Blackberry and Apple Crumble

If you’ve ever seen Game of Thrones, you will be familiar with the walk of shame. My wife put me through it yesterday, ringing a bell and crying Shame! at me, all around the kitchen. My crime? I bought a punnet of blackberries, rather than taking off to the woods to pick my own. I know, I know, but it was a busy day…

She changed her tune when this came out of the oven though; who can resist the meltingly soft, sweet and sharp tang of apples and blackberries, set against the rich, buttery crunch of a crumble topping? Not me, and it’s why I love every time of the year – there is always something coming into season that is a joy to eat.

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RECIPE 

For the filling:

3 medium eating apples, peeled, cored and quartered

3 Bramley cooking apples, peeled, cored and quartered

2 tsp cinnamon

100g Demerara sugar

300g blackberries

a small pinch of fine sea salt

For the topping:

175g plain flour

1 tsp cinnamon

140g soft brown sugar

35g porridge oats

180g cold unsalted butter, cubed


METHOD

Heat the oven to 170C/ gas 3.

Prepare the apples, keep them quartered even if the pieces seem a bit large.

In a separate bowl, mix the cinnamon with the Demerara sugar.

In a baking dish, place half the apples (a mixture of both types) in a single layer on the bottom. Sprinkle with one-third of the sugar/cinnamon mix. Now add all of the blackberries on top, again in a single layer, and sprinkle another one-third of the sugar/cinnamon mix on top. Now place the remainder of the apples on top of the blackberries and finish with the final one-third of the sugar/cinnamon mix.

Take a small pinch of fine sea salt and scatter evenly over the fruit. You only require a small pinch, but it gives the final flavour an immense lift.

In a large bowl, mix together the dry topping ingredients. Add the cold, cubed butter and using your fingers gently rub the dry ingredients into the butter until you end up with a mixture that looks like breadcrumbs. It doesn’t have to be evenly sized, and if you have a variety of sizes of lumps of butter that will just make your crumble better. If you struggle with rubbing-in, you can put everything into a food processor and pulse it carefully, just be careful not to over-process it.

Scatter the crumble topping over the top of the fruit, ensuring that everything is covered.

Bake, uncovered, in the middle of the oven for 45-60 minutes. Keep an eye on it, the last thing you want is a burnt topping. When it is ready, the topping should be golden and crunchy, and the fruit should be soft with the moisture from the apples and blackberries bubbling through.

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Vanilla Extract

First, a word of warning: never, Never, NEVER buy vanilla essence. It’s a nasty chemical substitute for the real thing.

Second: make your own vanilla extract. It is ridiculously simple and involves nothing more than two ingredients. Even the most pure and expensive commercially-produced vanilla extract contains a number of additional elements, including sugar. You don’t need them in your life. What you DO need are two kinds of vanilla extract: made with vodka for a clean vanilla taste, and made with dark rum for a darker, more complex caramel flavour. Experiment with both kinds in your baking and you will soon be turning out cakes so good you would swear they had been made by Mary Berry.

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RECIPE – makes 100ml

1 vanilla pod, split lengthways

100ml of vodka or dark rum


METHOD 

It doesn’t get any easier than this: put both halves of the split vanilla pod into a 100ml bottle (the exact size is largely immaterial, anything between 50ml and 120ml will produce perfect vanilla extract). Top up with the vodka or rum, then put the lid on and set it aside for at least a month. It will last for as long as you need it to, but if my experience is anything to go by you will use it up pretty quickly once you discover just how good it is.

Christmas Cake

I know, Christmas is seven weeks away so why post a recipe for Christmas cake now? Well, the truth is that if you haven’t already made yours, you’re in danger of it not being as good as it can be.

A good Christmas cake needs time to sit and develop, and you need time to ‘feed’ it. Feeding your Christmas cake is simply brushing it with alcohol several times before the big day. More details below, so let’s get cracking with this luscious recipe that is the culmination of years of experiments. This is the one that always gets eaten, and eaten fast!

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RECIPE 

250g sultanas

100g currants

400g raisins

75g mixed peel

zest of a lemon, finely grated

juice of 1/2 a lemon

zest of an orange, finely grated

80ml sherry

175g butter, room temperature

175g dark muscovado sugar

25g black treacle

3 medium eggs, room temperature, beaten

225g plain flour

1 tsp mixed spice

1 tsp cinnamon

40g ground almonds

165g glace cherries

25g glycerine


METHOD 

The day before you plan to make the cake, place the sultanas, currants, raisins, mixed peel, finely grated lemon zest, the juice of 1/2 a lemon, the finely grated zest of an orange and the sherry into a large bowl. Mix together thoroughly to combine, cover with cling film and set aside for 24 hours.

Heat the oven to 140C/ gas 1. Line the base and sides of a 20cm spring-form cake tin with baking parchment, leaving at least four inches of parchment standing above the level of the tin. Also, put baking parchment around the outside of the tin, also standing about 4 inches proud of the top of the tin and tied off with string. This prevents the top of the cake from drying out and burning.

In a large bowl, use a wooden spoon to beat the butter, muscovado and treacle until it forms a smooth paste. Mixing with a spoon prevents air being beaten into the mix, air in the mix of a fruit cake is a disaster as it allows the fruit to all sink to the bottom.

Now gradually add the beaten eggs to the butter mix, a little at a time to prevent the mixture from curdling. If it does curdle, just add a spoonful of your flour and beat it in.

When all the egg has been incorporated, mix the flour, mixed spice, cinnamon and ground almonds in a separate bowl. Drop the glace cherries into the flour and ensure they are fully coated – this gives them a coating that provides enough friction to prevent them from dropping to the bottom of the mix while it is baking. Now add the flour mix, with the cherries, to the butter and eggs. Fold in gently with a large metal spoon.

Add the glycerine to the soaked fruit and stir well, this will help to keep the cake moist. Add the fruit to the cake batter and gently fold it through until it is evenly mixed.

You will now have quite a stiff batter – don’t panic, this is as it should be. Spoon it into your lined cake tin and level it off with a spatula.

Bake in the centre of the oven for approximately two hours. Check it is cooked by inserting a skewer in to the centre of the cake, if it comes out clean then your cake is ready. If it comes out with some cake mix stuck to it then cook for a further 15 minutes, repeat the process if necessary, but do not cook your cake for longer than 2 1/2 hours.

Allow the cake to cool on a wire rack, in the tin.When the tin is warm to the touch you can remove it, but leave the parchment on the cake and the cake on the rack until it is fully cold.

When the cake is fully cold, use a pastry brush to generously brush the top and sides of the cake with sherry, Cointreau, rum, brandy, Calvados or any spirit of your choice. Don’t drown the cake, but don’t be frugal either. Here is the important bit:

DO NOT PIERCE YOUR CAKE!

It is the single biggest reason for dry, inedible fruit cakes. The alcohol will soak in quite happily – there is no need to dig holes in your cake so all of its moisture can evaporate more easily.

Wrap the cake in a large sheet of baking parchment, then cover that with a large sheet of baking foil and wrap it tightly. Store it in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

To feed your cake, brush it as above, A MAXIMUM OF THREE MORE TIMES using your preferred fortified wine or spirit. Leave at least a week between each feed, and allow at least seven days after the last feed before you decorate the cake.

Now isn’t the time to give decorating tips, I will leave that until nearer the time…

Banana Oat Mini-Muffins

I hate wasting food. Okay, sometimes there will be a piece of past-its-best veg sitting in the fridge that has been forgotten because it has been buried under something else, but it’s rare that a use can’t be found for it. Vegetable peelings and trimmings, and not quite at their best leeks, celery, carrots and the like can always be pressed into service to make a stock. As for fruit, anything on the turn can be turned into cake fillings or immersed in alcohol and soaked for a few weeks to make a wicked punch, while bananas are (to my mind) at their most useful when the skins are seriously spotted with black but the fruit is still quite firm. From these you can make banoffee pie, banana bread, or these lovely little muffins.

Small enough to eat in two bites, loaded with flavour and (whisper it) they’re healthy as well. Made with a minimum amount of sugar and sunflower oil rather than butter, they are a great guilt-free treat, and are also great as part of your breakfast. They freeze well, so there’s no need to worry about eating them all in a hurry.

The ones pictured below have no topping or garnishing, but you can sprinkle a little demerara sugar over the top five minutes before they come out of the oven for a crunchy topping and a little extra indulgence.

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RECIPE – makes around 30 small muffins, or 15 large

100g oats

200g plain flour

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/4 tsp fine sea salt

100g soft light brown sugar

4 large ripe bananas

1 large egg, beaten

60ml sunflower oil

75g chopped walnuts

demerara sugar to finish (optional)


METHOD 

Heat the oven to 180C/ gas 4. Line a cupcake tin with paper cases of the appropriate size.

In a large bowl, combine the oats, flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and sugar. Mix well.

In a separate large bowl, mash the bananas until smooth then add the beaten egg and sunflower oil and mix thoroughly. Now add the dry ingredients and the walnuts over the top of the banana mix, fold through until all the ingredients are just combined; take care not to overmix.

Spoon the mixture into the pastry cases then bake for 15-20 minutes (for small muffins) or 20-25 minutes for larger muffins. They are ready when the tops are browned and firm, and when you insert a skewer or cocktail stick it comes out clean.

If you wish, five minutes or so before they are finished, sprinkle a little demerara sugar over the top of each muffin to add little crunch.

Provencal Biscuits

I looked in the fridge yesterday and noticed that we had a LOT of cheese in there. All kinds: Roquefort, Danish Blue, Stilton, Cheddar, Red Leicester, goats’ cheese… I could go on, but you get the idea. This glut of cheesy comestibles gave me the perfect excuse to whip up these deliciously savoury little biscuits; they’re quick and easy to make and have a heavenly flavour – thanks to all the herbs that go in to the dough.

These stand head and shoulders above anything you can buy in a supermarket, and because they are so simple to make it doesn’t matter how inexperienced you are, they will also happily bear comparison with anything you can buy from an artisan bakery.

Dinner last night was twenty of these biscuits, a choice of cheeses, a simple green salad, chutney, vine tomatoes and grapes. At the end of it my wife said that we should put it into our regular meal rotation. Praise indeed.

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RECIPE 

100g plain flour, plus extra for dusting

100g plain wholemeal flour

1 tsp fine sea salt

1/2 tsp fennel seeds

1 tsp dried basil

1 tbsp fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped

1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped

75g fridge-cold butter, cubed

1 egg yolk

1 tsp Dijon mustard

3 tbsp ice-cold water


METHOD – makes about 20

Heat the oven to 180C/176C fan/Gas 4.

Line a baking tray with baking parchment. Combine the flours, salt, fennel, basil, rosemary and thyme in a food processor. Pulse once or twice to ensure everything is thoroughly mixed, then add the butter and pulse several times until the butter has been combined and the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

Whisk together the egg yolk, mustard and water. Pour into the mixture while pulsing the processor, continue to pulse until the dough starts to come together. Take care not to overwork the biscuit dough as it will become tougher.

Empty the dough onto a lightly floured surface and, using your hands, bring it into a rough ball then gently knead it until it is homogenous and pliable. Roll it out until it is about 3mm thick (the thickness of a £1 coin), lifting and turning it regularly and dusting with flour underneath so that it doesn’t stick to your work surface.

Using a fluted pastry cutter – whichever size you have available that makes a biscuit the size that you want it, I tend to use one around 5cm in diameter – cut the dough out and place each biscuit on the baking parchment on the baking tray. These won’t spread so they can be placed quite close together.

Re-roll and use the dough trimmings to make as many biscuits as you can.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 20-25 minutes until they are firm and lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack and eat as soon as possible – though they will happily last for a few days in an airtight container.

Dutch Apple Cake

As with any classic recipe, there are probably hundreds of slightly varying versions of how to make a Dutch apple cake. The only test that matters is: does it taste good? This one does; I have been tinkering with it for a while and the absolute best version of it comes when it is made with duck eggs. They are fairly easy to obtain now and make a huge difference to cakes, perhaps because of the slight difference of the chemical make-up of the whites, but they give a lovely pillowy foam when whipped and make this cake featherlight.

Hens eggs are, of course, absolutely fine. The most crucial step here, whichever eggs you use, is to whip the eggs and sugar for at least 5 minutes in order to get as much air in to the mix as possible. It is also important to use the right size tin; I use a 30cm x 25cm baking dish that I normally use for lasagne – any smaller than that and the mix becomes a little too deep and requires longer to cook through, which in turn dries out the edges of the cake.

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RECIPE 

225g unsalted butter

3 duck eggs (or 4 medium hens eggs)

225g golden caster sugar

the zest of a lemon, finely grated

2 tbsp fresh lemon juice

250g plain flour

1 heaped tsp baking powder

2 heaped tsp ground mixed spice

500g cooking apples (Bramley or similar)

25g flaked almonds

2 tsp cinnamon


METHOD

Heat the oven to 190C/170C fan/Gas 5.

Weigh out all of the ingredients. Melt the butter in a saucepan set over a low heat; set aside.

Using an electric hand whisk, whisk the eggs and 150g of the sugar together for at least five minutes until the mixture has expanded and is thick and smooth. The whisks should leave a thick trail when removed. You can use a stand mixer to do this while you get on with something else, but I find the hand whisk gets much more air into the mix.

Beat in the lemon zest and juice, then carefully drizzle the melted butter into the mix while whisking continually. The volume will decrease slightly, that’s okay and expected, the mix is now much heavier.

Now sift the flower, baking powder and ground mixed spice into the batter. Gently fold into the batter until it is just combined – take care to be gentle so you don’t knock the air out of the batter.

Grease your baking dish with butter, pour the batter into the dish and set aside while you prepare the topping.

Combine the flaked almonds, cinnamon and 50g of the sugar in a large bowl. Peel and core the apples, cut into eighths, then thinly slice the apples (1mm thick or so). Toss the sliced apple thoroughly in the sugar mix and then scatter over the top of the batter. Press down very lightly to get a more or less level topping, then sprinkle with the remaining 25g of the sugar.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 35-40 minutes until well risen and golden.

I love this with single cream, my wife loves it with custard. It’s easy to love…

Chocolate Guinness Cake

There are a handful of cookery writers that I trust implicitly: Jamie Oliver, The Hairy Bikers, and Nigella Lawson chief among them. Pick up any of their books, turn to any recipe, follow the instructions exactly and you will end up with something delicious. Every time.

This is a Nigella recipe, and the first time my wife made it we knew that it was a cake that we could come back to time and again. It is now a firm family favourite, baked for birthdays, family gatherings and any other time we feel like it.

Yes it’s wickedly indulgent, but somehow, because it is so light and moist, it doesn’t really feel like it. It’s not one for anybody on a diet though!

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Photo Credit: James Merrell

RECIPE

For the cake:

250ml Guinness
250g unsalted butter, chopped into slices or cubes
75g cocoa powder
400g golden caster sugar
140 ml soured cream
2 large eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract
275g plain flour
2½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

For the topping:

300g cream cheese
150g icing sugar
125ml double or whipping cream


METHOD

Heat the oven to 180°C/350ºF/gas mark 4. Grease and line a 23cm/9 inch spring form tin.

Pour the Guinness into a large saucepan over a medium heat and add the butter. When the butter has melted whisk in the cocoa and sugar.

In a separate bowl, beat the soured cream with the eggs and vanilla and pour into the beer and butter, then whisk in the flour and bicarb.

Pour the cake batter into the greased and lined tin and bake for 45 – 60 minutes.

Leave it to cool completely in the tin on a cooling rack, as it is quite a damp cake.

When the cake is cold, lightly whip the cream cheese until it is smooth, sieve in the icing sugar and then beat them both together. Add the cream and beat again until it is thick and unctuous. Spread the topping thickly over the top of the cake so that it looks just like a well-poured pint of Guinness.

Lemon and Coconut Bundt Cake

One of my favourite things to do in my spare time is wandering around charity shops, looking for cookery books. They seem to be bought as presents for people who don’t want to cook, so they end up being given to charity and you can find some amazing books in almost-new condition. I have picked up several hundred over the years, at a small fraction of what they would have cost new; it is fair to say that I’m addicted.

One book I picked up recently was ‘Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook’, it is turning out to be one of the best books I own. It is American, so the measurements are mainly in cups rather than the grams that we English are more familiar with; it can be a bit tricky to convert one to the other and still get the best results – cups are a measure of volume whereas grams are a measure of mass and they don’t always convert properly. Don’t let the cup measurements put you off, measuring this way is dead simple, and this cake is absolutely stunning – for vegans and carnivores alike.

I had to buy a Bundt tin for this one and I am glad that I did because though you can make it in a regular tin it comes out far better when made this way. You will need a 10-inch Bundt tin.

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RECIPE

1 cup of golden caster sugar

2/3 cup of vegetable oil

1 400g tin of coconut milk

1/4 cup soy or almond milk

1/4 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice

the zest of 2 large lemons

2 tsp vanilla extract

3 cups plain flour

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

The grated flesh of a coconut

A few tablespoons of icing sugar


METHOD

Preheat the oven to 180C/ 160C fan/ Gas 4.

Break your coconut open, take out the flesh and, using a vegetable peeler, peel off the brown skin on the back of the flesh. Grate using a box grater then chop the grated flesh a little more. The coconut flesh gives the cake great texture and gives you something to bite into; if the coconut flesh is too big it can be distracting, so make sure the pieces of flesh are no bigger than your little fingernail.

Lightly grease a 10-inch Bundt tin. In a large mixing bowl combine the sugar, vegetable oil, coconut milk, soy milk, lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla. Stir to combine. Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt into the wet ingredients in batches, mixing well after each addition. Stir to combine, then stir in the coconut.

Pour the batter into the Bundt tin and bake for approximately 1 hour in the centre of the oven. A skewer inserted into the cake should come out clean.

Remove from the oven and let it cool in the tin for about 10 minutes, then place a cutting board over the cake pan, gently flip it over and release the cake from the pan.

Let it cool completely then sift a sprinkling of the icing sugar over the top.

Moist Carrot and Sultana Cake

How do you improve a carrot cake? Tough call, but lots of cinnamon and sultanas does the trick in this delicious and surprisingly low-calorie tea cake. It’s made with sunflower oil instead of butter, and is a creation of the Hairy Bikers who reckon that it is only 239 calories per slice. Perhaps the toughest part of a calorie-controlled diet is the self-denial, but sometimes a little self-indulgence can help keep you on the path. When delicious and (almost) guilt-free creations like this are available, why deny yourself?

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RECIPE – serves 10

200g (net weight) carrots, peeled, trimmed and grated

3 large eggs

100 ml sunflower oil

100g caster sugar

200g self-raising flour

100g sultanas

finely grated zest of an orange

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

icing sugar to decorate


METHOD

Heat the oven to 190C/ Fan 170C/ Gas 5. Line the base of a 23cm springform cake tin with parchment paper, and lightly oil the sides.

Beat the eggs with a whisk until light and frothy, add the sunflower oil and sugar and whisk until fully combined. Stir in the carrot, sultanas, orange zest, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add the baking powder to the flour, mix it in thoroughly, then add the flour and fold it in carefully until the mixture is just combined. You want to keep as much air in the mix as possible so don’t overmix it. There is no need to sift the flour into this cake.

Pour into the lined cake tin and gently level it off.

Bake in the middle of the oven for 25-30 minutes until the top is golden and the sides of the cake are just starting to shrink away from the sides of the cake tin. If you are unsure then a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake will tell you if it is done – if the skewer comes out clean then the centre is baked.

Cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

This cake will happily last 3 or 4 days in the fridge – if it is around that long…

Shortbread

We ran out of shortbread yesterday; good grief, you would think the sky had fallen in. It is my job to ensure that we always have a jar of homemade shortbread on our shelves, without a doubt it is the thing that I make most often and though we don’t eat it fast, we do eat it regularly – it is just so delicious. Luckily, shortbread is quick and very easy to make, it is a great thing to make with children, and so my mistake was quickly rectified.

I must have tried a dozen shortbread recipes, and they were all okay but not quite perfect. Then I found Delia Smith’s recipe and my search for perfection came to an end. The trick is to include semolina in the mix, it gives a lovely crunch and beautiful shortness to the finished biscuit.

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RECIPE – makes 24 biscuits

175g unsalted butter, room temperature

75g golden caster sugar, plus a tablespoon for dusting

75g fine semolina

175g plain flour

a small pinch of salt


METHOD

Heat the oven to 150C/130C fan/Gas 2

Using a stand mixer (just to make your life easier, if not a wooden spoon will do the job) cream the butter and sugar together until fully mixed. Add the semolina and beat again, then add the flour and a pinch of salt and beat until just combined. You do not want any rise in a shortbread biscuit so minimise the amount of beating to ensure you don’t put air into it.

Cut a square of baking parchment, scrunch it up then flatten it out. Turn your shortbread dough out onto it (no need to flour it) and using your hands or a rolling pin pat it into a rough oblong approximately 1 cm thick. Place the dough, on the baking parchment, into a small baking tin and ensure the parchment is pushed well away from the dough. The dough will flatten and spread slightly as it cooks so you need to ensure the parchment won’t impede it. Prick all over the surface of the dough with a fork, pushing right down to the bottom – this will ensure that any air has an escape route.

Bake in the oven for 60-70 minutes until it is a deep rich gold. If you like your shortbread extra crunchy you can safely leave it in even longer, just keep a close eye on it. About half way through it’s a good idea to check that it isn’t rising at all; if it is, just pat it back down with your hand.

When cooked, lift it out on the parchment and place onto a cooling rack. Immediately it comes out, use a knife to score the top of the baked dough, about halfway through, to mark out your biscuits (you can see this in the picture above). Sprinkle some caster sugar all over the top and leave for ten minutes or so.

Run a palette knife between the shortbread and the parchment, then slide the parchment out from underneath the shortbread, leaving the shortbread on the wire rack to cool completely. It will crumble a little at the edges, this is a good sign; just push it back together, as it cools it will solidify. When fully cool, break the biscuits off and store in an airtight jar or tin. They will easily last two weeks (or more) without losing their bite.