to give credit to people, and I didn’t want to mention JP without mentioning Harriet because I actually know her a whole lot better) recently told me about The Phoenix Comic.

It’s great, he said. There are no ads, he said. Great writing, he said. There was a special offer on – first four copies free – so I thought I’d give it a go in a ‘what have I got to lose’ way.

The comic arrives by post every Friday in a big, colourful envelope, addressed to the child whose name you put on the subscription form. At first my eldest (my youngest has just started reading) wasn’t that enthralled. I admit I was disappointed. However, when the time came for the free subscription to end, I asked her if she’d like me to cancel it.

“Oh NO” she yelled, “I love it!” (Corpse talk is her favourite bit.) Now, every Friday, I get my copy of The Week, she gets her copy of The Phoenix and we are both heads down for an hour. Because not all reading is about books.

Pea Porridge, Bury St Edmunds

Before anyone thinks I’ve gone into restaurant reviews, let me stop you right there. If I wrote reviews of food I ate out it would run to no more than a few sentences. It’s less that I am overly easily pleased (although I am fairly easily pleased), more that I run out of things to say about food. I either don’t like it, or I do. I don’t think I have a very sophisticated palate in that I can’t really tell if there is coriander missing in something.

I’m missing that gene.

Really the point of this is more a selfish one. In the same way that my blog now reminds me of things I like to eat and make, this will I hope be a useful repository of places I’ve been that I’ve liked. But it is nice to share good places you’ve been, no?

I don’t live in Bury St Edmunds, which I affectionately call Biddy St Edmunds as the proportion of old biddies (yes, yes, I will be one myself soon) seems to be quite high there and I often seem to have run-ins with them looking at me like I’m going to mug them or not locking the toilet doors in places and then accusing me of trying to burst in on them (“I didn’t lock the door because I was scared of being locked in” happened to me twice, in the space of 20 seconds two weeks ago).

But we don’t live far from there and we visit the Picture House there often, and love it. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to the Barbican cinema, which I used to frequent when I lived near the Barbican in London. Sometimes we escape to the pictures during the day.

This is when and where the proportion of old biddies is really high. Especially if you go on a Wednesday which is market day. Two weeks ago, whilst ‘queuing’ to go into the auditorium, one old biddy turned round and properly screamed when she saw me like that character in Catherine Tate.

The market in Bury is great btw.

We went yesterday and we – my partner and I – got told off for eating our popcorn too loudly by this really grumpy, rude old man. We weren’t, of course. But, for five seconds, we were the young, annoying people. It made our day. We saw Grand Budapest Hotel which we thought was fabulous and afterwards we went to Pea Porridge which is a bit out of the way in a residential bit. But still a very short walk from the centre.

I wanted to eat everything on the menu – really rare for me – and we really struggled to choose two things. I had two starters: grilled squid with black risotto rice, the remnants of which you see in the picture up there (no way am I taking pictures of my meals out like a nutcase, this is what was left). My ‘main’ was a starter of grilled venison heart in a salad with some walnuts. For pud I had poached quince with fromage frais and crumbled amaretti which was light and fresh and yummy. Prices, as you’ll see from the menu, aren’t ridiculous and you can have a shot of brandy or something hair-on-chesty, afterwards for under £3 which is super reasonable.

The bread was so good I almost stole some on my way out – an oil-encrusted focaccia. They carbonate their own water here to cut down on packaging and transportation costs. The espresso was spot on.

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It was all amazing. Easily the most memorable meal I’ve eaten out in years. This is not a posh formal restaurant, it’s in an old bakery but looks like it’s in two houses knocked together. It’s laid back, great service. Note that it’s not open every day.

I would thoroughly recommend it.

And that’s it.

There was a table of old biddies sitting next to us but their conversation was sprightly and fun. One uttered the great line of “we had a girl stay with us for a while in the attic”.